European Masters of Bartending: Ryan Chetiyawardana
MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin meets Ryan Chetiyawardana for his continuing series on the European Masters of Bartending. He’s most famous for White Lyan and Dandelyan, two bars which have shook up the London bar scene, but what else is there to know about the man himself?
Ryan Chetiyawardana’s bar Dandelyan, lying within the confines of London’s indefinably glamorous Mondrian Hotel, is quite the intimidating spot for an interview. Perched on London’s River Thames, with prime views of the glittering Blackfriars bridge, it’s the sort of backdrop you’d imagine for an earth-shattering interview, with a president perhaps – one that you’d tune your TV in for. Which makes it all the more surprising when Chetiyawardana walks in. He’s well put together, eloquent and poised. But he’s also the sort of guy you imagine yourself having a jovial drinking session with. A straight up chap.
Incidentally, Chetiyawardana is also quite the sensation in the bartending world. In the last few years, Mr Lyan — as he’s been affectionately titled — has shook up London’s bar scene with his bars White Lyan and Dandelyan. Then there’s his other pursuits aiming to revolutionize drinking habits — his bottled range of cocktails, stocked at Selfridges amongst others, and his recently published “Good Things To Drink with Mr Lyan & Friends”. And that’s just the now — his to-date CV is packed with work at some of the best bars in Europe. Just how did he become the famed Mr Lyan?
Bars and academia
Chetiyawardana has an academic background. There was an art foundation year at Central St. Martins — one of London’s most renowned art colleges — first, followed by a year of biology and then four years studying philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. However, one thing was consistent throughout this academic switcheroo: he worked in bars throughout and harboured ambitions of becoming a career bartender.
“I have interests in both arts and sciences, what exercises both?” he explains. He’s dabbled in the kitchen too – enrolling at the Birmingham College of Food and Tourism prior to his Central St. Martins stint – but “it felt strange to be locked away in the kitchen.” More interaction with the guest was necessary.
After then scoring a job in a tequila bar-restaurant, he never looked back. A dual, and often sleepless, life of study and bartending then commenced for the next 6 years. Clubs and shisha bars in London. Edinburgh’s Borough boutique hotel. He reels off some more before my ear hooks on one word. Bramble. It’s this one I’m particularly interested in, undeniably one of the world’s top bars and a bona-fide Edinburgh classic.
Breaking Bramble Bad
“Bramble is still my favourite bar in the world,” he smiles. “And Jason Scott and Mike Aikman are still my two biggest mentors in the industry. I see a definite lineage between what I did there and what I’ve done here at White Lyan and Dandelyan.” I wonder. Why is it his favourite? “Bramble cemented for me what being in a bar was about, which is about people having fun,” he beams. “Other bars paid lip service to the idea and put more attention into their themes. There’s no theme to Bramble — it’s just a great bar.”
Alongside competing at competitions whilst working at Bramble — he was UK Bartender of the Year in 2009 (and then from 2012-2014 as well) — he showed a distinct interest in the science of mixology. Minus the bad, there’s something Breaking Bad about Chetiyawardana, a guy who essentially used his student digs as a makeshift laboratory. He mentions his failed attempts to nab a rotary evaporator at university. He built his first still in 2007. Then there’s his kitchen experimentations with fermentation. “I don’t like sitting still. I get bored too easily,” he laughs. At this stage in our interview, I’m not surprised. He even discussed his ideas with Charles Spence. For anybody unaware of the name, that’s one of the world’s premier food scientists, a man who suggested once in an interview that bee larvae ice-cream is the “future”.
His academic pursuits came to an end in 2010 and he decided to move down to London to follow bartending full-time. He worked at the esteemed 69 Colebrooke Row and then helped with the opening of Worship St Whistling Shop in May 2010, where he put all his scientific ideas into practice. “This was the last four years of my scientific tinkering put into a bar. I had carte blanche with it,” he reminisces.
Lyan the 1st
A lot has already said about White Lyan, for which he left Whistling Shop to open in 2012. It’s famous for not using citrus or ice, serving only bottled cocktails conjured up in the downstairs kitchen. For sure, it’s a bona-fide pioneer in London’s bar scene — but don’t say it’s not fun. “I had the no-ice, no-citrus idea about 5 years ago. The pre-bottling was a consequence, as it allowed us to administer the drinks,” he explains. “It’s practical.” Chetiyawardana claims you can get a drink within 10 seconds of ordering at White Lyan. He’s convincing — after all, what’s fun about waiting at a bar? Remember the school teacher who said ‘look, science can be fun’? That’s Mr Lyan for you.
