Behind the scenes: Australian whisky at Starward distillery
Stepping into the Starward distillery in Melbourne, Australia, the brand’s modus operandi – making whisky approachable – is instantly clear. The wide, open space seems to say “come inside” with all the warmth and sincerity to be expected from its home city.
Australian whisky is becoming increasingly well-known, with Starward having won multiple awards for their expressions in 2022. Largely matured in ex red-wine casks, these whiskies offer a fruitiness and depth of flavour that has turned around many a whisky-phobe. We visited the distillery to find out more…
How does making whisky – Scotland’s most-famous drink – work, in a country whose climate is twice as hot and changeable as the mother country? Well, it works a little differently.
Tasmania, Australia’s smallest (and coldest) state – an island home to just over 500,000 people – is where most of the country’s distilleries can be found. But all are small in scale compared to the big players of global whisky production. Sullivan’s Cove and Lark are two of the better known names, and have been making whisky for well over 20 years. In fact, Dave Vitale – Starward’s Italian-Australian founder – first flexed his whisky muscles in the early 2000s learning at Lark distillery with founder Bill Lark.
Starward’s vision was different to the Tassie distilleries though. They wanted to create a globally recognised whisky that worked within the Victorian environment. Dave didn’t wanted to create a drink reminiscent of a Northern Hemisphere product. Another key for Starward was using local ingredients: their grain to bottle process sees their raw ingredient coming from Geelong just an hour’s drive from the city. Due to the warm and varied Melbourne weather, Starward whisky matures in half the time of a Scottish whisky, extracting flavour from the red wine barrels in just three-eight years. The brand refer to this as “elemental maturation” and say they couldn’t make their whisky anywhere else as a result.
How they do it
Melbourne is famous for having “four seasons in one day”. Honestly, you’re likely to hear this phrase upwards of 100 times if you visit the city – don’t say we didn’t warn you. What that means in practice is that the head distillers need to be on-the-ball with watching how the extremely changeable weather is affecting the maturation of the spirit.
The whisky making process starts off extremely similarly to beer – a barley wash is produced – which gets malted then heated to become a sticky sugary solution. This is then added to brewer’s yeast, and alcohol starts to be produced – at about 8% ABV. This product then gets put into the copper stills, where it is boiled, and will later become whisky.
The main casks used for maturation are red wine casks (from Yalumba – one of Australia’s oldest vineyards), but, sherry (known as apera in Australia as it can’t legally be named sherry) casks are also used in Starward’s Solera expression. The distillery frequently work on rarer, limited edition and often Australia-only runs, such as a honey whisky made in collaboration with Her bar in Melbourne. The most recent limited release Dolce, is finished in Sicilian dessert wine barrels and has a unique toasted marshmallow sweetness.
Unusually, Starward is matured, bottled, and drunk (in the distillery bar) all in the same Port Melbourne warehouse. This vast space smells heady and wonderful, and visiting, there is a real buzz to the place. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, Starward doesn’t need to adhere to the same Scottish or European rules for making whisky, and this gives the brand freedom to experiment, and freedom to set their own parameters. This also means you won’t offend anyone if you want to talk about drinking Starward in a cocktail, or find out how best it works when mixed with other drinks. Dave Vitale’s own recommendation is mixing the Nova expression into a punch with green tea and maple syrup – we will certainly be trying this for a party cocktail.
Starward employees clearly live and breathe food and drink: their passion for hospitality is obvious, and unsurprising in Melbourne (the food and drink capital of Australia). Everyone from the brewers to the bartenders has a wealth of knowledge of local restaurants and bars, and the global whisky scene.
The brand’s ethos of approachability and experimentation is extremely infectious, and we have a hunch that Dave and his team’s bravery in challenging the old world of whisky is going to serve Starward well for years to come.
Where to buy Starward whisky in the UK
Starward mature Left Field specifically for their European market in French oak barrels – and as the whisky is shipped over on a boat it encounters a different journey to the whisky sold within Australia. We love Left Field for its bold fruitiness, reminscent of pineapple and muscatels – it’s no surprise it won double gold at the 2022 World Spirits Competitions. It’s available from Waitrose, The Whisky Exchange and Master of Malt in the UK.
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