Australia’s capital, Canberra, was designed as a garden city. Nature amongst the houses, lakes, trees everywhere, kangaroos on the front lawn, that sort of thing.
As lovely as that is, for a long while it was a national joke for having no soul, no city centre you could point to, the action being in the suburbs, out of sight. Dullsville.
So whilst its all grown up now, a sophisticated forward looking city, its common for the locals to have a double life.
Government worker by day, artisan or musician by night, that sort of thing. This shouldn’t be a surprise to the locals to see a distillery pop up in perhaps one of the most uninspiring of all the cities suburbs (Kambah!) with a combination of a hospitality worker, public servant and a medical doctor who have created a whole new means of distillation.
But it is.
On the morning a few weeks after their debut (I thought i’d let the local fuss die down a bit) I swing past their small shop/distillery to buy a few bottles, and there was a steady stream of locals coming in to sample and shop. Apparently there was about dozen people waiting for them to open in the morning! Local pride runs deep around here clearly.
The debut of Underground Spirits means there are three distilleries in the capital alongside Baldwin and Canberra Distillery, and I’ve heard rumours of several more in the works. There are three partners, Toby, Jacob and Andrew, who bring complementary skills to the project.
Q+A with the Underground Spirits team
How do you see your products in the spectrum of Australian craft spirit?
Alrighty, so our spirits are unique in Australian spirits and the world as our medical grade filtration system and dedication to precision and perfection enables us to produce spirits that are so pure that any impurities are virtually undetectable to even the most sensitive of composition instruments (such as mass spectrometry).
Due to our base spirit being so pure, any flavouring that we include completely shines through and isn’t competed with by an unpleasant alcohol taste that can be experienced with other flavoured spirits. Because of this, our flavoured range offer the same smoothness and richness that can only be found with liqueurs with an ABV of 20%, while maintaining our 40% ABV spirit status.
Clearly something special has happened in the way you’ve gone about the distillation process with a new method. What can you share about that?
While each run of production includes 10 rounds of distillation (10x distilled), it is our filtration system that is the most exciting part of our business.
Our distillery is different due to the filtration system invented and patented by Dr Toby Angstmann. Being an Obstetrician, gynaecological surgeon and IVF specialist, Toby was able to implement medical grade techniques and unthinkably fine filtration membranes (0.02 micron small pores), and combine them with a cooling process which results in impurities (such as aldehydes and sulphites) to form crystals which are too large to fit through the filtration membranes. This results in an unmatchable level of cleanliness in the spirit produced.
What can you share some of the botanicals that go into the gin?
Our Gin has about 10 botanicals that we have tried to keep as regional as possible. The main ones that are quite dominant are; juniper, coriander seed, lemon myrtle, angelica root & Tasmanian pepper berry.
Did it take you a while to crack the gin botanical mix?
What were some of the challenges you had in establishing your distillery?
There were incredible amounts of challenges while starting the business. Our business admin guru Jacob (public servant) endured through countless paperwork, applications and legislation, jumping through a seemingly limitless amount of hoops to finally get the business up and running. There were a couple of occasions when we were about to throw in the towel and give up but a few last minute decisions that went in our favour saw us hold on long enough to make it a reality.
Was there an eureka! moment when you knew you’d nailed the spirit in development?
There was definitely a big eureka moment. Before even approaching Jacob and I, Toby had been tinkering with the idea of implementing his scientific knowledge into spirit production. One day over beers he raised the topic with Jacob and I and described that he’s created something really special. Intrigued more than anything, but rather sceptical, we went to Toby’s house to try the vodka that he’d made, and it was unbelievably good!
From that point on the prospect of opening a distillery and refining the filtration system and implementing it on a larger scale was a reality and it was all-systems go. Within 6 months from the inception of the idea, our distillery was open.
In a year’s time where do you see Underground Spirits?
Our initial year is all about making as strong a presence in the Canberra hospitality scene as possible. While we have already had enormous offers to expand to Sydney, Melbourne and overseas in the UK and Asian markets, we’re dedicated to making sure that we establish ourselves as a Canberra business.
It’s made so much easier due to the enormous support we’ve received by people such as yourself and business owners who are extremely keen to help in the development of local businesses that in turn add to the richness of Canberra.
How do you recommend people enjoy your vodka or gin?
As cocky as it sounds, we would like people to first try out spirits neat as they can appreciate the purity and smoothness that we’re so proud of. Once they’ve tried them straight, they work perfectly over ice or to play around with in cocktails. As a bar tender, I’ve discovered that the caramel and hazelnut vodkas work incredibly well in espresso martinis and the hazelnut and vanilla for sours.
Tasting Notes: Gin
- Nose: The angelica and coriander make their presence felt up front, and the pepper berry bringing up the rear, some pungency towards the end which was slightly off putting.
- Neat – room temperature: This trio carries on the the palette but it overall is softened by (among others) the lemon myrtle, and the finish is forward and very dry.
- Martini: I mixed mine using the French Dry Dolin vermouth, at a 1:5 ratio and I could have sworn I’d mixed up a Jensen’s Gin Martini! The bone dry finish with the lingering juniper and gunpowder style finish was almost identical. This is a good thing IMHO.
- Bottle #75, batch 001
Tasting Notes: Vodka
- Nose: As expected, given its production process, clean as a whistle.
- Neat -room temperature: light weight, no lingering flavours, the alcohol heat is all forward with some black pepper notes, then its fades away quickly.
- Martini: I matched with some Noilly Prat to give it some oomph at a 1:5 ratio and it worked really well. It such a light and neutral spirit, its very pleasant company which ever way you care to serve it.
- Bottle #132, batch 001
The Take Home
Gin: Made firmly in the classic London Dry style, so fans of Plymouth or Tanqueray will feel right at home here. This gin aims to be a versatile spirit that can lend itself to most scenarios. Dry, with plenty of spice, it presents with finesse. It makes for an excellent Martini. 4 stars
Vodka: Surprisingly delicate for a vodka. It’s got finesse and subtlety and would be lost in a Bloody Mary, and is best sipped chilled, or channeling your inner 007 in a Martini. 4.5 stars.
From the depth’s of Canberra’s suburbs this trio are producing some excellent products. The patented process is key here in delivering spirits of purity and subtlety. This is a welcome addition to the spectrum of Australian gins in particular, which opt for big flavours for their point of difference.
Whilst some might find these products tame in comparison, I think its a smart play to offer versatile spirits for both bars and home drinks to work with and enjoy.