We discuss the 1st Lyan more. “The idea of White Lyan was to be a cocktail bar for those who don’t usually go to cocktail bars,” he claims. “I wanted a fun space.” We discuss the main aesthetic difference it has with other bars—the minimalist White Lyan replaces a back bar with a row of big shiny fridges. “It ended up feeling a bit 70s Rolling Stone, 80s era coke den. It’s kind of seedy but without feeling gross,” he smiles.
The Lyan that came next
Dandelyan came after, but was conceived around the same time as its older Lyan sibling. It’s an entirely different concept — based in a hotel, they serve regular drinks first of all. Exercising his biology interests, there’s a strong focus on botany and using every part of the product in the production of the drink — whether it’s a lemon, oak moss, fennel, ginger or something else. “We can manipulate the entire product to help make a drink we are proud of,” he claims. Then there’s the use of tonics such as the fever-tree elderflower or syrups such as the oak lactone syrup. I pause to look around the bar. It’s gorgeous. There’s that sweeping Thames panorama. Then, there’s the bar. If you missed the traditional bar at White Lyan, then you’ll love the long green marble one at Dandelyan, upon which he produces a staggering statistic. “The entire bar is cut from one 10.000kg cut of marble,” he says.
Would he call himself a geek? “I have a thing for details,” he says. Chetiyawardana, for me, is certainly not the socially afflicted geek. Apart from his laid-back nature, many friends and family work within the fledging Lyan empire — his sister Natasha is Creative Partner at Mr Lyan LTD and Chris Stock, who worked with him back at Bramble, is manager of Dandelyan. It’s a famiLyan affair.
Bottles and books
You can buy Mr Lyan pre-bottled cocktails in locations across the UK, including famed department store Selfridges. “What prohibits people from having a cocktail at home?” Chetiyawardana asks. “Ice and containers for instance. Bottling cocktails makes it really accessible, meaning people can enjoy them at home like wine.” He adds he’s looking at utilizing Deliveroo to deliver cocktails from White Lyan to London’s customers in 2016. “It’ll be quicker than going for a round at your local,” he confidently claims.
From bottles to books, Chetiyawardana recently published “Good Things To Drink with Mr Lyan & Friends”, another step on his efforts to revolutionize wider drinking habits. He was particularly pleased to hear people call it a cookbook. “You can be just as intuitive about making drinks as you are about food,” he smiles. “It’s been nice to see the reaction to the book, with people embracing their own palettes.”
Does he care about the stardom and the rankings and awards that he’s been showered with in the last couple of years? “I won’t deny it’s not lovely to be part of it, the Spirited Awards were amazing for instance,” he reminisces. “But what means a lot are the consumer awards. White Lyan was named Time Out’s Best London Bar. The Observer voted Dandelyan as the best place to drink in UK. It’s great to see the wider public become receptive of our bars.”
Mr Lyan in focus
What are his favourite bars in London? “Sagar and Wilde,” he confidently claims. East London marks both his home and his drinking stomping ground. He notes Satan’s Whiskers as a recent favourite. Happiness Forgets too. “Both nail classic cocktails, in a fun setting,” Chetiyawardana says. He enjoys the classical hotel bars too for their special X factor. And further afield, of course, it’s Bramble that has his heart.
Despite his rep for innovation, he’s certifiably still an aficionado of the classics. What’s his favourite drink creation? He notes the Black Cat Martini, one that merges classic status with atypical Mr Lyan innovation. “It’s a martini with a radish garnish,” he explains. “It’s a simple but playful drink. A soft herbal martini with a creamy finish, with the nice peppery bite of the radish to finish. It’s quite the complete serve.”
Is a new Lyan on the horizon? He is cagey about his future plans, blurting out a concessionary “maybe”. “We always have a lot of projects on the horizon and next year is shaping up to be twice as busy as last year,” he smiles. My anticipation rises in hope of a scoop. “But nothing is set in stone,” Chetiyawardana retreats. Mr Lyan does love to surprise, after all.
Foto: Via Ryan Chetiyawardana