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To Ryan Chetiyawardana, Everything Is a Cocktail

London’s hottest bartender is rethinking taste

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Ryan Chetiyawardana
Ryan Chetiyawardana
Niall Webster

"It’s not about the taste and the drinks, it’s about everything else."

Provocative words from bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana who, less than three years after opening London’s White Lyan, has reaped awards loaded with terms like "best" and "most influential" from bodies as alternately geeky, populist, and well-heeled as Tales of the Cocktail, Imbibe, and Diageo Reserve. The Edinburgh, Scotland native, who goes by the globally accessible moniker Mr Lyan, might be better described as a molecular mixologist, building cocktails whose end sleekness masks the complex mix of elements and thought behind them. With a zero-waste goal that includes no ice, no fruit, and no one else’s brand, drinks like the White Guinness (rum, coconut, almond, ash) and Pixie Dust (vermouths, lemongrass, zing) are made entirely of ingredients created by his team.

While White Lyan hit London in 2013, a decade earlier Chetiyawardana found himself immersed in cooking at Birmingham Food College in central England where he learned both how to run a restaurant kitchen and that he craved more direct contact with potential diners. Searching for what that theater might be, he moved on to study fine arts and biology, and eventually a side path led to exploring the physiology of taste, with help from experimental psychologist Charles Spence whose studies in neurology and flavor detection helped define the field. But all along, Chetiyawardana worked in bars.

Tennessee Nitro Martini. [Photo by Niall Webster]

Chetiyawardana sharpened his mix of skills at Edinburgh's Bramble Bar, before going on to launch White Lyan, and then a year later, Dandelyan, a gustatory and academic exploration of botany through cocktails, also in London. While the two projects are uniquely their own, they share share a main commonality: "I don’t regard what I do as pure drinks, it’s as much from the food world as it is from the drinks world," Chetiyawardana points out.

White Lyan operates as a close-loop concept, serving up cocktails, beer, and "wine," all created entirely by Chetiyawardana's team—ubiquitous bar fruit like lemons, for example, comes as house-made distillates. Nothing perishable is used front of house, and behind the scenes every part of every herb and root is involved in those drinks. Chetiyawardana estimates that White Lyan creates 70 percent less waste than traditional bars.

Dandelyan's concept, instead, is the history of botany, a taste through the shared history of people and plants via an extensive menu packed with botanical stories alongside cocktail descriptions. Ordering the Monkey Magic (Bacardi ‘Ocho’ 8 yr rum, coconut kefir, passionfruit, grass cordial, oak falernum), one will learn that Mongolian shaman once fermented mare’s milk to use in their rituals, a practice that would lead to the creation of kefir. Perishables and other brands are allowed here.

"I don’t regard what I do as pure drinks, it’s as much from the food world as it is from the drinks world."

White Lyan is more kitchen than bar, with as many ingredients as a Michelin-starred kitchen and cocktails prepared ahead of time. "It’s beautifully chaotic!" Chetiyawardana notes. Drinks are poured and final touches added just before serving, as is the case for Take the Purple Paint, which incorporates Chetiyawardana's Mr Lyan-branded Akvavit, "lemon," aronia, and blackcurrant paint—plus a three-part assembly in which the base cocktail is poured into a glass lined with blackcurrant "paint," then sprayed with a lemon distillate for a twist that’s clean and bitterness-free. "It’s about gathering, we’re always looking for ways to bring people together, taking influence from both the food and drink worlds," Chetiyawardana explains.

Chetiyawardana's "wine." [Photos by Niall Webster]

One of the chief ingredients in this people-first notion of drinking, and eating, is language. Dandelyan’s menu, in particular, is a testament to that. Writing whiskey tasting notes many years ago, Chetiyawardana realized words could compel someone to taste better, across barriers like degree of familiarity and personalized palates.

