ABOUT A YEAR AGO Mark Lomas, a former bartender who runs the Trident Restaurant website, and I had lunch. We sat in the main dining room of the Trident in Sausalito and swapped bar stories. I had once worked at the briefly reopened Ondine, which was above the original Trident.
Owned by the Kingston Trio, the Trident was way ahead of its time. From 1966 to the mid- 1970s it was the place to be in the Bay Area. Famed for its beautiful waitresses and musical pedigree, it also featured such innovations as sashimi, a fresh juice bar and an espresso bar.
After numerous stories about rock ‘n’ rollers, waitresses, Robin Williams (once a busboy at the Trident), Lomas mentioned that the tequila sunrise had been invented there.
Now, I was reasonably sure that the tequila sunrise had been invented long before that, but I tucked away that information along with the phone number of the bartender who supposedly did that inventing.
From my research, I learned that:
• The Arizona Biltmore hotel claims that bartender Gene Sulit invented the tequila sunrise there in the late 1930s, consisting of tequila, lime juice, soda and crème de cassis.
• The recipe most people are familiar with; tequila orange juice and grenadine appeared for the very first time in the 1974 version of Mr. Boston’s Bartender’s Guide.
Drink origins are always a little murky. Take the martini, for instance. The town of Martinez claims that it was invented there in 1874. In fact it put up a historical landmark to “certify” the event. It doesn’t seem to matter that the drink invented there was called the Martinez Special, or that it included bitters, as well as a different kind of gin and a totally different kind of vermouth. There it sits, certified in stone: “Birthplace of the Martini.”
Eventually I called the so-called inventor of the tequila sunrise. Bobby Lazoff, 63, splits his time between computer IT work and teaching tutorials while living in Hawaii. But back in 1969 he was a fresh-faced 20-year-old looking for work in Sausalito. “I did about two or three days as a dishwasher,” he said. “Then I was a busboy and when I got old enough I became a bartender.” He claimed to have taken the bartending very seriously. “The Trident was a rock ‘n’ roll haven and tequila was the ‘in’ drink,” he said. So he and another bartender, Billy Rice, started experimenting. “Anything made with gin or vodka we started making with tequila,” he said. “A couple of them didn’t turn out too well.” One drink that did turn out well was a resurrected tequila sunrise. “We built it in a chimney glass; 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, and that was it, the tequila sunrise.” Eventually, the bartenders simplified the recipe to just tequila, orange juice and grenadine.
“We had a Rolling Stones party (the kickoff of the media frenzy that was their 1972 tour) one Monday night when we were usually closed,” Lazoff said. “The owner called me in and put me behind the bar. We had a select menu, a couple of the prettier waitresses and that was the party. Bill Graham brought in about 35 people, and you know the place holds several hundred. Mick came up to the bar and asked for a margarita, I asked him if he had ever tried a tequila sunrise, he said no, I built him one and they started sucking them up. After that they took them all across the country.”
OK, I thought, all I had to do was get the Rolling Stones to verify that and we could reasonably assume that Lazoff might be indeed be responsible for the most recognizable incarnation of the tequila sunrise.
Rather unlikely. As a result, the story sat until I picked up Keith Richards’ book “Life,” published this past October. Chapter nine, sentence No. 1: “The ’72 tour was known by other names — the cocaine and tequila sunrise tour … ” I could not believe my eyes.
I realized that I should probably be a little more trusting, and that the Trident might want to look into historical markers.
Jeff Burkhart is an author, regular contributor to National Geographic Assignment and an award-winning bartender at a Marin restaurant. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The National Geographic Article by Jeff, Not Just Another Tequila Sunrise, can be found elsewhere on this site. Similar, but completely different. Or, as they say, “The Same Difference?”