His name had cropped up so many times in conversation with bartenders, that I knew I had to try to meet Ryan Chetiyawardana during my trip to the UK.
Ryan and his bars have won many awards, most recently International Bartender of the Year 2015 and Best New International Cocktail Bar of the Year (Dandelyan) at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, the most prestigious awards for the industry.
How did you get into the bar industry?
My entry into the industry was as a chef. I’d grown up in a very food orientated family, mum was a pastry chef and food was a social centre of our family. My parents didn’t really drink that much but enjoyed having people round and food and drink was at the heart of that.
I got an offer of a place at Art College (St. Martin’s in London) but I wanted to do something in between leaving school and heading down South. There was a college of food in Birmingham so I enrolled there to train as a chef. Some of the practical things and the understanding of how to make a kitchen work I loved, I had studied biology at school so some fo the food science stuff really appealed to me. But pretty quickly I became quite disenchanted with being in a kitchen. Growing up around food, it was a very social thing for me. In a professional kitchen you are so removed from the people you are making food for. That felt very alien to me. My best friend suggested I go work in a bar, where I would still be working with flavours and food, but I could actually talk to people.
I hit the usual catch 22 situation of wanting to work behind a bar but not having any experience, so getting turned down for jobs. I approached a place called Santa Fé in Birmingham. It was a tequila bar and restaurant inspired by Mexican cuisine. Looking back they had a better selection of tequila than I see in bars now. God knows how they did that in Birmingham in 2002! They took a punt on me and I became really intrigued by the work and ended up doing really well, so I became hooked on working in bars.
When I started at art college in London I carried on doing bar work.
When did you decide to open your own bar?
I’ve had the opportunity to work in amazing bars and work in their concepts and bring in some of my ideas but you reach a point where it’s time. While I was at Whistling Stop I said to the guys, “There are 5 or 6 ideas in my head that could be strong ideas for bars now.”
We opened White Lyan in October 2013 and a year later Dandelyan (At the Mondrian Hotel). October is clearly a good month for me as this year I’m publishing my first book!
When you opened White Lyan, it quite contentious as you were making your own house spirits and not working with brands…
On the surface It looks like a terrible business decision, but it was never about not working with brands. We wanted this bar to be a conversation starter. We wanted to breathe some life into the industry and challenge and excite people. We wanted to show that there was a different way of doing things. I was frustrated that things were being done because that’s the way they always had been. No-one seemed to be asking “is there another way to do this?”
It wasn’t about insulting the industry. A lot of people thought that, but it wasn’t the case. We copped a lot of criticism at the beginning, but slowly people got the idea of what we were trying to do.
One evening we had a very well-known food critic come in. He turned to us and said “I wanted to hate this concept, but these are the best drinks. I thought it was going to be super-pretentious. But it isn’t”
We wanted a pub space because we wanted it to be welcoming. The concept was “a cocktail bar for people who don’t go to cocktail bars”.
It’s super-relaxed and we wanted it to feel like people are in our house. That idea is at the heart of what we were doing. We reduced the prices, but by having pre-made drinks we increased the speed of service, so we have more time to chat with people. So if they want to spend time asking about the drinks and how they are made (and we can get really geeky with the details) we can, but equally If they want to just grab drinks and sit with their mates, we can achieve that really quickly.
What’s the best thing about your job? The guests or making drinks?
The people! On both sides of the bar. Some of my oldest and dearest friends are from the industry.
I also meet hundreds of people coming in to the bars. The other day we had a couple from Japan on their honeymoon. We’ve tried to create something exciting that draws people to us and as a result it brings you into contact with so many cultures from around the world.
So how does Dandelyan differ from White Lyan?
We call Dandelyan a “neighbourhood bar in a 5 star setting”. We wanted to bring the warmth of our style of setting but we still wanted it to have bar geekiness.
We’ve stripped back all of the ingredients to understand the fundamentals. . We’ve termed it “Modern Botany”. By doing that we get what we want to out of the ingredients. We call it the “nose to tail of plants’. For example we wanted to understand the defence mechanism of plants. How does it protect itself from insects? Does it create an aroma, how can we use that? Every one of the drinks is thoroughly researched.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
People surrounding me. The teams. Our peers. Anything and everything. It might be an ingredient, it might be a concept or a story. Any of those things can trigger a spark. A lot of the time we bandy an idea around the team. One of my crucial roles is enabling that kind of creativity but also the most paramount thing is not to poison anybody!
I’m serious! I’ve been to competitions where I’ve had to say “I don’t think we should taste this”. We do a lot of food safety and thorough research!
What’s your typical day?
I jump around a fair bit. I like to be at both bars. I’m usually here (White Lyan) one or two nights a week. I’m at Dandelyan a bit more as it’s newer. Both Ian and I cover the Mr. Lyan projects. Robyn looks after here and Marcus runs Dandelyan. Both ships have strong captains.
We also retail some products. It was an exclusive in Selfridges for 3 months. The 5 cocktails all picked up medals and they can be ordered on Masters of Malt.
What’s your favourite spirit?
I’m very close to Scotch, living in Edinburgh helped. It’s probably the spirit I do the most amount of work with. Then after that it’s gin.
I like things that have a difficult approach. I used to drink a lot of tequila. I like championing things that have a bit of a stigma. in 2005 I was putting raw egg in every cocktail at the time when people were freaking out about salmonella.
Whisky still has a few issues, some people say they struggle with it. Mad Men has helped though!
Is Whisk(e)y more challenging from a cocktail making point of view?
No I think it’s easier. Things that have big up front flavour and then lots of complexity underneath are great to open out with other ingredients. Scotch and gin are both good for that.
What is your favourite cocktail?
My old fall back used to be a Manhattan but I haven’t really found myself drinking them much of late. If I have a high ball it will be a Scotch and soda or a Gin Rickey. I still love a daiquiri, or a Corpse Reviver.
Where do you like to drink?
I tend to stay East (London) because I live here.
I like Sager + Wilde, a wine bar where they make you feel really welcome. It’s a place that is breaking down the snobbery that so often occurs in the wine industry.
And bars around the world?
How about Australia?
I’m working on lots of top-secret projects, but I can’t tell you about any of them!
White Lyan, 153 Hoxton St. N1 6PJ, London UK.
Dandelyan, Mondrian London, 20 Upper Ground, London SE1 9PD