For all the stick they get here on MALT, a good brand ambassador can be an asset to both the distillery and the whisky-drinking public.
As with all areas of human interaction, it helps to focus on our similarities rather than our differences. Like those of us that write and read here, you’re typically talking about a person with a passion for whisky. As a shared point of departure, that’s all you really need.
The ones that do the job well educate themselves beyond the superficial shelf label talking points. They can cogently elucidate the history, philosophy, and process of the distillery, weaving that thread through their explanations of the company’s range.
I also find that they’re better when you can get them one-on-one, rather in a group setting where they’re expected to perform (and might not be sure who’s listening, besides). I don’t mean this in the sense of “telling tales out of school,” but I prefer the more natural interaction that comes in the form of a conversation between two people, ideally over a dram or several.
While pouring free whisky for a set of attentive consumers might seem like a dream job, I am aware that it’s not all fun and games. Pounding the pavement day in and day out, spending long stretches of several weeks away from the comforts of home and one’s family, it’s easy to see how the novelty would wear off quickly. I’ve long been interested in having a frank discussion of the less glamorous particulars of the position – again, something that doesn’t lend itself to the group tasting format.
Of course, brand ambassadors remain haute couture versions of salespeople at the end of the day. Their job is to promote a set of whiskies, and to educate consumers and the trade in furtherance of that end. They’re not critics, nor are they meant to be. That’s our job.
So what would a meeting of a critic and a brand ambassador look like? You’re about to find out.
My recent review of the Starward Nova caught the attention of Starward’s U.S. brand ambassador Jake Hukee (pronounced “hooky;” amusingly, his dad was a high school principal), who offered to sit down and taste through their range with me. Our conversation – including my narrated tastings of the whiskies – has been reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Full disclosure: all samples were provided free of charge; I didn’t take any bottles home with me.
MALT: So, how did you get your start?
Jake: My grandfather was an engineer at Jim Beam. I grew up hearing those stories. My parents were teachers, my other grandparents owned a restaurant; his stories were so much different than the adults I grew up with. I didn’t know any of the terminology, but there were always these characters he was talking about. You come to be a little bit older, and you realize, “That’s Baker Beam, that’s Fred Noe, that’s Booker!” These are the guys he’s interacting with. Legends, if you will.
My other grandfather taught me how to drink, how to really taste the notes. He’s Italian, we always had table wine out. I had an interest in craft beer; I started writing for Good Beer Hunting. I found out about the local things going on with Koval and Journeyman and FEW. I reached out to Koval for a part-time job, got it, and it took off from there.
I met Dave Vitale, who is the owner of the company, at WhiskyFest last year. He offered me a job on the spot. Right place at the right time!
MALT: What’s the hardest part about being a brand ambassador?
Jake: There’s always this constant doubt in your head, if I did enough? “Did I see enough accounts today, did I go to the right accounts today, did I sell enough bottles?” Thursday was the first day of the week where I feel like I did my job properly because I sold the store out. That was a good day, that was worth it.
I was [invited to a client’s masterclass with Eddie Russell] for an hour and a half, two hours, in the middle of the afternoon, which is prime to go visit accounts. You’re sitting there, listening to Eddie Russell educate their staff. Afterward, Eddie Russell and I sat down for 45 minutes and had a conversation. You don’t get that every day. But then you think, “Alright, I had this amazing conversation with a living legend of bourbon. But I could have been out there selling whisky, too!” Would Dave, my boss, have stayed for that conversation? Absolutely.
MALT: When you sit down and have a conversation with your boss, what are your key performance indicators?
Jake: Are we getting menu placements, are we doing a lot of events where we can be face-to-face with customers? My job isn’t directly sales, it’s more about brand education. How many Binny’s did we go to this week to train the staff? How many tastings did we do? We have a great sales team, but I have to go be with that sales team to provide more insight, because they’re selling three or four brands. A lot of accounts appreciate that special touch of someone from that brand. Be passionate, be informed. Tell them something different. Educate them about why your whisky is different.
MALT: Is there more emphasis on retail vs. menu placement?
Jake: For us, it’s more the retail at this point, that’s where you can get paid. Sometimes people take it home, share it with friends. There’s certain bars in Chicago where I want to be on their cocktail menu, but only if they’re going to put Starward Nova, Starward Two-Fold, actually on the menu.
MALT: How have things changed with Distill Ventures and Diageo in the mix?
Jake: I have never met anybody from Diageo. It’s really not mentioned. When I go to whisky events, there’s a giant Diageo bar set up with their big players on there. [Starward] could eventually be that some day, but for now, it’s like, “Do what you do. Here’s the money. Here’s help with the marketing, help with how we’ve gone throughout the world and helped companies grow and develop into what they are now.” Those guys from Distill Ventures are great.
MALT: Has the commercial approach or the growth changed anything about the whisky making?
Jake: They’ve kept doing what they do. They can still do what they want. There’s a board at Starward now. I can’t say we were doing anything too differently. It’s definitely maintained what Dave’s vision was 12 years ago: “I want to create really good whisky by using local grains, local wine barrels, and crafting it at our small distillery.”
