When you're out for a night of gin fizzes and tequila sunrises (don't pretend you haven't been there), it's unlikely you'll be giving much thought to the bartender slaving over your sugar-infused creations. Unless he or she is cute, of course. And after three of those sunrises, they're probably on their way there.
But if you have a cocktail made for you by Ryan Chetiyawardana a.k.a. Mr Lyan, you'd do well to pay attention. Not because of his perfect, white-toothed grin, but because he's one of the greatest bartenders alive in the world at the moment. Seriously. This year he was named Best International Bartender at the Tales of the Cocktail Awards, and that's just the latest in a string of accolades he began collecting six years ago as a student in Edinburgh.
"I was studying biology and working at a bar called Bramble," Chetiyawardana remembers. "And I started to enter small competitions to stretch myself. They were like being given an art brief. You'd get a concept and then you could make whatever you wanted to express that idea. I really took to it."
Combining artistic thinking with scientific application, he became the Diageo Reserve World Class UK Bartender winner while studying for his Masters in 2009.
"I was travelling to London every other weekend, I was working full time, and I was studying full time," he says. "But I already knew that bartending was going to be my thing."
Having spent several years studying first art, then biology, and then gaining an MA in philosophy, his decision to serve behind the bar didn't bring an end to his studiousness.
"I read journals and research and bring the science of natural things—like plants, herbs, and minerals—to the drinks I make, and then I think laterally about how I could use them," says Chetiyawardana. "For a while, I worked together with a Harvard professor on the idea of the tertiary flavours that microbes create and all the inherent chaos surrounding this."
I'm surprised. This sounds very academically involved for something I thought was as simple as booze, mixer, ice.
"I was playing with fermentations in drinks and decided that I wanted to try to make a gin fizz the way you make Champagne," he explains. "I mixed gin, lemon, sugar, and water together and fermented it with yeast to create flavour and bubbles. It exploded."
Voila, the inherent chaos which surrounds the tertiary flavours that microbes create. Or something. Either way, Chetiyawardana got it right eventually.
"It was worth the effort," he says. "It's a pretty spectacular drink."
Listening to Chetiyawardana reminds me of being a kid, mixing perfume samples with rose petals I'd stolen from the next door garden to see what would happen. Only where I managed a brown sludge, he's made a very successful livelihood. And he thinks we should all have a go at home.
"More and more people are cooking exciting and interesting things and having a go with food in their kitchen because we've had this rise in beautiful cookbooks by chefs and good restaurants," he says. "I want it to be the same for drinks."
Preferably without all the explosions Chetiyawardana experienced as he went along.
"I don't want to be responsible for anyone's house fire, that's true," he adds. "Though when I started, I was experimenting in the kitchen of my student flat and built a still to operate at high pressure. My then-girlfriend affectionately dubbed it the 'Kaboom Still' because it was always threatening to explode."
But Chetiyawardana's recently released book Good Things To Drink with Mr Lyan and Friends plays it largely safe: all the classic serves, alongside some more unusual drinks. Like the Nuked Negroni, which is made in part using the humble microwave.
Who knew? But then, perhaps this is where the genius comes in—the ideas Chetiyawardana puts into action that no one else would even consider trying. Soil in a cocktail, for example. He actually managed to make this not gross.
"I was collaborating with Chase vodka who make their spirit from potatoes and I wondered how I could reflect some of that earthiness in the drink," he explains. "Without it tasting horrible, obviously."
Chetiyawardana's solution was to distil soil from the Chase farm so that it wasn't harmful, before adding it to the drink.
"You have to be careful because there's loads of weird stuff in soil," he laughs. "But it really worked."
I'm not so sure but you can't flaw the application of Chetiyawardana knowledge to the task literally about to be in your hand, or his willingness to play around and see what happens.
"New technology to innovate with is always good for us bartenders with our short attention spans," he says.
Though he's come a long way from messing around in his kitchen, with two bars to his name—White Lyan and Dandelyan—both in the "50 best" in the world, Chetiyawardana is still trying new things. For London Cocktail Week, for example, he managed to carbonate an Old Fashioned using a SodaStream.
"With the levels of sugar and alcohol in it, it shouldn't be possible but we made it like cola," he explains. "Then we had to adjust the recipe because the amount of booze was too much with all the bubbles."
Still, aren't all these clever drink combos really just science, hiding behind the glamour of orange zest, paper umbrellas, and cherries on sticks?
"I don't really see what I do as a science," Chetiyawardana says. "It's much more like art, you're playing with different materials to see what might work. I prefer to call myself a bartender rather than a mixologist because we do more than just measuring and mixing ingredients together."
"You have to use your intuition," he says. "You want someone to enjoy themselves as soon as they walk into your bar and that's a bartender's job. I ask as few questions as possible to find out what people are looking for and what they might enjoy, and then give them a good drinking experience."
Several cocktails in, I can report that I definitely had a good drinking experience. As to whether it the science, the art, the psychology, the intuition, Chetiyawardana's perfect smile, or sheer intoxication that made it so, I'm afraid I wasn't sober enough to comment.
Clearly there's more to cocktails than being shaken or stirred. And like I said, you do well to pay attention.