Priyanka Blah is a global brand strategist, an Academy Chair at 50 Best Bars and the founder of the spirits and cocktail website The Dram Attic. Nguyen Minh Khanh is a whisky connoisseur, trade influencer and the owner of Saigon’s PK Maltroom Whisky Bar. And Richard McDonough AKA The Mood Therapist is a Hanoi-based master of modernist cocktail techniques. Together, they’re judging you.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
There’s one caveat to that: Priyanka, Richard and Khanh are only really judging you – at least officially – if you’re one of the participants of the Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023’s cocktail competition, and you’re one of the six bartenders, with their whisky cocktails, that reach the semi-finals on Saturday 26 August, or, even better, you’re one of the finalists on Sunday 27 August – the second and final day of the festival that runs 2pm to 9pm on both days.
A Cocktail Competition Is Only As Strong As Its Judges
They say a cocktail competition is only as strong as its judges. And any great panel needs good resumes, conflicting viewpoints, some realness, and preferably some chemistry.
We’ll get to understand the chemistry during Vietnam Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023, but, regarding the other metrics – a resume, realness and some strong opinions – Bangalore-based Priyanka Blah is eminently qualified, having been in the industry for well over a decade. She launched The Dram Attic in 2016 as a spirits and cocktail platform that showcases and highlights key bars and talent across the alcohol industry worldwide.
And she recently hopped into the South Asia Academy Chair role for The World’s 50 Best Bars while strategizing on behalf of Hapusa Gin. Understandably, Drinks International named Priyanka #22 on this year’s Bar World 100 most influential people list.
But this, Priyanka tells us, is not her first trip to Vietnam. “I’ve visited! And I got to eat at Anan, followed by drinks upstairs in Nhau Nhau with Peter Cuong Franklin,” she remembers. “Then there was the AO Show, at the Opera House, and in general, my memories are all about the amazing hospitality and the food!”
As an itinerant bartender, The Mood Therapist, also known as Richard McDonough, has a client list that includes five-star hotels and resorts, deluxe brands and high-end fashion labels. He’ll pop up with a guest shift from time to time, like at the rowdy bar anniversary for Leo’s Hanoi, or at the Luang Prabang International Film Festival, or he’ll cast his discerning eye over the DIAGEO World Class Vietnam competition.
Khanh is the debonair proprietor of Saigon’s most well-stocked whisky bar, PK Maltroom, where he’ll host shifts from rising local star bartenders like Truyen, from Stir – Modern Cocktail, and international visitors like JJ Lim, from Le Chamber Seoul. When he’s not there, he’s likely to be traveling the world, exploring whiskies, like his trip to Whisky Live Paris and to whisky bars like Golden Promise also in the French capital.
“Good cocktails have a soothing effect on me!”
The competition itself is a chance for local bartenders, representing the event’s whisky brand sponsors, to throw down with their cocktail skills, until one is crowned the winner (and handed an oversized cheque for 10,000,000 VND).
“What kind of judge am I?” Priyanka asks. “The good kind! But I don’t sugar coat things – I like to think I’m balanced in my approach,” she smiles.
“Oh, not me,” Richard smiles mischievously. “I’m evil personified! And then some. But, you’ll be relieved to hear, good cocktails have a soothing effect on me!”
Khanh sees things more supportively. “My goal as a judge is to help the contestants shine,” he tells us. “There’s a saying here, ‘Đi với Bụt mặc áo cà sa, đi với ma mặc áo giấy.’ It means that you can follow the Buddha or follow the devil, roughly speaking you become who you associate with. So, I think these kinds of events are a good thing, as the contestants get to be part of a supportive, positive community including us judges.”
Confidence And Creativity
Besides “the ability to make a mean whisky cocktail,” Richard will be watching out for a bartender who exudes self-confidence. “Someone who can communicate their passion,” he elaborates. “That will necessitate thorough preparation to enable them to relax and enjoy the moment.”
“Agreed,” Priyanka concurs. “Confidence will be a key to success. And, besides that, I’ll be looking for the good execution of a cocktail that displays clarity of thought and concept.”
“For me, I’ll be looking for creativity expressed professionally and wrapped in a positive spirit,” Khanh adds.
Whisky Is More Than Just A Drink
Naturally, all three are passionate about whisky. “Look, whisky is more than just a drink – it’s something to smell and savor too. The drinking part is merely a consequence of both of those things!” Khanh smiles.
“Personally, I tend towards the Islay whiskies, something nice and peated,” Priyanka tells us.
“To be honest, my introduction to whisky was a traumatic one. It was at Steven Mahon’s 16th birthday party in 1986. That unfortunate incident taught me to treat whisky with much greater respect,” Richard remembers.
“But, getting to explore Japanese whisky in Tokyo this year has been a definite high-point. And, while in Saigon, nothing beats a night with Khanh at his PK Maltroom. His knowledge and enthusiasm is contagious and his collection unparalleled.”
“You may never see me again!”
We wonder where they would choose to be, if we could whisk them to any bar in the world.
“Instead of returning to somewhere I’ve already been, can I pick somewhere I haven’t been yet?” Richard asks, ever the contrarian. “So, take me to The Sunken Harbour Club in New York City and give me the first drink on their signature list. If, against the odds, it sucks, I’d still be in NYC with lots of other options just around the corner.”
But fortunately for the competition’s finalists, all three will be in Saigon, for Whisky & Cocktail Festival 2023, which is just around the corner too, on 26 and 27 August.