The scene: Mietta’s Restaurant and Bar, Melbourne. It’s 1984 and the city’s most important restaurant of the era, run by Mietta O’Donnell and Tony Knox, has just reopened in new digs on Alfred Place. There’s an air of sophistication, of somehow being part of something bigger, whether you’re seated in the chandeliered restaurant upstairs, or you’ve stepped down to the coffee house, club, cabaret and salon below.
Behind the bar is a young Frenchman, Jean-Paul Bourguignon. While writing the cocktail list, he grabs a bottle of Midori sent to him as a sample, decides to mix it with Cointreau, then cuts it with lemon juice. The result is refreshing, tart, sweet, alluringly bright green. He coins the name “Japanese Slipper” and lets it run.
What he couldn’t predict is that it would go further than any other Australian cocktail. This is the ’80s. Cocktails are in their disco era. Cocktail is on screens with Tom Cruise. A new generation of drinkers soak up the Japanese Slipper for its colour, sweetness and credentials, and it goes around the world. In the following decades, though, it fades into obscurity. And as the world experiences a vermouth revival, a Martini comeback and a Negroni meltdown, that oft-maligned melon liqueur, Midori, continues to gather dust on backbars. Until now.
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Across the country, lurid drinks in all colours of the rainbow are suddenly landing on tables and countertops. Take Clam Bar in Sydney’s CBD, where pre-dinner Daiquiris are tinted bright blue. Or Edward & Ida’s in Northbridge, Perth, where Shirley Yeung’s Midori Splice sees the melon liqueur combined with Malibu, pineapple juice, lime juice and cream in glorious pine-lime green. Wherever you turn, there’s someone ready to hand you a neon cocktail and, more importantly, someone ready to drink it. And here in Australia, no drink serves as a better emblem of the movement than the Japanese Slipper.
For a peerless modern example, look no further than Above Board in Melbourne, where Hayden Lambert has been banging the drum for the drink since the late 2010s. There’s no sense of irony in his version, but there is a sense of enjoyment. “These are still good drinks. They’re fun drinks,” he says. “And we can twist them a little bit and make them a little bit better than what the original specs were probably in the 1980s, because it’s a completely different palate.”
The Above Board Japanese Slipper is finely tuned for today. The Midori remains but Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, a sophisticated triple sec, stands in for Cointreau, then there’s a dash of lime and a drop or two of malic acid for more complex acidity and tartness. Under the downlights of the minimalist bar, the drink almost glows with mystique. “For me, it’s a way to say we may be serious about what we’re doing here, but there’s also a fun side to this whole bartending, mixology, cocktail stuff.”
If Lambert’s a classicist, enter the Japanese Slipper No. Blue, made industry famous at Melbourne’s Bar Liberty by bartender extraordinaire Nick Tesar, who’s also one of the people behind the Marionette Blue Curaçao responsible for the drink’s high-contrast aesthetic. Melbourne Gin Company gin and yuzushu make it boozier and add further citrus complexity, while Ota Shuzo Melon Liqueur brings that melon hit.
It’s familiar yet different, unashamedly extroverted, and it’s inspiring riffs everywhere. A Bar Liberty event at Casa in Perth means the drink is now etched onto its menu, while back in Sydney, at listening bar Ante, Matt Young does a spin – the Bondi Skinny-Dip – as a highball, with cloudy nigori sake, blue curaçao and Ota Shuzo liqueur topped up with tonic.
“The beauty of the Ota Shuzo Melon Liqueur is its simplicity,” Young says. “They use AMS melons locally grown in Hyogo prefecture. The melons are ripened for three weeks before being infused in a base spirit with a touch of sugar for three months. Ota Shuzo then strain the mixture and add their pure brewery water to balance and bottle it. The aroma is like smelling freshly cut melon – quite intoxicating.” Think melon drops rather than Midori sweetness – even if Midori did retool their recipe in 2012 to drop the sweetness and up the melon.
Flavour comes first for Young, but there’s no denying fun is a factor. “At Ante, we initially thought it wouldn’t sell,” he says. “Then someone put the drink on top of the light on their phone and the whole bar glowed blue.” Cue skinny-dipping all round.
Over in the CBD, where Maurice Terzini has relaunched Jacksons on George, a Japanese Slipper was the first drink on the menu, made to the original recipe and garnished with a maraschino cherry. It joins a Harvey Wallbanger – of a similar vintage – alongside a blue-tinged Angelo Azzuro that’s only offered late night.
Even though Jacksons is serious about quality, Terzini says the goal of these “tongue-in-cheek drinks” is not only to refresh the past, but to rediscover pleasure, reclaim celebration. They’re a jolt in the arm for a city that’s still rediscovering what it means to go out post-Covid and post-lockout laws. “Part of my philosophy, when I look back at these drinks, is to bring back the excitement of nightlife, the fun of it,” Terzini says. “This is what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to reignite what we lost for so many years. And I think that’s done not only through music and culture, but also through product.”
The biggest factor, though? Maybe it’s just been long enough. For every drinker with too many bad memories of too many green or blue coupes, there’s another who grew up thinking cocktails were meant to be bright, colourful and fun-filled, only to hit drinking age and discover it was now all about waxed moustaches, suspenders, smoke guns and immersion circulators. According to Lambert, we almost had to lose the Japanese Slipper and its contemporaries to learn to love them.
Yeung, for one, is part of a new generation that’s here for it, but won’t be letting standards slip. “Those classic disco-era cocktails have come back because of that same nostalgia, that quirkiness, that fun,” she says, “but also because the quality of them is so much better.” Now, finally, we’re ready to embrace them all over again.
Where to drink Japanese Slippers:
Jackson’s on George
Edward & Ida’s (Midori Splice)
Boom Boom Room
Part Time Lover
The classic Japanese Slipper recipe, according to writer and drinks expert Amanda Schuster
Origin: Melbourne, Australia
Inventor: Jean-Paul Bourguignon
Alcohol Type: Midori
Glassware: Coupe or Martini
Makes: 1 serving
30ml Midori melon liqueur
30ml Cointreau or other orange liqueur
30ml fresh lemon juice
A melon ball or cocktail cherry to garnish
Shake all ingredients with ice until well chilled. Fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Place the garnish at the bottom of the glass.
This recipe is an edited extract from Signature Cocktails by Amanda Schuster, 2023. Published by Phaidon, RRP $59.95.