“Surprise me,” a man says to the bartender, before leaving to lounge poolside at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. It’s the early 1940s and the hotel register is composed solely of celebrities and the social elite who stay weeks at a time by invitation only. The bartender, Gene Sulit, takes a moment to think in the round, gold-leaf-ceilinged bar known as the Aztec Room.
The man tells him he favors tequila but needs something refreshing to combat the Arizona sun. So Sulit conjures up a visually stunning cocktail with crème de cassis, soda water and lime and, of course, top-shelf tequila. Because the drink’s layers and colors resemble the Arizona mountains against the morning sky, he calls it the Tequila Sunrise.
Sulit’s libation invention quickly became one of the world’s most popular cocktails, inspiring songs and films of the same name (including the Eagles’ 1973 hit and a 1988 Mel Gibson-Kurt Russell thriller). Today, we know the popularized drink made with tequila, orange juice and grenadine – but Sulit created the original.
The cocktail isn’t the only thing that has changed. The hotel is now a resort – still known for its class, but no invitation is needed. The Aztec Room no longer houses the hotel bar; it’s used for weddings and private parties. The bar expanded and is now Wright’s restaurant. But Sulit’s legend lives on each time Wright Bar bartender Tony Brenner serves the purplish cocktail, still using crème de cassis (which he describes as similar to a boysenberry liquor), freshly squeezed lime juice and silver agave tequila.
Dolan Olson, general manager of Wright’s and the Wright Bar, says Sulit is remembered for his 35 years of service at the hotel. He held a number of positions at the Biltmore, but his passion was bartending because it allowed him to meet people and create original cocktails. Brenner says besides martinis, the tequila sunrise is the most commonly ordered drink today at the Biltmore: “A lot of people ask for original cocktails, and as soon as they hear that it was invented here, they say, ‘Oh, I got to try it.’”
– Alejandra Armstrong
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