Why the drinks are just as important as the food at Black Swan at Oldstead and Roots York
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 August 2019
Sibling synergy at its best. James Banks is making his name crafting drinks to serve alongside food served up by his brother Tommy, the acclaimed Yorkshire chef.
When James Banks and his younger brother, Tommy, were growing up on the family farm in Oldstead, they spent many hours playing around with ingredients from the land, creating sloe gin and other, perhaps less-recognisable concoctions.
A couple of decades later and James is in charge of creating a plethora of wonderful drinks to complement Tommy's exceptional dishes in their two restaurants, the Michelin starred Black Swan at Oldstead, and their latest venture, Roots, in York.
'It's what we all did, growing up,' says James. 'We would pick fruit from the farm, chuck it in some vodka or gin, with some sugar, and leave it for a bit. We made all sorts - rhubarb schnapps, elderflower wine. We refined these recipes over the years, of course, but these were the humble beginnings for all our own drinks that we now serve in the restaurants. Being Yorkshire farming folk, we are very much of the ethos that if you can grow it, pick it, and it's free, you might as well try and use it. So it's vegetables, fruits, herbs - anything we can find!'
The majority of people who visit The Black Swan or Roots want to enjoy the whole dining experience. They love the field-to-plate approach, so the idea of James and Tommy producing their own drinks too was an obvious one. 'The drinks need to follow the food', says James.
The drinks menu at both restaurants is almost endless. Popular tipples include damson gin, plum brandy, lemon verbena and tangerine marigold. While those preferring no alcohol can choose from intriguingly named drinks such as Rhubarb and Douglas Fir Cooler or Tomato Tonic (tomato essence and cucumber). All made by James and his team.
'It doesn't make sense to serve a mango and passionfruit cocktail together with food made only with ingredients from Yorkshire. With lots of experimenting and trial and error, we have found that we can replicate most flavours by using products that we have growing on the farm as well as a few new different ones', he says.
'Acidity is one of the hardest things to replicate. Most cocktails have lemon juice added to bring that acidity but we don't grow lemons (we're trying, but will never be able to produce them in the volumes we need), so we have experimented with lots of other ingredients. We use products like rhubarb juice, vinegar or cooking apple juice - all ingredients that are produced on the farm. If we are going to be true to our concept then we shouldn't be using gallons of lemon juice!'
James is now at the stage where they aren't using branded spirits to make cocktails and drinks in the restaurants. The majority of drinks they sell are their own, produced on the farm, but they do work with a few local suppliers and producers who have the same provincial approach as them, and a good story. The vodka they use as a base for their drinks is sourced locally from Priory Vodka, based between Tadcaster and Wetherby, where they use their own potatoes. They produce bespoke collaboration beers using farm produce together with Bad Seed Brewery near Malton and Magic Rock Brewing in Huddersfield.
The majority of their wines do come from further afield, but they do support English winemakers with products from Laurel Vines (Driffield), Gusbourne (Kent) and Charles Palmer (Sussex) on their wine lists. James says they've almost got to the stage of not listing champagnes because there are better English sparkling wine alternatives.
The production of James' spirits and non-alcoholic drinks is a huge operation and since Roots opened in September 2019 the workload has dramatically increased. 'We are scaling everything up', continues James. 'A lot of what we do is about preservation. Everything is seasonal. So for example, at the moment, because we've had loads of rain followed by glorious sunshine, an abundance of elderflowers have all ripened at the same time. There have been 12 of us picking them today, and over the next week, we will make elderflower vinegars and oils for the chefs and cordial for our drinks. The aim will be to create enough of these products for us to use for the next 12 months.'
'We work around the ingredients, a lot of the time, building a larder. We are now harvesting woodruff. We're currently drying kilos of the stuff, and then we'll worry about what to make out of it later. We work in the reverse to how your normal cocktail bar works. Mixologists will create a drink, work out what they need and then source it from suppliers. We look for products on the farm, harvest them, prep and store them, and then decide what to make out of them. It definitely promotes creativity and our drinks are evolving all the time.'
Does James have a favourite drink? 'That changes daily,' he laughs. 'I don't like to be restricted. It's really important to keep progressing and moving things forward so I'm creating new favourites all the time!'