Two internationally award-wining bars, five bottled cocktails which launched in the windows of Selfridges on Oxford Street and now a beautiful drinks book. If you haven’t heard the name Mr Lyan before, now would be a good time to get acquainted.
However, before we talk big names, plaudits, menus and bars, before we get into the nitty gritty of this incredible brand, before we answer who is Mr Lyan, there’s one thing that must be noted. Which is; in London there are two great drinking experiences.
The first is the comfort cocktail, the evening out in a neighbourhood-styled bar where the classically-inspired drinks are excellent and the vibe is relaxed.
The second is altogether more rare. It’s a drinking experience which challenges your every perception on liquid. It’s an evening which you can only ever get in a thriving, cosmopolitan city where people want to be pushed forward, want to discover new gastronomic ways and methods. Ultimately it’s a cocktail which starts a conversation.
Which is Mr Lyan? He’s the latter of course, the name which starts a conversation.
So, let’s talk.
Introducing Mr Lyan
Even on this rather drizzly Monday afternoon the view across the Thames from the Mondrian’s chief bar Dandelyan is rather special. Any view with St Pauls looming in the background is always worth pausing for. No time to pause today though because we’re late, late for an interview which will take us from the South Bank to Hoxton, covering bottles, books, liquids and menus along the way.
So late that there’s no time to even take in the splendid design of the bar – its eye-catching pink booth seating, its deep green marble bar top, its floor to ceiling windows looking out across the water or its shinning golden fixtures. No time because already reclining into two of the bar’s plush armchairs is the duo at the heart of Mr Lyan - Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths – and they’re waiting for us.
Photo credit: Dan Bartley
They couldn’t look more different if they had purposely coordinated it. There’s no mixing these two up. Ryan, as the face of the brand, is affable, always sporting a happy mix of smart and casual attire. Iain on the other hand, heading up the operations side of the business, has a bit more edge and is more casual. Together they make up the most innovative team the international drinks world has seen.
The first step: White Lyan
White Lyan is a bar unlike any other. There’s no ice, no citrus, no back bar. There’s no shaking, no stirring. Instead there’s a large row of fridges, full with bottles containing colourful liquids. Science reigns supreme. Order a drink and a glass will be placed on a small black scale. One of the many intriguing bottles will come out of the fridge, be opened up, and its contents carefully administered into the glass until the correct weight flashes up. You’ll get no more, no less. Job done. Who needs a garnish anyway?
Time Out summed it up perfectly when they said “comparing White Lyan to your local boozer is like comparing Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck to a greasy spoon.”
“We wanted to start a conversation,” says Ryan. “And today we’re still doing that. We want to stimulate the industry and encourage consumers to get excited about cocktails. White Lyan is a discussion about how you put everything together in a cocktail...It’s never been about being pretentious. The service should immediately disarm those worries and remove any pomposity.”
Just because the process of getting a cocktail into your glass has been stream-lined it would be wrong to assume the element of creativity has been cut. Each drink is still a flavour explosion of carefully considered elements. As a drinks writer with a decent experience of trying cocktails, it is an honest truth to say some of the most delicious drinks I have ever tasted have been at White Lyan. There’s a considered nature to them, an exact harmony.
Have things changed here since 2013? Absolutely. One of the major changes has been Robin Honhold taking charge of the venue and running it day to day. As he’ll be happy to hear, Iain and Ryan can’t stop singing his praises. It’s easy to see why after sampling a selection of his drinks including a sparkling wine made from lemons. To borrow Iain’s words, he’s hitting it out of the park.
Photo credit: Niall Webster
“I accidentally opened up the first White Lyan menu on my computer the other day,” says Iain, “and it is so different to our present one, we now have a different bar. We do things now we were once adamantly against or couldn’t do, like fermentation. We thought we’d never be able to do it consistently but Robin chipped away at it and now the team ferment 100 litres per week of up to four different ingredients.”
Of course White Lyan isn’t for everyone. It’s just so different. “Awards are not the be all and end all but we approach things so differently that we’re not everyone’s cup of tea,” says Ryan. “Staff still sit at other bars and are told they don’t work in a real cocktail bar. The awards we win bring that extra thank you to the staff.”
Those awards he’s talking about are pretty big ones at that. White Lyan won Best New Bar In The World at Tales of the Cocktail in 2014 and was in the top four for Best Bar In The World this year. At the same ceremony Dandelyan picked up White Lyan’s old award, Best New Bar In The World, 2015.
“We only do what we love. Being recognised by our peers is awesome,” says Ryan.
Selling to the public: Bottled Cocktails
From the success of White Lyan came bottled cocktails. It looks so simple at the bar, that big fridge full of delicious drinks that just need to be decanted – why not buy a bottle and take it home? Unfortunately it’s wasn’t so easy.
