The Whistling Shop‘s Ryan Chetiyawardana on language, cocktail history, customer education and his rather unsettlingly dubbed Kaboom Machine.
Worship St Whistling Shop
63 Worship Street,
Flavour is completely subjective. So while you may have certain projections and associations that come from outside, it’s really down to what you want to experience. Now customers come in and they know they like certain types of flavours and they have the vocabulary, through the media and brands giving it to them, to start to say, “I do or don’t like this.” And that helps them project onto us, as our jobs, to give them what they want.
The drinks here at the Whistling Shop are being really well received at the moment, and part of that is because customers are starting to understand. Whereas 10 years ago your average customer wouldn’t have known about many of the ingredients, they’ve caught up so much in the last say two years that now they’re exploring ideas of flavour too.
I’ve tried my hand at everything… I started at Birmingham in chefing college, then came down to London, after which I faced a crux: it was either stay here and study Art or go to Edinburgh and study Biology, then I ended up switching to Philosophy. I love studying, but it gets to a point where it’s overindulgent. That said, there are some aspects of the bar world that I have thought about exploring academically.
One of the drinks I developed here is called the Radiation Age Cocktail, probably part-influenced by my family’s work in Oncology and Radiology. I started studying the way alcohol behaves almost hydrophobically in a solution, so when the phenomenon of bottle aging cocktails started to emerge – the idea that, given time, bottling allows ingredients to interact more giving a mellowing of the drink – I started to think: Well, maybe I can alter that, given all our old family discussions about radiation…
Radiolysis disrupts the formation of these molecules, which causes the alcohol to interact at a much faster rate. So what I did was take some Golden Rum and put enormous amounts of flavours around it – Dubonet, Campari, Absinthe, and our Chip Pan Bitters – and vatted these together. So when you taste the drink as it would be made fresh, there’s so many flavours that your mouth doesn’t really know what’s going on. But once it’s been processed it becomes very, very mellow; almost classic. You get these layers of flavours and nothing’s jumping out from each other, everything’s working together.
This job is about rolling all of the things I love doing into one. I was forever trying to find a balance between the arts and science, and now I’ve kind of managed to do that: I get to work with people (which was the problem with being a chef, where you’re so much more removed from the people you’re making food for), and I get to be creative, and I get to apply little bits of science here and there.
That’s the beauty of the job. I love doing all this stuff… but it really comes down to being around people. They’re fascinating. They really are. And you get to see so many different demographics; all these scenarios that you get to play a part in creating… and then you get to help people enjoy that scenario. It’s not that it’s voyeuristic but there’s a real enjoyment in being part of something.
If you look at our menu, a lot of it’s very tongue-in-cheek: it’s meant to be fun. And I think that’s one thing that people haven’t gotten about this place yet – they’re still coming in because we’re new. But that’s a nice little wave that’s going on at the moment: people not taking themselves too seriously. They’re just getting back to bars being fun. And that’s important.
In a weird way, I kept myself in a little bubble while I was at university even though I was working away in the industry. I didn’t follow anybody else’s work simply because I just didn’t know that it was going on. I worked with my peers (and that’s one of the things that I think is so wonderful about this industry: it’s so peer-led, and you just bounce off the people that are around you). So I didn’t start following Tony’s work until someone said: “Hey, have you spoken to Tony C about this stuff?”
I was fascinated by the physiology of flavour, and was bugging lecturers and digging through papers but getting nowhere. So I ended up being put in touch with a guy called Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology down in Oxford, and he was great. From reading through his Multisensory Perception work I got into this idea that it’s all about association; it’s your experiences that change flavour. And through Jack McGarry I ended up meeting Tony and spending some time working with him at 69 Colebrooke Row.
Working there was very much about refining what I was already tying to do. It wasn’t about gaining loads of information; it was more about seeing how somebody else would put it into practise. Back in Edinburgh I’d been trying to work with certain flavours like leather or tomato vine – things you can’t use in traditional processes. And when I came down, Tony was like: “Oh, I used it like this…” And that was intriguing to see how someone else would take that and use it in a different manner.
That’s the way I always talk about historical cocktails as well. Somebody else would have had the same idea at the same time. If it benefits the industry, I don’t think it really matters where a certain idea comes from. Of course it’s difficult as well, because if you’ve worked hard at something then you don’t want it lost in the ether that you’ve been working on the project for 10 years. But I don’t think you need to be all “this is mine and only I can have it.” It’s a shame if it ends up like that.
The Kaboom is essentially an adapted pressure cooker. It was named by my girlfriend while I was developing it in our house. She actually bought me the first pressure cooker, so she’s been very encouraging – but maybe she also has a certain amount of worry about where it’s going to go. Hence the name.
I was playing with the low pressure still – the rotoevaporator – and it was fantastic for things that are very, very delicate. But I started thinking: Well, sometimes I don’t want delicate things. I want to get that richness.
Cream Gin is a Gin Palace-era drink that would have been pretty nasty at the time – cream, gin and sugar, left in a barrel for God knows how long just to take the edge off the gin. But when we run ours through the rotovap at 30 degrees, you don’t cook it, you don’t get any of those stewed flavours. And it’s strange because your mind recognises the cream scent so you project onto it. You end up making it thick in your mouth, where it’s not.
But what about coriander seed? It’s got this lovely floral, citrus note to it, but it’s also got spice. So when you put it through the rotovap, you only get those lighter notes because of the low pressure and the change in boiling point (I remember being fascinated about that idea: this is boiling but not boiling? It took me a while to get my head around). But what happens if we take it to an abnormally high boiling point instead and drag all these big flavours out of it? So I inverted it with the Kaboom, and cranked the pressure right up.
I am a firm believer that alcohol is good for you – in moderation. Actively good for you. Partly because I think stress kills people more than anything else, and escapism and controlled exposure to something that is essentially a drug is definitely better. I often talk about the comparison between what me and my father, who’s a doctor, do: we’re both dispensing medicines in our own way. And any deviation in either one can be really bad for you. If you hit the right balance everything is great – but if you throw that out of whack…
Well it’s the same with everything. Moderation in everything, including moderation itself. I’m not going to say that getting drunk is a real demon or anything – it’s not: it’s fun. But there is a certain amount out there of drinking for the sake of drunkenness. And there’s drunk and then there’s drunk.
I like the lab being within view for consumers. In the evening, even at lunchtime, if we’re in there making anything, people just wander in asking, “So what’s going on in here then?” And we can chat to them, explaining that they had a certain drink which contained a certain ingredient or process and that’s what we’re doing. And they always find that amazing. Being able to show people is amazing. And the lab is great for that.
Everybody thinks the home bartender might just read an Esquire column or this or that, but we’re finding people who are really engaged and actually understand a lot of the processes behind what we do. And the best thing about the way we do it is that it’s out on the bar and we can make it a human interaction.