Words by: Paloma Alos
Iain Griffiths is one half of the dynamic duo behind White Lyan and Dandelyan, two London cocktail bars which have created some excitement in the drinks industry in recent years. Together with co-conspirator Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan), the bars have earned an enviable reputation with consumers and trade alike over the past two years, The bars’ status on the international cocktail scene has been firmly cemented by winning the prestigious Best New International Cocktail Bar award at Tales of the Cocktail for two years in a row (2014 for White Lyan and 2015 for Dandelyan).
We met Iain at Dandelyan one afternoon to discuss his current project with Jameson, catching him working from his laptop in a quiet corner of the bar overlooking the Thames, before he began his shift behind the stick. Ask Iain what his role is and he’ll explain he’s the New Business Development Manager of Mr Lyan Ltd. “That sounds really fancy when actually it’s just Ryan and I in the business. In essence, I run the back of house for everything that is Mr Lyan. Ryan is the face of the business and then creatively he and I work on everything together.”
It sounds like a world away from the farm where Iain had an idyllic Aussie upbringing chasing sheep and cattle. He’s one of seven children, with an eclectic group of siblings: “I’m number five. Three and six live here in London, four is in Orlando and works for Disney, seven is a chef, my eldest sister was an opera singer and my oldest brother is a primary school teacher. “
“I left the farm when I was 15 and moved to Brisbane - that’s where I started bartending at 18, moving to Melbourne when I was 21, then Sydney for six months, then a year in Edinburgh and now I’ve been in London for two and a half years.”
It was while Iain was working at Bramble in Edinburgh, when Ryan was up visiting, that the two first met. They got on well straightaway and discovered they had a similar view and approach to cocktails. Iain then moved to London and while catching up over dinner “Ryan said that he’d love to work together again in London. But at that time I had it in my head I was going to stop bartending. I had Repetitive Strain Injury in my elbows and couldn’t shake drinks anymore.” Game over? Not quite. Ryan persuaded him to do “just one pop-up”. After a four and a half hour planning meeting they wrote the menu for the “just one pop-up” bar, the first draft menu for White Lyan and the pitch for what ended up being Dandelyan. Iain called his sister after the meeting”and she said, ‘ha, I guess you’re not giving up bartending then.’”
The partnership goes from strength to strength and Iain is quick to point out how they complement each other.
“It’s been a real pleasure always working with Ryan. It’s fantastic to have someone you have so much spontaneity with and who you create so rapidly with. In 24 months what we’ve been able to produce has come down to our ability to really be quite mobile and produce as we need to. We have a huge amount of respect for each other. That’s what our friendship is based on and then in turn what our creative endeavours are based on. A lot of respect for each other’s opinion, because we both have two very different approaches. I’ve been a bartender all my life whereas Ryan was a chef who then wanted to be front of house. His eyes fall out of his head when I talk about running 2,000 capacity nightclubs.”
Iain’s rather corporate job title belies the fact that there’s nothing very predictable or standard about what he does. Is there a typical week? “Not really. I suppose I do have one glorious day a week to do the admin side of things, usually a Monday which gives me quite a gentle start to the week.” As for the rest of the week, Iain has recently moved to Dandelyan from White Lyan, which now acts as his base when he’s not travelling. “I’ll be doing four or more shifts a week on the bar here. We’re trying to put more of a Lyan impact on the venue – we’ve done quite well in opening a really great hotel cocktail bar but now we want to start drawing out more of the weird and wonderful things that we’re doing within Modern Botany and really start to pique the interest on that side of things. We also want to bring the notion of a neighbourhood bar into a hotel setting so that people feel relaxed enough to come and enjoy something exceptional without feeling like this is something you can only do when you’re treating yourself.”
It’s no surprise that Iain describes the best part of his job as the travel. “I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to travel the world and talk about what we do and I never take that for granted. I also love the opportunity to work on new projects. To see something grow from the ground up is fantastic.”
After just two years working with Ryan there are still countless opportunities ahead, but does Iain have an ultimate goal in mind? What does success look like? “Success will be when we see a change in the way people drink for the better which we know we helped bring about.” That’s all for the future though; until then he looks forward to success in the form of a day off.
Spotting, and helping to create and define, emerging trends in cocktails is a passion for Iain. To describe where he thinks the cocktail world is right now he uses an analogy from a closely related industry: “We’re right on the edge of where the food world was five years ago. There’s an element of the bartender becoming more of that public figure. It’s increasing more and more all the time. I hope our industry has seen how it’s affected the food industry for good and bad and learn from that as we go along. The fanfare that comes out of it all shines such a light on what we do.”
