I don’t know about you, but spending an evening in a group therapy session isn’t my idea of fun.
Unless, that is, if it’s with The Mood Therapist.
The Mood Therapist (AKA Richard McDonough) dishes out a different kind of therapy from what the shrinks you or I might be accustomed to.
His antidote to life’s miseries is modernist cocktails – drinks that have been centrifuged, nitro-muddled, clarified, spherified and more, in his home-based “lab” in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.
“There are few moods that can’t be improved by the liberal application of delicious cocktails,” he states on his website.
Who am I to disagree?
Recently I was fortunate enough to snaffle a seat (I was half expecting a couch) during his guest shift at self-proclaimed retro-glam-meets-cheeky-chic Saigon venue Knick Knack, where he featured five drinks conceived and concocted exclusively for his Group Therapy Session that evening.
It was a packed house on the ground floor bar that opens up into a quiet alleyway connecting the busy thoroughfares of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du Streets in the city’s central District 1. A fitting location for this kind of thirsty therapy.
It must be said, however, Knick Knack’s location isn’t without criticism on account of it being located down a dimly lit alleyway where punters have to pass by a massage parlour on one side and a sleazy dive bar on the other if they enter via Hai Ba Trung Street.
But I love it.
Its location adds to the drinking experience. It seems only fitting that a Hong Kong-inspired bar, co-founded and owned by two ex-Hong Kongers, is situated in what could quite easily be a Wong Kar Wai-type gritty film set in the heart of one of Southeast Asia’s most pulsating cities.
The first cocktail out of the blocks at our visiting therapist’s session was the Professor Plum, a crimson spritzy refreshment made with Lillet Blanc liqueur, clarified plum, Flor de Cana extra dry rum, saline and bubbles, served up in a champagne flute.
Plums (something we don’t get our hands on much here in Saigon without paying a pretty penny) had just come into season in Hanoi, so this tipple tasted fresh, slightly tart, not overly sweet thanks to the saline, and aroused the tip of my tongue with a tingle.
This drink felt right as the session’s “welcome drink”, the gentlest of nudges for our taste buds, much like champagne or mimosas do at the beginning of weddings, events and brunches before drunken debauchery seems the more sensible option over quietly slipping away into the night and out of trouble.
The Pollenator arrived next, a cocktail made with bee pollen distillate (yes, that’s right), cachaca (a distillate made from fermented sugarcane juice), fennel, lemon and pomelo blossom hydrosol – best described as an aromatic citrus water.
Not in a thousand years would anyone think to use pollen in a drink, perhaps nectar, yes, but its use is next level and indicative of how The Mood Therapist thinks, researches and experiments.
When I asked him about his background recently (he lived in Phnom Penh from 1993 until 2008 where he worked at the Cambodia Daily, then as advertising manager for the Phnom Penh Post before setting up his own design and advertising company which he sold in 2010) he told me the cocktails were “a hobby that got out of control.”
Indeed. And we’re grateful for it.
Because the next drink up on the list was probably my favourite for the night, the Maroutini, mixed with a distillate of cacao from our local godfathers of chocolate – Marou – chocolatiers that started out this decade with a blender, oven and cake tins and have become the abject envy of almost every entrepreneurial expat scratching around the region praying that it’s their turn next to go from rags to riches.
In addition to the Marou cacao distillate, “Moody” mixed it with dry vermouth, spiced Marou bitters and an orange twist. Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to chocolate with orange or peppermint or anything really, I’m like a hog to a trough.
Whisky sours are ubiquitous in Saigon these days, I haven’t encountered a bar yet that doesn’t do one. They are simple to make and universally enjoyed by both the gents and ladies.
It’s one of those cocktails that the “macho-ist” of guys with a sweet tooth can get away with ordering and expect little ribbing from his mates because it’s got whisky in it, while the ladies can imbibe without looking too much like one of the boys. It also helps that its downright tasty.
But The Mood Therapist went a few steps further (as he does) and offered up his Whisky Whisky Sour made from Glenmorangie original whisky, a whisky vinegar made using the same product, simple syrup and, of course, egg white.
If the Naval Gazer, our fifth and final cocktail for the evening, made with Flor de Cana 7 rum, vacuum concentrated port and hibiscus syrup hadn’t been forthcoming, I probably would’ve sat on the Whisky Whisky Sours all night long until the call for a taxi came, such were their drinkability and knowing embrace.
To borrow from The Mood Therapist himself, by evening’s end he had proven that you can play with people’s expectations by serving them drinks that look like champagne, but leave them with an entirely different experience and state of mind.
And, it might be worth noting, not once did he ask what made me tick. Now that’s what I like in a therapist.
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow him on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow him on Instagram @palumbo_photo
For more info about The Mood Therapist, click HERE
UPDATE: As of July 2019, Knick Knack has closed its doors