Alex Lawrence on leading Mr Lyan bars globally
Alex Lawrence was beset by a feeling of failure when he first joined the Mr Lyan group. But now, as global head of bar operations, he is taking on new challenges and opportunities across the world.
Alex Lawrence with a bottle of his Glasshouse whisky
*This feature was originally published in the February 2020 issue of The Spirits Business
I remember walking across Blackfriars Bridge at 4am when I first started at Dandelyan in complete tears because I knew I wasn’t good enough to be there,” admits Alex Lawrence, global head of bar operations for the Mr Lyan group, the bar operator founded by Ryan Chetiyawardana.
Lawrence says this low point came five years ago; he had just moved to London from Aberdeen, Scotland, and was working as a senior bartender at the former World’s Best Bar on London’s South Bank.
“I had managed to land a job at Dandelyan and Iain [Griffiths, co‐founder] gave me two weeks to move from Aberdeen to London,” says Lawrence. “I started out as a senior bartender, which was silly because I wasn’t actually up to the standard of London yet. We do have higher standards in London, so the first couple of weeks were brutal.”
In the five years since, Lawrence has held the position of head bartender at the renowned London drinking den, worked alongside Chetiyawardana on the opening of Lyaness in London and Super Lyan in Amsterdam, and launched a gin and whisky brand through the Langstane Liquor Company. He is now based in the US where he is working on the opening of Mr Lyan’s first bar there, Silver Lyan.
“I guess those low points are a reflection on how you bounce back and how I got to where I am now,” he says. Lawrence had quite the journey to get to his current position, including two attempts to leave the Mr Lyan group.
Just over a year after that moment on Blackfriars Bridge, Lawrence stepped away from the pride to work alongside Mia Johansson and Bobby Hiddleston on the opening of London’s Swift. He worked at the renowned drinking den until February 2017, when he met with former Dandelyan head bartender Aidan Bowie for a catch‐up.
He says: “I met Aidan for a drink and we were just talking and he cut me off in the middle of a normal conversation and was like, ‘Just fucking come back, OK? What are you doing, just come back to Dandelyan.’ I asked if that would be possible and he said yes.
“So I texted Iain and said could we get a bowl of noodles. I was like ‘can I have my job back?’ and he asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted to be head bartender at Dandelyan and I really wanted to run it, and he just said OK. It was super surreal and I came back and took over the reins until we closed Dandelyan.”
Hungry for change again, Lawrence tried to hand his notice in once more in July 2018, but was told that he “wasn’t allowed to leave”. Instead, he was told that Chetiyawardana had plans to close the bar and re‐open as something new. Lawrence became global head of bar operations – a role that has seen him oversee the opening of three venues on as many continents in less than a year. “I just seem to like opening stuff,” he quips.
Silver Lyan opened in Washington DC in February 2020
According to Lawrence, the three openings have been very different, and came with their own opportunities and challenges. With Lyaness, which took over the space previously occupied by Dandelyan, the team had just 10 days to renovate the bar, re‐train the team and “deliver one of the most complicated concepts” that Lawrence says they had ever done: “That was very silly.”
“Super Lyan was different,” he notes. For the group’s first overseas opening, they put in a lot more training time – making the experience “a lot less hectic”. But the experience came with its own challenges, as it was a “very alien market”, both in terms of the staff they were training and the guests they were welcoming. “There was a lot of learning,” he says.
“With Silver Lyan, we’ve had the privilege of basically starting from scratch,” explains Lawrence. “The whole building is from scratch, and we’ve now got really in tune with what we know needs to happen in an opening. I feel like we’ve done this one properly, which is important because, as with anything that is taken to America, it can be very challenging. We really have one shot to get this venue right.”
Set to welcome its first guests this month (February), Lawrence says the bar at the Riggs hotel in Washington, DC, is the most opulent of the group’s spaces, while retaining the signature “tongue‐in‐cheek” Lyan flourishes.
“The tagline for the concept is ‘cultural exchange’,” he says. “The space and the branding are very much juxtaposed. It’s going to feel very welcoming to have a bar that feels decadent but really fun at the same time.”
With Super Lyan and Silver Lyan, the team worked hard to develop concepts that would resonate with drinkers in Amsterdam and Washington respectively. Lawrence says this “took time” and a “lot of work, adjustment and learning”.
“We were never trying to copy London and dump it in these cities,” he says. “We are really leaning into the fact that in Amsterdam drinkers really like classics, and we wanted to do a reimagined classic in that Lyan way. So that was very relevant there. Then there is a lot of cool stuff happening in DC as well, you feel this youthful energy in the city and you can see that they’re pushing the boat out in a new way.”
Dandelyan on London’s Southbank became Lyaness last year
Since 2012, Lawrence has also worked as creative director of the Langstane Liquor Company, which he co‐founded with Ben Iravani and Josh Rennie. What began with the three friends experimenting with a rotary evaporator in the basement of Aberdeen bar Orchid has grown into a company with three spirits in its range. “It’s been quite a wild ride,” he says.
Since they began playing around with a cobbled‐together rotavap, christened the ‘ghettovap’, the trio has released a classic gin and a flavoured Old Tom under the Porter’s brand, plus blended malt Scotch Glasshouse, which Lawrence says have each strived to plug a gap in the on‐trade.
“We all wanted to make a great gin of course, but there’s a new gin every 11 seconds,” he says. “But there wasn’t a grown‐up tropical‐flavoured spirit. So [Porter’s] Tropical Old Tom was born so that we could make drinks in that fashion. Likewise, there was no Highball whisky. So we blended and tasted the whisky backwards, tasting it with soda first.”
The next few years will see Lawrence, Iravani and Rennie build the Langstane Liquor Company brand. With three successful spirits launches under their belt and a recent US debut, the days of asking “will we still have a company in the morning” could be behind them.
“We had points where we didn’t know whether it was going to work,” recalls Lawrence. “But coming back from those low points will always be my highlight. I think of all the great achievements we’ve had over the years, and they have been really humbling and phenomenal. But, if I reflect on them, I feel none of the lessons they taught me would have got me where I am.”