No one knows a bar better than the people behind it. For “My Bar in 3 Drinks,” the people running the best bars around make and discuss three of their bar’s most representative cocktails.
Ryan Chetiyawardana, also known as Mr. Lyan, is the driving force behind some of the world’s top bars: Super Lyan and Lyaness, as well as the now-shuttered Dandelyan (named the World’s Best Bar in 2018), White Lyan, and Cub.
Chetiyawardana’s first stateside bar, Silver Lyan, opened in the Riggs Hotel in Washington, DC, in February 2020, and then promptly closed a few short weeks later as the pandemic raged. Even so, it gained sufficient recognition during its three-week lifespan to earn accolades including Best New American Cocktail Bar at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
Now, finally, it’s back, having reopened in mid-July 2021. In the meantime, the hotel in which it's located, a former bank, has won distinctions such as being included on Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List. The bar, housed in its former vault, is certainly worthy of such praise itself, all sumptuous deep woods and jewel-toned velvet. Chetiyawardana describes it as “very warm, but also with a sense of naughtiness to it. It's fun while being grand.” Playful, movement-based surprises have been incorporated into the decor—and also the menu, and even the drinks themselves.
DC may seem an unlikely choice for his first bar in the U.S.; Chetiyawardana seems as surprised as anyone. “It totally blew my expectations out,” he says. “It’s super-green; it’s really vibrant. There was this instant draw where I felt really at home very quickly. And because it was unexpected, it felt extra-special.” His love of capital cities also played a part. “A capital’s about lifting things for everyone,” he says. “It’s about thinking wide, and I love that. I find it really inspirational.”
Washington, DC, in particular, embodies the notion of cultural exchange, of goods and ideas from a multitude of sources flowing through one place. “It’s a nation that has been built on immigration and change and dynamic movement; that’s what the country’s about,” says Chetiyawardana. His team looked to some of those stories, concepts, and moments in history to bring to life through cocktails. “But some of it’s just straight flavor,” he adds. “The way those ingredients landed here and changed, or were part of the landscape. Talking with farmers here who know best how to reflect their area, and trying things that are from it, was a nice layer to be able to fold into the drinks on the menu.”
These are the three drinks Chetiyawardana feels best represent Silver Lyan.
1. Japanese Saddle
Sakura sour, Roku gin, Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, “turbo citrus,” leather bitters, cereal orgeat
This drink, in particular, speaks to Chetiyawardana’s interest in cultural exchange. “It’s quite fun on a number of levels,” he says. It’s a nod to the Japanese Cocktail, the Jerry Thomas-era mix of cognac, orgeat, and bitters. His version adds gin—a Japanese one, Roku, lending floral notes—plus a touch of lemon, a result of a mistranslation of sorts of the recipe by a member of the bar group, which the team ended up preferring to the original version.
Every American school child has heard about the famed gift of cherry trees from Japan, which now play a large role in Washington, DC’s culture, too; the drink nods to that with the use of a sakura acidulant cordial. But another diplomatic gift from the country is less well-known: a saddle referred to as the Japanese Saddle. “It’s stunning,” says Chetiyawardana. “It’s using all of the skill of Japanese craft in the leatherworking and stitching. They were thinking about what Americans would want and were like, ‘They’re all cowboys; obviously they need a saddle!’ which is just wonderful and hilarious. But you end up with this absolutely stunning piece.” It shows up in the cocktail in the form of a leather distillate blended with orange and Angostura bitters.
The trade between the countries wasn’t unilateral, however. The U.S. sent over grains such as rye and barley, seen in this drink as an orgeat made from local barley and rye, lending a unique nuttiness and slight grassiness.
The resulting cocktail is a “really nice snappy aperitif,” says Chetiyawardana. “It’s easy, it’s approachable, but there’s a lot that goes on as well.”
2. Project Apollo
“Moon rock” gin, Hendrick’s gin, ironwort, sour pineapple, raspberry dust
“I think the space missions are incredible gifts to the world,” says Chetiyawardana. This cocktail is reminiscent of a Clover Club but offers many more layers of flavor while referencing the Apollo missions in a number of ways.
