Whisky is a truly global beverage. While Scotland and Ireland may be its birthplace, today, whisky is made all over the world, from the frosty fjords of Sweden to the baking tropical shores of southern India.
Australia, of course, is far from an upstart in the whisky world. While a long legacy of prohibition means the Australian distilling industry got a later start than some other nations, today, dozens of distilleries are producing delectable whisky, rum, brandy, and gin. But until recently, precious few Australian distilled spirits made it to the United States. It’s a long way, after all, and the combination of thirsty locals and very high tax rates on spirits made in Australia have conspired to make Australian bottles particularly rare in the United States.
That’s why we’re so excited to be sharing a very special Australian whisky with some of our club members this month. Starward Whisky in Melbourne, Australia, was founded in 2007, but its award-winning whisky only become available in the U.S. as of early 2019. Inspired by the convivial atmosphere of Melbourne’s world-class bars and clubs, as well as the innovative spirit of nearby winemakers, Starward is dedicated to making approachable, easy-to-love whiskies with a uniquely Australian heart. We caught up with founder David Vitale to learn more about what makes Starward’s barrels so special, how Melbourne’s dynamic climate impacts maturation, and what David takes to a summer barbecue (hint: it involves a punch bowl).
Melbourne is located on Australia’s south coast, where it enjoys a warm, dry climate with big fluctuations between high and low temperatures. That means whisky matures faster here. Temperature swings help push the whisky in and out of the pores in the wood more frequently, while dry conditions mean water evaporates from the cask rather than spirit, concentrating the liquid and increasing its alcohol content.
“Time is such an important variable in maturation, but so is place,” says David. “Our climate stimulates the interaction between spirit and wood with large changes in temperature, helping to create a richly flavored whisky in just a few years. The temperature in Melbourne can fluctuate up to 12.5 degrees C (55 degrees Fahrenheit) within a day in the summer months, and even during our cooler winter months, our barrels are working just as hard as barrels in the height of the short Scottish summer. Rather than resting in the bond store, we think our barrels are the hardest working barrels in the world.”
How long does it take to age a barrel of Starward whisky? David says there’s no hard and fast rule, only that it takes less time than a comparable whisky would take in a more temperate climate like Scotland. “There is no formula as to how long a barrel of whisky needs to mature,” he explains. “It is the decision of the team as to when the whisky is ready.”
Aging in a warm climate isn’t the only special thing about Starward. This is perhaps the only distillery in the world that ages its whisky exclusively in used wine casks, specifically casks sourced from local winemakers in South Australia. Full-term wine cask maturation isn’t unheard of in Scotch whisky, but it’s pretty rare, and for a distillery to devote itself entirely to wine casks is an exceptional move. “We pioneered this as an approach,” says David. “And in doing so, we have created the template for the Australian whisky category, a whisky matured in Australian wine barrels.”
Casks come from throughout south Australia, and might have held any of a number of different wine types, including shiraz, pinot noir, grenache, or even Apera, an Australian style of fortified wine similar to Spanish sherry. By using a range of cask types, David says they can achieve a balanced profile that includes notes from the wine like berry, currant, and green herbs as well as oak-driven flavors like toast, spice, and vanilla. Plus, using different kinds of barrels makes good business sense, too. “The product Apera produces is sentimentally my favorite, but it is increasingly difficult to find these barrels as the fortified wine industry in Australia is in decline,” says David. “So we learned then that having one barrel type is a risk to sustaining growth of the business long term.”
When David founded Starward in 2007, he had a specific goal: Make a whisky that was affordable, approachable, and distinctly Australian. Early on, Starward embraced cocktails, casual drinking, and a democratic attitude, setting it apart from more established super-premium brands that might blanch at the idea of combining their whisky with other ingredients.
That attitude very much holds true today. David says his nightly ritual is a Manhattan made with Starward Nova, the whisky we’re sharing with club members. “It is the perfect whisky for any cocktail that has vermouth in it, given the red wine characters,” says David. But Nova’s versatile. David says it’s a great base for batch cocktails, a format that’s ideal for parties. “As the weather warms up, I like bringing a bottle to a barbecue and making a whisky-based Sangria in a punchbowl to make it a more universal drink for everyone,” says David.
Even if you didn’t get a bottle of Starward Nova in your club shipment this month, don’t despair. With the national launch earlier this year, it’s only a matter of time before you get the chance to taste this Down Under gem for yourself.
For more information: www.starward.com.au