"Language is a way of conveying very personal things to someone else, so when you have something like taste, someone can say, 'well I don’t get orange or vetiver,' even when they are getting those, but they haven’t been exposed enough to get it. You can play on that reaction by playing on things that are associated with it. And you can do that with language," he explains.

The spirits Chetiyawardana distills in-house under the Mr Lyan label are practically philosophical themselves: his gin is gin, both spirit and concept of what he believes a gin should be. Per Chetiyawardana, "a stand-in for all gin styles and one that’s capable of working in all his gin-based cocktails, classic, London Dry with lots (lots!) of juniper and coriander up front."

Likewise is Chetiyawardana's vodka, which he describes as "clean and cereal-led," and his rum, "golden and bold, touches of tobacco and leather," and so on to bourbon, Scotch, and beyond. They are "classic-profiled examples of the category," each made to do its job under all conditions. They are what Chetiyawardana’s unique, modern understanding of them is, correct in both flavor and philosophy.

"To me everything is a cocktail."

"To me everything is a cocktail," states Chetiyawardana, which extends to the beer he brews collaboratively with Scotland’s Old Worthy Co. Brewery (it’s meant to pair with his bourbon), and his "wine"which is a reimagining of wine itself. "We wanted to democratize cocktails and I suppose we want to do that with wine, too. So a winemaker is doing terroir, and we wanted to work backward from the effect, the style, and the mood it gives," he explains. Chetiyawardana doesn’t make his "wines" from grapes, in fact a vineyard never enters the equation. He starts with a desired wine profile in mind, then builds a flavor base from a mix of things like hydrated jams, fruit juices, steeped herbs, spices, woods, and roots, fruit skins or seeds—and ferments.

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The Sandman Sour with Mr Lyan Bourbon, blood orange, sand verbena, zip. [Photo by Niall Webster]

"If you didn’t know, you would drink them as wines, but it’s allowed us to take complete control," he adds. The white starts out buttery and floral (Chetiyawardana is partial to Meursault) and winds up crisp and zesty like a riesling—for those desiring more richness, there’s the option to add an oak distillate. The red is all berries and game, with a natural-wine-style aroma, Beaujolais-like, until the herbal finish; a spice distillate is sprayed on for those wanting still more complexity. "The rosé is probably my favorite," says Chetiyawardana. "We describe it as ‘Exactly what you’re looking for or the opposite of what you think.’ It’s so delicious, it’s got some of those red fruits on the nose, but on the palate it’s clean, dry."

Also a cocktail: water, which Chetiyawardana makes as well, in a nod to his hometown of Edinburgh. "One of the things that’s not wonderful about London is the water. Obviously it’s amazing that it’s there and it comes out of a tap, but it doesn’t taste very good. In Edinburgh, water is incredible coming out of the tap. One of my frustrations here is that people make drinks with an inferior ingredientup to 40 percent of a drink is dilution." To make his, Chetiyawardana goes purely by taste, filtrating London water then adding various minerals until it tastes likereally goodwater.

"...we’re not trying to be weird or different. We want to start a dialogue."

And there are other passions, too. Chetiyawardana’s dreams for the future include a cabinet full of 1964 Bowmore Fino Cask Scotch, a closed loop farm to model the food habits and agricultural policies he hopes to see worldwide someday, and making a cocktail as complex as ripe fruit: "There’s something in our physiology that we’re attracted to certain things in nature, and to me ripe fruit taps into something primal and hedonistic, and there’s nothing else that compares to it... It’s perfection, it’s almost too much, it’s heady—being able to create that is an artistic holy grail."

For those wanting to immerse themselves in Chetiyawardana’s cocktails from afar, pick up a copy of Good Things to Drink, which he published last fall. And a second recipe collection is in the works—an expansion of the first, occasion-oriented, chef-collaborative, highlighting the desire for clean, streamlined everything that serves as Chetiyawardana’s impetus: "I hope people understand that we do things for the right reasons, we don’t do anything for a gimmick, we’re not trying to be weird or different. We want to start a dialogue."

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