London’s White Lyan Is Making “Wine” Without a Grapevine in Sight

Pushing their studies in fermentation a step further, the science-savvy bartenders from London's award-winning White Lyan have created a line of remarkably convincing "wines" through a combination of unorthodox ingredients and techniques. Tyler Wetherall on the latest project from the bar world's mad scientists.

White Lyan has become famed for its boundary-pushing cocktails, and for utilizing laboratory techniques to impose rigorous control over every element of production. The only bar globally to use no perishables—both ice and fruit are considered too unpredictable—the cocktails are pre-batched and bottled onsite and stored at the optimum temperature to ensure consistent quality. Any ingredients that the team can’t handcraft or adapt themselves, they order in custom, such as their bespoke house spirits, which owner Ryan Chetiyawardana developed directly with distilleries. The attention to detail verges on compulsive.

However, one of the few items on the menu they did not have a hand in creating was the short list of biodynamic French wines, and this is what Chetiyawardana and his team set out to address as the last hurdle in offering an entirely house-drinks only menu.

This month, in a culmination of hundreds of hours of R&D, they launched their own “wines,” offering a white, red, rosé and sparkling that each mimic the flavors and textures of actual wines by way of unorthodox ingredients.

“As the wines are being sold as just that—wine—there needed to be an element in the creation of them which would allow them to be familiar, yet exciting,” explains Robin Honhold, the bartender heading up this latest avenue of exploration alongside the White Lyan team. Honhold worked with Chetiyawardana previously at Bramble in Edinburgh and is now Operations Manager at Mr Lyan, the umbrella company for Chetiyawardana and his business partner Iain Griffiths’ bars, bottled drinks and books. Honhold’s educational background is in mathematics, but he’s currently studying for a master’s in brewing and distilling.

These “wines” are a natural extension of the team’s fascination with fermentation and experimentation with microorganisms, which first resulted in Chetiyawardana’s “biologically-aged” cocktails. “There’s a tertiary set of flavors that you need this living organism to create, but, because it’s a living organism, it behaves how it wants to,” says Chetiyawardana. “When I first started these projects six or seven years ago, it was about embracing the chaos of working with something live. Robin took that on, and he found a way to create consistency from chaos—to create a consistent flavor profile—and it’s much more interesting than what I was doing before.”

Ryan Chetiyawardana's Guilty Pleasures Rose

To start, they imagined a desired flavor profile for each variety of “wine” based on a particular region or style, along with key tasting notes or characteristics. For example, they aimed for the Spring Break White to be “bone-dry [and] riesling-esque in aroma” with a softer texture than one might find in actual dry riesling. With the Guilty Pleasures Rosé, they sought a combination of the dryness of a Provençal rosé mixed with the big fruitiness from South American varieties; in Honhold’s words: “A nose full of juicy fruit, but the body having a quenching, tannic dryness.”

Rather than finding a grape or terroir that would be suitable to create that particular character—as you would with traditional winemaking—the team put forward ingredients to replicate the flavors, style or effect, in a process Honhold describes as “retro-engineering.” In simple terms: They worked backwards.

“There are often many routes that can be taken to a similar end result,” says Honhold, “and we explored each in such a way to achieve the most controllable route.”

Consider the Whirlwind Red. They wanted the “weird elegance” of a well-aged Burgundy, mixed with the “wackiness” of gamay. To get there, they combined oaked cherry, spring grapes, Lapsang and sage, but there are many other ingredients involved in the process that act as “substrata,” such as ground and toasted oak chips, which give wood notes and a hint of spice.

They start by creating a base “mash,” a combination of teas, fruit jams, dried herbs, spices, grape juice and other juices. The taste of this initial mash is often close to the final product after fermentation, so it is important to get it right at these early stages. Thus adjustments are excruciatingly subtle. With the Whirlwind Red, changing the time they steep a tea prior to fermentation from, say, 20 to 30 seconds, might impact on both the tannins and fruit character of the final drink. “It’s a balancing act,” says Chetiyawardana. 

For each “wine,” the team developed a particular strain of yeast and set conditions to help imbue the drink with the desired characteristics. Once the mash is assembled, it’s then inoculated with its specific yeast and kept in a temperature-controlled room to ferment. When it’s ready, the final product is filtered, hand-bottled in standard 750ml bottles and, in White Lyan’s trademark tongue-in-cheek style, labeled with doodles from Chetiyawardana’s notebook. 

It’s perfectly plausible that the average consumer could drink these “wines” without knowing the difference. We joked about bringing in a sommelier to gauge their response in a blind taste test or assigning an appellation to this gritty East London neighborhood. But beyond an obsessive desire to see a product through from start to finish—or sheer can-we-do-it curiosity—why go to these lengths to create an imitation of wine?

It all goes back to the cornerstone of Mr Lyan’s company direction: not only a desire to reduce waste (by making wines in-house they create just one small plastic bag’s worth of recyclable waste for every 80 bottles produced) but the idea of “accessible innovation.” They wanted to, in Chetiyawardana’s words, “change the conversation” around cocktail culture and to “get people thinking about things in a different way.”

Previously the wines on the menu were secondary to what people visited the bar for; but now they’ve been incorporated into the White Lyan experience. As a destination bar known for its mind-boggling creations and obscure ingredients, most of White Lyan’s disciples have heard tales of sperm whale secretions (ambergris in the Lyan Boulevard) and chicken bone tincture (in the Bone Dry Martini). They come here to broaden their drinking horizons, and these “wines” are nothing if not new terrain.