AFAR asked renowned mixologist Jim Meehan of New York City’s PDT whose drinks had impressed him lately. His answer: Ryan Chetiyawardana, the man behind such boundary-pushing London bars as Worship Street Whistling Shop and the new tequila spot Death by Burrito. Here the two talk technology, biology, and why people like blue cocktails.
Jim: In the 1990s, people bartended to get through times when their art wasn’t selling or their band wasn’t playing. When I started in 1995, I approached it like a profession. Part of my decision to become a bartender was my inability to ace organic chemistry. I had wanted to be a doctor.
Ryan: My dad is a cancer specialist and my mom is a florist and a pastry chef. I was always trying to forge a path between the arts and the sciences. The bar world lent itself to that.
Jim: What struck me about your drinks is that there is quite a bit of show with the ingredients, and you have little rituals, like serving a glass on a special plate.
Ryan: When I moved to London to study fine art, my focus behind the bar shifted from putting flavors together to trying to convey a concept or a feeling in a drink. I was experimenting with the flavor experiences and provoking the senses through a cocktail.
Jim: Visiting Worship Street Whistling Shop is like going to the Bat Cave. You have rotovaps [rotary evaporators used to create infusions], carbonators, barrel aging, and so many other tools and forms of technology that let you affect ingredients. You can even distill your own spirits. Is technology part of what makes London’s bar scene so vibrant?
Ryan: We’re fortunate in how much we can affect ingredients. I have friends in Italy who get in trouble for putting a piece of lemon peel in vodka. A lot of what I do comes back to classic bartending. What I did at Worship Street Whistling Shop wasn’t about scientific drinks. It was about using the tools available to create tasty drinks. In the last few years, many London chefs started using techy equipment in their cooking. It was good timing to try something similar in the bar.
Jim: Everything from the glass to the garnish to the ice is really well thought out with your drinks. They remind me of meals I’ve had at Alinea [in Chicago] and Atera [in New York]. They call that kind of food “tweezer cuisine” because the chefs are so precise they use medical tweezers. What restaurants have inspired you?
Ryan: I was in California and ate at the French Laundry. It was an experience to go around the gardens and analyze the farm-to-plate mentality from a three-Michelin-star perspective. My future bar projects are going to draw from the food of restaurants like London’s St. John, which is really rooted in a simple, historical style.
Jim: There’s a huge reason why blue cocktails sell well and why people order a Ramos Gin Fizz. We go out to be entertained and to be seen. Do you think we’ll continue to see more “Wow” cocktails?
Ryan: I do, especially because the cocktail world seems to be embracing the idea of collaboration. I think this will help evolve the bar experience. I’m trying to recruit a microbiologist to help me with what I call biological aging. I want to see if microbes can create specific flavor profiles and affect how things taste. It’s a nugget of an idea.
Photo illustration by Gluekit. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.