We’re actually growing to the point where we have a secondary barrel house off site. We’re going to be growing out of our distillery; we have a wash still and a spirit still, and then we’re buying a new 5,000 liter still to become our wash still, and our bigger wash still will become our spirit still. We’re growing in Europe, trying to expand across the United States. We have a full 15-16 person production team running overnight to make sure we can meet the consumption level that’s growing across the world.
Jake opened a bottle of new make for us to try. This is batch #2019524, distilled on 5/24/19, at 54.8%.
Jake: The new make is really tasty. It has this kind of fruity taste to it; kind of tangy in a way. It’s a fun new make. This is Scope Malt, it’s what we use to make our Nova.
MALT: I’m going to narrate this… Wow! I’m getting a definite fruitiness to it, almost like a red berry, a ripe fruitiness. This hasn’t had any of the benefit of the wine casks, so it’s just intrinsic to the spirit.
Jake: Those orchard fruit flavors…
MALT: That’s a great way to put it. There’s sort of like an overripe apple, or that really soft, brownish, squishy Bartlett pear.
Jake: Personally, I get this taffy-ish banana taste to it.
MALT: Yeah! Good call. There’s a great depth to it, despite it being new make. There’s a real texture and a variegation to it.
Jake: It’s cool. We have a bar at our distillery, literally the still and the bar 20 feet from each other. The bartenders will play around and make cocktails with it, pull it right off the still.
We moved along to a bottle of Starward Two-Fold. This is a double grain (wheat and malted barley) Australian whisky, bottled at 40%.
Jake: Two-Fold just hit the market in July. It’s $30; even some of the smaller provision shops, it’s still around $35 to $40, which isn’t bad. It’s all about making an affordable approach; we still want to have a good price point here.
This is 40% of the Nova, and then it’s wheat whisky that we actually source from a company called Manildra, which is a wheat production facility. We go there, we make it with them, to our standards. They’re both individually distilled; we put them into the wine casks, all red wine barrels local to Australia – shiraz, pinot, cabs – for three to four years. At the end, we vat the two whiskies together. We don’t do a finish at all.
We do chill filter at the end for consistency. We did a blind study with our distilling team, our owner, and our board a couple of years ago, and we decided to go with the chill filtering because we thought it brought more consistency to our whisky. Actually, the flavor profile was better, too. It cuts down some of the bitterness you get from the wine barrels. Some are charred, but the majority are not charred.
MALT: It’s pretty restrained on the nose. There’s kind of a rich woody or nuttiness to it. There’s a very smooth buttery-ness to it.
Jake: I get a nougaty kind of taste.
MALT: Excellent. And a little kick of spice, but it’s very elegant. Just understated.
Jake: The wheat really complements the single malt, I think. It gives you some of those characteristics, you might get a little bit of spice like you might get from a bourbon with a high-wheated percentage, but it’s also really smooth, very nice, has a chocolatey-nougaty taste, creamy, rich in there in the middle part. Whereas with the wine barrel, I personally feel like it’s dry cabernet taste to it, so much more of the orchard fruit flavors, pinot, shiraz, in the Nova.
MALT: This is very pleasant. Tell me about bottling strength – you guys are 40%, the bare minimum. What’s the philosophy?
Jake: It was all about making an approachable whisky, not just to your wallet, but also to your palate. We’re going to stay around that 40% mark, even with the Solera, it’s not high at all. Let’s make a light spirit, very approachable to the palate, very bright flavors, too, when you feel the taste of the wine barrels, the taste of the single malt in there. Not just for drinking whisky, but also for complementing dinner, complementing desserts. It’s total approach to bringing it to a table, to a home, it’s good for a barbecue, good for a late-night drink, good for a cocktail, too.
We moved along to the Starward Solera single malt Australian whisky, matured in Apera wine barrels. It is soon to be released in the U.S. with an MSRP of $70, and is bottled at 43%.
Jake: This is Solera style of the Nova, where we only use small Apera barrels, which is an Australian sherry. It’s the same thing as Nova: it’s a single malt whisky, distilled the same way, from the fermentation process to the distilling. Barrel proof is around 55%. The only thing we do differently is we age in smaller Apera barrels.
It’s on allocation right now, because of the barrels we use. They’re smaller, around the 25 or 30 gallon mark. They went from like $80 when they first started making our whisky to now around $800 a barrel. A bunch of other distilleries are using them; all the breweries around the area are trying to get them; gin distilleries too. It’s gone up in demand.
We’re using nine, ten thousand wine barrels. We believe it’s the largest collection of wine barrels aging whisky in there- aging, not just finishing – across the world. There’s about 78,000 wine casks in the [Yarra Valley] area. It’s kind of heating up. When we first started the company, no one was using wine barrels.
We age it in that four-year span. A lot of stuff actually is aged for more around the three year mark or four year mark. We put “two years” on it because we are doing the blending process with the barrels; it has to be a two year minimum when it comes to Australian whisky. So we leave that “two year” mark on it even though pretty much everything that’s being bottled right now is around the three or four year mark.
