It isn’t an exaggeration to say Ryan Chetiyawardana is one of the most innovative bartenders working today. The influence of his London bar, White Lyan, has resonated across the industry, not just for bringing zero waste into the cocktail conversation, but for persistently pushing boundaries.
Growing up in Birmingham in north England, his mother was a pastry chef—food, drink and a sociable kitchen were the heart of the household. He went on to study art, biology and then philosophy, all fields that have fueled his cocktail creations. Throughout these peripatetic years, the one constant was bar work.
After honing his skills at Edinburgh’s Bramble and then under cocktail guru Tony Conigliaro, Chetiyawardana—known by the moniker Mr Lyan—went on to open White Lyan in 2013 and Dandelyan a year later. White Lyan was a radical proposition: no ice, no perishables and no cocktails made à la minute, freeing the bartender to focus on the guest. His drinks involve intensive R&D, experimenting with the likes of koji mold and fermentation.
These days he is rarely found in his home in Canonbury, London; he’s usually traveling and working alongside the pioneering Mr Lyan team. His latest project has seen White Lyan relaunched as Cub (Lyan Cub, get it?), still pushing boundaries, this time uniting kitchen and bar into one single sustainable entity.
So what does Chetiyawardana do on his off time, outside of his bars? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest cocktail experiment, his preferred hangover recovery regime and the one thing he wishes would disappear from drink lists forever. —Tyler Wetherall
Bartender—and thankfully in a very wide sense. Bars, restaurants, products, books, collabs, talks… the full gamut.
What do want to be when you grow up?
Probably a doctor. I grew up fascinated by plants and biology, and came from a medical family, but my dad discouraged me; he thought I’d get frustrated by the bureaucracy. [The same] with arts and music, which would’ve been my other destination. Thankfully, I was guided by teachers and those surrounding me to find a balance between the arts and sciences. So I kinda wanted to be a bartender, I just didn’t know it.
Best thing you ever drank:
1964 Bowmore Fino Cask OB for Oddbins. It was unfathomably complex and tasted like a transportation to another era, and it was intense in a manner that was familiar and alien at the same time. I hate the corniness of saying it changed my life, but it’s up there with the finest examples of human art and ingenuity.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Cod liver oil from my mum who tricked me into drinking a tablespoonful at the tender age of six by saying it was apple juice. Guy (my brother) still says my face at the moment of realization is a favorite memory of his.
First time you ever got drunk:
Birmingham provided lots of benefits to a growing child—ethnically very diverse, a big city that teaches you the ways of the world pretty quickly and an easy access to whatever you might want/need as a teenager. At the age of 13 we were hitting some local pubs and clubs. That year I’d gone to see my first gig—Blur—with some friends and our drink intake was usually curbed by our tiny disposable budget, but there were cans of Red Stripe just passed around the crowd. It was in the legendary Q Club and it was so hot that the beer was a much needed coolant… so we got really drunk. My friend and I ran around like pixies before getting home and [I got] up early for school to find that I’d somehow lost most of my uniform en route.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Probably The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by Bowie. Near perfection and layered enough that you could spend a lifetime with it.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
There’s as many people who want to help, as are trying to hinder. It’s always OK to seek out help.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
So many. I think my definition of weird is different to other people’s. My “kaboom still” raised eyebrows, living cocktails, cat poop, no ice… nothing seems off limits to me.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Reading seems such as luxury to me now, which is sad. But I’m finding total bliss in sitting listening to music with my cats and girlfriend and reading.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
“I need liquid cocaine.” Weirdly it wasn’t in any way a narcotic request, and I totally understood the drink need. I’ve used it as a tasting note since.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Bramble, Edinburgh. Because it’s about everything else aside from the drinks (it’s Mike and Jas, so it’s a given the drinks are killer). Amazing tunes, honest, warm vibe and a coziness that makes you feel part of something bigger.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Faviken for my 30th. A drive to the middle of nowhere with my brother and sister. As soon as we arrived we felt part of someone’s home. Just someone who has mega wine and is really, really good at cooking.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Scotch and soda. My favorite cocktail. But a Martini pre-dinner, a Daiquiri or a Manhattan… but usually what the folks recommend. I’m happiest in other people’s hands—they know best.
Meursault. But again, what they suggest. I’m open and interested—I just want to try things other people are passionate about.
Jack and Coke. Tin of beer and a whisk(e)y or tequila.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
I have a family superpower of not getting hungover. But a cup of tea and a bacon/tattie scone roll (ketchup and mustard, please!) and I’m not sure what can’t be solved.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
An unwavering fetish for the past. Innovation doesn’t mean gimmick, but it also doesn’t mean jettisoning tradition. There’s a lot of stubbornness on menus that is a total circle-jerk. Menus should be a guide for a guest, not a pat on the back for ourselves. Oh, and also spelling mistakes and bad grammar.
The last text message you sent:
Yahoo! (emoji emoji emoji)