Brooklynites and longtime best friends Vanessa Li and Bowen Goh were working at “mundane office jobs,” in Li’s words – Li had worked at a queer and trans youth center and Goh had a background in film and business – when they opened the Bushwick bar Mood Ring in 2017. Intended to be a welcoming spot for LGBTQ and BIPOC patrons, Mood Ring offers a rotating menu of astrology-themed drinks timed to the Zodiac calendar.
Referencing celebrities, movies and songs, the cheekily named drinks serve as a handy conversation starter, and Li and Goh have seen any number of relationships form – not to mention other drama – in their years working the bar.
Some of these tales appear in their cocktail cookbook, “Margarita in Retrograde: Cocktails for Every Sign,” published in April by Abrams, along with nightlife tips and recipes new and old. They took advantage of the pandemic when Mood Ring (along with sister Bushwick bar Heaven or Las Vegas, opened in February 2020) was temporarily closed to write the book and develop new drinks.
The book demystifies cocktail equipment and explains what to buy on a basic budget. In addition to recipes, it also abounds with playful astrology-themed relationship advice and entertaining tips, such as how to work a theme – something that is not in short supply at Mood Ring.
“Astrology, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, minimalist photography, acupressure machinery, bunnies and Rainforest Cafe are influences that never belong in the same sentence, but somehow they’ve come together at Mood Ring, and it works,” as the book says.
Vanessa, you were working in nonprofits, including at a queer and trans youth center, and Bowen, you have a background in film and business. How did you two come to open Mood Ring?
Li: Bowen and I have been best friends for a long time. We were both working mundane office jobs but had hopes and dreams to open our own small business. One of them was a takeaway dumpling and noodle spot. On a trip we took to Berlin, we were really inspired by the nightlife there, and at one dive bar called Roses we went to, we had a lightbulb moment and realized we’d be really excited about opening a bar. Every day after work we’d spend a few hours at home researching. Eventually, the turning point was when Bowen started seeing commercial spaces and saw the space that would become Mood Ring.
Goh: We were living in Bed Stuy at the time, so we were in the area. We wanted a space that we felt represented us in a certain way. At that point, Vanessa was 24, I was 26 or 27. We felt we could bring something different to the area we were living in and that’s why we chose Bushwick.
The names of the cocktails are hilarious. How do you come up with them?
Goh: We wanted to combine things we felt were interesting but maybe didn’t make sense initially. Astrology was an interesting thing to our generation. When we opened Mood Ring, we could see astrology was starting to get meme-ified. We thought there was a connection between astrology and nightlife. Astrology is a great way for people to get to know each other. With the names, we try to stay culturally relevant or tongue in cheek. We try to make cocktail names that connect to astrology and try to be a little bit funny as well.
What inspired the book?
Li: It was kind of a pandemic project initially. One of our friends and clients at the bar works in publishing. At the beginning of the lockdown she reached out to us and asked have you ever considered doing a book of astrology cocktail recipes. We said that sounds fun. We put together a small proposal. We thought it might turn into a zine, a cool little booklet. She came back to us later and told us we had a bunch of meetings with publishers. It was exciting but we had no idea what we were getting into. The timing was lucky because the bulk of the recipes in the book we made at home. We were lucky this was something we got to work on when the bar was shut down because of Covid. We met some great people throughout the way [such as] the photographer and photo stylist. When I see the book now, I’m really proud of it because it represents for me this crazy and amazing process we’ve done to see the book through and put it together.
Who is the book for?
Goh: Our goal when writing the book was we didn’t want to pick the most expensive liquors, and we wanted to make the book accessible – in the same way our goal with the bar with astrology is to make it accessible as well. So Tito’s vodka, you might be able to buy it at a liquor store for under $30. It gives people the opportunity to make solid cocktails at price points they’re willing to part with. We want to make cocktail making and astrology accessible to younger people. Our customer is in their 20s – that’s our target market in the bar and book – we try to make the book for anyone interested in cocktails and astrology.
Li: Also anyone interested in nightlife would be interested in hearing the stories in the book from our experiences behind the bar.
How has the pandemic affected you and NYC nightlife in general?
Li: We’ve had to close up shops a few times at this point. Now that we’re a few years into it, we’re seeing the bigger picture. Those times were rough and our goal is always to get back up and running and operate under whatever circumstance we‘re in. Whether it was the period of time we had to do table service or the first summer we reopened and only had outdoor seating. We try to keep operations to the point where we’re at least breaking even and keeping our staff a priority, and make sure we could have good outlets for everybody. Our level of business is pretty much up to what it was prior to the pandemic at this point. We’re finding our ground again and getting back to a level of business we were used to prior to Covid.
Goh: It’s being able to adjust on the fly. With Omicron, it happened so quickly. Now we know these things are going to happen once or twice a year. In our space, we focus very heavily on events. It depends on Covid.
Do you have any party-giving tips?
Li: Yes, for me, it’s putting everything I love into one event and sharing a point of view, whether it’s the music being played, the drinks, or the food. So for someone who doesn’t do it very often, the first thing I’d recommend is a theme, something to build the party around that makes it easier to figure out all the details for what to do and guests to experience.
Goh: Also, with DJs, I think it’s helpful to have consistency. If it’s all different BPMs and styles of music, people in the audience can get overwhelmed by that. So generally having an idea this is the kind of music you like with DJs and hosts. If you have a techno party, it might be difficult to mesh that well with hip hop DJs.
Any surprises with the bar (apart from Covid)?
Goh: Yeah, one thing, when we built the bar out, we did things that reduced the space. We built the bar massively and added walls to make the space feel cozier. Once it opened, we realized we had no problem filling the space out, especially on weekends. Now we’ve had to do things to increase the amount of space, [such as] breaking down certain walls.
What are your sun signs?
Li: I’m a Scorpio, Bowen is Gemini.
What are your favorite things to drink?
Li: I am a total cocktail person. Right now I’m really heavy on the martinis. In terms of the book, one of the Scorpio cocktails I put as my favorite drink at the time is Hearts on Fire.
Goh: For me, once I started getting hangovers, I have tried to reduce the amount of sugar and liquors I drink, so I love something simple like a margarita. When I go out, I’ll have a tequila soda or mezcal soda. I don’t drink that many cocktails.
Li: Bowen is a typical bartender. It’s like going home to a chef. They like simple foods.
Do you have any future plans you’d like to share?
Li: Right now the most exciting thing is the book rollout. We are helping to do some book events. We’re anticipating a very busy summer leading up to our five-year anniversary in September. We’ll probably do a big party that weekend.
Goh: The two bars and the book take up pretty much all of our time right now.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed. A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Brownstoner magazine. This story was previously published on Brownstoner.