Wine & Spirits: The Original Tequila Sunrise

by WL Author

An historic and posh Arizona landmark created the original version of a cocktail classic. Who knew?

By Kelly A. Magyarics

The Wright Bar at the Arizona Biltmore

The Wright Bar at the Arizona Biltmore

Quickly—what’s the first thing that comes into your mind when I mention “Tequila Sunrise”? It’s probably one of two things: either a suspense movie from the late 1980s with Mel Gibson, years before his crazy drunken tirade. Or a Tequila- and orange juice-based cocktail with a splash of grenadine.

Since I’m no Mel Gibson fan, I tend to think of the latter. But as I discovered during a recent stay at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed and inspired Arizona Biltmore, I was misinformed all these years. The original version of the cocktail has nary a drop of either orange juice or grenadine. The mind boggles…

To get the scoop on the real origins of the concoction, we need to step back in time to the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. A gentleman by the name of Gene Sulit came to work for the Biltmore, a resort considered to be Arizona’s playground for celebrities and the rich and famous. Gene held a variety of positions in food and beverage at the famed resort during a career that spanned nearly thirty-five years.  Those who remember Gene said his true passion was bartending, as it gave him an opportunity to meet and mingle with resort guests on a daily basis, and also allowed him the opportunity to create and develop original concoctions.

The famed Arizona Biltmore resort

The famed Arizona Biltmore resort

As the legend goes, a loyal and longtime repeat guest had returned to the Biltmore for vacation to soak up a little desert sunshine.  Having met him on previous visits, the guest told Gene he loved Tequila, was looking for a refreshing beverage to enjoy poolside, and asked the clever bartender to surprise him. By blending soda water and tequila with Crème de Cassis (the blackcurrant liqueur used in a Kir Royale) and fresh lime juice, Gene created the foundation for an iconic cocktail.

Today the Biltmore sells the original version for $14 at all of the resort’s bars. Timothy Bronson, bartender at the Biltmore bar Frank and Albert’s, notes that while the layered libation doesn’t resemble the variation mixed with orange juice, it does evoke comparisons to the pinks and purples that you can find in a Phoenix sunrise (and for the record, I think it would make for a potent yet refreshing eye opener during brunch…)

If you aren’t a fan of Crème de Cassis (or don’t have it on your shelf,) a quick Google search shows that variations abound of this classic sip. An Aperol Sunrise substitutes the bitter Italian digestivo for it, while the Tequila Sunset uses blackberry brandy. The Biltmore also serves the OJ version for $11.

Mix up the original a try and see what you think. Be sure to select a high quality Tequila—the Biltmore uses Centenario Plata.

The Original Arizona Biltmore Tequila Sunrise

The original Tequila Sunrise cocktail

The original Tequila Sunrise cocktail

Courtesy of The Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, Arizona

1 ¼ oz. premium blanco Tequila
¾ oz. Crème de Cassis
Soda water
Fresh lime
Orange wheel, for garnish

Fill chilled glass with cracked ice. Add Tequila, Crème de Cassis and a squeeze of lime. Top with soda. Garnish with orange wheel.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website,, or on

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