The Japanese Slipper, Well-Worn and Ready to Rally

With its carefree construction and lurid green hue, the ’80s-era icon of Australian drinking is back to claim its place in cocktail history.

Melbourne, Australia, 1984. It was a time of excess, when the bullish aggression of the business elite was matched only by the violent green shade of Melbourne’s newest cocktail: the Japanese Slipper. Lurid and lavish, it was a drink that represented a new type of drinker—not the stuffy old money, spilling overoaked and overpriced reds down their wide ties, nor the working-class folks sinking pints at the pub. It was a drink that captured the imagination of a young, well-heeled and sophisticated set that wanted to get sloshed without slumming it. They went to Mietta’s, where a young Frenchman named Jean-Paul Bourguignon had unwittingly kicked off a cocktail revolution.

Mietta’s was a fine dining restaurant serving French haute cuisine upstairs, with a large “salon” fashioned in the European tradition downstairs, which played host to countless after-parties and musical performances. (Owner Mietta O’Donnell was a great patron of the arts, and often invited local singers to croon for her crowd.) Orchestrating the late-night revelry was Bourguignon, who, like much of Mietta’s staff, had been brought over from France to lend Continental know-how and gravitas to the place. Bourguignon had learned how to make classic cocktails working at Joe Allen, an American-style bar and restaurant in Paris; his knowledge of the craft would, the thinking went, usher in a new, less-parochial era of drinking in Australia’s second most populous city.

“It was a very new idea for Melbourne,” says Bourguignon, speaking via landline from his home in the Blue Mountains, a stunning swath of Australia’s Great Dividing Range west of Sydney. Now retired at the age of 67, he still sports a thick French accent, boyish giggle and the easy charm of a career bartender. He recalls coming up with the Japanese Slipper while writing the cocktail list for Mietta’s in 1984. A sales rep had brought him a bottle of Midori to try, so he mixed it with Cointreau from his native France and fresh lemon to balance the sweetness. The name? Bourguignon was learning English at the time and recalls reading a book about a Japanese woman and her slippers. “This word slipper was new for me,” he says. It became an instant hit.

The Japanese Slipper—a simple sour built of equal parts, shaken, served up and garnished with a maraschino cherry—is exactly what a drink born in the ’80s should be: boozy, tart-sweet and unabashedly neon. In the year 2020, one might catch a glimpse of it and toss it right back into the dustbin of drinks history, alongside the Slippery Nipple and the Sex on the Beach. Though it may have been born in the Dark Ages, on closer inspection its simple build and reliance on fresh citrus make the Japanese Slipper—much like New York’s Cosmopolitan and London’s Bramble—Melbourne’s primary contribution to the early days of the cocktail revival. “It’s a really good drink,” says Sebastian Raeburn, a godfather of modern Melbourne bars. “I was always happy to serve it in the environment of a classic cocktail bar.”

When Bourguignon left Mietta’s in 1985, he took the drink with him. He would spend the next two decades as a food and beverage consultant for some of Australia’s biggest hospitality businesses. “I worked for hotel groups, airlines, resorts and casinos, training staff, writing cocktail lists,” he says. “On all these lists I put the Japanese Slipper. I was working in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne … so it spread out around Australia very quickly in two or three years’ time.”

The Japanese Slipper is a pop cultural relic, a drink steeped in nostalgia, created by a man who, like Melbourne’s current bartenders, wanted something fruity and engaging to appeal to a new generation of drinkers.

Along with the recipe for the Japanese Slipper, Bourguignon passed on the craft of bartending, training a generation of young Australian bartenders who knew little beyond pulling pints. He preached the craft cocktail gospel—sound ratios, fresh ingredients, consistency—long before the idea took hold here, and became one of the most influential people ever to set foot behind an Australian bar in the process. “This was not my method—it was already done by the old ones,” he says with humility, referencing the greats of American bartending and those who passed on the craft to him in Paris. “I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

By the early aughts, when Bourguignon was retreating to his quiet life in the hills, cocktail culture was beginning to take hold in earnest. Dedicated cocktail bars—many in the mashup mold of Mietta’s—were opening for the first time in Sydney and Melbourne, with lists inspired by the greats of American and European bartending. Spirits brands were starting to invest as well, employing teams of ambassadors and elevating cocktail bars and bartenders through competitions. One such ambassador, Manuel Terron, eagerly carried the Japanese Slipper into this new era. As Midori’s global brand ambassador from 2007 to 2017, he taught bartenders around the country how to make the drink, ensuring its continuity on hundreds of cocktail lists at pubs, bars, clubs, resorts and restaurants.

But, like many drinks of the 1970s and ’80s, the Japanese Slipper has been through a period of staunch dismissal; shrugged off as bright-green rocket fuel better left at 21st birthday parties. Much like the Cosmo, it’s still a drink enjoyed far and wide, but with a certain amount of cultural cringe attached (at least among drinkers who think they should know better).

For the bartenders of Melbourne, that’s changing. Not only is Midori making a comeback in bars the world over, but so is a more dressed-down approach to cocktails—one that has taken on new meaning during the pandemic. For bartenders unable to work and unsure about the future, pretense is out and comfort is in. Hayley Dixon, a stalwart of the Melbourne bartending scene, attributes the renewed relevance of the Japanese Slipper to this very fact. “It’s easy as shit to make, super fun, bloody green and tasty as hell,” she says. “There isn’t much not to love.”

While modern versions now abound, the Japanese Slipper remains more of an industry handshake than guest attraction. “Last time I put it on a list, we changed the name to the Southside Slipper and added local navy-strength gin and lime marmalade,” says Melbourne bartender David Denton. “It was a banger of a modern take on the drink, but it wasn’t a bestseller. The general punter still thinks of it as a daggy [read: goofy] cocktail found on the menu at backpacker bars.”

It’s precisely this reputation that has made the drink an emblem of the kind of carefree, very Australian brand of silliness that so many bartenders are yearning for right now. The Japanese Slipper is a pop cultural relic, a drink steeped in nostalgia, created by a man who, like Melbourne’s current bartenders, wanted something fruity and engaging to appeal to a new generation of drinkers.

“Fashion goes and comes back, tastes change,” says Bourguignon. “After all these years, I feel honored that the Japanese Slipper is remembered at all.”

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