“People were coming in and saying they want to have it at home. The problem is White Lyan is like a professional kitchen,” says Iain.
The question posed was how to translate the bar into a home environment. Once the drinks are out there nothing can be altered, no tinkering allowed. Then there was the problem that most of us don’t have shakers to dilute and chill things, nor fridges quite like a professional. Some of us don’t even have ice at home. But thanks to some hard work on their part, five bottled cocktails were put to market which you treat like a white wine, chilling them down and pouring them out.
“We’re lucky Mr Lyan is a young mobile brand and we can be reactionary. Being first to market and being the best on the market was important when it came to bottled drinks. Dawn Davies, the spirits buyer at Selfridges, was a huge advocate and we can’t thank her enough for the corner window at the store,” says Iain.
Growing up: Dandelyan
“White Lyan is the sort of bar where the concept slaps you in the face pretty hard,” says Iain. “People can be sceptical but they don’t actually want you to fail. Even if they don’t get it. White Lyan you either buy in to it immediately or not. Here it’s about getting return cliental. A lot of people thought we would just bring White Lyan here. But we can do different things.”
If White Lyan is a conversation about how cocktails are assembled then Dandelyan is one about the hotel bar as we know it today and how these opulent venues can be creative.
“We’ve gone from the ghetto end of east London to the opulence of Dandelyan with chairs that probably cost more than all of White Lyan,” laughs Iain.
Dandelyan’s concept sits within the broad stroke of botany. The second menu, launched relatively recently focuses on trees. While White Lyan’s construction of drinks is completely novel, Dandelyan has a usual bar set up – there’s ice and freshly squeezed citrus. You’ll have to wait those ten minutes for a Martini now. But the drinks are just as creative and there is still Mr Lyan’s attentive hand throughout the menu.
“Trees are about interconnectivity,” explains Ryan. “We wanted to look at keystone ingredients which enable an environment to exist and support other life. They allow the interconnectivity of an area and it’s this we wanted to source ingredients from. It’s what they support and create.”
It’s an easy enough concept to get your head around once you’ve taken a look at a particular section. From pine, for example, the menu makes use of saps and resins from pine trees. And the menu is designed in such a way that even if you read the ingredients and think ‘what the hell is cedar sap’ you can understand what type of drink you’ll be getting.
“We put the price in because that whole notion in hotels of ‘if you have to ask how much it is then you can’t afford it’ is not what we’re about. We’re chipping away at the classic London hotel bar.”
Putting pen to paper: Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends
From bars and bottles Mr Lyan has now turned his attention to a first book, coming out October 1st.
The business, and to that extent the book, is really all about getting people excited about drinking better. Getting people to have a better gin and tonic at home and lift those experiences.
“Food and drink bring people together, but at the end of the day it’s actually always about people. Give a shit about the drink really, that just elevates the experience,” says Ryan.
He’s completely right of course. Ask someone their best meal and it’s always about the context, the people they shared it with, and then the food they ate. Drinks don’t usually make something special themselves.
Readers of Good Things to Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends will discover plentiful innovative and exciting cocktails which can be made at home. The beautiful book charts through every type of drink; refreshing tipples to winter warmers with plenty of Mr Lyan-style intriguing combinations.
The next step: Mr Lyan’s secretive future
“We always do things in secret. It’s the element of fear – there are things outside of our control, even launches depend on other people. It’s never just us,” says Iain.
Luckily for London it doesn’t sound like Mr Lyan will be leaving our shores imminently. As the pair say, the concept wouldn’t have worked anywhere else. “White Lyan was meant to get people excited about cocktails but it had to be launched in the creative east end. London allows you to push yourself. Multiculturalism is the makeup of British society, and diversity is part of the set up. I hope it never loses that,” says Iain.
“But what’s the next step?”
“You missed the part where we said we did everything in secret yes?”
“Just a hint?”
“We are always looking at the horizon and will do projects better than anyone else. We do need to treat alcohol the right way but we don’t need to demonise it. Drinkers should have an adult relationship with cocktails. Our end game is to transcend from bars into the home. Drink better.”
Catch Mr Lyan at London Cocktail Week
At the epicentre of the London Cocktail Week Village will be the innovative SodaStream MIX bar. This futuristic pop-up bar from renowned designer Yves Behar will be home to the SodaStream machine which can carbonate anything, from neat whisky to a cocktail, intuitively judging the effervescence on the drink's ingredients. And to make matters more exciting SodaStream has teamed up with the dynamic Mr Lyan team to serve their drinks all week long - but fizzy.
"The Mr Lyan team, in collaboration with SodaStream, have been working on some super exciting cocktails - both alcoholic and non - that carry the signature Mr Lyan magic with the extra addition of fine bubbles. Giving a lift to richer flavours and carry delicate notes across the palate through carbonation, the partnership has allowed us to create unique and vibrant combinations," says Ryan