MALT: The thing that stands out most to me is a maple syrup element, that sticky-sweet but also rich and a little bit savory.
Jake: I get some pear quality to it. It changes every time I have it. I get a green apple taste as well. Orchard fruit is everywhere in Australia. There’s a lot of fresh juices, ciders, that people are making cocktails with.
MALT: How are people typically drinking Starward in Australia?
Jake: It’s neat, it’s in a lot of cocktails. I saw one on a dessert menu. A simple highball with a grapefruit wedge is our signature cocktail.
Finally, Jake opened a cask strength version of the Solera single malt bottled at 58%.
Jake: This is the same thing, but cask strength at 58%. I bottled this at the end of May from a barrel that’s in our office/masterclass room.
MALT: The nose is very similar to the one that’s bottled at 43%. It doesn’t have that heady alcoholic burn. It’s a little more estery. I’m getting a really subtle note of smoked or roasted meats, like a kielbasa sausage or hot dog.
Jake: It’s funny, we have a little charcuterie platter we offer at the distillery bar. It’s like that.
MALT: Texturally, this is really interesting. Architecturally, it builds to this crescendo at the front of the tongue. I don’t know that I’ve ever had that in any other whisky.
Jake: I still get that apple quality to it, but more of a candy apple spice.
MALT: [smelling again] I’m getting maple syrup, a green chili pepper, ginger. I’m being reminded of a ton of great Asian food in Melbourne, appropriately. There’s a little salutary touch of oak, there’s a little cask in there; not overwhelming. Very estery, again, given the higher ABV. On the palate, there’s a lot of malt at the front of the palate, at the tip of the tongue, you’re getting more of a graininess. Then it broadens out significantly. Again, just maple syrup throughout, this really sticky sweet rich awesomeness. And then finishing, there’s a gentle but assertive note of wood. Like, a really elegant, almost like a cedar or something a little bit spicier. I really love this. There’s hints of baking spice throughout, there’s almost a sugary…
Jake: I get brown sugar…
MALT: Yes! Exactly. That’s awesome. This is delicious. I feel like there’s a lot in there that’s really tightly wrapped up. I feel like I have to unpack it a little bit. All these whiskies, there’s a real subtlety to them.
Jake: Everyone’s looking for age statement, everyone’s looking for ABV. Us small guys who are coming into the market with what we do best, it might be looked over a little bit. You see it at 80 proof, it’s got a two year mark on it because there’s going to be a two year old barrel in there, vs the majority of it is four year old or three year old whisky.
For us, it’s the biggest challenge: how do we make sure the customer knows why that age statement’s on there, why it’s at this certain percentage when it comes to ABV. It’s a challenge every day where we have to get out in front of people and talk to them about it versus it sitting there on the shelf. It comes back on me if someone’s not doing it right. It’s a lack of education, not enough education. You have to go into those bars and keep talking to people.
So, what did I learn? Tasting the new make was illustrative. There’s a robust, plump, juicy fruitiness inherent to the unadorned malt whisky. Starward has a solid base of quality raw material to start from.
As for the Two-Fold and the commercial-strength Solera: I enjoyed them better than my run-in with the Nova, to be sure. In fairness, I also tasted from one of Jake’s Nova bottles that was a big improvement in terms of cohesion, relative to the one I had tried prior. There’s clearly some batch-to-batch variation occurring here.
Similar to Cedar Ridge (from Jake’s home state of Iowa), the comparatively low bottling strength is done (at least partly) in the interest of accessibility. I’m of the persuasion that I’d always rather taste a cask strength whisky, with the understanding that I can add water to suit my own preferences. That said, they were plenty flavorful, with the abundance of orchard fruit that I am coming to understand as one of Starward’s hallmarks.
The cask strength version of Solera had a welcome added dimension of Asian ingredients (chili peppers, ginger) and a woody spice imparted by the maturation. Throughout, the moreish sweetness of maple syrup increased the guilty temptation to revisit this again and again. It was my favorite of the bunch; pressed for a score on the MALT scale, this might be a 7/10, approaching an 8/10.
What would I like to see from Starward going forward?
I’d love a cask strength expression, or a variety of single cask bottlings to choose from. I’m hoping that one of our local spirits boutiques (Binny’s, Fountainhead, and Warehouse Liquors, I’m looking at you) will get involved with their cask selection program.
Among the officially-bottled range, I’d like to see more experimental releases, our team’s tepid reception of the Ginger Beer Cask Projects notwithstanding. While I understand the commercial necessity of getting market penetration of a focused range of products as Starward expands globally, ultimately they’re a craft distillery in an unconventional whisky region. I hope they’re able to balance the considerations of their investors while maintaining some of the quirky, quixotic character that is a needed point of differentiation between small distilleries and big brands.
Sincere thanks to Jake Hukee for his time and insights, and for sharing the whisky.There are a couple commission links within this piece if you wish to make a purchase.