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To Infinity And Beyond: Inside Starward's Masterclass By Founder David Vitale (+ Reviews!)

 

How often is it that you read about someone's insane story of starting a nationally massive and internationally recognised brand all in a discarded airplane hangar, and then you get to meet them in the flesh?

Well, seems like my time has come - just as well Melbourne's Starward had just unveiled a rebranding - and I finally got to meet the man David Vitale himself!

| Read More: The Starward Distillery Deepdive: The Craft Brewer, Winemaker’s Whisky from Melbourne

  

 

Lovely man I should say, so as to hold off any suspense.

David was in Singapore to unveil Starward's new brand identity - what's wrong with the old one?! - yeah I really liked the old one too, and often I'm rather skeptical about new packaging, but when I got to see the new one in the flesh (the man in the flesh as well), well, I think this is the first time I've actually liked the new theme even better!

The core expressions - Nova, Two-Fold and Solera - got new clothes, while a couple of new releases came in to join the party, so we've got the 100 Proof, the Vitalis which was launched last year as part of the Aussie distillery's 15th anniversary, and then the new exciting single malt that's been finished in ex-Lagavulin smoky Islay barrels.

The new theme is very intergalactic and futuristic. It's got that 80's almost retro, yet vaporwave vibe - I like it! It's hard to go wrong with such a good name anyway.

   

  

As the masterclass got underway, David gave a brief introduction about how the idea for Starward came to be. He shared his Aussie love for craft beers, but some digging informed him that beer didn't travel well, and wouldn't be a brand that could go out from Down Under and be shared with the world. His subsequent visit to a Kiwi distillery opened his eyes to the wonders of single malt whisky and thus set off his passion for starting what would become Starward.

He warmly told us about how Starward was crafted with the locality in mind - that means Aussie ingredients, casks and sensibilities. This translates to the use of wheat and barley - the two largest Aussie agri exports - as well as heavy use of local wine (think Cabernet's and Shiraz, big reds!) and Apera (fortified wine, or Australian "sherry") casks, and the goal of creating whiskies that paired well with food (an homage to Melbourne's food culture) and Australian occasions like a backyard BBQ or wintery nights.

  

The man himself, David Vitale.

 

He also shared his heartfelt and sincerest hope for Starward to capture these Australian qualities that are very much a part of his own identity, and that it can be a love letter from Australia to the world. He talked about how he'd meekly shared with a Dan Murphy's sales rep that his goal was to compete with the likes of Balvenie, and that years later he received that fated call that he had accomplished his goal, and today Starward sits on shelves worldwide alongside the likes of decades old storied Scotch and centuries old blends.

As such this night I got to try Starward's flight alongside a food pairing, with David popping in and out to tell us the stories behind each expression and his tasting experience - and you're coming!  

Starward Two-Fold - Tasting Notes & Review

First of the night, we had the Two-Fold, which David shared was inspired his desire to capture the Australian landscape where wheat and barley were two of Australia's biggest agri exports and so he felt that it was absolutely necessary to have an expression that reflected as much.

After distilling a wheat whisky and a malt whisky, the two distillates were then vatted in a 60 / 40 proportion which is subsequently wet filled (wine casks come in at night, whisky filled by morning) in Australian wine casks from a local P-fold's winery, where it stays to age for the full duration of the ageing (which is about 3-4 years).

  

 

What initially struck me was how unique it was to include wheat whisky in the expression - wheated whiskies are not common outside the US by any means, whilst ironically, wheated whiskies are a big hit in the US (think Pappy's, Maker's Mark, Weller). Seems like real untapped potential here!

And what's more, this wasn't just done for the sake of it, rather it has a real sincerity about it - it's absolutely inspired by the local environment with 100% Australian ingredients! 

But uniqueness and a great story doesn't cut it, does it? Onto the taste test!

  

  

Nosing it, there's lots of honey decked upon a pot of stewed peaches and apricots - just incredibly estery and fruity. As you get past the brighter scents, there's more dense fruity notes of raspberry jam, and then over time, even more interestingly, there's a funkiness of overripe banana! How interesting!

On the palate, it was more of the same, but with the addition of cherry candy and alittle bit more savouriness of honey soy sauce.

It had a clean finish that was also rather aromatic and perfumed, with banana candy and cherry candy, before deepening into more on black grape skins and a little bit of fruity but tart balsamic. 

