Ryan Chetiyawardana is one of the world’s most celebrated bartenders. But like most everyone else, none of the awards or accolades—including Best Bar in the World (The World’s 50 Best Bars, 2018) and International Bartender of Year (Tales of the Cocktail, 2015), among at least a dozen more—mattered when there was a pandemic swirling around the globe.
Chetiyawardana, born to Sri Lankan immigrants and raised in Birmingham, England, opened his first U.S. bar in February 2020. The space, on the lowest level of a historic bank-turned-glam hotel, Riggs Washington DC, is dark and sexy with deep-red booths and bare concrete walls. But it’s also cheeky. Sip a cocktail surrounded by glass cabinets filled with vintage sports trophies.
Of course, Silver Lyan was forced to close less than six weeks after its debut. It reopened this July, showing off Chetiyawardana’s deep R&D, like a cocktail that matches the salinity of moon rocks recorded during the Apollo landing. That’s classic Chetiyawardana. He uses beeswax to alter the texture of cocktails. He reversed engineered a grape-less wine.
If you haven’t been to Silver Lyan, or his other bars scattered across Europe, you might have taken his Masterclass, which launched in March 2020, just when the world needed his knowledge most.
When air travel resumed this fall, we chatted with Chetiyawardana in Silver Lyan about how the drink world evolved during the last two years of uncertainty and bated hope.
Silver Lyan’s menu was built on the historical idea of cultural exchange. You focused on moments in time, between countries, the physical land and even the moon. After a tumultuous two years, where a lot of the world was kept inside or was limited in movement, what does the next wave of cultural exchange look like?
This is the beauty that we all observed. The world doesn’t stop turning even when everything else stops. You hear about adaptations, different ways of getting ingredients, or celebrating things that were local in a new way. Everybody started to reevaluate the importance of being together, and travel, and just being able to hug somebody.
Even though it was a period of pause, so much has happened amongst us. We’re in menu development at [Silver Lyan] at the moment. It’s really interesting to reflect on the way that it’s changed people—and make that feel positive.
Has the “global pause” changed drinking culture?
I think it has. I think it has accelerated certain things. People have started to realize the importance of the environment and that’s really come down to the every person. I think the majority of people cared about it, but I don’t think they were that immediately affected. Even down to the simple things like getting things ordered in and you’re like: “There’s so much packaging.”
We were all in our houses. It was crazy—serendipitous—with the timing of the launch of my Masterclass [cocktail] series. Everybody was like, “This is amazing. I can learn how to make drinks at home.” But with that, they went, “Oh my god. I miss bars. I miss restaurants.” It’s not just about what I can put in the glass. I miss these parts of my community, I miss these places in which we gathered and that’s going to change the way people drink.
On the whole, people were impacted by the environmental and social impacts of what they buy and consume. They started to think of the locality and the providence of their ingredients in a different way and they started to think about what does that mean to them. Why do I want to drink these things and with whom?
Was there a drink of the pandemic?
I know a lot of people who previously wouldn’t, but they drank a lot of Champagne. Which I think is wonderful because Champagne is one of these products where people go, “I just drink it for celebrations.” And then, they kind of said, “Well, why not?!”
Now that we’re more than a couple decades from the beginning of the modern cocktail revival, how would you define the current cocktail world and how does it reflect our times?
There’s more of a consideration than ever for the ingredients. That’s changed in our food as well as our drink. People want to know where something came from. That’s created a change in terms of the profile and the drinks that we make. Before, you would drink something because it reflected your personality or what your parents drank or a spirit that was local to you. You would fall into habit and I think people have started to broaden their horizons more.
The diversity of it has been a reflection of the modern era of the cocktail, as well. We’re not just saying, “I’m going to have this particular drink.” But, now, I’m going to think: What am I going to drink when I’m with these people and in this context and in this place.
When I was in South Africa—there’s a whole different plant biome down there—and you’re trying things and you’re like, “Okay, cool. This is a local vermouth that you make but this isn’t flavors that I know.” And that’s fascinating, but what does it mean as those things travel and hit your bars in DC or London and create new sets of flavors?
It’s New Year’s Eve at 11:59 pm. What are you wearing, what are you listening to, what are you drinking and where would you like to be?
I will be in Lyaness [his bar in London], probably with some Champagne. I really like Handberry Brothers and Rudd Grand Cru. We’ve got the team together. As the bells come in, we have a de facto Lyaness song, which is Jump in the Line by Harry Belafonte. I’ll smooch my girlfriend. Dance around with everybody. I’ve only ever worked New Year’s. It’s always about being in the bar. I might wear light-up trainers this year. I like my loud shoes.