From wines and beers to spirits and mixers, bars and restaurants across the UK are increasingly making their own products. Millie Milliken talks to the people who are doing it their own way
'I'd like to get everything branded off the back bar,’ James Banks tells me boldly on a crisp winter’s afternoon in the Yorkshire countryside. We’re sitting in the window of Michelin-starred pub The Black Swan at Oldstead, perhaps better known as the pub of Banks’ younger brother Tommy, a regular on the BBC’s Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen.
But it’s older brother James who is in charge of what goes on behind the bar – both here and at newish sister restaurant Roots, in York city centre. The restaurants use the abundance of fresh produce from the Banks’ family farm in the food and drinks they serve, including housemade Lemon Verbena, Fennel Pollen and Blackcurrant Leaf vodkas and Damson Brandy.
It’s not only spirits that Banks is making: ‘Vermouths are something I’ve wanted to do for a while,’ he tells me, producing bottles of his housemade red and white versions from behind the bar. He uses his red vermouth, made using South African red wine, fennel, thyme, rosemary and oloroso sherry, in the restaurant’s Princess Peach cocktail, a take on a Spritz, alongside peach, barberry and Charles Palmer English sparkling wine.
Clearly, there are some collaborations going on with brands the brothers feel aligned to, but this is still a brave move. Bars often rely on big-name brands when it comes to making money from their drinks offering, be that in takeovers, stock deals or sponsored menus, but the Banks brothers aren’t the only ones producing their own stock.
You have complete control over what ingredients are used and each step in the process
Customers can enjoy a red berries kombucha in a The Northerner cocktail at The Soak in London’s Victoria; a no-abv vermouth in the Bob Marley-inspired serve No Booze, No Cry at Scarfes Bar; or a peach liqueur in the cult-favourite Peach Emoji at Sea Containers’ Lyaness – all of which are made by the bar team.
Ottolenghi group restaurants use their own agave and tiki spirit blends in cocktails, as well as their own winter-spice vodka, seasonal gin, pink gin and apple pastis, in the main so that they can control the flavour.
‘Instead of having to tailor our cocktails to the flavour profiles of branded products, we can make these base ingredients fit our requirements,’ Oren Coleman, bar manager of Rovi (part of the Ottolenghi group) explains. ‘You have complete control over what ingredients are used and each step in the process, meaning you also have control of the end product. From sugar levels to alcohol content to flavour profile, every aspect is completely up to you.’
It also helps to keep things seasonal, he explains: ‘We’ll only make our strawberry liqueurs with Kent strawberries in the summer and once it’s gone, we wait for next year.’
The Zetter Townhouse team has been redistilling ingredients since it opened around nine years ago and they are still pushing the boundaries. ‘We’ve even expanded into making new categories of spirits,’ the Clerkenwell venue’s bar manager Erik Albarran Wick tells me. ‘We have a catnip distillate, which features in one of our cocktails and is really herbal and fresh… in a cocktail it makes a big difference.’ And while production is now currently off-site, with mainly ferments being made behind the bar, Wick reveals that distilling will be moving in-house very soon.
When Lawrence Mason, co-founder of Two One Four and the Bermondsey Mixer Company, opened the south London bar in 2014, he and his team realised that the tonics on the market weren’t doing their huge selection of gins justice. ‘We had a look into tonic water – we knew [the word] quinine but had no idea what it was.’ explains Mason. ‘We got some of the bark in and realised it was an amber colour. So why is tonic clear? Well, commercial tonic uses a solvent extract of quinine, which has a synthetic mouthfeel and taste. So we wanted to make something for our bar, housemade on-site.’
The tonic proved so popular that production had to go off-site in 2015, with the guys expanding to something bigger just a year later. Now, they produce their classic, grapefruit and cucumber tonics and their tonic syrup commercially, and are looking to launch a lemonade and a ginger beer too.