 

Starward Two-Fold, paired with Hokkaido Scallops with Onion, Two-Fold whisky butter sauce and avruga caviar.

 

I found the Two-Fold incredibly complex and unique with this three way split between wheat whisky, malt whisky and the red wine barrel flavours. This was incredibly interesting to me and obviously also delectable with all these fruity flavours whilst keeping to an otherwise clean and fresh palate.

It's an often outlined goal for whiskymakers to say that their whiskies pair well with food, but this one really delivered. Because it was so approachable but also complex and fresh, it makes a good complement to quite the range of lighter or heavier food flavours - in this case, it was paired with some scallops in what was for me an incredibly delicious butter sauce.

Great start!

Starward Nova - Tasting Notes & Review

Now we move to the Nova, which as David elaborates is the malt whisky component in the Two-Fold but isolated, so here we're told to expect something heavier bodied, richer and rounder.

David mentioned that the goal here was to make a whisky that would be a good reference point to single malt Scotch whisky, but obviously an Aussie take on it, with local barley and of course Red Wine barrels.

Let's see how it pares up!

 

 

Now, I've always thought that being an Aussie distillery comes with great benefits - few distilleries are in such proximity to high quality world class local wineries. In that sense, they're getting actually ex-Red Wine barrels, rather than Red Wine-seasoned barrels, which is often the case with whiskies from elsewhere. The big difference being that seasoned barrels make use of low quality wine that is meant to simply imbue a bit of flavour to a barrel and then be tossed, whereas real ex-Red Wine barrels were filled with quality wine that's eventually bottled and sold for drinking.

So in my books, that's a perhaps understated but big advantage for Starward. As mentioned earlier, Starward wet fills these red wine barrels within hours of being emptied of its wine (that's bottled and sold by P-folds) so you're getting a whisky that's really soaking in all these rich red wine flavours. David mentioned that something like 120 red barrels goes into each batch.

 

 

With the Nova I certainly got bigger, bolder aromas of honey, peaches and apricot - it's thicker and more syrupy here, with darker, denser sweeter flavours. Over time, it airs and blooms into a bouquet of rose water and strawberry jam.

On the palate, I got lots of stewed orchard fruits, mulled wine and spices, and also lots of raspberry and blackberry jam. Over time it turns alittle more savoury with a touch of marmite, and. then back onto that funky banana compote note. On the finish, it got more umami, with this earthiness of dried mushrooms and miso paste. 

 

Starward Nova, paired with Octopus, Stracciatella cheese, pistachio crumble, and harissa sauce. 

 

Compared to the Two-Fold, this was definitely punchier and stronger, with lots of darker, denser flavours, albeit expectedly less complex. That makes sense because here you're getting one part of the Two-Fold, but you're also getting more of it, so it's also more intense. It was very balanced and well-contrasted between sweet and savoury, and has an even more intense flavour of those fruit jams. Oh and talk about that curious umami bit at the finish.

This was paired with some octopus that was really tender, and came with some harissa sauce that added a smoky, roast chilli complexity. Solid pairing, I'd say.

Starward Solera - Tasting Notes & Review

Solera isn't just some intergalactic sounding name that Starward chose to complement its already very futuristic new clothes. It's a method used by Sherry bodegas where barrels of Sherry are stacked in layers atop layers, with the layer on the floor level (the Solera) being the oldest aged Sherry, and the layer closest to the ceiling being the youngest.

 

The Solera system. (Image source: Sherry Notes)

 

This is a traditional practice that has been carried out for centuries where a portion of Sherry is drawn from the floor level barrels (the oldest) for bottling, and Sherry from the layer above (a younger Sherry) is used to replace what's drawn from the layer below. This is then applied continuously layer upon layer all the way to the top most layer. In that sense it appears like a waterfall.

The goal here is to help the Sherry marry more cohesively to produce a more silky texture and well rounded flavour.

  

 

So how does it apply here? Well, Sherry is a fortified wine that can only be named as such if it comes from the Sherry triangle in Spain. Nonetheless, Australia too is home to some incredibly high quality fortified wines that follow the same process, but are instead known as Apera.

