Hiriketiya bar the only Sri Lankan venue in prestigious international list
Asia’s 50 Best Bars has ranked Sri Lanka’s Smoke & Bitters at number 40 in its 2023 list, following up the 42nd position it awarded the popular beachside venue in 2022.
As the only Sri Lankan-owned bar in the top 50 in both years, Smoke & Bitters has now cemented its status as one of Asia’s finest, and as Sri Lanka’s best.
This is a remarkable achievement for a venue that was opened just over three years ago, by two best friends, with one goal: to offer its patrons a uniquely Sri Lankan culinary and mixological experience.
The ranking is also noteworthy since Smoke & Bitters had to endure lockdowns and travel restrictions for much of its first year in existence in 2020. However, the tenacity and passion of its co-founders Don Ranasinghe and Lahiru Perera have helped the bar overcome these challenges to gain international renown.
Located on the stunning Pehembiya beach in Hiriketiya, in the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Smoke & Bitters has attracted both tourists and locals for over three years with its authentically Sri Lankan offerings. All its dishes are cooked using wood fire, either smoked or chargrilled, as signified by the ‘Smoke’ in its name. ‘Bitters’ conveys the co-founders’ passion for creating their own bitters from locally sourced ingredients, which dominate the cocktail menu.
Influenced by ‘Tiki’ bar pioneers of the 1930s, Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic, Smoke & Bitters serves cocktails and dishes which draw inspiration from a myriad cultures around the world using Sri Lankan herbs and spices. These include Bananarama, a lush cocktail made with arrack and wild bee honey harvested just twice a year from the jungles in Sri Lanka’s North-East, Kurumba Calamari, a vegan dish made with tempura coconut flesh of king coconut topped with smoked salsa, and ‘Beli Mal Bomu’, a blend of local rums infused with sun-dried Beli Mal along with coffee, jaggery and cardamom bitters.
Ranasinghe and Perera have had many international engagements, from bar takeovers at Hideaway Goa, PCO Mumbai and Sidecar Delhi, which has been ranked the best bar in India multiple times, to Bombay Canteen, Mumbai and The Elephant Room, Singapore. They were also invited to deliver a guest lecture at Nomad Bar Show in Almaty, Kazakstan, the first bar show in Central Asia. On all these occasions, the two best friends showcased dazzlingly what Sri Lanka has to offer food and drink enthusiasts, serving as unofficial ambassadors for the nation.
Smoke & Bitters’ local kitchen & bar collaborations, called Sunset Shifts, have also featured famous names like Sago House, Coya Dubai, Sidecar Delhi and Hoppers London. In fact, Priyanka Blah, who was named one of the 100 most influential figures in the global bar industry by Drinks International, and Yangdup Lama, the owner of Sidecar New Delhi, carried out a shift at Smoke & Bitters, where Sidecar managed the bar while Priyanka hosted the event. Earlier this year, Karan Gokani, Co-Founder and Director of Hoppers, one of the most popular Sri Lankan restaurants in the UK, held a sold-out, two-day pop-up at Smoke & Bitters on his visit to Sri Lanka. Subsequently, he invited Smoke & Bitters to London for a pop up, which will take place on 31st July 2023. Smoke & Bitters has also been mentioned glowingly in esteemed publications and media outlets such as Vogue India and CNN Travel, which have noted the venue’s authenticity and world class standards.
Expressing his thoughts following the latest ranking announcement, Don Ranasinghe compared his experiences in England and Sri Lanka. In addition to being a co-owner, he is Head of the Drinks Programme at Smoke & Bitters and started his adventure in the world of nightclubs and live music venues at the age of 18 as a bar-back at the iconic London venue KOKO. He later went on to manage this 1,800 capacity 7-bar venue. Using the experience gained in London, he and Lahiru set up this idyllic venue on the beaches of Sri Lanka in early 2020.
“In London, we had access to a variety of offerings and we were spoilt for choice, but we were limited in what we could achieve in representing the Sri Lankan flavour. In Sri Lanka, we did not have nearly as many options but that set us free to believe that we could achieve anything, and that the sky’s the limit. Smoke & Bitters is all about friendships, specifically about my 20-year friendship with Lahiru, and none of this would have been possible without our partnership and passion for our motherland. Awards and rankings encourage us immensely, but above all, it is our customers, our team and our passion for hospitality that constantly drive us to better and bigger things.”
Co-founder Lahiru Perera is the Head of Food Operations at Smoke & Bitters. In 2014, he founded what went on to become a hugely successful chain of bars and restaurants called Zephyr in Sri Lanka. Thereafter, in early 2020, he partnered up with his friend to set up Smoke & Bitters. He recently attended the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School, regarded as one of the world’s top 10 Cookery Schools with only three student intakes a year. Commenting on the ranking, Perera spoke about his culinary philosophy and how that contributes to the brand built by Smoke & Bitters.
“Being ranked among Asia’s best bars is a wonderful accolade and recognition of the attention to detail we pay our customer offering. I am grateful to have the opportunity to continuously reinvent the culture of Sri Lankan food and traditional cooking methods on what is now becoming a global stage for us. In creating a colourful and smoky dining experience at Smoke & Bitters we focus on three main elements: using Sri Lankan ingredients, cooking on wood fire to bring out the charred flavours of those ingredients, and recreating the cuisine of the world in Sri Lanka.”
Both the co-founders are confident that being featured in international rankings consistently is the first step to their bigger plans, which undoubtedly involve providing an unparalleled and authentic Sri Lankan dining and mixological experience to tourists and locals alike.
The Asia’s 50 Best Bars ranking is based on the votes of 250 of the most knowledgeable and travelled members of the bar industry, drinks media and mixology experts from across Asia, and therefore the venues regarded highly by them gain international respect.