What does it take to open a game-changing cocktail bar in 2013? Post craft-cocktail revolution, we’ve grown accustomed to the darkened alleys and disguised entrances of the speakeasy, the resurgence of bracingly strong classic cocktails, and the return of all things artisanal, from hand-cut ice to homemade bitters. What’s next?
London is poised to see one of the most exciting bar openings in years in the form of White Lyan. Set to hit Hoxton Street next month, the bar is the joint project of Ryan Chetiyawardana (otherwise known by his bartending alias, Mr. Lyan) and Australian bartender Iain Griffiths. Both have taken home top prizes at international cocktail competitions, and both are veterans of some of the UK’s leading mixology dens (like Bramble in Edinburgh, and 69 Colebrooke Row and Worship Street Whistling Shop in London).
We sat down with the pair for an inside look on the revolutionary new bar, what it’s doing so differently (hint: no ice and citrus to be found), and why Lyan Bar could be the leading force in a new wave of cocktail innovation.
Give us a little introduction to White Lyan.
Ryan: The bar is about getting people looking at drinks in a different way, and getting people who don’t normally drink cocktails involved. The way we’re doing that is to take away everything that you normally associate with a cocktail bar and starting from scratch.
Iain: We’ve got two floors. There’ll be the main bar when you walk in – if you have a seat, you’ll get table service automatically, but you can stand or sit at the bar as well. Downstairs, we’ve got a fantastic little space that holds about 30 people, and a low-set ceiling, nice and dark and a little sleazy, a limited version of the menu upstairs, and DJs.
We hear you don’t plan on using any ice or citrus in your drinks. Why’s that?
Ryan: Iain’s been running some of the best bars in Australia for some time and I’ve been grateful to look after some of the top bars in the UK. These are bars at the top of their game, but there’s still a lot that’s overlooked. You end up wasting a lot of ingredients, like lemons, and using things that are just the norm.
Instead of using ice, which is a beautiful mechanism for chilling and diluting, but its hard to control. . .we were like, let’s try to control everything.
So, you took issue with bars not questioning these things.
Iain: Yeah, even when I was being trained, the idea was “everything’s done this way because it’s done this way.” You squeeze a lemon and then you throw out the lemon husk, and that’s what you do. But actually, why throw it away? There are a number of different uses for that lemon. For the time being, though, we decided to just remove lemons and the inconsistency that exists in fresh citrus from the menu entirely, and approach creating that sensation on the palate in a different manner.
Are you able to elaborate a bit more about what these drinks will be like without those two ingredients?
Ryan: It’s a bit of mystery to people, because they think we’re not going to make proper drinks. What we’re doing is controlling the dilution you’d get from ice by making our own mineral water, so we’re creating something that has a specific flavour that we want to achieve in our cocktail.
Once we start diluting or affecting the temperature of things, we’re looking at a different temperature curve. Maybe we change the temperature of the glassware, maybe we store glasses in the freezer or the fridge and we change the way that we hold the temperature of the drink so a lot of it is done behind the scenes.
Iain: Essentially if you were in a bar and saw your drink shaken and served we’ve just done that one step further. For our cocktails, the best way to describe them is that they’re “finished” in front of the customer. And so that just allows that extra degree of control.
What else are you doing that’s different?
Ryan: We’re making our own spirits. We’re looking to control as much as we can . . . it’s not just the flavours, but it’s the textures, it’s the delivery, it’s everything.
We are doing things differently – there’s no doubt that no one else is doing this. And it’s not that we’re casting off the past – a lot of what influences us is looking at the history, rituals, and the culture around food and drink. The beauty of what we have now is that food can be a commentary. Particularly in this country where alcohol is demonised so much, we can use it as a means of saying right, this is challenging, this is something that’s part of our social fabric and we should generate a discussion around it.
Are you working with distillers?
Ryan: Yeah, they’re from different distilleries, different products. We’re taking something we’re super happy with and adding different elements that we uniquely can add.
Iain: One of the big ones is working towards making the spirits work for the cocktail as opposed to a normal bar where you make the cocktail work for the spirit you’re using. That we’re afforded that luxury is pretty fantastic. We decide what we want to add to that drink to make sure it goes to the next level. Does the gin need a top note that’s so substrata you don’t even smell it but it adds a new sensation?
Ryan: It could be a cooling effect, a mineral effect, or a freshness on top of something that already has a richness.
You’re like the Marcel Duchamp of the cocktail world!
Ryan: I’m going to love that as a compliment! But we’re not turning our back on the industry. We love this whole world and we’ve got lots of friends in it, and we’ve got different projects that we’re looking to do in the future as well, so it’s not like we’re saying that we won’t use ice again ever, ever.
What are your favourite places in London?
Ryan: Trangallan is definitely one of them, and places like Ten Bells and Clove Club that do amazing food. I think St. John Bread and Wine is still my favourite, and Corner Room is incredible. I love simple food just done really well.
And who do you think are the most exciting people working in cocktails today?
Ryan: The guys from Bramble. I always look to what they do because they have an attention to detail that’s pretty unparalleled. What Jack and Sean have achieved at their new place in New York, Dead Rabbit, is very special.
Iain: Back in Oz, Tim Philips. He’s got a small cocktail bar in Sydney with three bartenders, five drinks each day, using whatever he went and got from the garden. The focus is on fresh ingredients to the point that it’s unparalleled. As far as cocktails go, I don’t know of another bar that’s doing just that.
Feature image © Kondor83, 2013. Used under licence from Shutterstock.com
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