First, the pineapple component. “Obviously, it’s a very grueling thing to go to space,” says Chetiyawardana. “And the astronauts came back obviously amazed and very proud of what they’d achieved, but it was hard on them. And one of the things they realized was that it was because the food sucked.” On the Apollo missions, NASA began sending up pineapple fruitcake for the astronauts to enjoy while in orbit. “It was this amazing way of reminding them of home, yet feeling complex and vibrant,” he says.
The raspberry element alludes to ethyl formate, which provides raspberries with their flavor and has been identified in the Milky Way. “Our galaxy smells like raspberries, which is just super fun” says Chetiyawardana. “It reflects the magic and wonder of space.” Raspberry dust is sprinkled atop the cocktail in the shape of a crescent moon.
The ironwort, incorporated into the drink in the form of a cordial, is a nod to the missions’ name, borrowed from one of the gods of Mount Olympus. Ironwort is often used in Greece as a tea. “It’s the herb of the gods,” says Chetiyawardana. “It’s a member of the sage family, so it has quite a spicy green profile to it,” he says. “It underpins the drink in a really nice way.”
Two styles of gin are used in the drink. One is Hendrick’s, contributing its pronounced green notes and florality. The other is what the menu calls “moon rock” gin: Beefeater infused with, well, not quite rocks from the moon, but as close as the team could get. The intention was, says Chetiyawardana, “mimicking the original moon rocks that came back from the Apollo missions.” To accomplish this, the team combined various salts and minerals that approximate the composition of the rocks brought back from the moon (“There’s open data you can access on the things they found,” he says), blending them into a tincture and incorporating it into the gin. It’s a clever idea, but not a gimmick: Minerality, and its textural effects and substrata flavors, is something he loves playing with in his cocktails. “You get a really punchy note of that juniper along with this great clean minerality,” he says. “It balances out the drink in a really different way.”
It’s one of four cocktails the bar offers in a “boozeless” version as well as the standard one. “It still keeps the same profile of the drink, and works in exactly the same way, but it ends up having a slightly different green profile,” says Chetiyawardana, because Seedlip Garden is used in place of a gin. “It’s very much its own drink, as well.”
3. Season’s Sazerac
Solera fruit Pierre Ferrand cognac, Michter’s rye, Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe “crop circle”
The ingredients—a 50-50 mix of cognac and rye, plus absinthe and Peychaud’s—may seem standard, but this is no ordinary Sazerac. The first cue is visual: The absinthe, rather than the usual rinse, is employed as a gel painted on the inside of the glass—a “crop circle,” as Chetiyawardana calls it. It’s a deliberate choice, as was the use of a coupe rather than a rocks glass, to allow the drinker to experience the cocktail’s flavors in a specific way. “It changes the journey, the way you sip through it,” he says. “It gives a slightly different arc to the cocktail.”
And those flavors are themselves unusual. The cognac gets infused with a seasonally rotating selection of produce chosen by working with local farmers to pick out what they feel best represents the seasons and their land, regardless of whether it’s conventionally thought of as cocktail ingredients. “We’ll champion the farmer we’re working with at that particular time, and why they love what it’s representing,” says Chetiyawardana. At the moment, it’s peas, fig leaves, blackberries, and strawberries. “We’re really keen to embrace that, to develop these bonds with the farmers,” he says. “That’s going to be the fun bit as we go forward, working with what these farmers want to champion. What are they really proud of that we can use to help tell their story?
“It sums up the idea of movement,” says Chetiyawardana. “It’s not a static drink. It’s going to continue to evolve.” It’s a bit daunting for the team, he says, because they like to dial in the drinks to a specific flavor; doing that with flavors that will change every few months is an entirely different way of doing things.
It’s not simply a matter of throwing the ingredients into the spirit and calling it good, either. The team will always think about how to bring the best out of a given ingredient; for instance, slowly dehydrating the strawberries used to concentrate their flavor. “All of those different points blend and overlap,” says Chetiyawardana. “You can’t fix yourself to one point, and I think that’s really interesting. It’s a beautiful thing for the drink.” As with the solera system for sherry, a bit will always be reserved and added to future seasons. “We’ll let that flow and cross over and harmonize as it goes through,” he says.
“There will always be an echo of the previous seasons,” says Chetiyawardana. “You’re building on that journey, and that’s really lovely.”