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The Craft Brewer, Winemaker’s Whisky from Melbourne: Starward Distillery

Distillery Spotlight: Starward Distillery

Region: Melbourne, Australia

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

  

 

Perhaps one of the most unimaginable things wrought on by the Covid pandemic is the bringing of air travel to a halt. Air travel, as ubiquitous as it has come to be (and a great activity of life for many), is actually a fairly recent concept. Consider that it was just in 1903 that the Wright brothers flew what was the “first sustained flight by a manned heavier-than-air powered and controlled aircraft” (taken from Wikipedia) – basically an airplane. And the first commercial passenger flight took place in 1914, from Tampa Bay, Florida, USA. In 1920, the first full service airline, the Dutch-operated KLM, began operations.

Just imagine, we went from what is basically pretty much a kite held up by toothpicks (with all due respect to the Wright brothers) to a giant steel bird flying through the skies carrying 500 passengers whose top concern is not falling from the skies but rather how long is it going to take for them to be served their lunch of bulk heated scrambled eggs, tomatoes, bread, butter and of course, a cup of apple juice.

We kind of take that for granted, don't we? I see you shrugging your shoulders in unwilling agreement. So with all of air travel mostly halted, that’s left many air carriers downsizing and decommissioning planes, leaving aircraft hangars empty. In fact it is cheaper to leave your airplane in the dessert of Alice Springs, somewhere midway of Darwin and Adelaide, than to have them in an aircraft hangar.

Would most of us have looked at one of these empty Qantas hangars and thought: "This seems like a great place to make whisky?" Probably not. Well, a Qantas maintenance hangar was how young Australian whiskymaker, Starward, got its start in 2007. 

The rising star from the Australian craft whisky scene, Starward, does something quite rare. It prioritises accessibility, seeking to make whisky on their drinkers’ terms (newer drinks to be specific) – as opposed to dictating what these drinkers ought to drink. But it also manages to develop a distinctive, memorable identity as a craft distiller. 

 

(Image Source: Graham Denholm)

 

If you walk alongside Starward’s founder, David Vitale, you’ll need to reconcile three paradoxes. 

First, craft beer was David’s alcoholic first love– not whisky, and he originally intended to start up a beer microbrewery.

Second, Islay is the name of his daughter, and he loves smoky, spicy and punchy whiskies the likes of peated Scotch and American rye. Yet David makes no apology for building Starward into a brand of as a friendly, approachable whisky that even new drinkers would love. 

Third, Australia is famous for its wineries and abundance of ex-red wine casks lying around. Yet it was not until Starward came along in 2007 that whisky distilleries began using Australian red wine barrels to mature their whisky. 

Like many paradoxes, a closer look would help make sense of everything. So here’s the story and identity of Starward Distillery – the new pioneers of Australia’s craft whisky scene.

 

Whisky is just distilled beer!

 

 

The young David Vitale did not care for whisky. Like many younger Australians, David grew up a craft beer geek. He began making homebrew craft beer, and became increasingly passionate about craft beers that he made too much homebrew for himself or his family and friends to drink. 

One passion lead to another grander idea. Setting up a craft beer brewery and creating his own brand. But he quickly realised there’s a practical problem with all-natural unpasteurised craft beer: it doesn’t travel well. Craft beer must be transported at frigid temperatures with refrigerated trucks to ever stand a chance of retaining its freshness, flavours, texture and aroma. 

 

(Image Source: Brewhound)

 

David also has an American wife, and planned to eventually live in America. Ever the good son-in-law, David really wanted to please his wife’s parents by creating a product that could be geared towards exporting to the United States. The cost of shipping Australian craft beer to America was just too unfeasible. 

Even within Australia, their audience is limited. David was living in Tasmania, the island state off the Australian mainland. Starting a craft brewery in Tasmania meant that his craft beer had to be shipped by sea, then trucked for several hours or even days – under refrigeration, no less – before it may be sold to the rest of the mainland.

The craft beer brewery was shelved.

 

Bill Lark of Lark Distillery (Image Source: Sam Shelley)

 

Around the same time, David was persuaded to go on a whisky distillery visit at a famous Tasmanian single malt distillery – Lark Distillery. The visit at Lark Distillery helped distil a moment of clarity for David: It turned out that everything David loved about Australian craft beer – from the provenance of its ingredients, to the flavours and stories behind them – were equally found in Australian single malts. 

