Meet the World’s Best Bartender of 2015: Ryan Lyan

By Rachael Perry


Rachael Perry

February 8, 2016

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

Last year, Ryan Chetiyawardana—otherwise known as Ryan Lyan or Mr. Lyan—was awarded the prestigious title of International Bartender of the Year at the Spirited Awards.

He owns two of the best bars in London: White Lyan, which was recently named best new international cocktail bar and the no. 1 place to drink in London, and Dandelyan, which was also voted world’s best new bar and the best place to drink in the UK. These accomplishments are huge, and there’s a great story behind them.

Upon arriving at White Lyan, you’ll find a stylish, low-lit room with exposed brick and a soft, white glow coming from behind the bar. It may sound like a familiar scene, but the bar itself operates like no other.

Believe it or not, White Lyan produces almost no waste; they use no ice, no perishable ingredients, and no garnishes. Every single spirit is house-made. It’s a concept that requires a lot of work, but the string of awards and the endorsement by customers like Beyonce and Jay Z demonstrate Ryan’s influence.

He’s developing revolutionary bartending practices and challenging industry perceptions all over the world.

Ryan’s sensitive approach to the people who visit his bars has been cultivated during years of working in the industry. Not only does he place hospitality as the hallmark of a great bartender, he sees it as just as important—if not even more so—as the mind-blowing cocktails he develops.

Some call him “the mad scientist of the cocktail world.” Our opinion? He’s pioneering a new wave of revolution in the bar industry.

So, how does Mr. Lyan do it? How does one become the International Bartender of the Year while running two of the best bars in the world and systematically changing the face of the industry?

Let’s find out…

World's Best Bartender Ryan Lyan

Your innovative approach to traditional bartending, and the bar industry as a whole, has been creating some great conversations. How do you feel about that?

“That’s great to hear! It’s always difficult to know the reaction to your work.”

Ryan spent time observing some of the best bars in the world, and he quickly began to realize somethingthey all viewed traditional methods of bartending as the only acceptable way to make drinks. Finding this process frustrating, he set out to challenge their ideas.

“I’ve always focused on doing things differently—there are great traditional examples out there already, so why would I try and re-hash those? I’ve always tried to reflect my own interests and background and collaborate with like-minded people, and that will always be a focus when challenging the status quo.”

Ryan believes innovation is paramount to any industry, and he has tried to learn, question, and take action in the most honest way possible. “I also have a very short attention span, am constantly intrigued by new information, and love working with people, so it’s fun to be able to focus on the new.”

We know you prefer the term “bartender” to “mixologist.” So what’s your favorite thing about being a bartender and running a bar?

“The people I get to work with and the people I get to meet. They’re what attracted me to the industry in the first place.”

Ryan originally trained as a chef, but he found it strange to have to do all his cooking in a kitchen in the back, which left him feeling disconnected to the people he was trying to create for.

So, he turned to bartending, which gave him the opportunity to still play with flavors but also to chat and interact with people. “I love the stimulation and creative output of bartending, but I’ve met some incredible people and got up to some life-changing experiences with them!”

World's Best Bartender

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in this role?

Ryan always tries to question everything and pay attention to the details, but he advises those in the industry to remember that “none of it actually matters.”

“I’m a very positive person, and I learned very quickly that this is a crucial aspect of my (or any!) job—you have to try and aim for the positives wherever possible, in any and all scenarios.”

What’s the most important thing for you as the world’s best bartender?

“It’s important to question whether we, in our bars and as an industry, are doing something that can lead to a better output,” Ryan explains.

“That might be simply making sure we allow ourselves the setup/time/space to make sure a guest feels welcome, or perfecting a drink so it makes someone feel something they never have before.”

“And everything in between,” he says.

Where do you look for inspiration or ideas?

Ryan grew up in Birmingham, and before training as a chef and dominating the world bar scene, he studied both philosophy and biology at two of the UK’s best universities. All of this varying experience has blended together to produce an artistic, scientific, and anthropological mind.

Now, Ryan looks anywhere and everywhere for inspiration. “I’m a complete magpie.”

“But usually,” he says modestly, “the best concepts seem to come to life within our team. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by some incredible people in my life, and bouncing ideas off them always leads to something stronger.”

World's Best Bartender

You seem to take a true interest in the people who come into your bar. What’s your main goal as a bartender?

