Bet you never thought of tossing a little tincture of chicken bone into your evening martini, did you?
Well, Ryan Chetiyawardana thought about it. Did it. And ended up with a wildly popular bar in London and a loud shout-out in a recent Wall Street Journal article. All after just a few months in business.(Photo by Hg2 Magazine.)
The story of Chetiyawardana’s White Lyan is as much about what’s not in the bar as what is there. There is no back bar with recognizable labels, no lemons or limes, no perishable cream or eggs, no olives, no ice. What’s there is an array of bottled cocktails, lots of them, hi-balls, classics, shots, and esoteric “signature” drinks, all precisely mixed earlier in the day, decanted into branded White Lyan bottles, and stored at the optimal chill in large glass refrigerators that glow futuristically behind the bar.
Bottled cocktails have been “catching on steadily in recent years across the bartending universe,” says WSJ reporter Jay Cheshes. In addition to the obvious advantages for customers --- no waiting while the bartender shakes the drinks of the group that arrived before you --- there’s also the issue of quality control for the owners and the tantalizing possibilities of mass-marketing quality drinks for home use.
On a recent visit to London I got to see Chetiyawardana –-- let’s call him Ryan, shall we --- in action behind the bar at White Lyan in London’s Hoxton neighborhood. (“When I was young, some of my friends called me Lyan instead of Ryan,” he explained with a laugh.)
When the evening’s first guest ordered a Moby Dick Sazerac, Ryan spritzed a sliver of rice paper with absinthe, then set it afloat in the cocktail he poured from a one-serving bottle. Next-up: an Old-Fashioned that he poured into the “right” glass, then floated a soupcon of honey poured from a bottle lined with organic beeswax. Ryan's sister (and business partner), Natasha, came next, opting for an East End Rickey of gin and "bitter English soda."
The handsome, well-spoken Ryan, a two-time “UK Bartender of the Year," brings an artist’s flair and a scientist’s discipline to crafting cocktails. He buys spirits directly from distillers and makes his own base alcohols (gin, rye, whisky, rum, etc.), cordials and bitters; filters the bar’s water, adding just the right mineral mix; freezes some glasses, refrigerates others; all with perfection in mind.
His Bone Dry Martini features a tincture made from chicken bones that are roasted and dissolved in phosphoric acid; the Sazerac (below, in photo by AnotherMag.com) contains a splash of ambergris, the whale secretion that’s used in perfume manufacture. The Monkey Ball involves scotch, chocolate, a tincture of black truffle, banana distillate and banana liqueur.
Even the minimalist martini is a production: “There’s a textural aspect,” says Ryan. “A gin martini is about aromatics, channeling aromas, soft on the palate; while the vodka martini is about being clean, flinty, a crystallized moment.”
So, the big question. Why?
It’s all about control --- “Total control, about taking the time beforehand to make the best drink we can, something we’re 100 percent happy with.”
It’s about timing –-- “We can serve a lot of people in perfect synchronization…and our bartenders get more time to chat with guests.”
It’s about changing the customer experience --- “We try to fit the cocktail to the need, to get (customers) out of their comfort zones and understand their own palates better.”
I wasn’t sure what my “need” was on the frigid, rainy night I arrived at White Lyan (Photo from Xing blog.) Did I want something “restorative,” something to “pick me up?” Ryan coached. When I offered that my ideal cocktail wakes up my palate and makes me hungry for dinner, Ryan immediately suggested a Negroni, my favorite cocktail. Out came the chilled glass, which he spritzed with orange distillate. He then lit a match and dropped it into the glass, covering it with another glass until the flame went out. With the match removed, he poured in the bottled mix of White Lyan gin, sweet vermouth, bitters, and layered zests. The concoction was aromatic, rich, spicy, with a bright citrus note on top. As we chatted, the flavors warmed and intensified.
White Lyan is not the place for folks with a Burger King mentality. Ryan is proud of the fact that his is the only bar in London with a “House-Drinks-Only” policy. Teeter in here after a tough day dreaming about a Jack and Coke and you might as well teeter right out again.
The menu offers about two-dozen drinks, plus a white, red and rose wine, all from France, all without labels. There’s also a Czech Craft Lager beer. The menu suggests asking for “hop atomization” if you prefer a pale ale, meaning a spritz of a distillate that will tweak the beer’s flavor profile. Wines can also be tweaked. The red wine is descibed as “Rich and fruity; Ask for spice distillate if you prefer a little extra depth.”
Though the pop-and-pour idea seems to have first percolated in London, it’s now a force in U.S. bars including Empellon Taqueria in New York City (photo, above, by Wall Street Journal) and Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon where many cocktails are first aged in whisky barrels to imbue them with the character of the wood, then bottled for convenience and consistent carbonation, and served the same week they are made.
One last word. Ice. Americans love ice in their drinks. Lots of ice. We tsk-tsk when European bartenders drop one measly cube in our vodka-tonics. We get exasperated when our request for “more ice” brings another measly cube.
But much of what Chetiyawardana said made sense to me. #1 Ice is not always consistent in terms of water source, shape, or condition. #2 Ice machines are not always as clean as they should be. #3 Ice dilutes the flavor of a drink.
That said, old habits die hard. Though I'm already longing for my next White Lyan negroni, for now, Bartender, one Tanqueray and tonic, please. With lime. On the rocks.