12.12.19 / London / England

Ahead of his Stateside Debut, Ryan Chetiyawardana Reflects on the Path to Creating the World’s Best Bars

A new chapter begins for one of the most decorated people in craft cocktails

Here in America Ryan Chetiyawardana may not be a household name just yet, but in the European hospitality world, few people match his stature. One of the most influential bartenders in the world (we’re not just saying that, Drinks International Magazine crowned him the title for their Bar World 100 list), Chetiyawardana founded acclaimed bars including Super Lyan, Lyaness, and number 1 on the 2018 World’s 50 Best Bars list, Dandelyan. So when we had a chance to talk to Ryan, we couldn’t pass it up—it’s an opportunity to learn from a master bartender who has done everything from inventing unique drinks to running a successful cocktail empire. And soon we’ll discover both of those things first hand here in the States; early next year Chetiyawardana is opening his first North American bar, Silver Lyan, at the Riggs Washington DC. So it’s the perfect time for Chetiyawardana to look back on what made him so successful in Europe—and look ahead at the things that excite him the most in this industry.

What was your path like in becoming one of the top bartenders in the world?

Like with most, it was quite convoluted! I originally started in kitchens, then turned to the bar whilst I was studying. The thing I was most proud of was being able to fold experience in a wide variety of venues (nightclubs, fine dining, pubs, hotels, small cocktail bars) across different cities into my studies in Fine Art, Biology and Philosophy – it’s meant that I’m more interested in different ways of trying to bring people together, rather than simply by what’s in the glass or on the plate.

What do you think has made your cocktail bars stand out, and get singled out as some of the world’s best?

We always try and address a different side of the world of food & drink in each of the venues, so each one is unique and has a real point of honesty behind the product. Although they have a common thread running through them all, they are platforms for the teams to challenge and create something special – whilst keeping them feeling open to everyone. The intention with Lyaness at Sea Containers London, for example, is to challenge guests in the way they think about cocktails and empower them in their choices and tastes, while Super Lyan at Kimpton De Witt in Amsterdam introduced our first all-day-bar concept, reimagining the hotel bar experience to create something truly unique while keeping Amsterdam sensibility in mind.

We are also very fanatical about details, so even if we don’t have the means to control them, we consider every little aspect from table heights, to music, to lighting to guest journey. Your cocktail will be in the hands of several bartenders throughout its making and our servers are on standby to guide you through the menu to help expand on your drink knowledge.

Ahead of his Stateside Debut, Ryan Chetiyawardana Reflects on the Path to Creating the World’s Best Bars

In your experience, what have you found is the biggest reason a bar succeeds or fails? Is it location? Yelp reviews? Pure luck? Or are great drinks enough?

As with most things, it’s all about the people. That is one of the reasons we were so excited to partner with the Lore Group team [who are behind the Riggs Hotel]. We have experience in some of the things we’d been researching and developing, but to be able to collaborate with experts in design, architecture, operations … it allowed us to create something that heightened up each of the elements. I’m a huge believer in collaboration, and the more eyes you can have on something, the more you’re able to swallow ego and work with different experts, the more you give as a chance for success. Of course, you have to be careful to not over-engineer and lose the soul, but the best venues are the ones that feel honest, and considered and a representation of what a group of people wanted to present.

A lot of bars use quirky cocktail names and add a twist here or there, but often the drinks are just slightly re-configured classics. What is the key to innovating and creating entirely new cocktails?

Again, like with a venue, real innovation can only come from a point of authenticity. It usually comes from addressing something you think is missing, or isn’t quite right. The attention to this is what makes it a real innovation. But it also has to resonate with people, so it needs to be a common problem, or something you can present to people in a manner they can understand. Super Lyan at the Kimpton De Witt offers a selection of cocktails that demonstrate this such as the Bay Cosmo (Ketel One Vodka, cranberry, bay leaf, lime and pink grapefruit). Like in any creative communication, the allegory behind the problem is what makes it universally interesting.

[Super Lyan | Kimpton De Witt]

Where do you find inspiration when coming up with drink menus?

It can come from anywhere – from travel, from conversations, from tastings – but when we develop a menu, we’re trying to challenge something in the landscape. The menu is a guide, so we try and find a story to overarch it that feels relevant to people – or exciting enough that they’re willing to come along for the ride!

Who do you think are the biggest innovators in the cocktail or spirits world right now?

The folks at Empirical Spirits are challenging what the boundaries of spirit definitions are, Seedlip and Aecorn continue to push the idea of flavor. Native in Singapore, and Tayer + Elementary in London are doing something really distinct in creating something very much their own too.

[Lyaness | Sea Containers London]

Do you see any current trends forming in the industry?

People are moving beyond the green washing of sustainability, and really developing new methodology for looking at this in a practical and holistic manner in the industry. This spreading into a genuine sense of provenance behind ingredients is starting to really emerge.

The challenge of spaces is also really interesting. People are realizing that cocktail bars can give a very unique energy to hotel spaces, retail venues, carparks and cinemas.

How does your approach to creating bars change with trends, savvy customers, or even changes in tastes?

We always try and make sure we’re catering to what people want, so we’re very flexible at accommodating to any tastes and requirements, but on a whole, we try and work as a destination that offers something unique, new and exciting to people. We purposefully want to stretch people’s boundaries and comfort zones to show that there’s more out there than their established favorites. Of course, we don’t want to alienate people, and we certainly want to be able to guide people to something that really suits their palate, but we also want to act as a compliment to what else is out there that supplies people’s more everyday choices.

[Silver Lyan | Riggs Washington DC]

What can you tell us about Silver Lyan? What challenges do you face opening a bar in the USA for the first time?

I’m so excited by Silver Lyan! We’ve found a beautiful home in Lore Group’s first U.S. hotel, Riggs Washington DC – slated to open in Penn Quarter in early 2020. Not only am I really hyped to be able to create something that works alongside the DC scene and acts as a home from home for locals and visitors alike, it’s a chance for us to be inspired by the country’s unique approach to food & drink. Playing off of this, Silver Lyan explores the history of cultural exchange in America, with a menu that will blend the various international ingredients and influences that are interwoven into the country’s cultural fabric. Naturally it’s a challenge, and we’re not arrogant enough to try and simply slot in what we do, but we’re actually more intrigued by the challenge, and being able to learn, grow and offer something that sits alongside the history of venues in the city. It’s very much a bar that embraces our love of the city, what we’ve experienced and encountered spending time with the people and places within DC, and the incredible history of the Riggs building.

Outside of your own properties, where have you been going to enjoy a cocktail at the moment?

The beauty of food & drink means that you’re constantly exposed to new cultures on your travels, and I’m very fortunate to travel a lot. This has meant that I’ve had beautiful tropical flavors in the Maldives, incredible marriages of flavors in LA at Onda, huge amounts of fun at Katana Kitten in NYC, history and passion at Viva Madrid in Madrid, and incredible complexity at Tigermom in Copenhagen.

How do you plan on spending your next day off?

Seeing family and friends, and catching up over some great wine and food! The light is really amazing in London at this time of year, too, so a walk through Epping Forrest with my siblings is high on the list!

[Lyaness | Sea Containers London]

[Super Lyan | Kimpton De Witt]

[Photo: Xavier D. Buendia / XDB Photography]

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