Roughly four decades ago, a melon-flavored liqueur with an otherworldly, lurid green glow was unleashed upon New York City at disco temple Studio 54. This green Godzilla was Midori.
Previously known in Japan as Hermes Melon Liqueur, parent company Suntory renamed the liqueur for the Japanese word for “green.” It made its U.S. debut at a the launch party of Saturday Night Fever, where the film’s cast and crew quaffed brightly-hued “Japanese Gin & Tonics.”
Although it’s never gone out of stock, Midori went out of style when more “proper” cocktails came into vogue in the early aughts, replaced by classic cocktails and bitter and boozy newcomers. Today, the melon-flavored liqueur is back, showing up in serious cocktails—and not just Midori Sour riffs, either.
Midori’s comeback isn’t an overnight success story: it’s been inching back since 2012, when Suntory tweaked the neon-green liqueur to be less sweet and less artificial. “Suntory wanted to change the taste, adjusting to the modern palate in a more pleasant way,” explains Clement Reid, marketing director at Beam Suntory.
Those changes included reducing the sugar content and switching to natural flavorings (Japanese melon, muskmelon and Yubari melon), which in turn increased “favorable melon aroma/taste.” The new bottling launched globally in 2013—including in the U.S., where, in a nod to the neon green original, Midori Highballs were illuminated with glow stick stirrers at their Tales of the Cocktail debut.
Midori was given an additional boost in 2016 when The Up & Up’s Chaim Dauermann made waves with his Insanely Good Midori Sour. Made with gin and frothy egg whites, the drink became a calling card for a boomlet of bartenders creating craft cocktail versions of maligned “disco drinks” like the Godfather and Amaretto Sour.
Today’s Midori cocktails, however, call on the Japanese liqueur with only a hint of irony. Obviously, the eye-catching color remains part of the draw –and that goes double in the age of Instagram. But it’s no longer considered the sole reason for using the melon liqueur.
Asheville bartender Chall Gray, for example, calls for Midori in his Last Word variation because it possesses, in his own words, a “certain style of sweetness that, while easily cloying, can accentuate certain tart and herbal elements nicely.”
Similarly, Masa Urushido adds a full ounce of Midori to his Melon-Lime Soda cocktail at Katana Kitten. “Used correctly, it’s fun or delicious,” he says of the “iconic” liqueur. However, he notes that it only works if bartenders can control the amount used: “Too much, and it dominates the flavor of the cocktail.”
In Urushido’s drink, Midori is cut with an equal amount of lime-flavored vodka, while tart lime juice and earthy matcha help equalize the liqueur’s sweetness. “It’s about balance and proportion,” he says.
As American bars that celebrate Japan’s cocktail culture continue to proliferate, the trend will likely only continue to grow. In some cases, it represents a nostalgic nod toward beloved cocktails from home, or even melon-flavored drinks from childhood, as is the case for Kayoko “Coco” Seo, a consultant for NYC’s Japan-inspired Bar Moga.
At Moga, Seo poured Midori-spiked drink specials every Wednesday for the month of October, favoring the liqueur because it tastes “not fake—like a real muskmelon.” One of the drinks in her lineup is styled on a childhood-inspired ice-cream soda.
Yet, she echoes a common theme: It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Just as Urushido opts to cut Midori with vodka in his Melon-Soda, Seo adds a splash of Suntory Toki, a Japanese whisky, to help temper the liqueur, “so it’s not too sweet.”
Likening Midori to mac ‘n’ cheese, she says: “This weird green drink is to me a guilty pleasure. You shouldn’t have a lot of it—but sometimes it’s so good.”