It’s no surprise that Victoriana has a dominant influence over the aesthetics of high-end cocktail bars. The progenitor of mixology put out the movement’s defining publication in 1862 – a time when opulent smoking jackets, cummerbunds, and all the extravagances of the Victorian era had permeated American culture. Jerry Thomas was the rotund and showy master of the bar. Earning at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel more than the then vice president, Thomas’ influence – a pioneer of recipes and showmanship – was palpable during his lifetime, but by the 1980s, had waned under the weight of pre-made mixes, paper umbrellas and ‘Sex on the Beach’.
By the end of the yuppies’ decade, Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown had sunk public perceptions of mixology to an all-time low, and the art was in need of a Hollywoodesque retirement reversal. Except Thomas was over a century dead. Introduced some years earlier to the master’s 1862 classic, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion Dale DeGroff had become obsessed by the legendary bartender’s baroque brilliance, and, from 1987 to 1999, would rise to prominence at the Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, Jerry Thomas’ flamboyant spirit back behind a bar in the city he set ablaze during the mid-1800s.
DeGroff – and later Sasha Petraske – who opened New York’s eminent Milk & Honey on the first day of the twenty-first century, would unwittingly change the landscape of contemporary mixology. With space for just over 20 people, no menu, and impenetrable access, Petraske’s Lower-East-Side bar – which opened a London offshoot a couple of years later – would become the blueprint for forward-thinking cocktail bars the world over. But Thomas’ presence remains, with the must-see theatrics of your drink’s assembly remaining as important as flavours and taste.
In an age of social sharing that suits Jerry Thomas’s high-spirited effervescence, to pare back those theatrics might seem illogical – but pioneers don’t tread new ground by following the flock. At their game-changing Hoxton bar, White Lyan, Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) and Iain Griffiths bucked all antics spearheaded by the swashbuckling nineteenth-century drinks giant by stopping the shaking and ceasing the juggling; and refraining from mixing entirely. “It’s a very odd bar”, admits Chetiyawardana. “It doesn’t surprise me that nobody else has tried to reproduce it. It’s a bold thing to do.”
No ice. No citrus. No branding. Bartenders simply popping open ready prepared bottles and pouring. “I always talk about a teppanyaki chef and a sushi chef”, he continues, of a perceived lack of theatrics. “If you sit around a teppanyaki with a group of friends, you get the fire, the passion, the flair – but there’s that exact same thing in the confidence and focus of the sushi chef. Cutting up a fish seems so void of theatre, but it’s mesmerising. It’s a different occasion. I’m not drawing a direct comparison, but the point is that everything in White Lyan is done for a purpose.”
Now closed and to be used as a creative development space, Chetiyawardana and Griffiths continue to reshape the contemporary drinks industry at the Mondrian London, their bar that Dandelyan recently named number two in the world. “Dandelyan does 100 hours of prep just to be able to churn out those cocktails”, Ryan reveals, comparing the work behind the bottles to the way Michelin-starred kitchens operate. “I still see a sense of theatre – the consideration is the theatre: that we can take a bottle, pour it out, and it tastes complex and varied and all those things. There’s a confidence in that execution that I love.”
White Lyan and Dandelyan represent a studious shift in the scene that draws parallels with cool and calm kitchens – like how those at elBulli and noma replaced the fire and brimstone of your Pierre Whites or Ramsays. As is the case with leading lights in the culinary world, white coats and research and development labs are becoming a commonplace part of the journey from concept to customer, the former White Lyan joining London mixology titan Tony Conigliaro’s The Drink Factory in getting seriously scientific over innovations in flavour.
It’s not only the adoption of a scholarly approach to development where similarities can be seen between high-end dining and high-end drinking: as artistry in cuisine reaches unprecedented heights, the two worlds are closer than ever, their futures increasingly entwined. Someone who knows more than most about this meeting of sophisticated palates is Leo Robitschek, the mixologist behind the cocktail programme at what currently stands as the world’s number one restaurant.
“Daniel [Humm] is one of the few chefs I have met that really understands that the dining room side of things is as important as the kitchen side of things”, explains Robitschek of the visionary chef-owner behind New York’s exalted Eleven Madison Park. “The idea was that if we serve some of the best food in the world – and some of the best wine in the world – why not serve the best coffee in the world? The best tea in the world, and the best cocktails in the world? It just didn’t make sense that you would have that handicap.” With direct access to one of the most celebrated kitchens in international cuisine, Leo Robitschek is a bartender who has been able to take his craft to entirely new heights.
