Cannibalism and John Fetterman’s Cargo Shorts Inspire Cocktails at This DC Bar

Silver Lyan's new menu centers around the theme of taboos.

Silver Lyan's "Cannibal Old-Fashioned." Photograph by Roman Shabodalov.

Silver Lyan. 900 F St., NW.

Dozens of containers filled with liquid in various shades of yellow, deep purple, and red are stacked like Harry Potter potions across the bar at Silver Lyan. One of the bartenders hands me a small glass of “mummified” jackfruit syrup—one ingredient in a cannibalism-themed cocktail on their new menu. It’s sweet, tropical, and a little funky.

“We’re not serving anything related to human flesh at all,” assures Ryan Chetiyawardana, the acclaimed London-based barman behind Silver Lyan. Instead, he explains that during the Victorian era, the British used to rob graves of mummies, then grind up their remains to use as a medical cure-all—and this happened in the same colonizing period they were accusing people from other corners of the world of being barbarians and cannibals.

New menu R&D with Ryan Chetiyawardana at Silver Lyan. Photograph by Jessica Sidman.

The story got Silver Lyan’s team of extremely nerdy bartenders at Penn Quarter’s Riggs Hotel thinking about mummifying a different kind of flesh: jackfruit, which is often used as a meat substitute. They rubbed the giant tropical fruit in various oils and aromatics like cedar and myrrh, then encased it in a salt “tomb” and baked it.  “We essentially slowly concentrate all of those things into the flesh,”  Chetiyawardana says. “You end up with jackfruit plus, plus, plus.” The oily, rich “embalmed” jackfruit syrup is combined with whiskey, rhubarb bitters, and their own version of “snake oil” for a Cannibal Old-Fashioned.

It’s just one of the drinks on a new menu devoted to the theme of taboos. Silver Lyan is known for some of DC’s most thought-provoking and wackiest—but delicious—cocktails (they’ve previously used emu and bee larvae in their drinks). The bar does a major menu overhaul once a year and invited me to one of their R&D sessions. Rather than thinking about ingredients or flavors first, the team starts from stories or “pub facts”—little nuggets of information you’d share with a friend over a pint—to spark their creativity. And somehow a tidbit about the British eating mummies becomes a one-of-a-kind old-fashioned.

Order the Cuvée Marie Pantalon cocktail “long” or “short.” Photograph by Roman Shabodalov.

This being DC, the cocktail menu also wades into one political taboo: shorts. Specifically, Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman’s controversial cargo shorts in the halls of Congress, which led to the Senate’s first official dress code. (The Silver Lyan team also went down research rabbit holes into the Ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ apparent disdain for trousers, and Joan of Arc, who was persecuted in part for the pants she wore into battle.)

For their own version of bucking tradition, they created a “wine” with Virginia’s Crooked Run Fermentations using cider infused with blueberry tea (a nod to the Canadian tuxedo), burnt vanilla (hinting at Joan of Arc’s death), and white flowers (aromas popular in laundry detergents and dryer sheets). The negroni-esque drink comes “short” (on the rocks with gin) or “long” (like a spritz with Champagne).

“We go from this very interesting, universal story to then, well, how do we crystallize that and put it into something that we can make physical and actually tangible for people to drink?” Chetiyawardana says. “We want to justify everything in the drink. It needs to be there for a purpose. But it’s also about opening up a different set of creativity for us.”

The Bare Market Hardshake cocktail was inspired by the taboo of sex work. Photograph by Roman Shabodalov.

The “Bare Market Hardshak,” a take on a whiskey sour, is inspired by sex work. Or rather: sex work as an economic indicator. “Archeologists can trace the evolution of boom towns throughout the Wild West based on the sex workers that were moving from town to town,” lead bartender Sam Nellis explains.

One clue into a ghost town’s past might be the type of beauty products left behind by sex workers. So the bar team looked at ingredients that have historically been used to make makeup or hair dyes, including beet and red bean. The ingredients were fermented with pancreatic enzymes and pea protein to make a deep red garum.

“Oh, come on!,” Chetiyawardana says in awe, sipping it for the first time. “It’s just the length on it. It’s still going… It’s like plum skin that just lingers. It’s also cacao fruity.”

The connection between sex workers and boom towns got the bartenders thinking about other bellwethers as well. For example: the “Waffle House index” informally used by FEMA. “The Waffle House chain is famously so determined to stay open that one of the ways FEMA checks how well logistical systems and the electrical grid are working in disaster areas is ‘Did the Waffle House close?'” says bartender Alex Leidy.

This led to the idea of a waffle mist spritzed onto the cocktail. Specifically, Eggo Waffles because it seemed like the type of waffle you’d be most likely to get at a strip club buffet—”We always want to try and pick the most intentional version of a flavor,” says Leidy. It smells like buttery maple syrup.

“The point of the menu isn’t to just do titillating things,” Nellis says. “Yeah, this is our sex work cocktail. It’s really about economics, though.”

The point also isn’t to just do gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks. Every ingredient ultimately has to serve the ultimate goal: a delicious cocktail. “A TED Talk is a terrible garnish,” Leidy says.

“Your first sip should just be full of joy. Your first sip shouldn’t be anything you have to think about, and how do they make all this?” Nellis says. “You can get all of those answers if you want them.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.