Credit: Addie Chinn/Instagram
“It’s definitely the diversity. It’s London’s greatest friend,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, the renaissance man behind two of London’s most critically-acclaimed cocktail bars, White Lyan and its sister bar Dandelyan and the Mondrian Hotel.
He’s describing the secret ingredient that makes London’s cocktail scene one of the most dynamic and interesting amongst the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, of which cocktails are arguably the lifeblood.
“You have people from all walks of life, from all different backgrounds, and they’re excited about all those things. I think that’s what made the scene so strong. You have bartenders who’ve come from Australia and all over Europe, with very multicultural backgrounds and everybody brings their own perspectives to the game. That’s their own cultures with food and drink, their own way of interpreting things. It leaves something very full and colourful and that presents an amazing opportunity. You’ve got a public that are interested, educated and want to try new things.”
Credit: Jason Bailey/Instagram
If anyone can speak authoritatively on the topic, then surely it’s Chetiyawardana. He has been named UK bartender of the Year twice and in 2015 was named International Bartender of the Year. He has twice been listed amongst the city’s 1000 most influential Londoners and his menus, equal parts esoteric and eccentric, have been nominated for titles such as World’s Best Cocktail Menu.
White Lyan, his first venture opened in 2013, is the first cocktail bar in the world to feature no perishables (no fruit, no ice and no other brands, equating to almost no waste) in its front-of-house and as such it was awarded Best New Bar in the World at the 2014 Spirited Awards, with Dandelyan claiming the same honour the following year.
A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, you’re just as likely to see Chetiyawardana go by his globalised moniker Mr Lyan, which is as much a play on a childhood nickname as it is the foundation for a fast growing brand that began with White Lyan and soon expanded into a range of five bottled pre-mixed cocktails, launched in 2014 the windows of Selfridges. Think a ready-to-pour Spotless Martini infused with candied olive and lemon peel distillates, Chetiyawardana’s own house-made gin and crisp vermouth; a Rainy Day Spritz combining raspberry eau de vie, vermouth and bitter rhubarb liqueur served solus or mixed with Prosecco; or a Candlelit Manhattan of bourbon, sweet vermouths and bitters and, well, beeswax.
The latter was awarded Best In Show at the International Pre-Mixed Cocktail awards, and is emblematic of Chetiyawardana’s signature twists on classic cocktails made anew through the use of obscure ingredients that take cues from even more unusual places. A book espousing the merits and ease of creating Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends was also published in October last year.
For Chetiyawardana, having the freedom to concoct without limits is both a blessing and, conversely, something he considers to be his greatest challenge.
“I think there’s so much to draw on,” he tells GRAZIA during a recent visit to Australia as part of a tour of duty for Belvedere vodka, for whom he was able to illustrate and elevate the charm of a simple spritz.
“Sources of inspiration are so wide it’s kind of, excuse the pun, hard to distil that down and convey them in a way that’s still honest. I think there’s a danger that you can run away with your own interests. Trying to find things that communicate your ideas and observations in a way that people can understand is difficult. I think it’s the same in any creative output.
“It’s about having a common language that resonates with other people to communicate through something that people don’t often communicate through. In a certain sense, people have a more difficult relationship with alcohol than they do with food.”
Luckily, Chetiyawardana has an intimate understanding of both having studied traditional cooking at Birmingham Food College in central England where he first formalised a love of food cultivated at home from an early age. He says he soon stepped out of the kitchen because he craved interaction with the people on the other side of the pass who were “having those conversations” that result when food works its magic and brings people together. A year was then spent studying fine art at the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London, before Chetiyawardana transitioned to the study of science and philosophy. All the while, he found the balance he craved between the arts and sciences through working in bars, even though he didn’t have access to the kinds of ingredients and techniques he now wields so readily and fruitfully.
“Quite quickly I realised it was the outlet I was looking for because I’d been studying different things and projecting what they could mean for a career. The one constant was that I’d been in bars while studying. It became what I knew I wanted to stay in, the world of food and drink.”
Credit: The Mondrian Hotel
A formative stint at Bramble, one of the best bars in Edinburgh is central to Chetiyawardana’s famed origin story. It was here that he says he “really solidified and justified what my outlook towards the industry was”. Unlike a lot of the bars in Birmingham where he cut his teeth bartending, Bramble didn’t rely on a hackneyed theme or concept, and he credits owners Mike Aikman and Jason Scott with instilling in him the idea that “a beautiful space done with passion and care, good music, true hospitality and great cocktails made with honesty” were the most important ingredients. The balance of all those disparate elements forms part of the guiding philosophy at his award-winning venues today.
“It’s about everything, not just the balance within the cocktail. You have to match the right occasion with the right mood with the right setting. It’s all the intuition you have around food but expanding it to cover all the details. It’s atmosphere, music, the way you talk to somebody. Sometimes it’s appropriate to give people the whole spiel and talk through the provenance of the ingredients, why they’ve been put together that way. Other times, people just want something tasty and to be with their own company. It’s about balancing all the elements you can control to create something greater than the sum of its parts.”
Credit: The Mondrian Hotel
Chetiyawardana has built a name with his fanatical, exhaustive, fastidious attention to each of those parts – a way of thinking perhaps best exemplified in his nose-to-tail approach to modern mixology.
At White Lyan, cocktails are treated with the reverence usually attributed to Michelin-starred kitchens practicing the rarefied art of molecular gastronomy. The ‘no perishable’ policy means every part of every ingredient is used at some point in the process, in fermentation, infusing or brewing. Spirits, beer, wine and even water are all distilled in-house under Chetiyawardana’s eponymous label, albeit with his signature twist: beer, a Passion Fruit pale ale, is brewed in collaboration with Scotland’s Old Worthy Co. Brewery and is served with a nip of My Lyan bourbon; wine is listed on the menu as ‘Wine, sort of’ (there’s a Spring Break white, Guilty Pleasures rosé and Whirlwind red) as a single grape or vineyard never enters the equation, not that you’d be able to tell; and London tap water comes filtered and supplemented with minerals to the point where it’s, well, no longer London tap water.
Under Chetiyawardana’s watch, the mundane becomes something entirely sublime have undergone a transformation that has fascinated the barman since he was hooked by his first serious attempt at cocktail: a tripartite classic that perfectly illustrates the power and persuasion of simplicity.
“It was a margarita. And it was the idea of bringing something together that was greater than the sum of its parts. I knew what limes tasted like, and tequila, and orange liqueur but bringing them together to create something harmonious and really delicious was something new to me. It was that idea of simplicity, but being able to create something really wonderful.”
It’s to that drink that Chetiyawardana says he’d return for his final round, harking back as it does to his favourite long lunches in Mexico and the drink that first piqued his fascination with the craft that has so greatly shaped his life to date.
Plus, “it’s something with a little party vibe. You’ve got to celebrate on your way out.”
Tile and cover image: The Mondrian Hotel