My goodness, these single malts are the craft beers of the whisky industry!” thought David after he met Bill Lark. Then someone knowingly said: “Well, you do realise that whisky is just distilled beer… right?

Not only was David inspired by Lark, it breathed new life into his earlier passion of creating a craft brewery. Whisky also has a seemingly magical property: bottled well, most whiskies can outlive the person who had purchased it whilst retaining almost all of its original flavour. No refrigeration is necessary either. This made whisky a perfect drink for exporting from Down Under.

 

Starward Distillery was first set up in an unused aircraft hangar (Image Source: Adam J., Yelp)

 

David applied to work at Lark Distillery under the tutelage of its founder Bill Lark, to learn all about Australian whisky distillation for three years. He then left in 2007 to found his own craft whisky operation, making whisky right out of an empty Qantas hangar in Essendon Airport, Melbourne. His mission? To produce an accessible (read: easy to drink) but distinctively Australian whisky that has a place amongst the world’s best single malt. 

  

Eventually, Starward shifted its operations to a large warehouse 10 minutes from Melbourne CBD (Image Source: Rez Harditya)

 

You may not immediately see fingerprints of a craft beer geek behind the Starward label. But the influences are there if you know where to find them. Here’s a hint: a good amount of Starward’s distinctive flavours (the depth of richness and bright, sweet tropical fruit notes) can be tasted in the new make spirit, even before it is aged in the barrel.

 

 

This is achieved by its ingredients. A darker-coloured artisanal variety of brewer’s barley is used, instead of typical strains used by distilleries – and according to Starward, this variety brings more flavour at the expense of alcohol yield (this reminds us of the approach touted by Dornoch Distillery). The type of yeast matters as well. Starward uses a brewers’ yeast for fermentation (instead of just distillers’ yeast), which drives up the concentration of fruity esters. 

You can suppose Starward is the result of a beer geek who turned to distilling whisky instead. All these craft beer-inspired tricks and practices are responsible for much of the brightness and fruitiness present in Starward’s whisky, a kind of fruitiness distinct from Japanese and Scotch whiskies.

 

Red wine whisky pioneers

Some say tradition is peer pressure from dead people. When it comes to whisky-making, the “dead” are very much alive in the form of 200-year-old Scottish whisky distilleries. 

While some of the world’s highest quality red wine barrels in the backyard, no Australian whisky producers actually took advantage of this resource, instead focusing on ex-bourbon casks and ex-Apera casks (think of this as Australia’s Sherry). Perhaps they had not lost the shackles of “Old World Whisky” tradition– Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky producers would traditionally use fortified wine casks (or “Sherry casks”), but never Shiraz or Cabernet-type wines.

 

The Starward Nova Single Malt is special for being the first – and one of the few – Australian whiskies to be entirely matured in Australian red wine casks.

 

That’s until Starward came along with a modern and unique interpretation of Australian whisky that speaks of its provenance from Down Under. Starward’s flagship Nova Single Malt is fully matured in fresh red wine barriques that once held Shiraz, Cabernet and Pinot Noir wines from the Barossa Valley, giving it a fresh fruitiness of berries, jam and the nuance of red wine. A distinctive and readily-identifiable profile that now identifies the young Starward Distillery as a truly Australian whisky producer.

 

The modern whisky is really easy to drink 

The thing about drinking a spirit neat is that this is an acquired taste for most people. Few young adults, taken for their first legal drink at 18 (or 21 if you are American), will wash down a dram of whisky neat and say, “Man, thanks for that refreshing Laphroaig, that shit was bussin', gimme another!

150-year-old distillers are beginning to pay attention to new drinkers and try to make spirits as easy to drink as possible. Glenmorangie recently released a single malt that it encourages you to mix with soft drinks or cordials. Many Irish producers developed blends designed to be incredibly light and easy to drink to appeal to the broad masses - the likes of Jameson. Outside Europe, Taiwanese giant Kavalan is keeping up with its beginner-friendly approach by producing lower-proof bottlings suited for the dining table that casual drinkers are more comfortable sipping.

 

Jameson Whiskey is designed to be as approachable as possible to help Irish Distillers Ltd to regain marketshare in the whisk(e)y sector.

 

But all these are examples of product-line extensions by big producers, who nevertheless build their identities around whiskies in the "traditional style" (whatever that may be) that would continue to please long-time whisky drinkers (think of Kavalan's Solist range, and spicy Irish pot still whiskies like Redbreast and Greenspot).

