The last time I went to the premises that now house White Lyan, it was a crummy boozer at the wrong end of Hoxton that specialized in pole-dancing, bad rock and warm beer. Ten years later, the pole-dancing platform is still there (and, occasionally, so are the rock bands, though I can’t vouch for their quality), but the warm beer has been replaced by one of the most ambitious—and controversial—cocktail concepts to hit London in some time.
You see, White Lyan doesn’t deal in perishables: no ice, no lemons, no fruit juices, no fresh garnishes, no milk, no eggs—nothing. Despite the fact the place has a regularly changing list of more than 20 esoteric cocktails—ranging from a Beeswax Old Fashioned to layered shots and long drinks like the Monkey Ball, made with Scotch, cassia, chocolate, truffle and banana soda—not so much as a measly olive crosses the granite bar top.
Every cocktail is pre-batched and served from branded White Lyan bottles dispensed from a single, frosted chiller cabinet glowing futuristically behind the bar. Even the garnishes are spartan—maybe a smear of pomegranate paint, a ‘twist’ of rice paper spritzed with absinthe or a pinch of ash—the rituals and theatrics of bartending reduced to little more than pop and pour.
White Lyan is the brainchild of rising star Ryan Chetiyawardana, a man whose résumé includes stints at a number of pioneering cocktail bars including the (sometimes divisively) eccentric Worship Street Whistling Shop and 69 Colebrooke Row, the renowned HQ of Tony Conigliaro, a London bartender often referred to as the Heston Blumenthal of Cocktails.
It’s one of a number of places that are now radically rethinking the traditional bar setup, drawing on a startling mixture of high- and low-end techniques in an attempt to bring craft cocktails to a wider audience.
Other cocktail radicals include Aviary in Chicago, where high-concept drinks are prepped in a manner more akin to a Michelin-starred kitchen; and New York’s Booker and Dax, a collaboration with Momofuku that often remakes classics using modern techniques, like muddling with liquid nitrogen. At San Diego’s Polite Provisions, traditional highballs are reworked with homemade sodas and bitters, and then served on draft. Saxon + Parole in New York City and Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, serve carbonated cocktails by the bottle. And back across the pond at Meat Liquor in London, craft cocktails are brought to the masses using the most low-rent means of all: the slushy machine.
While such developments may alarm some purists, bartending legend Dale DeGroff—who paved the way for the craft cocktail movement during his reign at New York’s Rainbow Room in the late 1980s—believes it’s all a natural stage in the evolution of the bar industry.
“It’s simple really: Craft-driven bars have been a kind of novelty,” he says referring to the breed of elite, yet niche bars, like Milk & Honey and PDT, that that have transformed the face of cocktail drinking in the last decade. “But now the general market is calling. The quality drink is ready for prime time, but no one is quite sure how to deliver on a large scale. That is what these innovations are all about.”
Still, I like lemons, and ice and a shaken cocktail. I like the look, the taste, the smell, the sound of shaking and the clank of ice hitting glass—all of the elements that combine to form the sensory experience of drinking at a bar. When I heard about White Lyan, I thought it sounded like an exercise in deprivation, and wondered what on earth Chetiyawardana was thinking.
“There were two prongs to it,” he explains. “One was control—I was frustrated with not being able to influence or control certain factors like fruit. One week your lemons might come from India then the next, Mexico; one week they’ll have no juice and the next, no aromatics. Why wouldn’t you want to challenge that?”
Ice was also given the boot due to its variable flavor profile and the simple fact that it causes drinks to gradually dilute, changing their flavor over the course of consumption. All of the cocktails at White Lyan are pre-diluted with house water—which is painstakingly filtered and re-mineralized on-site—and then chilled using a combination of freezers, chillers and frozen glassware. These decisions weren’t just about consistency, though.
“The main thing I wanted to change was customer experience,” says Ryan. “In a bar, hosting is most important; the drinks are secondary, and I think the industry had got a bit detached from that. We want to readdress that balance.”
If our two-hour interview is anything to go by, Ryan has achieved his goal continuing to run the place while singlehandedly welcoming regulars, taking orders, pouring, spritzing and cracking jokes all with the laid-back ease of a man serving beers and shots.
But are the drinks at White Lyan any good? My first visit was launch night, which was hot, noisy and very, very busy. I must admit that, after spending 10 minutes queuing at the bar with your nose in someone’s armpit, an Old Fashioned with no ice is the last thing I wanted. A lukewarm highball—which quickly went flat without ice—was a disappointment too, while the Bone Dry Martini (made with chicken bone extract) was vanishingly subtle in such a raucous environment. I left in search of cold beer, vowing never to return.
And yet I couldn’t quite get this weird bar, with its ’80s-style chrome office furniture and glowing chiller cabinet, out of my head—so I returned on a quiet night to give it another crack. This time, sitting at the bar, the drinks made a lot more sense—a Spotted Lyan Martini with gin, absinthe and brine was delicate and intense, while a Baby Bias ingeniously married sweet apricot and vanilla with the umami tang of fino sherry and olives.
Certainly White Lyan’s drinks are complicated to a degree one wouldn’t normally find in a bar packed with 80 people and a band playing in the basement. That’s only possible thanks to a vast amount of prep. “I’d say we spend 70 percent more time prepping than an average cocktail bar, which means we’re much more like a kitchen in terms of how we operate,” says Chetiyawardana, who actually trained as a chef until he was tempted away by the more sociable world of bartending.
The challenges of delivering increasingly complex, high-quality drinks on a viable scale have meant that, according to Charles Joly, the beverage director at Aviary in Chicago, “The lines between kitchen and bar have become increasingly blurred. Most cocktail bartenders are [now] sure to spend some time in the kitchen preparing ingredients.”
Aviary has taken this to the next level, producing ambitious drinks in a bar more that closely resembles a kitchen prep area with each bartender occupying fully-equipped individual stations on a “line.” While guests can see the bartenders at work, they don’t interact—this is left to a team of hosts and Charles himself, who works the room like a maître d’. If you’re the kind of person who likes propping up the bar and shooting the breeze with the bartender, Aviary’s setup—however sensory the experience of drinking there is—could sound a little sterile.
Still, many traditionalists will find a haute cuisine-style setup more palatable than the idea of cocktails on draft. And yet Erick Castro of Polite Provisions insists that given the time required to prepare draft cocktails—which, he says, “can take several days”—that they’re definitely not “a Plan B.”
It’s clear is that none of these concepts—bottled cocktails, filtered and pre-chilled water, drinks on draft—are about cutting corners. If anything, they are more labor intensive than making a cocktail on the spot. So, who benefits? These bars would argue that it’s the customer, who gets high-quality, consistent drinks—often at a more reasonable price—regardless of whose shift it is that night. What’s lost in traditional theatre, they’d say, is made up for with a bartender (or host) who has more time to make their guests feel at home. It is, quite simply, cocktail democracy in action. And how could one possibly object to that?
The bit I struggle with is the recurrent theme of ‘consistency’—a notion I find strangely unsexy. I like the idea that my drink has an element of one-night-only-ness, in the same way that I go to hear a band play their album live, complete with serendipitous twangs, bangs and feedback, however many times I’ve heard it on the turntable. I like the idea the bartender made that drink just for me. And for that reason, I hope places like White Lyan become part of the repertoire—and not the only way forward.