You’d be forgiven to think that with cross-country R&D going into the origins, a family based in both Australia and the UK and teams now working on both sides of the world – Underground Spirits might well be more aptly named Intercontinental Gin…
Let’s explain and begin this story with Toby Angstmann, medical doctor, IVF specialist and Whisk(e)y lover. The inspiration to create a gin came to Toby after a trip to Scotland in the summer of 2016. As he toured the distilleries of Scotland he became even more inspired to start his own and even dared to allow him self to think “I can do this, and I can find a way to make it better”. Brave thoughts, given its a multi-billion pound industry, with centuries old heritage and vast wealth of experience involved across hundreds of distilleries…
When he returned to Canberra he started experimenting in his garage, and developed and refined his process to create the perfect base spirit for gin, Vodka. Toby drew heavily on his medical experience and created his own unique filtration process using state of the art surgical techniques and medical grade equipment. In his case, to make the vodka, he buys in Neutral Grain Spirit, and then chills it, before pushing the spirit through highly engineered membranes, removing impurities and refining the flavour. Having ironed out details, honed the process and grown in confidence, he shared it with his friends and family and when the response was ‘WOW’, he knew he was onto something.
Meanwhile his sister Claudia (who lives in London) a great lover of Gin, pushed for further development to make a world class gin, also believing it was just a question of getting it right. She booked herself on a gin-making course to learn everything about making Gin and developed a recipe, which had the important combinations of the core botanicals & suggestion for native Australian botanicals to use.
“There is an appreciation for amazing Gins and we really wanted to tap into this. A great love of drinking gin and knowing that the world is a better place with more gin varieties around, a belief that gin production is not about trying to match or be the same as another, it is about being creative, expressive and showcasing the spirit and flavours of Australia. We know that Australia, and Canberra in particular, has an abundance of amazing botanicals and, the perfect environmental conditions (clean air, water, organic botanicals) and we wanted to tap into that”.
Using the initial concepts and direction outlined by Claudia along with ideas of his own, Toby took that recipe and developed it further – testing and using the things which he found and liked, working on it until everyone was happy with the final recipe. According to the team “It’s the combination to this base spirit and the botanicals that make this Gin so good”.
The core botanicals in Underground Spirits Gin are juniper, coriander seed and angelica. There’s also poppy seeds, cinnamon, black pepper and locally grown basil, as well as Australian botanicals such as Tasmanian pepperberry, river mint and lemon myrtle.
For those curious on provenance: while The Australian river mint, Tasmanian pepperberry and lemon myrtle are native Australian botanicals and the basil is sourced locally, the rest are always sourced overseas.
In this trans-continental brother sister effort, the actual distillery is a lot more fixed and is based in a leafy suburb of Canberra called Kambah. While Toby has trained himself up and oversees the team at the distillery the day-to-day operations are in the safe hands of Head Distiller Ross McQuinn who distills all the spirits along with distiller Andy Galbraith.
The Gin was ready in January 2017, some 18 months later and they were set to unveil their offerings, which they named Underground Spirits. “We felt we were a bit under the radar, being ‘underground’ denotes a feeling of being undiscovered, curiosity and intrigue. We also saw ourselves as a kind of movement secretly working away on our filtration process and doing something no-one else has done before.”
Made in batches of around 300 bottles per run, the team let a mixture of botanicals to macerate in their vodka for at least 12 hours.
This gets loaded into the stills along with a vapour basket filled with another mixture of the same dry botanicals to benefit from vapour infusion during the run. The heart of the run comes out at approximately 70-75% abv which is cut back to 40% using RO water for the bottling, and rather unusually, the team also add individually distilled tinctures of some botanicals to add the final elements of flavour.
Underground Spirits Gin to taste…
Underground Spirits Gin has many dimensions to it and requires a few tasting to get a full handle of what’s going on… It’s as if the the recipe is dosed to such an extent where on different days (and in different moods) there’s a variance in what is the main protagonists are. As a whole, there’s a classic heart of piney juniper and lemony spice from the coriander seed, but it’s the pepper and basil that are noticeably dampening proceedings and moving it into the savoury side of the gin map. There’s a balance of citrus and mint freshness from the river mint and lemon myrtle, but with the almost vegetal nature of basil and the green twang of pepperberry – the overall the impression is one of the earthier, rooty botanicals.
In a G&T, the wilder side of the gin’s personality comes through. Tasmanian Pepperberry and Black Pepper are notably present, while Lemon Myrtle and basil have died back. It’s not spiced by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s distinctly different, savoury in quality and finishes with a dry finish (angelica) overall. The poppyseed, if you are sensitive to it, has a pronounced effect here, but tasting after tasting, it seems to be the unique secondary green twang that the pepperberry brings to the finish that most will pick up on towards the end. Spiced but not piquant, drying but sappy.
It needs a garnish to be at its best – a mint sprig for those you want to enliven, and orange peel for those who like to compliment and lemon thyme for those you want something a little more unusual.
Reaching such a desired balance wasn’t easy and there were quite a few issues getting there. Not all teething issues ended up in buckets filled with wasted gin however, such as the fortuitous run that lead to the Underground Spirits’ third product, Pepperberry Gin batch #1. During a trial the gin run finished and it had come through overly pungent. The guys in the distillery decided to try something else with it in order for the spirit not to go to waste… and almost as if this is a normal thing to have lurking around a distillery… had access to some shiraz oak barrels. The gin was put inside and left alone. “A couple of months later, this had proven to be a very wise decision and our Shiraz Pepperberry Gin has become a huge hit in Australia and a strong part of our range. We add the Pepperberries in high quantity on purpose now.”
The Shiraz Pepperberry Gin is set to be a permanent addition to the range as it’s proved so popular, but there’s also talk that the team are currently working on a Navy Strength Gin. “The navy strength has come about as a desire to work with some different flavours that will respond to the higher ABV more comfortably. We also love the idea of fresh fruit used in the botanical baskets so this will highlight some of that. The exact recipe will go through some tweaking, but at the moment it looks like it will include apple, cardamom, and ginger”.
Recipes and products aside, the big milestone to occur in 2018 will be increasing capacity. Currently, Underground Spirits can create around 500 litres a week and have already shipped approx 5K bottles to the UK ready for distribution. By the end of the year, they will be in desperate need of some extra space.
“We will be opening a new distillery hopefully towards the end of 2018 in Canberra in a space ten times bigger than where we are currently. It will be an amazing purpose built space where people can really taste and experience the brand. We have also expanded into the UK with a small team based here and we are now looking beyond to other export markets.
For more information about Underground Spirits, visit undergroundspirits.com.au
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