Ryan Chetiyawardana has been the toast of London’s cocktail scene since he opened his first bar, White Lyan, in 2013. He has racked up accolades—including World’s Best Bar for Dandelyan, recently reinvented as Lyaness—that cite his inventive drinks, home-grown botanicals, and spaces that generate little waste. His first U.S. offering, Silver Lyan, opens this February in the new Riggs Washington DC hotel. We asked him for the key to throwing a great cocktail party.
Help us set the scene. Where do you live now?
Ryan Chetiyawardana: I’m in East London. I live in a little house out here with two friends, Anette and Doug, and a cat named Batman. Annette is in the coffee world and owns a roastery. She’s like coffee royalty. Doug is a chef and a partner in Cub. Between us, there’s usually a bunch of experiments or unmarked things you kind of have to question [in the fridge]. We also have a ton of plants and a lot of booze.
I like having friends around. I used to be a chef and miss cooking for people. The chatting with people is what pushed me into the bartending side.
What does it typically look like when you have friends or family over?
I try to make it feel special, but at the same time, I don’t want it to be fussy. Ultimately, I want people around the table. I like to cook things that take effort ahead of time, and you put it down, and people can partake. My favorite thing to do is cook a pie and have lots of vegetables around.
I’ll do different drinks throughout the evening, but I’ll usually have a cocktail base and some champagne ready. It kind of varies on the season and what I’m serving, but usually I’ll do like a twist on a classic, like the French 75. Nobody turns up [to a party] at the same time, so have something bottled and chilled in the fridge. You literally pour something in the glass, top it with bubbles, and you have a drink.
What kinds of things should I consider when I’m deciding what cocktails to make for a home gathering?
It’s about the mood of the party and what you’re trying to bring to life. If you want something homely and comforting, you change the food, the music, and the table. You can find drinks that feel evocative of that, too. Who’s your audience? You think about the direction you want to take them in; that’s part of being a host.
Another aspect of hosting is displaying a bit of your own personality. You put forward the things you’re really fond of. If you come back from your travels with a spice you’re really interested in, for example, you can use that in a cocktail and put your own spin on it. On the other hand, if you serve a great wine at the right temperature, and time it right with the meal, that’s also a cocktail. The whole scenario is what you’re controlling. It’s not emulating what you see someone else do.
Tools or barware wise, what do you recommend splurging on?
A good knife, a wet stone, and some decent ice molds. To me, those are the most crucial things. Everything else you can get around, but a good knife makes all the difference—and bagged ice ruins the cocktail experience. In fact, the only thing in my freezer is ice cream and ice.
What about beverages for folks who don’t drink alcohol? How do you feel about the term "mocktail"?
We use "boozeless." I always make sure that we have some good, nonalcoholic options on hand. That’s where homemade cordials or kombuchas come in, or a good non-alcoholic wine. Basically, you treat it the same way you would a wine. They’re still complex and balanced, and let the non-drinkers cheers with you and feel part of that enjoyment of a dinner party.
Favorite snack and drink pairings?
The bubbles to begin with. Blue cheese and smoky whiskey. It’s the ultimate pairing, it’s so great. There’s a blue cheese stichelton. It’s got a good blue, tangy funk; you put a whiskey alongside it, and they just both sing. That’s a cocktail.
Can you talk about the concept behind Silver Lyan? Why did you pick D.C. as your first U.S. outpost?
We’ve always been attracted to, I suppose, the unusual. I had an expectation of Washington, D.C. being old-school and conservative, but it’s young and vibrant. There are some really exciting things happening there. It’s us, gone American, being totally inspired by that exchange.
What are the differences between U.S. and U.K. drinking culture?
For one, there’s more of a history with the cocktail in America. That’s a positive and a negative. People don’t see it as a treat. They see it as a part of their daily enjoyment. People have strong associations with it. We need to find interesting ways to get people to step out from that stuff. We can’t just take our approach that we’ve been doing [in Europe]; it’s a totally different way of drinking.