Whisky was once a drink for distinguished older men, sitting on Chesterville lounges smoking cigars – but recently it has had a resurgence like no other liquor we’ve seen. Consumption of local whisky has doubled in the last five years, with new faces entering the once very traditional industry, trying new methods, experimenting and really mixing up the cocktail shaker to see what happens.
David Vitale, founder of local whisky brand STARWARD is a key player disrupting the norm. Taking inspiration from the wine industry, and playing to the strengths of their surroundings means Vitale and his team have created a whisky that, in their terms, “borrows from the past without being constrained by it”.
World Whisky Day is this Saturday, and STARWARD will be holding a party at their Port Melbourne distillery to celebrate in true young fashion. The brand’s 10th birthday is also coming up in June, so we sat on our Chesterville with David Vitale to find out what he has learned in 10 years, what the future holds and the best way to try STARWARD whisky.
First of all, Happy 10th Birthday, STARWARD! In the time it traditionally takes to age a bottle of whisky, you have created a leading Australian spirit – what has been the biggest learning curve in the first 10 years of Starward’s life?
“When we first started in 2007 we thought we would only launch with one product, Solera. It’s a whisky aged in Australian fortified wine (Apera) barrels and unfortunately, with less people drinking fortifieds, the barrel supply has been less sustainable than we had initially planned. Since then, we’ve launched our Wine Cask product, which is aged in predominately Shiraz barrels, and have seen great success. Being able to adapt to the market, stay agile and go beyond even our own preconceptions of what may or may not work has been vital to STARWARD’s growth.”
In the last few years the craft spirit industry in Australia has really taken off. Would you call STARWARD’s success perfect timing, or do you think you have played a part in propelling this trend forward?
“When it comes to timing, whisky takes a minimum of two-three years to mature, so the whole industry is very focused on strategic planning. The ‘perfect timing’ is still yet to come in our eyes. We’re laying away five times more whisky than we’re currently selling because we know how big the demands are going to be in a few years. Australian whisky will see demands similar to what the Japanese whisky industry is seeing now. Honestly, we’ve got a long way to go. There’s a rising trend toward craft spirits but we are where craft beer was in the 90s.
“Part of the shift is breaking down stereotypes and widening our products’ reach. We have seen younger demographics take an interest in whisky. A lot of whisky’s growth is driven by this younger demographic as perceptions of whisky as “an old man’s drink” are changing. When they’re approaching spirits, they’re after the same flavour-driven experiences we get from the world of craft beer and cocktail bartender. We’re all about putting flavour first. Creative cocktail recipes, non-intimidating tasting notes and signature serves that let the whisky shine are all ways to break down barriers and let people be a bit more experimental with something that’s previously been locked away for specific occasions.”
“Beyond this, STARWARD’s modern, Australian whiskies try to be a true reflection of the place and people who make it and I think a lot of savvy drinkers appreciate what we’re trying to achieve.”
One of STARWARD’s strengths is using Melbourne’s unpredictable weather to its advantage to make a premium single malt whisky in 2-3 years rather than the traditional 10. How much practice, science or trial and error did it take to realise you could age the whisky comfortably in a shorter timeframe?
“The effects of Melbourne’s four seasons in a day climate help shape a character of maturation unique to STARWARD. The highly variable climate stimulates the interaction between spirit and wood, one of the factors that aids in the creation of richly flavoured whisky in just a few years. Whilst there is no formula as to how long a barrel of whisky needs to mature, the skills of the maker once again come into play to determine when the whisky is ready. The art of knowing when to remove the whisky is determined by sensory analysis to identify the point at which the character of the spirit is balanced and integrated with the influence of the wood.
“STARWARD is the culmination of nine years of research and development where we adopted, adjusted and re-adjusted distilling and maturation techniques from around the world. We’re a modern whisky, unshackled by tradition that borrows the best bits of the past and combines it with the best Australia has to offer in our barley, our barrels and our climate.”
You moved into your new Distillery in November, your previous location was an old airport hangar – is there anything weird and wonderful about your new Port Melbourne location?
“Our new location is twice as big in terms of floor space and ceiling height. The new site was a manufacturer of huge equipment in the 1920s and has ceilings 12m high. This means we can fit a lot more ageing stock in and really utilise height as well as depth.
“It has a lot of natural light and a big, beautiful whisky bar front and centre. The back bar has hundreds of STARWARD whisky bottles 6m high and is a true reflection of our ambition moving forward.”
For those that might be new to the world of whisky, how would you suggest the best way to try Starward?
“Cocktails. Cocktails are a great way for non-traditional whisky drinkers to give whisky a go. You can tailor the strength and flavour to your taste and lots of people who think they don’t like whisky are surprised when they taste it in a cocktail.”
An easy one for whisky beginners is the Homing Pigeon:
30 mL STARWARD Wine Cask
20 mL Lime
15 mL Honey
Shake all ingredients
Strain into a coupe glass
Top up with ginger beer
Garnish with mint and candied ginger on a toothpick
“We really encourage people to drink STARWARD however they want though. While some people like whisky neat, adding a splash of water really let’s opens up the spirit. If you want to add ice, add ice. It’s yours to enjoy.”
You have already built such a success in your first 10 years, where would you like to see STARWARD end up in the next 10 years?
“We’re still reaching for the stars. Our ambition is to be on every self-respecting back bar around the world in the next five years. While we’ll be working to secure distribution in more international markets, we’ll also be pouring our love and energy into the distillery here in Port Melbourne. We want to see the STARWARD Distillery grow into more of a destination where people can be educated on how we produce, bottle and of course, drink this exceptional spirit.”
For those wanting to check out World Whisky Day at STARWARD’s distillery (50 Bertie Street, Port Melbourne), they are putting on a real spread! A day filled with World Whisky flights, Fancy Hanks food truck, a bar full of STARWARD’s small batch expressions that can’t be found elsewhere, AND the chance to fill your own bottle straight from the barrel! The event kicks off Midday on Saturday, May 20.