Paying homage to this Australian craft, David talked about how for the Solera single malt whisky, he has a large vat of Starward whisky where he draws some whisky out of for bottling, the equivalent amount of which is filled with new Starward single malt - alittle bit like the idea of a Solera. This means that in some ways, everything from what went into the first bottle of Solera, continues to stay in the vat in theory, and so each batch builds on top of that. The idea of which is to create a rich, well-rounded, well-married expression.

 

 

For the Solera, you see a markedly darker amber tone whisky. Its aromas are also deep and darker, with more on spiced honey and mulled wine. It has lots of dried fruit aromas too, with raisins, orange peels, and also chocolate and creme brulee.

On the palate, it keeps that consistency, but it's alittle more tannic with some red grape must - big, dark and juicy. Lots of Christmas-y notes of raisins, fruit cake, walnuts. On the finish there's custard pudding and sticky date toffee pudding.

  

Starward Solera, paired with Suckling Pig, saffron pilaf rice, confit cherry tomatoes and brown jus. 

  

The Solera had a very warm, Christmas-y / Thanksgiving sort of quality to it, with these rich, darker, sweeter notes that is what you intuitively think about on a cold night. I actually really loved this alot because rather than being a traditional Sherry-aged whisky - the flavours here are certainly comparable - this was unique in having a brighter and less dense texture, whilst keeping with those warm flavours.

In that sense, I found it very approachable and easy to enjoy and I just didn't ever find it too cloying as I do with those typical Sherry bombs. This was alot fresher and yet just as flavour rich. Went great with the suckling pig, which too had Starward whisky flambeed on it! It was quite the spectacle.

Starward 100 Proof - Tasting Notes & Review

Now, we're past the halfway mark and we have the 100 Proof.

American whiskey fans would immediately catch a whiff from its name what this expression might have taken inspiration from - the beloved BiB tradition!

BiB stands for Bottled in Bond, which is a unique American practice where the government federally regulates the maturation of whiskies which must comply with key standards including being bottled at 100 proof, aged at least 4 years, and produced at a single distillery within a single distillation season.

    

 

David shared about his love for Bourbons such as the Rittenhouse expression from Heaven Hill, and how he wanted to pay homage to this tradition considering the use of American oak in this expression alongside the Starward signature Red Wine barrels.

The 100 Proof is definitely more punchy on the nose, with a deep layer of honey here and in fact this comes with a herbal quality that's rather like manuka honey and butterscotch. Overall very rich and rounded, with an almost smouldering quality of a big block of maltose syrup melting.

 

 

On the palate, more of that maltose candy, but still topped with raisins, cooked plums and figs, as well as some chocolate syrup. The finish was also noticeably more nutty, and then backed by leather, and more earthy notes of dried mushrooms, raisins and the same plums and figs.

 

Starward 100 Proof, paired with Vintage Galician Prime Rib, mash potato, bone marrow sauce and charred broccolini. 

 

This was by far the biggest and boldest (it's also the highest proof thus far!) - lots of richness and heft - and you can distinctly find the American oak influence here. You could characterise this as being really big and muscular, yet rounded, like a giant block of honeycomb dotted with sherry notes.

What I also really liked was how mellow it was, it was prickly nor aggressive. It was mellow but very flavoursome. It's heft and weight also commands a sort of importance about it - like it was cut especially for celebrations. And hence we're having it paired with a lovely choice cut of prime rib. Lovely fattiness and beefyness, incredibly tender and of course fantastic broccolini to boot! Meat, whisky and charred garden vegetables are an unbeatable combo!

Starward Vitalis - Tasting Notes & Review

As we run through expression after expression, I wonder what it must feel like for David - it were as if we were combing through the chapters of the past 15 years of his life's work! Behind every drop of whisky must have been triumphs and heartaches that you'd never guess, given his incredibly warm, genuine, humble, outgoing personality.  

And thus it seems befitting we get to try the Vitalis expression. This expression celebrates the 15th anniversary of the distillery and thus - as you must have begun to spot a trend by now - pays homage to key aspects of the distillery's history and identity. This comes in the form of comprising of six whisky parcels that tell the story of Starward - they include red wine barrels, tawny, bourbon, apera and rum barrels, which were aged 4-10 years and then put together.

It's name is of course an ode to David himself and his efforts that have culminated in Australia's most recognisable whisky brand - Starward.