“I get accessibility to a variety of some of the most amazing produce. Most bars can’t because they don’t work with the same purveyors as we do, or because it’s just not cost effective – a lot of this stuff has a short shelf-life. There are also things like having the availability of a stove; or a Cryovac machine; or nitrous oxide canisters for infusions. But the biggest thing is access to some of the best palates and technicians in the industry.” In their desire to only deliver the very best of the best, EMP co-owners Will Guidara and Daniel Humm have given Robitschek the tools to take cocktails places old Jerry Thomas could never have imagined.
From roasted celery root infused with vermouth to a spiced-cider-inspired drink garnished with Granny Smith apple slices and foie gras; Berliner weisse and cranberry to brandy with mushrooms; Oloroso and squash; bourbon and seaweed… Robitschek’s ability to lean on a three-Michelin-starred kitchen yields infinitely interesting results. “Ten years ago, there was such a tense interaction between chefs and bartenders”, he says, “it was an uphill battle for those parties to ever work together.” Today, that interaction is the force behind an increased use of ingredients like vegetables, chocolate, yogurt and experimental greens, the foraged and the fermented made fashionable in Nordic cuisine also making their mark in top bars’ innovative libations.
Back in London, a byproduct of Chetiyawardana and Griffiths’s singular approach to pre-prepared cocktails is a dramatic decline in waste – a ‘trend’ that is causing waves throughout the food and hospitality industry at large. “It dawned on me just how little waste we were going to have”, confesses Griffiths. “The smallest amount of citric acid powder is needed to replicate an actual fruit on the palate. The environmental effect of the bar has become an increasing focus by the nature of just how little waste we produce.” With its no ice, no fresh fruit mantra, White Lyan reduced the number of bottles it sent for recycling to just 24 bottles a week, while a typical bar recycles up to three 300-litre bins’ worth.
To coin such a critical and necessary shift in consciousness as a trend seems trite, and Griffiths would agree: “I hate the word sustainability. It’s become ubiquitous – it makes people disengage and tune out. People imagine hippies debating environmental consciousness. But that’s not it at all.” Facing the issue head on alongside Dandelyan bartender Kelsey Ramage, the pioneering mixologist has formed Trash Tiki – a travelling anti-waste initiative that seeks to innovate by way of irreverence. “We’re angry, we listen to punk, we want to have fun, and we don’t want to wreck the planet.” You can’t – and likely wouldn’t want to – argue with that.
It seems a far cry from the serenity of his ‘sushi-chef’ partner, but Griffiths’s approach to reducing waste is refreshing, and owes much to the bravado of our flashy 1800s forefather. “Here we make an almond-croissant spirit with the old croissants from a bakery across the street”, he says, talking at Chicago’s Broken Shaker. “We’re looking at a ramen shop when we’re at Houston, Texas – and in New York we’re at Mission Chinese, so it’ll be great to see what waste products they have.”
Turns out they had coffee grounds, ginger pulp, and fermented pineapple skins — all worked into inspiring waste-saving cocktails by the hell-raising duo. The nomadic pop-up affords Griffiths and Ramage the opportunity to develop new ideas by solving new and unexpected waste conundrums, but it serves as an educational tool for environmentally-conscious bar managers and ‘tenders too; “by taking it on the road, we’re not anybody’s competition”, says the Dandelyan man. “We want everybody to copy us. We want everybody to do what we’re doing.” The Trash Tiki two admit they’re making small steps – “this shit isn’t going to change the world” – but as part of a larger conversation, their no-holds-barred approach to tackling waste is a welcome contribution.
With the craft beer revolution making consumers more and more aware of artisanal techniques and provenance, micro-distilleries are on the rise – artisan gins and whiskies are flying the flag for craft spirits, and mezcals, rums, and brandies are also getting geeky – as cocktail fanatics grow ever more learned about the contents of mixologists’ combinations. For now, though, the biggest story rests upon what joins those spirits: whether it takes the buoyant brilliance of a Mr Thomas – the self-proclaimed ‘Jupiter Olympus of the bar’ – or the laid-back bookishness of a Ryan Chetiyawardana, what stands out is that mixology has ventured beyond the bar. The overwhelming influence of fine-dining’s new dawn has changed the scene irreversibly. For those on both sides of the counter, that makes for a seriously interesting future.
James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.