Not all current trends of course are positive. Iain’s not a fan of the “cookie cutter notion that when you open a bar or restaurant that does well you should raise investment to open five more of the same thing. I think that’s dull and killing our food and drink scene in London. Hawksmoor have had great success and done well with it, all power to them, but that doesn’t mean everyone else should turn around and do the same thing. I wish more people had the balls to do something different for their next venue.”
The excitement then comes from predicting ‘what next’ and imagining what and how we might all be drinking in the future. “My biggest curiosity, which extends out of the drinks world into fashion and music as well, is how we’ve almost come full circle on trends that were popular decades ago – with this in mind it’s time for something new to be created. It’s really a great time for a new style. I hope that something new comes along so we don’t just start doing slight variations of what’s been done before. It’s something we care a lot about – we always want to see people pushing forward. It’s great to know all about your classic cocktails but it’s also great to have the creative flair and ingenuity to go out there and create your own drinks as well. That’s very important.”
What about the gap between bartenders constantly pushing forward and the consumer’s behaviour? Will consumers keep up and adapt their drinking style and habits? Iain sees the positive side in this challenge.
“We’re bridging that gap and as a result we’re getting a wider spread of customers. We use the food analogy again – people go to restaurants and order classic dishes that they know and love. It’s the same in the drinks world. People will often go and order what they know, like a mojito. But I do think we are getting a more informed clientele with a broader knowledge of what they want. Venues like White Lyan wouldn’t have existed even five years ago if we weren’t getting a greater breadth of people wanting a greater breadth of offering. So I think we’re getting more informed consumers which has a fantastic knock on effect as it puts more emphasis on the quality of the bar, which in turn makes bartenders step up and offer a fantastic level of service. They are hosts to the entire room.”
A great drink then should stand the test of time. For Iain, he looks for a drink that is presented in a relatively simple way, and one, which has an “elegance and beauty and story that entices you to dive in and enjoy it. I don’t enjoy bells and whistles and faff. We like to do weird and wonderful ingredients but I think the final drink should always speak for itself.”
One of the products Iain is working with at the moment is Jameson Wild Sloe Berry Bitters, created by the Innovation team at the Midleton Distillery and headed up by Master of Whiskey Science, David Quinn.
“I like that Jameson have taken quite a sustainable approach – extremely small batches because there’s a limit to the sloe berries they can forage. That approach ties in well here because we view what we’re doing with Modern Botany as almost ‘anti-seasonal’. Taking something when it’s at its freshest, ripest, most vibrant and capturing that so you can enjoy it for a longer period of time. Jameson drew on the experience of a local foraging expert to ensure that the berries were picked in their optimum state, resulting in a product that fulfils these criteria.. I also really enjoy that instead of a straight maceration the Innovation team has created a distillate of the sloe berries which they add back into their own Jameson Whiskey.”
When it comes to creating a cocktail with the Jameson Wild Sloe Berry Bitters how did Iain approach it?
“To put a drink out to the wider world with a new product we know it needs to be replicable. Our approach is always to structure a drink around the one ingredient, which is exceptional, weird, or wonderful, and then we build around it a more classic cocktail approach. In this sense, Jameson Bitters is the perfect ingredient as it has such a distinctive taste and creates a totally different flavour experience.
The drink we created here is a Jameson fizz using half lemon and half grapefruit with a heavy amount of the bitters and a little soda top. Super simple, really elegant.”
Flashing Light Fizz
10ml Fresh Lemon
10ml Fresh Grapefruit
10ml Gomme (1:1.5)
20ml Egg White
Heavy 3 dashes Jameson Wild Sloe Bitters
Dry Shake / Shake / Double Strain over block ice
Soda top / Grapefruit Twist
As Dandelyan starts to fill with early evening drinkers and the music cranks up, Iain dons his apron and gets ready to jump behind the bar for the second half of his day.
Before he goes we want to know one last thing…what’s a little known fact that he’s prepared to share? He answers straightaway “I’m a massive mama’s boy, she’s my idol, my absolute hero and the person I always look up to [Lyn Griffiths].” Who would have guessed?
Orange, New South Wales, Australia
Business Development Manager, Mr Lyan Ltd