 

 

The Vitalis was quite unlike the Starward's from before - it was certainly darker and denser, closest probably to the Solera, and rather than those bright red berries, here was more of raspberries coated in dark chocolate. There were also bits of candied pineapple and wood spice - it's alittle bit of everything all combined in a pot.

 

 

On the palate, it carried across the dark chocolate and dried red berries, and for some reason made me think of Mexican hot chocolate, which was an interesting experience to say the least as its got chillies chucked in. The Vitalis nonetheless embodied the more traditional Sherry malt whisky notes of leather, tobacco leaves, before more of that classic Starward tart red berries came through on the finish, with some of that umami earthiness.

  

Starward Vitalis, paired with a Treacle Tart with whisky chocolate whip, whisky caramel and vanilla sponge.

 

Perhaps somewhat poetic, this came paired with dessert, which was an absolutely lovely treacle tart - that I unabashedly thoroughly enjoyed despite how decadent it was.

Overall, the Vitalis had alot of flavours going on, and again commanded more weight, given its darker, heftier sensibility. You still do find the hallmarks of those Aussie red wine barrels, but here you get alittle bit more of everything else as well. If I had to compare it to something, I'd call this hot chocolate.

Starward Single Malt Finished in Ex-Lagavulin Casks - Review & Tasting Notes

And while those five lovely expressions have neatly wrapped up the Starward story, we've got one final expression that points us onward!

The latest, and probably what's gotten whisky folks very excited, ex-Lagavulin finished Starward single malt!

Now, we already know Islay has its fans, so traversing to such a territory was bound to drum up excitement. I don't quite think we've gotten anything similar from Australia yet.

   

 

Save to say the obvious here, but this was a collaboration between Starward and Islay's Lagavulin (where's Nick Offerman!), where Starward got their hands on some of Lagavulin's casks to finish (we're talking 18 months here) its otherwise Aussie single malt red wine barrel matured whisky.

But something worth pointing out is that the idea of using ex-Islay cask is particularly fascinating because traditionally most distillers would have to import peat in order to weave the smokiness into their whiskies. You see this with the Japanese distilleries. However, a couple of years ago, someone ingeniously thought to go at it from a different angle - what if we'd finish the whiskies in an ex-smoky whisky barrel rather than peating the barley?

That's created some interesting results! You can bet the effect isn't quite the same. Although I have to wonder if Australia has local peat... Hmm.

  

 

This one started off smoky as you might've already guessed (would be weirder if it didn't right?) - very big, aromatic plumes, yet not bitter! There was more on seawater, kombu, as well as some smoked butter and honey.

On the palate, there was a distinct flavour I hadn't yet gotten in Starward, which was that of black tea. More on those seaspray here too, and then it turns more medicinal with the signature Islay iodine and vegetal seaweed notes. There was also more of that herbal manuka honey. This mostly carried through to the finish, with the additional of some cough syrup.

 

 

This was quite the hit with the bunch of folks at the masterclass - so definitely a crowdpleaser - surprisingly with the ladies in particular! On my end, I found this equal parts Islay and equal parts Starward, albeit the Islay component was of course more conspicuous, but you still got the deep richness of the Starward base there.

In Conclusion

Now wasn't that a fun masterclass! It isn't everyday you get to meet the man who makes your whisky. That aside, it was almost ridiculous how down to earth David was, as he shared with us his thoughts about the various expressions that signpost his journey in establishing Starward. An incredibly big personality, but so outrageously friendly, and also really forthcoming with sharing about the whiskies.

Running through the range of Starward's whiskies, you get the sense that it's quite the unique whisky that has the ability to span a wide spectrum of weightclasses, from really bright, fruity and refreshing to much more muscular, dark and decadent. On top of that, you're most assured of always getting those lovely red fruits in their expressions which is always a big hit, and at incredibly great value and availability as well! For me, the aspect of how Starward is crafted with the continuous desire to pay homage to Australia was a particular standout as I appreciate when a spirit can capture the essence of where it's from.

Fruity whiskies, great value, awesome story - what's to complain about?

The food was also fantastic, it was a great pairing, and all in all, a great re-introduction to the brand new Starward.

If you're looking to find Starward's whiskies in Singapore, you can find them over at Malt Wine Asia (you can even get them in miniatures!) who is their official distributor here. If you're elsewhere, definitely keep a look out for them!

  

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot