Behind the Bar

How Dandelyan Creates the World’s Best Cocktail Menu

A Negroni in a crystal glass against a purple background.
The Dandelyan menu is split into four sections: Hunter, Gatherer, Shaman and Explorer, with an additional classic and non-alcoholic section. The Negroni, of course, is a classic. Photos courtesy of Dandelyan.

Awarded World's Best Cocktail Menu at Tales of the Cocktail 2016 Spirited Awards, Dandelyan’s menu is a thing of beauty and refined detail, both in concept and presentation. Launched this spring, the third chapter of menu is beautifully illustrated with botanical art, elegant typography and vivid colors. The menu is split into four sections: Hunter, Gatherer, Shaman and Explorer, each selected as a discipline through which botany has shaped history, with an additional classic and non-alcoholic section.

We spoke to Ryan Chetiyawardana, Dandelyan’s founder and winner of the 2015 TOTC World's Best Bartender award, to find out more about the process of creating the world’s best cocktail menu.

Dandelyan's menu is presented as a journey, with each menu picking up the story from the previous one. What inspired this concept and what story did you set out to tell?

Dandelyan's menus have been an exploration of the concept of “Modern Botany” since we started working on the bar so long ago. This has certainly become somewhat of a journey, and we've been exploring the different designations of botany through the menus – firstly looking at the breakdown of categories from cereal, mineral, floral and vegetal, then through interconnectedness and sections devoted to oak, pine and birch. Each was to not be explored too literally, but to find a story through which we can explore our relationship with our environment, food and civilizations – both in the past, present and future.

How does the process of conceptualizing a menu begin? About how long does it take?

The first menu took me and Iain [Griffiths, Dandelyan bartender and Mr Lyan business manager] 18 months of research – reading books, talking to my old biology lecturers and reaching out to leading environmentalists, evolutionary scientists, microbiologists and food and drink folk from around the world. The next menu was a project of 10 months with the then-senior team, through to our current menu, which was seven months of work with the whole team. Iain and I chat through the concept with the senior team, then we explain the overarching concept to the wider team directing on them areas of research but letting them run wild with stories before we hit any liquids. Then we'll work together and refine from there. Each drink, ingredient and concept will go through every scrutiny.

The inside of a menu with an illustration on the left side and text on the right. Alongside stunning illustrations, Dandelyan's menu includes thoughtful information about what inspired every element of the drink service. It provides a beautiful narrative.

What kind of research goes into an idea? And how does this transform into a flavor and, finally, a cocktail?

The story can come from anywhere – an ingredient, a link to history, the environment – and we'll discuss ways to link this to the cocktail. It's translating a different inspiration into a flavor, which is a great source of creativity for us. It's a long way of going about something, but allows us to offer something different to people. We wanted to offer something unique and exciting within the landscape of food and drink around the world, and this approach challenges us to create something that will resonate with people in a new way. I've always been attracted to accessible innovation and this method allows us to do this!

How many people are involved at each step?

Now, lots! So the core team at Dandelyan including our management of Chris, James and our heads of bar Aidan and Lorenzo, our floor head Jenny and the whole bar and floor teams (there's a lot of us!), plus feedback from Dan our F&B manager but also includes the wider Mr Lyan team and some of the team from White Lyan. It's a collaborative process, which leads to a stronger, more sound offering rather than too many cooks.

How do you arrive at the point of deciding how many drinks the menu will include?

We're happy with the format we've designed of four sections; a Dandelyan “classics” section, and a boozeless one, but with all the menus we do, we try and ensure there's a balance across different styles and the needs of a varied selection coming through the bar. We worked hard with my sister Natasha (who informs all our creative decisions) to ensure the format of the menu would appeal and be translatable to as wide a range of people as possible.

How involved is the team in the design and production of the physical menu? Who writes the text?

I write the text, but we're very closely involved in every process as this creates a whole, rather than disjointed project. The initial design came from my sister then I worked very closely with the amazing team at Magpie to deliver something we thought was beautiful, interesting and accessible. It was a project that had a lot of research and time go into it, but we're very happy with the result, and it's something I think will give us good direction for a while.

You recently created a cocktail to coincide with the Tate Modern's O'Keeffe exhibition. In this case, the theme fits in quite nicely with Dandelyan's menu but how do you approach other potential collaborations? Also, does the hotel setting (in the Mondrian) influence the menu in any way?

We always try and ensure any collaborations match the needs of both sides. We approach it with an overall synergy. We've been fortunate to be involved with several collaborations across many different fields, but of course the hotel provides an extra layer for this.

What advice would you give to other bars trying to elevate their menus?

Be honest and authentic. Play up to the strengths of your team, your strengths and individual backgrounds but don't forget where you are. Play up to the wants, needs and problems of your own setting rather than something that relates to a landscape on the other side of the world. If you create something with honesty and focus on the details, the wider world will notice.

What does winning "World's Best Cocktail Menu" mean for Dandelyan's future?

In some senses, everything, in others, nothing. It's obviously an amazing accolade we're amazingly proud of, and it spurs us on to continue to challenge ourselves, but we still need to focus on creating something that invites people to the bar, and continues to offer them something interesting.

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