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The Chetiyawardana Experience

March 03, 2021

Story: Gabe Ulla

art: Sarah Madden

Known in cocktail circles as an iconoclast and amiable agitator, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s philosophy is, counterintuitively, rooted in restraint and practicality.

Back when you could still have a drink in a basement bar without fearing for your life, Ryan Chetiyawardana sat in a plush crimson booth at Silver Lyan, his recently opened cocktail spot in Washington, D.C.’s Riggs Hotel, trying not to sound like a zealot. “I’m loath to say that my career started because I was frustrated by certain trends and wanted to rebel,” he said. Buoyant and bookish, with the air of a TA who might cut you some slack if you needed it, Chetiyawardana strained to finish his thought. “I had a sense that cocktail spots could be a little different. Really, that’s all it was.”

I had traveled to the nation’s capital last February expecting more dogma from the 36-year-old Londoner whose aberrant excursions have remained at the bleeding edge of cocktails for close to a decade. In 2013, Chetiyawardana opened White Lyan, a space in London's East End marked by black walls and a strong sense of purpose: The venue entirely eschewed perishables, ice and brand names. To encourage interaction between staff and guests, all of the cocktails were pre-batched. There wasn’t a shaker in sight. Before sustainability was a buzzword in bar culture, before trash tiki and the paper straw proliferation, White Lyan turned heads across the industry. Three years later, Chetiyawardana closed the bar at the height of its popularity.

In collaboration with the chef Douglas McMaster, he turned the White Lyan space into the restaurant-bar Cub, another statement on sustainability. Then, in 2018, Chetiyawardana shuttered another successful venue, Dandelyan, four years into its life. Located in a hotel on the banks of the Thames, it had focused on “modern botany,” a kind of nose-to-tail approach to the plant kingdom. One season’s menu celebrated large-scale, systemized crops. But just after it was named the best bar in the world, Dandelyan became Lyaness, where the menu listed solely seven ingredients to get guests talking about what they actually like in a drink.

Central to Chetiyawardana’s mythology is a tendency to try a concept just long enough to capture the world’s attention, then move on. His embrace of transience is highly unusual in a profession that prizes longevity and familiarity, and success is famously hard to come by. “Sticking with an idea that has made its point would be a sign of ego,” Chetiyawardana offered by way of explanation.

Then there are the drinks, like a popular méthode champenoise Gin Fizz, a biologically aged cocktail fermented with Champagne yeasts. A widely imitated Old-Fashioned, first served at White Lyan, calls on a beeswax wash for velvety texture and a honeyed aroma. Chetiyawardana was one of the first bartenders to experiment with koji. He has reverse-engineered wine. And if you know a little about him, you may have heard that he makes his Negronis and Manhattans in the microwave.

But during our first conversation, Chetiyawardana seemed less interested in discussing the potential applications of edible paraffin than in lamenting Brexit and the recent death of British electronic producer Andrew Weatherall, one of his early idols. “Let’s be honest, most people who come to a bar aren’t interested in learning about all the work that goes into the cocktails,” he said on that pre-pandemic evening. “That’s completely cool with me, because it’s not the main goal.” As he would explain in different ways over the coming year, he sees the drinks as part of a wider pursuit. “I’m fascinated with the idea of making something relevant to someone who might not have the same knowledge or sensory arsenal as me,” Chetiyawardana says. “Kind of like creating a piece of music that can cut through anything.

The son of Sri Lankan immigrants, Chetiyawardana grew up in Birmingham. His parents were strict about grades but flexible about everything else. Despite a lack of discipline, he excelled at chorus without much effort, and loved to illustrate. As college approached in the early 2000s, he planned to follow in the footsteps of his father, a noted cancer specialist. “I was fascinated by the idea of looking after people,” Chetiyawardana said. His dad convinced him not to do it, sensing that his youngest son, notwithstanding his gentle nature, was too given to questioning.

Instead, Chetiyawardana did stints at a catering college and an art school before heading to the University of Edinburgh to study human biology. He eventually switched over to philosophy, having grown eager to immerse himself in a discipline that was “less about systems and more about actual people.” He worked at bars to pay the rent. Even in the most harried settings, he found that he could keep his wits about him and bond with customers. It wasn’t until 2006, when he visited a new spot in town called Bramble, that he felt bartending might be a potential career path. “They didn’t put the cocktail on a pedestal,” Chetiyawardana said of the establishment, which to him struck an irresistible balance between rambunctiousness and craft. “The only theme was a good drink and a good time.” When Chetiyawardana mustered up the courage to apply for a job there, manager Jason Scott asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Nervous, the young candidate answered with one word: This.