For Ryan, it’s not about the bartender or the drinksit’s about giving people the best possible experience by helping them relax and be themselves.

“My main goal is to make sure everyone is having the best time they can have in that moment. That, of course, varies, but by treating people as individuals you can respond to their own personal needs from the scenario. Some people come to buy into our offering, some people come to have a wild night, others need to escape their demons, but each can have the best experience possible.”

What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring industry professionals?

“Question EVERYTHING.”

What’s your top must-have bar tool?

“A chamber vacuum sealer… Best. Toy. Ever. Aside from that, some good scales.”

You’ve created a menu at White Lyan using only handcrafted liquors, with almost no waste. What are some ways other bartenders can use these methods in their own bars?

Ryan adopts an experimental approach to cocktail making. Featuring no perishable elements, all of White Lyan’s cocktails are devoid of ice and fresh fruit; to be served quickly, efficiently, and at an optimal drinking temperature.

This leaves Ryan with a unique inventory and beverage management process.

“There’s some amazing information out there—books by Dave Arnold and Tristan Stephenson cover lots of ‘modernist’ techniques, but so much can be done with simple research.”

Ryan says the crucial starting point is alwaysand categorically must bewhether what you’re creating is safe. “That might sound alarmist,” he says, “but many household ingredients and easily accessible foods can be dangerous. By doing some homework and experimenting, you can create amazing things from very simple sources.”

So, how crazy do his cocktails really get?

Ryan takes ingredients we thought we understood and uses them in a completely different way. Most of the cocktails in White Lyan’s repertoire feature unusual ingredients, such as chemicals, minerals, shrubs, and even beeswax.

The “Bone Dry Martini” is composed of chicken bones that have been dissolved in phosphoric acid. The “Moby Dick Sazerac” is made with ambergris, the bile of sperm whales that he collects from the ocean.

World's Best Bartender

What do you look for when developing new cocktails?

Ryan’s background in biology fuels his experimental approach to flavor combinations, but his creativity goes much deeper than that. “It’s often a story or feeling we’re trying to explore. It shouldn’t ever be about substituting a new flavor into an established formula.”

That can, of course, create a tasty cocktail, he explains, but there should be a reason behind this dynamic. “It’s like when you’re at schoolthe work is as important as the answer. And it’s why forgeries don’t carry the same gravity as a masterpiece. So we always try and create a dialogue through the drink. That doesn’t need to be academic or profound, but it should be honest.”

This might be a hard question to answer, but do you have a favorite cocktail?

“My favorite is a scotch and soda, but I also love a Martini (small, cold, and snappy, 4:1 with a twist and an olive), a Manhattan (sweet, rye, with a cherry), and a Daiquiri (60:20:10 shaken until blisteringly cold).”

Any cocktail or beverage trends you’re predicting in 2016?

“Bananas! I do love bananas, but it’s more to reflect the playful side coming back into cocktails and bartenders finding ways to employ difficult textures and flavors in interesting ways.”

World's Best Bartender BevSpot

And here’s the good news:

Ryan recently released a book that holds all the secrets to making his cocktails at home or at your own bar. Good Things to Drink with Mr. Lyan and Friends is full of easy-to-make, beautifully photographed cocktails; its simple recipes are perfect for any mood and every occasion.

What were you hoping to achieve with the release of your new book?

“The book was for my friends who aren’t part of the industry, and I wanted to demonstrate the magic that food and drink can have for bringing people together and creating occasions that are super memorable.”

“I wanted to bring the intuition people have for food—about setting, occasion, timing etc.—to drinks. It’s a very simple premise: Demonstrate drinks that fit a scenario through example.”

What are you looking forward to most this year?

“I’m looking forward to further challenging ourselves and the industry, and seeing people and places I’ve never visited before.”

What do you think about innovative technology and software in the bar industry? Do you use any yourself?

“Of course!” Ryan believes innovation is crucial across all aspects of the industry and that technology is allowing us to make massive amounts of progress.

“Some sides of our work are sexier than others, but if there’s some amazing new development that helps us manage our bar or clean the bathrooms better, or reduce waste or carry cases of beer up stairs, then that’s just as important as a new gin!”

Like Ryan, we believe great technology is paving the way for industry innovation. Great tech can save you money and provide you with more time to spend on the important things.


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