Critical acclaim is important, yet Starward does not fashion itself as an esoteric artist. It must taste distinctive, but its whisky shouldn’t be an acquired taste. The priority is to make whiskies that beginners could actually enjoy. In an insightful interview with Taylor from Malt UK, David Vitale shared his thoughts:

"40% ABV whisky has a place in the world. To consider it as some sort of dilution of the essence of what that product is trying to do is a little bit naïve as well. It’s fitting a need in the market. Not everybody wants poke-you-in-the-eye, slap-you-across-the-face cask strength whisky."

The irony is that David himself loves punchy whiskies that wake you up and knock you around a little. He enjoys bold-flavoured peaty whiskies to the extent of naming one of his daughters Islay. He is also fond of rye whiskeys which are typically filled with spice and dryness. 

Yet, the importance of an approachable Starward – and indeed, any drinker’s first whisky – can’t be emphasised more. To David, an easy-to-drink whisky would spell the difference between winning over a beer-drinking customer who has yet to begin drinking whisky, or losing that customer forever. Such casual drinking customers also comprise the majority of Starward’s potential market. 

 

Velvety whisky from fresh Shiraz casks

 

Most distilleries toast their barrels before using them for maturation. Starward often skips this step. 

 

Developing an easy-to-drink whisky with red wine barrels is also anything but easy. 

Red wine barrels tended to impart a high level of tannins, leathery dryness and acidity – all of which create an astringent taste that would turn off a new drinker. Starward’s team needed a fair bit of experimentation with red wine barrels to obtain an approachable and accessible flavour profile they desired. So while conventional single malt distilleries flame-char their barrels to improve oak flavour extraction, Starward’s barrels are usually uncharred, often filled with spirit when the barrel is still wet with fresh wine. 

The result is much softer and delicate notes of wine fruits from the cask, and more room for the spirit to shine. And while Shiraz wine is known for intense dryness, tannins and pepperiness, Starward’s wine cask whiskies have all the sweet, smooth and velvety with all the fruits of a Shiraz and none of its astringency.

 

Accessibility is Twofold 

 

 

For a craft distiller, Starward also demonstrates a textured understanding of the modern whisky consumer. The aims of an “accessible” whisky are twofold: it is both easy to drink and affordable enough for new consumers to readily purchase them.

 

The Maker’s Mark recipe served as inspiration for Starward’s wheated expressions (Image Source: Maker's Mark)

 

David found inspiration in American bourbon maker, Maker’s Mark, famous for its high-wheat bourbon which makes for softer and easier to drink whiskey.

And hence, furthering its quest to make whisky accessible, Starward developed a single blended “Double Grain” whisky - the Starward Twofold. Like the Nova, the Twofold is matured in fresh red wine casks. More importantly, this is not a single malt. It is made from malted barley and wheat and bottled at 40% ABV. 

The Twofold is a whisky with all the richness, brightness and creaminess known to Starward, but also has a pleasant smoothness, roundness and silkiness that single malts struggle to attain. And because most of the whisky is made from wheat (60%), production costs are kept low because grain whisky can be distilled in highly efficient column stills. 

Starward’s official website proudly presents Twofold as an accessible drink:

To make a whisky that was as affordable and approachable as we wanted, we had to tear up the rule book.

Its taste profile is not terribly complex. But it delivers a creamy, smooth and very drinkable dram, at a significantly more affordable price for new whisky drinkers. Some marketers may disagree with Starward’s approach and say it was a mistake to associate their brand with the idea of “affordability”. Yet the popularity and success of Starward can speak for itself. David Vitale is probably on to something.

 

Four seasons, every day

At present, none of Starward’s whiskies have an age statement. Most of their expressions (save for cask strength expressions for the rarefied connoisseurs’ market) are only about 2 to 4 years old. So how do their whiskies exhibit so much depth and creaminess?

 

(Image Source: University of Melbourne)

 

The final ingredient to the Starward formula is Melbourne’s highly variable climate. Unlike Scotland, or even Tasmania (where the climate is much cooler than the rest of mainland Australia), Melbourne has a subtropical oceanic climate and is known to experience four seasons in a day, everyday. Temperatures can go from 34°C to 21°C within 20 minutes, and vary by 20 degrees within a single day.