The B word
A desire for British products is no doubt a catalyst for the rise in housemade drinks. ‘Everyone now wants to do locally-sourced ingredients and that’s what we’re doing. People want British products, so we were ahead of that game,’ says Andy Kerr, a third of the creative trio behind The Umbrella Project – which owns Discount Suit Company and The Sun Tavern in east London. He is also the co-founder of Umbrella Brewing, which makes its own alcoholic ginger beer and cider.
It all started in 2016 when ex-employee Matt Armitage came to the team with the idea of making a signature drink. ‘He initially said: “I want to do a product that’s different to anything else on the market”. We thought about it and it sounded like a good idea to do something British and alternative.’ With the opinion that the beer market was saturated, a ginger beer was created.
‘Initially we had it in The Sun Tavern on draught, but the kegs didn’t work because of the fresh ginger,’ Kerr tells me, explaining that now they serve it in the bottle. ‘I’m on the cocktail side of operations, so I wanted something that was a versatile alternative to beer, but also something [that could be used] in cocktails. If we didn’t have the bars it would have been a lot tougher, as we got feedback from customers as well as from our bartenders.’
Just four years later and Umbrella Brewing is also producing its own cider. The latest development is a range of fruit variants, with the launch of a rhubarb flavour imminent as we go to press.
With a catalogue of 150 different cocktails using their own ginger beer and cider, that’s a lot of opportunity to maximise sales of their own product.
We’re not taking brands to task, we’re just
doing what we’re doing
Locality is also a leading factor for the Gladwin brothers when it comes to selling their own Nutbourne wines in their restaurants. ‘Drinking our own wine in our own restaurants with food grown locally to our vineyard is a bit like when you go on holiday and you find that really special wine,’ says Richard Gladwin. ‘Everything you’re doing is perfectly suited to [each other] and the wine shows the atmosphere.’
Gladwin and his siblings were brought up on the family vineyard in Sussex and, although a large percentage of their restaurants’ customers order the Nutbourne wines, there is still the need for international bottles on the list, partly due to the English climate and related yield, and partly because ‘if we were just ramming our own wine down people’s throats, they might be put off’.
Not everyone has the ability to sell their own wine, of course, as Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, founders of Soho’s 10 Greek Street and the Baybrooke Beer Company point out. ‘Luke and I have always wanted to create something,’ says Emirali. ‘We’re really into wine, but having a vineyard is impossible. Luke’s family harvest rape seed, so we convinced them to [let us] use one of their drying rooms [to set up the brewery].’
It wasn’t easy: ‘What has surprised me is the equipment. The whole lagering line needs to be refrigerated… People in the industry take their hat off to us for what we’re doing.’ The beers now feature on the restaurant menu as well as at around 100 other hospitality venues in the UK.
Reaction has been hugely positive, partly due to education: ‘Lots of people are really beer savvy now, they know a lot about it and we have a lot of people coming to the bar and talking about the beer.’ Emirali also cites the beer’s provenance for its success: ‘People like traceability, they like to know how things are being done in a little brewery.’
Going against the grain isn’t always easy though, as Mason found out. ‘The big brands made it very difficult. They can come to you and offer stock for less than cost, they’ll make a loss in an attempt to sew up the market and isolate any other brands… we’re not taking brands to task, we’re just doing what we are doing. We’ve spoken to sales reps for the big brands but in terms of a collaborative offering I don’t think it would be something that would suit them.’
Despite the popularity of the Zetter’s own products, Wick is a huge advocate for brands. ‘We like using brands, we were talking about making our own gin for a long time but we really like what we already use… These guys have put hours and hours of work [into their products] and we really appreciate that.’
Coleman recognises limitations too: ‘As we’re bartenders and not experienced distillers, things do occasionally go wrong. We always experiment and have had the occasional unwanted fermentation causing a bit of a mess on our cellar walls.’ But he also recognises what 2020 customers want when it comes to their drinks offering: ‘People want to see new and exciting drinks and I think the industry is beginning to understand that.’
This feature was originally published in the 2020 Spring issue of Imbibe Magazine.