Starward Fortis Single Malt - Batch 1, 50% Abv
Rich and Round
What important factors make for a good brand of whisky?
Flavour is the most important one, no doubt. Under these headers, a whole laundry list of descriptors: crispness, fruitiness, depth of flavour, richness, texture, complexity. I might string a pleasing rhythm of descriptors and fancy myself a minor Bukowski. But really, we’re just talking about aroma and taste here. It’s no rocket science.
Story is less critical but relevant still. Despite the hallowed status of “Pappy” Van Winkle bourbons, you might be surprised to know that no distillery with the name “Van Winkle Distillery” had ever existed. It is recently bottled by Buffalo Trace Distillery – a giant facility which also bottles a huge range of other brands such as Blanton’s, WL Weller and EH Taylor. We’re also been told about the Colonel’s famous “11 herbs and spices” while KFC remains America’s most popular fried chicken. A story – whatever the truth may be – confers a brand so much staying power, and perhaps helps us mindfully enjoy the product even more. (Though I much prefer Filipino chain Jollibee’s fried chicken.)
But it is accessibility, I would argue, that is almost as important as flavour. Even if you produce amazing whisky, if there isn’t enough to go around, don’t expect regular drinkers (read: non-cult fanatics) to talk about it for long. God forbid the only avenue to grab a core range bottle be speculative flippers who trade them like an ape NFT at 10 times the retail price. This just leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.
A rising star from the Australian craft whisky scene, Starward achieves respectable scores for all 3 factors.
They managed to carve out a niche serving the first Australian whisky matured exclusively in red wine casks, and remain one of the few who do this so frequently in the subtropical Melbourne climate. The result is a whisky with distinctive wine-fruit notes, mild tannins, little astringency and generally quite easy to drink. Flavour, check. Story, check.
Accessibility is where Starward shines much brighter than it’s Australian siblings. There are some incredibly good whiskies from Down Under. Yet it was surprisingly difficult for me to track down bottles of Lark and Archie Rose in my recent visit to the country. And don’t even get me started on the elusive Sullivans Cove whose core range is perpetually sold out, and are no going for 3 times the retail price on the secondary market. Starward, on the other hand, has ensured that its core range bottlings (the Nova, Fortis and Two Fold) can reliably be found in any BWS or any Dan Murphy’s liquor store in Australia, or even at local grocery stores in Singapore where I live. The typical consumer would likely have heard of the brand.
All this isn’t to throw shade on operations like Sullivans Cove and Lark – remember that their whiskies are matured in Tasmania. Starward Distillery has the unfair advantage of Melbourne’s highly dynamic climate, speeding up wood-spirit interaction and allowing the whisky to be ready within just 3 to 4 years. On the other hand, whisky matured in cooler regions like Tasmania must normally be aged for at least 6 to 7 years.
It also certainly helped that Starward received funding in 2015 from investors like Scotch giant Diageo, allowing it to massively expand its production capacity from around 80,000 LPA (litres of pure alcohol) a year to 250,000 LPA a year.
I can already feel the eye-rolls of cynics whenever money, branding and the names of large corporates like Diageo are mentioned. But let’s be a little open-minded. Sound business strategy can go hand-in-hand with lovingly-produced craft whisky.
Now, I have with me Batch 1 of the Starward Fortis Single Malt from our Melburnian distillery of the day. The mash is made from Australian malted barley and beer brewers’ yeast, which apparently gives it richer flavour. After distillation, the resulting spirit is filled into ex-Barossa Valley shiraz and cabernet wine barrels made from American Oak. Empty barrels are usually filled when they are still wet with fresh wine - a practice pioneered by Starward. A small proportion of the barrels are charred to add complexity to the Fortis.
This expression comes in at 50% Abv and is non-chill filtered – clearly intended to be the bolder sibling to the Starward Nova which comes in at 41%.
Colour: Auburn, the colour of many straight bourbons.
Nose: Really fruity, clean and candied. Opens with surprisingly dominant notes of Jelly Belly jellybeans and freshly opened pomegranate soaked in notes of golden syrup.
As the aroma opens up, more candied notes and fresh red fruits present themselves: raspberries, strawberries, red cherries and sweet plums, smoothly integrated with pleasant lashings of candle wax, bubblegum and strawberry jelly.
At the end of the tunnel, some discernible sawdust, caramel, and a sliver of black tea. The aromas are bookended by a mild beer-like hoppiness, a mentholic note of mint leaves and slightly spicy notes of cloves.
For the most part, the aroma is clean with very little oakiness or tannins in the way of the pomegranate- and candy- forward notes. There isn’t a lot of complexity in the sense of aromas coming from different directions, but there’s a considerable amount of depth in the theme of fresh red fruits and candies. It’s so distinctive I can’t think of anything from Scotland or Japan resembling this!
In the mouth: Much more complexity with rather rich flavours. Opens with a soft lustre of the same red fruits from the nose – fresh pomegranate, strawberries, but you very soon realise this is accompanied by more prominent earthy notes of tobacco, shiitake mushrooms, oak.
You also get a prickly, peppery, spearmint sensation that slowly builds on the sides of the tongue and back of the throat.
The palate of this dram quickly develops and changes over the next few minutes. Pepperiness and heat is subdued and one just gets an anise-like spice. Fruitiness subsides into a mild honeyed sweetness and Clynelish-style waxiness. Oakiness transforms into a milder vanilla, bitter ground espresso notes and cinnamon.
The level of sweetness and oakiness reminds me of many bourbons, but the unusual candied notes are quite unlike any specific style of whisky I’ve tasted. One could certainly feel the strength of the alcohol but the palate is impressively well-rounded and approachable. Texture-wise, I’d prefer if the mouthfeel is thicker or oilier, but I’m ready to give some concession since this is very big on flavour.
The finish sees a buildup of tannins (which I am less excited about) that dry out the mouth with grape skins and oversoaked black tea leaves that thankfully do not persist. The flavours trail off with a slowly fading aroma of fragrant and woody burning heather from as distance.
As advertised, this is a distinctive-tasting product for sure, and seems to be in its own category of style. How shall I describe this? It exhibits a level of sweetness reminiscent of bourbons, and also a moderate amount of complexity in its fruitiness, oakiness and dryness that remind me of a Sherry-cask Highland Park (although unlike Highland Park, Starward does not use any peat in its whiskies).
Rich in flavour, well-rounded and approachable. I suspect bourbon lovers would appreciate this unusual single malt. Most enjoyable are the distinctive jammy and candied fruit notes that I suspect would slowly become the defining trait of Starward’s red wine cask expressions over the next few years. At this price range, this is good daily sipper that I see myself re-stocking my personal bar with for the conceivable future.
It also seems to me that this is one of the best of Starward’s core ex-red wine cask whiskies. A few months ago I tried the Starward Nova – specially designed to be approachable to new drinkers – and found it too light for my liking. It was almost like the distillery was afraid to offend a non-whisky drinker. I don’t know, perhaps the distillery understands the new drinker better than us.
A candied lolly that I can see myself returning to over and over again.
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