Self-proclaimed “pornstar” of the bar industry, please welcome to the black couch, mixologist, bar owner, and former boy band member Ronnaporn “Neung” Kanivichaporn.
Introduced to craft cocktails through now-defunct iconic bars of the past, Neung was the emcee of the Diageo World Class competitions in Thailand for several years. In 2014, he decided to throw his shaker in the ring, becoming one of Thailand’s finalists, placing at No. 11 out of 50 participating countries. He then won Thailand’s Diageo World Class once again in 2017, and also became the winner of Bacardi Legacy held in Amsterdam, 2019, with his creation “Pink Me Up.”
Fast forward almost ten years later, Neung’s portfolio is filled with drinking spots we know and love. The now-closed Backstage Cocktail Bar and Find The Photo Booth will be forever in the hearts of Bangkok’s cocktail enthusiasts. Find The Locker Room continues to dazzle guests, while Nuss Bar recently opened offering great drinks with a gorgeous view of Wat Pho—fingers crossed for cocktail culture to bloom in that area. Mahaniyom Cocktail Bar achieved a ranking at No. 22 on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list this year, along with the Best New Opening award, solidifying its position as a must-visit bar in Bangkok.
With a CV that glistening, we walked up the stairs, sat underneath the neon tiger, and asked him about cocktails and customers at the bar. Here’s how it went.
So we talked cocktails and customers with Neung Ronnaporn of Mahaniyom
Mahaniyom recently ranked at No. 22 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars, and won the Best New Opening award. What’s your secret?
“There’s really no secret.” Neung answers, “When I first started, I had a vision of what I wanted to do, and I believe in that vision. I never thought to compete with anyone. It’s more of a ‘I know I can do it, so that’s why I’m doing it’ kind of thing. All that’s left is to see what the people’s feedback is, and see how we can respond to it.”
What’s a drink from your menu that you’d want someone to try when they first visit?
“I think it’s more important to think of the customer’s requests and preferences than to solely focus on what’s written on the menu. Sure, there are a few of drinks people see as must-tries, such as the ‘Squid,’ or the ‘Cow,’ but if the customers don’t enjoy savoury drinks, it won’t give them a good first impression if we were to aggressively persuade them into trying them.”
He further elaborates, “A bartender once told me when I was new to the industry: if someone comes in and orders a Negroni, you just make them a Negroni.” He continues, “Sure, there may be something that resembles a Negroni in your signature menu, but that guest just wants a Negroni. If they’re up for another glass, they may take a look at what you have, and that’s when you’re up. Presenting your menu isn’t a bad thing at all, but sometimes, it can be a risk that you may come on too strong for someone just wanting a simple Negroni.”
“Offer them options, don’t immediately deter them from their initial choice. Sure, we’re known for our complex signatures, but not everyone comes in with the mood for something complex. It’s important to understand what the customers want first in order to provide them with the best experience.”
Spirit-forward, sweet-and-sour, refreshing—which one is the hardest to get right?
“Refreshing is the hardest one, as there are a lot of factors to nail. We have this drink in the menu called the ‘Pineapple,’ which resembles a gin fizz. It’s one of the first drinks we thought of, but finished the last. The right balance is just so hard to get right, along with the method we should use, the presentation—we experimented with so many things that did not succeed until we finally revisited it way later and got it just right in the end.”
What makes a “good cocktail”?
“There are just a couple things on my checklist. First, see if I like the cocktail. If I don’t like the cocktail, how am I supposed to sell it to the customers? Of course, our likes and other people’s likes can be different, but at least you are able to stand behind your creation and be proud of what you present. It’s your drink, after all.”
“Second, ask yourself if you would have this glass again. It doesn’t necessarily mean for that same night, but would that glass entice you to recommend it to a friend or have that exact drink again on another night? That’s what matters.”
Is there a classic cocktail you would recommend or you think is too underrated?
“I love a good Mezcal Paloma these days.” Neung answers, “I think Palomas are just hard to get right, even I feel like I haven’t nailed it yet. But, I love the Palomas from Tropic City. I think they got it just right—the balance, the fruitiness, all the aspects needed.”
You do a lot of guest shifts around the region. Which are some of your most memorable experiences?
“I can’t remember most of the time because of how drunk I usually get.” Neung laughs, “There was someone reporting that I was going to do a guest shift in Vietnam, but it was more like I was invited to be ganged up on.”
“But in all seriousness, they’re all memorable in their own way. When people do guest shifts, you don’t just sit around and wait to serve drinks. You also go in and observe, learn more about their cultures, their menu, their operation, and more. There was one time I was doing a guest shift in Paris. The bar has two storeys, but there was only three employees holding the fort, excluding me. It baffled me at first, like how can they survive when there’s a full house?”
“But as I got to talk to them and learn more about how they do things, I understand more that their drinking culture is different. The understanding and respect towards bars and restaurants is different. It may sound harsh, but in Thailand, many still don’t get F&B, and that makes a lot of people have this demanding, impatient attitude. In Paris, you take the orders from the tables, say ‘I’ll be back’ and you just do your thing. Here, there’s a lot that would already complain about bad service when things take a little time.”
“Same goes with booking fees. There are some people that don’t get it. When customers start to get how and why we do things, that’s how the industry is elevated to be on par with other countries’ standards. I don’t treat customers as God, but as friends that come to your home. While you try to accommodate them the best you can, each house has its own rules. You wouldn’t go to your friend’s house and start walking upstairs. I feel like that’s how it should be.”
What are a few bars in Bangkok you recommend checking out?
“I love Ku Bar‘s cocktails the most. P’ Kong (Anupas Premanuwat) makes some of the most well-balanced cocktails I’ve ever tasted. Like, it’s beyond words. It makes me feel like I’m learning something every time. Another is Tropic City. It’s where I feel comfortable, at ease, as the vibes and hospitality are on point. Last is Messengerservice. The balance and the way they present themselves is impeccable.”
What’s your hangover cure?
“Two paracetamol pills,” is Neung’s first answer.
“Curing hangovers is hard because it’s already happening, so it’s easier to prevent it in the first place. Whatever you’re drinking, have one glass, and always follow up with one glass of water. Watch yourself and your reaction to different kinds of spirits. People have different tolerance, different reactions.”
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start his or her own bar?
“Run away” is the first answer.
“Ask yourself if it’s really your passion. Many open their own bars because of the trend, and there are pros and cons to that. The big pro is that it helps the bar culture grow—people know more and in turn appreciate cocktails more. The big con is that when customers get a not-so-good experience from a bar they went to, it can make them generalise the whole industry.”
“I’ve seen many who said that they don’t like cocktails because cocktails are too sweet. We know that’s not always the case. Cocktails need to have some sort of sweetener or else it won’t be balanced. Sure, some may enjoy cocktails with a good amount of syrup, but a lot of people can get thrown off by that.”
“That’s why I’m urging those who want to open a bar to not open a bar because of a trend, but because you have passion for cocktails. Remember passion can be grown and knowledge can be learned, but it’s very important in the process of opening a cocktail bar. If you don’t like cocktails, rope in a friend who does.”
Mahaniyom Cocktail Bar is located on the 2nd floor of 100 Mahaseth, 4 Maha Set Rd, Si Phraya, Bang Rak, Bangkok. Open daily from 5pm-midnight. You can find more information at Mahaniyom.