Every cocktail tells a story – and the drinks at Ryan Chetiyawardana’s bar, Dandelyan, on London’s South Bank all tell one with a botanical twist. Here the award-winning bartender explains how his fascination with plants finds its expression in drinks.
words by Johanna Derry
Just one look at Dandelyan’s beautifully illustrated menu tells you that this is a bar with a floral theme. Since it opened in 2014 at the Mondrian London hotel by the river Thames, every drink served at Dandelyan – and that’s around a thousand a night – has taken its inspiration from a botanical source.
That squarely reflects the interests of the bar’s founder, Ryan Chetiyawardana AKA Mr Lyan. ‘I thought that if we’re using fresh ingredients like fruit and flowers, then I want to find a way to take ownership of those ingredients, and that’s where the theme of modern botany came in,’ he explains. ‘It wasn’t that we were saying, “This is the best way to do it.” We were saying that this was our version by trying to understand how the plants we used grew and behaved, and showing that in our drinks.’
It’s a decision that has propelled Dandelyan onto the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, with a menu now in its third chapter.
‘The first one took months of research and was based on the classifications of botany – mineral, vegetal, floral and cereal,’ says Chetiyawardana.
‘When we moved onto the second chapter we wanted to explore how interconnected plants are in their environment, and look at the keystone species that really change the way a whole ecosystem functions. So we focused on trees, such as pine, oak and birch.’
This doesn’t mean that every drink tasted of oak or pine cones. Chetiyawardana is a raconteur who loves to weave together obscure pieces of knowledge into a single narrative, which is then distilled, through flavour, into a glass.
The latest menu takes the effect that plants have had on mankind as its theme, divided into four categories: Hunter, Gatherer, Shaman and Explorer. Chetiyawardana and his team cover the themes from all angles, taking the stories and transforming them into drinks such as Love & Money. Made with fennel and parsley root wine, it links to fennel’s extinct ancestor silphium, which was shaped like a love heart and given to mistresses to use as a contraceptive; it became extremely valuable.
‘We’re never super-literal,’ Chetiyawardana says. ‘We like to explore the larger spirit of botany.’ Nevertheless, there’s no disguising the level of knowledge and research that has gone into each drink. Another example is the Diamond Daisy, part of the Explorer section of the menu and a twist on the Santiago Daisy, made with rum, Riesling, pandan, cavolo nero and lime.
Chetiyawardana explains the story behind the ingredients in the drink. ‘As we started exploring new lands, we discovered things like diamonds, and different ways of working out where they might be. One was a correlation between plants that grew in the places where diamonds were. The candelabra tree was one, as well as pandan and other brassicas. So we used pandan, and cavalo nero, and then we linked to the carbon element of a diamond with kale ash. When you take a sip of the drink we’ve cut the straw really short so you get this burnt aroma. It’s fresh, slight herby, zesty, with lots of rummy goodness.’
It’s not all novelty, however. There are lots of more familiar styles on the menu too, such as the bar’s take on the classic Negroni, and a tiki drink called Night Watchman.
‘It’s about having our own version of things,’ he says. ‘There are lots of amazing bars, and we don’t need to replicate them – we can do what we do. I’ve never wanted to do something as a gimmick, and we don’t do things for the sake of being shocking. We don’t need to do all the stupid geekery that we do, but it allows us to create ingredients and sets of flavours that excite us and, hopefully, that excite whoever comes into the bar as well.’