Satisfaction: How the Rolling Stones Made Tequila a Hit
The famed rock band’s thirst for Tequila Sunrises inspired a generation to drink the agave spirit.
Mick Jagger wanted a Margarita.
It was June 5, 1972, just two dates deep into the Rolling Stones’ American tour in support of its new album, Exile on Main Street, and the band was set to kick off a week of shows from San Francisco to San Diego.
The Stones last trip to California—the finale of their 1969 tour—had concluded with the free concert at Altamont Speedway. That night, pandemonium had overtaken the crowd, and Hell’s Angels hired as security guards ripped through the riot, beating concertgoers with pool cues and stabbing one man to death after he pulled a pistol. The band and its entourage had been rushed onto a waiting helicopter. “It was like it wasn’t reality,” bassist Bill Wyman later told tour photographer Ethan Russell for his book, Let It Bleed. “You were in a dream, a bad dream.” The whole band remembered it that way and were none too keen on the idea of returning to the state.
To put everyone at ease, legendary concert promoter Bill Graham arranged for a private party on the night before a three-show stint at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. He booked the Trident restaurant in Sausalito, a quiet, wood-paneled lounge overlooking the bay. Graham thought the Trident, famed for its fresh sashimi, would be a good place for the Stones to unwind. The bar had also recently installed a juicer, which had encouraged the resident hotshot bartender, 25-year-old Bobby Lozoff, to start trying out new cocktails.
Sausalito had become a popular landing strip for smugglers bringing in Mexican weed, because it was a short drive from the hippie Haight-Ashbury district with a lot less heat than flying directly into San Francisco. The town was suddenly full of tequila drinkers.
At that time, the Trident was pouring more tequila than any other bar north of the border, and José Cuervo’s unaged blanco was always in the well. “Myself and a bartender called Billy Rice started experimenting,” Lozoff told Jeff Burkhart for National Geographic Assignment. “Anything made with gin and vodka we started making with tequila.”
So when Jagger asked Lozoff to make him a Margarita, the young bartender had a better idea: he offered to make the Stones’ front man a cocktail he had recently mastered—and then tinkered with. Invented at the Arizona Biltmore hotel in the 1930s, the drink was a kind of Singapore Sling modified to showcase the sweet, agave-rich flavor of tequila. “We built it in a chimney glass,” Lozoff remembered. “A shot of tequila with one hand, a shot of sweet and sour with the other hand, the soda gun, then orange juice, float crème de cassis on top, grenadine if you wanted.”
The grenadine, one of Lozoff’s changes to the original recipe, sank to the bottom of the glass, giving the drink a distinctive red-to-orange fade like a tropical scene airbrushed on the side of a surfer’s van. “And that was it,” Lozoff recalled, “the Tequila Sunrise.”
Jagger took a sip—and instantly loved it. He ordered a round for the rest of the band. “They started sucking them up,” Lozoff remembered. One round became another and then another and another. The anxiety about returning to the Bay Area seemed to melt away as the band partied until the actual sunrise. Before leaving, Jagger had the Stones’ tour manager collect the recipe for the drink and add a requirement to the band’s official rider: two bottles of José Cuervo, a gallon of orange juice and a bottle of grenadine, all delivered to the dressing room before each show. By the time the band reached San Diego, a letter sent to promoters warned, “It would be very strange to see Keith Richards in top form without the company of a good tequila.”
After that, it seemed that the press couldn’t stop writing about the Stones’ newfound love of the drink. The Washington Post soon reported that Mick Jagger had given his entire backstage interview in Albuquerque on June 15 “between sips of José Cuervo.” In July, the Detroit Free-Press described a press conference with the Stones “smoking Macanudo stogies and downing Tequila Sunrises.” By September, Jagger’s love of Lozoff’s version of the classic cocktail was so well-known that the Tucson Daily Citizen ran his recipe ahead of a concert date. “Two of these,” the paper promised, “and you’ll be imitating Jumping Jack Flash.”
By the time the Stones returned to America to continue their tour in 1973, other rock groups, remembering what had happened with the Champs and their hit song “Tequila” in 1958, had jumped on the liquor music bandwagon. The Eagles released “Tequila Sunrise”—cracking the Adult Contemporary Top 40. Both Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer recorded versions of the song, “Cheap Tequila.” And David Clayton-Thomas, former singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears, released a solo album titled Tequila Sunrise. And fans were drinking Sunrises as fast as they could. “Rock fans do pick up styles from the musicians,” Charles Perry wrote in Rolling Stone. It was a major boost, not only for tequila, but for the entire spirits industry.
For most of the ’60s, young people had turned away from the hard liquor kept in cut-glass decanters by their parents, in favor of getting high on everything they could lay their hands on—from ditch weed to industrial glue to lab-made tabs of LSD. “The taste makers of a generation,” Perry explained, “had switched en masse to hysterical giggling, spending an hour on one page of a comic book, eating peanut butter with their fingers and falling asleep with headphones on. It looked as if liquor was on the way out.” But a series of seemingly unrelated events kept that from happening.
