Recently we had a quiet sip with The Mood Therapist (AKA Richard McDonough) when he was in town holding one of his legendary “Group Therapy” Sessions.
A Group Therapy Session generally consists of a bar commissioning McDonough to create a small bespoke cocktail menu (around five drinks) for an evening or event and then he serves them up during his guest shift.
McDonough started with a passion for home cooking that grew into more than simply a passing interest in modernist cuisine.
The equipment he began using was more commonly found in laboratories, not home kitchens.
Over time, demand for invitations to his dinner parties grew, along with it the demand for liquid refreshments.
So he looked to cocktails as a way to meet that thirsty demand for larger numbers of guests.
And so The Mood Therapist was born.
As his passion for cocktails grew, so did the amount of equipment and techniques.
Pretty soon it became obvious that it was time for The Mood Therapist to go pro. Not long after that his client list boasted five-star hotels and resorts, deluxe F&B brands and high-end fashion labels.
Here’s what we asked him between sips.
B: Are you this meticulous and curious in other aspects of your life?
MT: Errrrrr…sometimes! It’s true I do like a good wormhole and love to really research a subject and push it to it’s logical, or sometimes illogical, conclusion. So I guess that’s actually a yes.
B: How long does it take for you to come up with your Group Therapy Session cocktails?
MT: It’s hard to say really. I keep a running list of ideas for cocktails and individual elements within drinks so there’s always something on my mind or on the go but it’s good to have the nudge of being booked to turn enough of them from theory into actual drinks that taste good.
Three of the five drinks served at a recent event were new and the other two had never been served in Saigon before.
The Professor Plum came out of a desire to use fresh, tart Hanoi plums which had just come into season, while the Whisky Whisky Sour was something I’d been developing for a while.
The timing worked out because it takes a while to make whisky vinegar and the Maroutini came out of the wish to use a cacao distillate I’d developed but had never quite found home in a drink until now.
B: What would be your favourite drink from your most recent Group Therapy Session?
MT: They’re all my children. You really expect me to choose?!
Well, if pressed, I’d have to say the Whisky Whisky Sour.
It involves a very cool technique of making vinegar from whisky which I believe I’m the first to conquer. Not just here, anywhere.
This unique ingredient makes it possible to make a Whisky Sour without the use of citrus and because the acid component in the cocktail now comes from something that’s complimentary to the whisky used, there’s a harmony and softness you don’t usually experience.
B: You also get commissioned to come up with signature cocktail lists for bars. Where does the inspiration come from?
MT: On occasions, requests come from bar owners who want to push the envelope with their signature cocktails. It’s always very exciting when that happens.
The drinks have to be simple enough to execute but interesting enough to make an impact.
Admittedly some of the cocktails I make for my own events require a preposterous amount of time and energy to pull off, and I enjoy doing that, but it isn’t appropriate for regular bar service.
I narrow things down to a few key techniques – centrifuge, sous vide, acid adjustment and pressure infusion and base the menu around these.
After that, it’s a case of focusing on local ingredients, as per the brief from management and creating a variety of drink styles using a broad selection of base spirits to suit all tastes.
Then it’s really just a jigsaw that needs putting together with lots of testing.
B: You push the boundaries. Ultimately, what are you striving for in making modernist cocktails like yours?
MT: I’m very much focused on flavour and texture so my main concern is taking an ingredient and wrestling the best out of it that I can.
And while I appreciate good presentation, I prefer to keep garnishes minimal and functional so that it’s the juice in the glass that’s the star.
I like to present an unexpected take on ingredients that are familiar.
B: What feedback do you get from drinkers? Do they dig it and appreciate the work that goes into each of your drinks, or do they think it’s gimmicky or overkill?
MT: I’m sure there must be some that think it’s gimmicky but they’ve not said it to me.
My experience is that most people are excited to go along for the ride and enjoy being surprised.
It varies a bit depending on the brief for the event and I’ve definitely done some pretty out there cocktails but in the main they still need to be imminently drinkable and worth going back for a second.
Or a third.
B: Is there a cocktail that you’ve made that defines you? Or, one that you’ve made and gone, “Damn, I’m onto something here!”
MT: One cocktail that defines me? No. Get your crystals out and form a circle because I have to say it’s a journey…man!
What I’m making today is very different to what I was making three years ago and in three years’ time I expect it to be different again.
The common theme is the hunt for the next thing. I’d get bored if I were to stand still for too long.
I may explore an area of research and incrementally build on what came before but the development never stops.
B: Have you had any explosions in your lab, or can you remember a particular moment when things went horribly wrong?
MT: Not uncontrolled explosions, no!
I’m extremely careful, not least because I have two small kids in the house.
I do have a few things that are potentially dangerous if used incorrectly but I’ve taken training where appropriate, like handling liquid nitrogen, and maintenance of equipment is a priority.
People are, rightly, scared of things they don’t fully understand but actually it’s generally not such a big deal once you know what you’re doing.
You wouldn’t stick your hand in boiling oil in a kitchen.
B: Is there any particular flavour or ingredient you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to?
MT: Oh yes, thousands of them!
But also it’s important to try the common ones in different ways. Lychee can be a completely different element in a drink if it’s clarified, acid adjusted, vacuum distilled, etc.
It’s good to re-examine the familiar and find a new angle.
B: How would you describe Saigon’s cocktail scene right now?
MT: Exciting! It’s great to see young Vietnamese bartenders trying different stuff out and getting an ever growing audience for it.
Is it all great? No. But drinking is a democracy and the people will vote with their feet…and their lips.
There’s room for lots of different styles of drinking experience and it all adds to the vibrancy of the city.
For more about The Mood Therapist, check out his website http://www.moodtherapist.com/
All photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow Mike on Instagram at @mikepalumbo_