In Food + Drink

This Vodka Is Said To Be Australia’s Purest

The Australian craft distilling scene has attracted people from all walks of life. There are carpenters, chemists and sustainability advocates, but few can claim a day job as intense as Dr Toby Angstmann.

The Canberra-based gynecologist is one of Australia’s leading fertility experts and works with incredibly high-tech robots to perform complex, minimally invasive surgery.

It’s a discipline that requires incredible feats of concentration and skill, along with a hint of perfectionism. And when he gets home from work, Angstmann brings those qualities to his side gig.

Underground Spirits

The quest for purity

With Underground Spirits, Angstmann is on a mission to make Australia’s purest vodka. It’s the holy grail of distilling and a quest that reaches back centuries: creating a completely neutral spirit that can be enjoyed on its own, or used as a base for a range of other flavours.

And while most of his colleagues just want to relax when they finish work, the distilling doctor sees himself as part of a proud lineage. “Australia has a rich and continuing tradition of medical practitioners being involved in the production of food and beverages,” he says with evident pleasure.

Underground Spirits

“From Dr Henry Lindeman setting up vineyards in the Hunter valley in 1843, to Dr Kiarna Brown and Beaver Brewery in Darwin in 2018 it’s a constant – I take pride in being part of that.” And the way Angstmann sees things, it’s no coincidence that there’s a longstanding connection between the two fields.

“Medical grade processes require purity,” he explains – all he’s done is apply that impulse to spirit production, along with the curiosity, attention to detail and drive to constantly improve that are vital to success in both fields.

A revolutionary new process

The quest for purity isn’t the only link between robotic surgery and Australia’s purest vodka. They’re also connected by another factor: crystals. In reproductive medicine, it’s important to freeze living cells in a way that avoids crystal formation as the sharp edges could cause catastrophic damage to the cells. When making vodka, Angstmann does the exact opposite.

“Our novel approach for spirit purification was born from exaggerating all the things you avoid doing in medical freezing,” he explains. But that’s just the final part of a complicated process that begins with a base spirit made from Australian grown GMO-free wheat.

Underground Spirits

The copper still removes impurities like sulphites before the spirit undergoes ten stages of carbon filtration and is cooled down to extreme low temperatures for cryofiltration using medical grade filters.

“To give you a sense of scale,” the robotic surgeon says, “Two nanometres is the size of the pores in our filtration membranes. DNA by comparison is 2.5 nanometres wide.” Only a perfectionist would work at this almost unimaginable scale, but the result is vodka that’s not only crystal clear; it’s crystal free.

When the temperature of the spirit is reduced below 0 degrees, the impurities freeze and crystallise, which means they get caught in these nanofilters and removed.

Angstmann invented and patented this system, which requires incredible precision and technical skill, but he says it’s all worth it for what comes out the other end: “the result is an incredibly pure product that almost defies belief.” That means a smooth, clean spirit with a slightly creamy mouthfeel but almost no aftertaste – the very object of his quest.

Taking the next step

He’s not the only one impressed with the results – though it was only formed in 2017, Underground Spirits has already won awards for best Pure Neutral Vodka at the World Drinks Awards and Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

But like a true perfectionist, Angstmann is always looking for another project, and after removing all the impurities from his spirit, he decided that it was time to experiment with adding some flavours back in. “In music, to play a chord you hit a deliberate set of notes,” he says.

“It sounds right, and purity is a clean base from which we play our chord of flavours.”

Underground Spirits

Those chords so far include two gins, a caramel vodka and a coffee vodka made with local cold brew coffee specialists Bellerophon Coffee. Soon the portfolio will include whisky as well, and every one of the bottles shows just what make Underground Spirits so special.

The distillery’s cleverly designed logo is a close-up map of Canberra’s famously roundabout-filled streets that also just happens to look like a snowflake – or a crystal. “Canberra is our home, and it’s cold,” Angstmann acknowledges. “So our logo brings all these things together.”

(All images: Underground Spirits / supplied) 

Published 13 September, 2019