First, President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs and created the Drug Enforcement Agency. The hard-ass clampdown and threat of serious prison time turned many young people away from the risk of buying drugs. Next, between 1970 and 1973, more than 30 states lowered their drinking age to 18 or 19, which made it possible for teenagers to buy cheap alcohol legally. Many had turned to buying cheap wine mixed with fruit juice. “Then came the Stones,” Perry wrote. “The great growth in tequila sales is mostly due to younger customers, whom the liquor companies see as moving on from fruit-flavored pop wines to harder booze.”
The moment was so transformational in the history of José Cuervo that the brand launched an ad campaign—complete with Rolling Stones branded bottles—in September 2015.
But the story doesn’t end there. By the summer of 1973, Tequila Sunrises were a full-on phenomenon. One bartender in Fort Lauderdale complained to the local paper: “Tequila sunrise…Tequila sunrise…That’ll be all I hear from the kids all night long. I’m beginning to dream that I’m drowning in a sea of grenadine.” But it wasn’t just sugar water with Red Dye No. 4 that bartenders needed; they were also ordering large quantities of orange juice, though most bars were too far removed from tropical places to affordably make their Sunrises with fresh-squeezed oranges. Instead, they turned to Tropicana, then the only fresh orange juice on the market. But then, Coca-Cola, the parent company of Minute Maid, the king of frozen concentrate, tried to capitalize on the Sunrise craze by introducing a reconstituted ready-to-drink version of Minute Maid—along with the claim that concentrating and blending allowed them to overcome seasonal variations in the quality of oranges.
Most consumers didn’t go for the new Minute Maid line. They preferred Tropicana for a simple reason: It was sweeter. But Coca-Cola had greater market reach—especially in bars where Coke was a cornerstone of cheap cocktails. Besides, if the orange juice was just going to be mixed with grenadine, then sweetness wasn’t really an issue. So why not use lower cost concentrate to make those beach drinks available across the country and all year round? This opportunity caught the attention of Bing Crosby, who had been the pitchman for Minute Maid going back to the 1940s. (In fact, he had acquired the first 100 shares of the company.) Crosby also recognized the potential in Tequila Sunrises, because he had been a dedicated drinker of tequila, since he was introduced to Herradura at a beach club in Ensenada in the 1950s. Now, he had the idea of becoming the American importer of Herradura and encouraging bartenders to mix it with Minute Maid orange juice in their Sunrises.
Crosby formed the Crosby-Harris Import Company in San Francisco in June 1975, together with his old friend Phil Harris. First famous for leading Jack Benny’s orchestra, Harris was enjoying renewed popularity as a voice actor for Disney movies, including playing Baloo in The Jungle Book. “It’s a natural,” Crosby told the L.A. Times. “Phil has been known to take a drink from time to time. I’ll do the thinking and he’ll do the drinking.” But then, Crosby had a falling out with executives at Minute Maid—so severe that by the time that Herradura officially launched with his appearance on the Tonight Show on March 5, 1976, followed by a $10,000 celebrity-studded cocktail party at the Bel-Air Hotel, Crosby told reporters that his Viuda de Sanchez brand of sangrita, an orange juice-based chaser, would be made with Sunkist oranges. (“What would appear to be a cut at Minute Maid,” the Times wrote.)
Unfortunately, Crosby died in 1978, barely a year after Herradura hit the U.S. market. Crosby-Harris dissolved—but Herradura quickly found another importer, Schieffelin & Co. The company saw an opportunity to move beyond the Margarita and Tequila Sunrise crowd to compete in a new market: aged tequila.
In the years since its swift ascent in the 1970s, the reputation of the Tequila Sunrise has suffered greatly. In the era of complex cocktails and advanced mixology, the simple, sweet version favored by the Rolling Stones has aged almost as poorly as Mick Jagger’s bell-bottoms. The Arizona Biltmore in Tucson has made the Prohibition-era version a mainstay on its Wright Bar menu, but this austere cocktail doesn’t appeal to many contemporary drinkers either.
Still, the Tequila Sunrise is a venerable drink with a long and significant history. With tequila and mezcal bars now on the rise in America, it’s a mixed drink due for rediscovery and reimagining.
One ingenious solution, riffing on a recipe devised by a friend, is featured below.
- 1.5 oz Don Fulano Fuerte Blanco Tequila
- .75 oz Crème de cassis
- Juice from half a lime
- Topo Chico (or club soda)
- tsp Simple syrup (to taste)
- Glass: Tall
- Garnish: Lime wedge and Luxardo cherry
Fill a tall glass with cracked ice and add the crème de cassis. Mix togther the lime juice, simple syrup and tequila and pour into the glass. Top with Topo Chico and garnish with a lime wedge and a Luxardo cherry.
- 1.5 oz José Cuervo Blanco Tequila
- 6 oz Fresh orange juice
- .75 oz Grenadine
- Glass: Tall
- Garnish: Orange wedge and Luxardo cherry
Fill a tall glass with cracked ice and add the tequila and orange juice. Slowly pour the grenadine over the back of a spoon at the edge of the glass, so that it settles to the bottom. Garnish with an orange wedge and a Luxardo cherry.
- 2 oz Alquímia Reposado Tequila
- .75 oz Cherry Heering Liqueur
- Juice of one blood orange
- 2-3 dashes Orange bitters
- Glass: Tall
Add the orange juice to an empty glass followed by the Cherry Heering. Allow the Cherry Heering to settle to the bottom, then carefully add a good-size cube of ice. Add the tequila and the orange bitters to taste.