In cocktails, Chetiyawardana finally reconciled his inability to just pick a lane. He received crucial encouragement from his sister, Natasha. A product designer, she assured him that his multi-potentiality would come in handy. “At a time when everyone seems to prioritize specificity and specialization, there’s a broadness to Ryan’s interests, and a keen ability to synthesize them, that makes his work stand out,” says Johnny Drain, a hospitality industry consultant with a PhD in materials science from Oxford, who frequently collaborates with Chetiyawardana.

Central to Chetiyawardana’s mythology is a tendency to try a concept just long enough to capture the world’s attention, then move on.

“Ryan doesn’t do things for the sake of appearing innovative,” says flavor chemist Arielle Johnson, whom Chetiyawardana occasionally calls on to brainstorm how a far-fetched idea might be made real. “I’m sure that in R&D there’s a lot of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, but for him, without question, the philosophy is about using his analytical skills in order to expand the bartender’s toolkit of ingredients, flavors and concepts.”

Go to one of Mr. Lyan’s bars hoping to give in to the flash-bang thrall of technical wizardry, and you will be disappointed. “People imagine that Ryan’s places have a bunch of lab equipment,” Drain says, “but it’s really low-tech. What he seems to do best is take robust, simple elements and layer them to create something startlingly complex.” Drain points to The Infinite Banana, an ingredient developed at Lyaness. To create it, Chetiyawardana married “blackening” and the age-old technique for making oleo saccharum to turn the skins of the ubiquitous Cavendish banana into syrup. The liqueur continues to be used in multiple drinks across Chetiyawardana’s bars, a versatile addition to the ever-expanding “toolkit.”

In the countless presentations and keynotes he’s given over the years, Chetiyawardana talks theory and displays a preoccupation with moving his industry forward, yet he never strays from his role as the amiable agitator—the person fit to host, say, a MasterClass series. He won’t mind if you ask him about his desert island drink. Some peers see this as one of the keys to his success. “I wish I was better at talking about what I’m doing in a way that will make people interested in trying it consistently,” says Dave Arnold, the food scientist behind Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions, two of the most forward-thinking New York cocktail bars of the last decade. (Booker and Dax closed in 2016; Existing Conditions shuttered in 2020, a casualty of the pandemic.) “Ryan isn’t the type of guy who needs you to be outside of your comfort zone to feel fulfilled.”

Chetiyawardana acknowledges that no matter how he positions himself, people might still be suspicious of his work. “We don’t do gimmicks,” he insists. “It’s all applied thinking, because people can see through the bullshit. If there’s fish sauce in your drink, the proof better be in the pudding.” Take the seemingly preposterous microwave trick, which actually serves a most practical purpose: Instead of cooking away the alcohol, it “softens and integrates the mix, harmonizing the flavors on the spot.” By simply combining the components in the traditional manner, you’d need to let the mix age to achieve the same depth. Meanwhile, his reverse-engineered grape-less wine is meant to precisely mimic hyperspecific flavors while reducing waste.

Recently, while recalling some of the initial chatter about White Lyan, Chetiyawardana insisted that it has “never been about saying ‘fuck you’ to the establishment.” It’s just that, at the time, there were too many copy-pastes of the script authored by Sasha Petraske, one of Chetiyawardana’s heroes. It kept nagging at him.

Does every serious cocktail bar need to carve ice from a block? Do the limes have to be squeezed à la minute? Is this really the only way?

“I guess I was poking the bear a little bit,” Chetiyawardana allowed. These days, though, his outlook couldn’t be mistaken for anything but measured. He has spent the past year more holed up than most, minding a condition he describes as “putting me in the high-risk category.” He’s been pillaging his wine fridge, hopping on Instagram Lives and watching his industry turn upside down. At the end of 2020, he was forced to permanently shut down Cub. His three remaining businesses—Super Lyan in Amsterdam, Lyaness in London and Silver Lyan in D.C.—are temporarily closed.

Once the bars reopen, they may actually stick around for a while. Chetiyawardana's not sure what that looks like, but he seems anxious to shift into new territory: “I’ve realized that there’s room to evolve without starting from scratch.”

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Gabe Ulla is a New York-based writer who has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, T, Saveur and Town and Country. He has co-written two books, Ignacio Mattos’ Estela and David Chang’s New York Times-bestselling memoir, Eat a Peach.