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Meet the cocktail king: How Mr Lyan changed London’s drinking culture for the better

 (Courtesy or Mr Lyan Studio)
(Courtesy or Mr Lyan Studio)

Every so often a person arrives who does more to change the landscape of London than most MPs, and Ryan Chetiyawardana is one of them.

Otherwise known as Mr Lyan, he’s what you might call a disruptor. You see, Chetiyawardana is the brains behind White Lyan, a bar that still looms large over the capital’s hospitality scene despite the fact it closed in 2017. A cocktail enthusiast’s equivalent of the 1966 World Cup — even those who hadn’t seen it speak about it in awe. Though you might recognise him for his other exploits because since then he’s gone on to open Dandelyan, Cub, Lyaness and Seed Library here, as well as Silver Lyan in Washington, DC, and Super Lyan in Amsterdam. Plus, he’s behind countless pop-ups, a masterclass series, two books and regularly collaborates with brands via Mr Lyan Studio.

The man himself (Courtesy or Mr Lyan Studio)
The man himself (Courtesy or Mr Lyan Studio)

It all began when Chetiyawardana, who had trained as a chef then studied fine art, biology and philosophy, found himself enthralled in the job he began doing to pay his way through university. ‘It became such a clear focus for me. I didn’t realise it was going to be a full-time career, but it was like, oh,I like [bartending] from a scientific perspective, I like it from an art perspec-tive. It just felt like the right fit for all of those things.’

After winning awards including UK Bartender of the Year and moving to London to work in bars after graduation, the concept for White Lyan followed naturally. Concocted with his sister, Natasha, and friend, stylist Karen Langley, it was born out of frustration. ‘We had been speaking for a while about what we wanted to see done differently in the cocktail world... They were like, “Why do we have to sit down and listen to jazz?” The classic cocktail bar thing was great, but there was no diversity. I remember going into a bar with Natasha and she ordered a Manhattan and she was told she couldn’t have it because she was a girl.’ For Chetiyawardana, being a mixologist was about something else entirely. ‘I just remember being like, where the f*** have we got to? I used to watch a couple on a date at the bar and they’d get lectured on the history of this cocktail and where it came from. The cocktail was on a pedestal. It’s nothing to do with what this industry is meant to be. It’s meant to be about bringing people together.’

What the trio came up with was radically different, with a focus on human interaction, fun and sustainability. Serving techy bottled cocktails, pre-made before service in their professional kitchen without ice or perishable ingredients, conversation with customers was pushed to the front of the agenda, while the bar was creating less than one bag of waste per week. Rather than reinventing old cocktails, the team worked backwards from broad concepts, creating new drinks entirely.And despite an initial frosty reaction from peers (‘They thought we were doing it as a f*** you’), it was a roaring success, with Björk DJing their first birthday party and Beyoncé and Jay Z stopping by.

The OG: White Lyan (Mr Lyan Studio)
The OG: White Lyan (Mr Lyan Studio)

Dandelyan followed, a hotel bar with a wild soundtrack (think Black Sabbath) and the aim of using a much broader range of ingredients, winning the top spot in The World’s 50 Best Bars in 2018. Then came Cub, a Covid casualty created to think about sustainability ‘upstream from us’, replacing White Lyan once Chetiyawardana believed it had ‘served its purpose.’ Lyaness then replaced Dandelyan to make the ‘weird ingredients more relatable’, and Seed Library arrived as a reaction to the pandemic, ‘for something that felt more community based’.

Seed Library (Mr Lyan Studio)
Seed Library (Mr Lyan Studio)

Ten years on from the birth of White Lyan, Chetiyawardana is worried about the effects of Brexit on the city’s diversity and creativity (‘I really worry whether London will ever take the title of World’s Best Bar, or World’s Best Restaurant again’), though for now he is focusing on resurrecting all of his bars within suites at the Sea Containers hotel to mark the milestone. From 10 to 13 October, Chetiyawardana’s community is reuniting to serve what has made and continues to make each bar unique — including, crucially, the cocktails.

‘We’re going to get people together and reflect on the fact that we set out with no clue what we were doing. I think it’s going to be a very lovely moment.’ We’ll raise a glass to that.

Mr Lyan’s celebrations at Sea Containers hotel run from 10 - 13 October. Tickets available at lyaness.com