Deep in the heart of every bartender, there lurks a TGI Fridays. Call it the Jungian Fridays, the TGI Fridays of the Soul. In it, a young and unproblematic Tom Cruise cracks wise and flings bottles and Jennifer Aniston quibbles about the minimum required items of flair. The beer is cheap, the tips are OK and half the drinks on the exhaustive menu you’re required to memorize are bright green or electric blue. Hordes of office workers clamor for their potato skins. In their hands they clutch an iconic disco drink with a long and murky history: the June Bug.
Tracing the strange and recursive popularity of this unnaturally colored concoction is full of side streets and detours. The classic June Bug combines coconut rum, melon liqueur and banana liqueur with sour mix and pineapple juice. It was born in a TGI Fridays in Michigan in the late 1980s. No, wait, it hails from an outpost of the chain restaurant in Busan, South Korea. Depending on who you ask, it’s been around since as far back as the 1960s, lurking in Midwestern neighborhood bars and the memories of airport bartenders. Now, it’s having a moment in the cocktail scene of Great Britain.
Julie Salius has been around her share of June Bugs; she worked at a TGI Fridays in Dearborn, Michigan, from 1997 to 2001. When I met up with her at the only remaining Fridays in metro Detroit, she brought her copy of the sacred—and possibly copyright-protected—red-covered TGI Fridays bartenders’ manual.
That old-school recipe list gave Salius a few headaches back in the day. “I would see the list and think, Nobody is going to order these drinks,” she says. “But we had so many bottles at our disposal that it was fun to mess around.” When she worked at Fridays, her backbar had liqueurs and flavored schnapps bottles in the dozens, if not hundreds, she estimates. And of this cacophony of flavors, the coconut rum and banana liqueur still remain at Fridays today, alongside the Midori that gives the June Bug its signature color.
More than 3,000 miles away in Swansea, Wales, Philip David and his partner Jenny Griffiths draw inspiration from the TGI Fridays deep cut. At Distill + Fill, they work with local distillery Cygnet to mix up giant batches of disco drinks for bars throughout Great Britain. Their June Bug has proven popular, David says, “because most people understand that drinking is fun. People do it to celebrate, commiserate or get laid. Sometimes all at once.”
For his customers, the June Bug is all about escapism. “One of the best things that came out of the ’80s and the ’90s drinks scene was brightly colored cocktails,” David says. “It was just that sort of escapism of not being on a cold, wet little island, or a cold, wet massive continent.”
Nathan Larkin also sees the appeal of alcopop drinks like the June Bug. His bar, Speak in Code in Manchester, England, produces its own highly refined take. The Untitled No. 2 is in theory a two-ingredient pour. But getting those two ingredients to the bar requires more than a few steps. First, bar staff ferments a mix of bananas, melon and pineapple with coconut rum. After a few days, that product is mixed with sugar and acids to become a cordial, which is then combined at the bar with soda water. The end product looks nothing like the neon green concoction served at Fridays, but retains the slightly saccharine tropicality of the original. It’s “suited a bit more to a modern-day palate and has this minimalist approach,” says Larkin.
Asked how he first encountered the June Bug, Larkin offers a clue to the drink’s migration from the States to the Continent. Larkin is an instructor at the popular European Bartender School, which offers four-week courses. Each year, the school’s instructors congregate in Barcelona and trade riffs on classic drinks. The June Bug somehow emerged over the last few years from this annual tradition as a bartender’s handshake for instructors all over the world.
Back stateside, Drew Record also takes inspiration from the June Bug for their new cocktail for Powder Room in Austin, Texas. In the Seven-Per-Cent Solution, they’ve created a low-ABV riff on two classic disco drinks: the June Bug and the Japanese Slipper. Both drinks have plenty of Midori and pineapple, but Record’s riff subs in Cointreau for most of the banana element. The drink, according to Record, “speaks to the flavor memories of both of these recipes, and mingles” the best elements of both.
As for why the June Bug in particular is having a moment, Larkin doesn’t really know. What he does know: “For a long time, I think we’ve been taking ourselves very seriously in bars,” he says. “We scour the globe for new products, but there’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of fun and bringing back a new interpretation of something that’s had its day.”
For the June Bug, it was TGI Fridays in the 1980s. Now in its second life, it’s poised for reinterpretation at whatever unlikely corner of the world is ready to relive the heady days of neon green disco drinks.