This causes barrels to expand and contract as temperatures rise and cool, “working harder” at interacting with with the whisky. And while most distilleries quietly keep some whisky in barrels for posterity, Starward does not keep any whisky in barrels longer than four years. After all, Starward’s distillate is designed for a shorter maturation period. In another interview, David Vitale explained how this works:

"… a lot of distillates, are actually made for time and for age. It's never that a shorter maturation means that it's a worse whisky or a longer one means that it's better. If we left our whisky in a barrel for 10 years, it'd be terrible. It would just basically be chewing on an oak stave – it would just be over-oaked and overcooked. In the same way that spirits in Scotland are made for age– there are some six-year-old whisky in Scotland that you just wouldn't want to drink."

And therefore the magic of Melbourne’s climate along with a suitable distillate allows Starward to create whiskies that quickly become mellow, rich and complex within a much shorter timeframe. 

 

An olive branch to whisky fanatics

Much of the brand is built around smooth and easy-drinking whisky that could convince craft beer drinkers to make a leap into whisky. What about hardcore malt maniacs who demand even more depth in flavour and a higher proof? Some people – myself included – do occasionally want that “poke-you-in-the-eye, slap-you-across-the-face cask strength whisky”.

Starward has an answer to these folks.

 

The Starward Fortis Single Malt - 50% ABV

 

The typical Starward expression comes in at around 43% ABV and undergoes chill filtration to remove the tannins of wine barrels. The Starward Fortis is similarly made with red wine barrels, but comes in at a higher proof 50% ABV and is non-chill filtered – making for a significantly more intense, oaky and nutty whisky with a finish of lingering baking spice. 

 

The Starward 2016 Apera Single Cask Single Malt – French Connections - 58.5% ABV

 

And for those craving for a rich “sherry bomb”, Starward occasionally flexes its muscles with impressive single cask bottlings. The recently released Starward Apera had been matured in Australian fortified wine (or Apera) and comes in at a punchy 58.5% ABV, delivering an unapologetically powerful palate layered with thick layers of dried red fruits, aromatic oak and heavy espresso notes.

 

Our Take

Whisky is a spirit steeped in tradition and age-old “tried-and-true” practices. The whisky distiller’s playbook is a centuries-old one. Enthusiasts – myself included – often have a certain veneration for the old ways, the use of heritage grains, the preservation of old, non-mechanised practices (like floor-malting) that signify a commitment to craftsmanship.

Starward is remarkable for successfully charting an independent course in the way it makes whisky, and the way it serves whisky. There’s a confidence in its identity: tradition isn’t followed for tradition’s sake, and the founders draw inspiration from elements from Australian wine culture or American bourbon legacy in crafting a distinct identity.

It all makes sense when we realise this isn’t a story about whisky, but a story about Melbourne.

 

(Image Sources: City of Melbourne, Boss Hunting)

 

Melbourne is home to a culturally diverse community. Anyone who has been to Melbourne would be familiar with vibrant food scene which combines the best of East Asian, Indian and European culinary influences– a product of migrants from everywhere bringing their stories to the table. Fusion food here actually tastes great. 

And we think Starward is an extension of the incredible Melbournian culinary story. This is probably why Starward also calls itself “Whisky for a food-obsessed generation” and is always recommending dish pairings with its expressions. 

 

Starward Solera paired with some Thai stir-fried basil chicken (Image Source: Starward)

 

Starward Twofold paired with some cheese and quince jelly (Image Source: Starward)

 

The general rule is to pair Starward with anything that goes well with red wine - whether they are cheeses, beef steak or other rich foods. 

Regardless what cynics might think, we say Starward’s commitment to accessibility is an unqualified gift to whisky lovers – from new drinkers to malt maniacs. Supply shortage is an admittedly serious problem that plagues both Japanese whisky (each Chichibu Single Malt is a prized artefact) and Australian craft distillers (Sullivans Cove regularly surpasses a thousand dollars on the secondary market). Hell for a whisky lover isn’t drinking disappointing whisky, but the frustration of always missing the chance to taste that bottle everyone is raving about.

 

Our favourites are:-

Entry Level: Starward Twofold, Starward Solera, Starward Fortis

Moderate: Starward 2016 Apera Single Cask, Starward Octaves, Starward 3 Years Old - That Boutique-y Whisky Company

Top Shelf: Starward X Cunard The Seafarer

 

@CharsiuCharlie



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