We’re taking a trip to the stars once again today.
After an informative discussion with Starward’s U.S. brand ambassador Jake Hukee, I was keen to speak with founder Dave Vitale in order to learn more about the distillery and the brand. Dave generously took some time out during his recent swing through Chicago to sit down for an in-depth conversation and answer my many questions. Of course, the relationship with Diageo (via the investment from Distill Ventures) was front of mind, as well as some of the unique aspects of wine cask maturation.
Following our chat, Jake provided me a taste of the recently released Tawny expression, which I have reviewed at the end, way below Dave’s voluminous and fascinating musings on all things Starward. If you’re the type of chap that doesn’t like to learn at the knee of a true pioneer, you can now skip to the end. For the rest of you, our conversation has been reproduced here, condensed and edited for clarity.
MALT: I saw just recently that Starward hired a new CEO – Simon Marton from Treasury Wine Estates. Tell me about him?
Dave: Simon’s background is in marketing, he was the Chief Marketing Officer of Treasury. They’re – I think – a top-five wine producer in the United States. They’d be #1 in Australia. His caliber steps us up in terms of being able to build the brand at scale. Getting him to the United States is really important to get a bit of a landscape analysis; not from a wine perspective, but more from a spirits point of view, and also just to look at the progress we’ve made in our first year.
MALT: You guys are closer to wine than probably anyone else in whisky, given the wine cask maturation. How do you think about the interplay between those two worlds?
Dave: A lot of the inspiration for Starward, particularly in terms of our global ambition, was born of the pioneering work that Australian wine producers did to say “You know what: there’s a world outside of French wine, and Italian wine, that has a reason to exist and have a compelling proposition alongside those.” Not “a modern take on” but, genuinely a different style of wine. We’ve certainly taken a leaf out of their book in that regard. Why wouldn’t you think about the world of whisky in that fashion?
MALT: In the way that there are exclusively Bordeaux and Burgundy drinkers, do you think about whisky consumers as old-school Scotch-only drinkers, versus people open to more experimentation?
Dave: 100%, exactly. That’s been one of the big inspirations for us. We’re not Robinson Crusoe; there’s lots of modern distilleries both in America and overseas that are thinking the same way.
MALT: How do you think about wood management?
Dave: We’d have a very high-class problem if we exhausted all the red wine barrels that are produced in Australia. That’s a 25 million 9-liter case industry.
There is a certain wood policy that we’re looking for from our wine-making partners. Not every $80 wine that uses a barrel makes a great Starward barrel. Nothing to do with the quality of the wine; they’re both amazing wines. The mindset of the winemaker and why they’re using the barrel is a big part of why Starward works. We recruit from the winemaking industry and have winemakers on our team so that they can have a head-to-head conversation and learn a bit more about their wood policy so we can go, “Yeah, this is going to work famously, bring it on.” Or, “There’s a place in the portfolio for these barrels, but not at the depth of inventory that you have.”
MALT: Is that a varietal-specific difference?
Dave: No! It’s actually just the style of wine that they’re looking to make. Some of it is varietal-by-varietal. As an example: big Aussie Shiraz and Cabernets that were made for cellaring are going to have a huge barrel turnover because the wine producer is looking for that oak tannin for cellaring. Pinot, not so much. It’s about flavor compounds and adding some depth and complexity of structure, not necessarily more oak. The winemaker’s approach is going to have an impact on what style of barrel they’re going to produce, and therefore that will have an impact on the whisky.
Having said that, we’re seeing there are a lot of Shiraz producers, particularly in Australia, that are building a product for the Chinese market. That has whole heap more oak influence than, say, the Australian and U.S. markets, for the same grapes. So, it’s not just varietal, it’s also style of wine, and that style is dictated by the markets that those wine producers are going into. We have a lot of conversation with those winemakers to understand their policy when it comes to wood management, and then we work together to figure out how many of which style of barrels we pick up.
MALT: Australia produces an incredible variety of wines. How do you think about having that palate for experimentation, versus maintaining consistency?
Dave: It’s very exciting. We are really blessed with a huge amount of diversity, not just in Barossa but across the whole Southeastern seaboard. It gives us a huge amount of variability to innovate and do some interesting development. Something that we’re working on – and this is a uniquely Starward thing – is doing a masterclass where you’re drinking the wine from the barrel that made the whisky. You can have five or six different wines, all very different, the barrels are really different. The sum of those parts makes Starward Nova.
MALT: Is there a correlation in flavor profile between a wine and the whisky matured in the cask that made that wine? Are you able to pick that out?
Dave: I think we are getting better. We’re still learning; we’re a very young distillery. I think we’re getting better at understanding the influence. We taste a shiraz and understand its flavor profile really carefully, we can then draw a connection with what the outcome of the spirit will be, but it’s not a one-to-one. Let’s not forget that all of those flavor profiles are in the wine, not in the barrel. They’ve been extracted from the barrel already. It’s almost like: what is left behind after none of this is here. It still requires some insight, but typically we can get a really good feel for what impact that wine will have on the whisky, and also what impact the wood policy of the winemaker is going to have on that whisky.
MALT: Speaking of flavors: I was struck, tasting the new make, about how much of the flavor I assumed came from the wine cask was actually intrinsic to the spirit. Where does this originate?
Dave: This modern era of whisky making really views the new make spirit as an intrinsic part of the flavors that you’re getting in a spirit. For Scotch whisky – I’m talking 150 years ago – grain was a starch source, you can convert that starch into sugar that you can then ferment. Fermentation was creation of alcohol, not necessarily flavor. We’ve spent a long time working with our maltsters to get the right spec in place for the malted barley. It’s a brewing style of barley, as opposed to a distilling style. It’s darker in color, which drives more flavor at the expense of yield. Every bit of sugar we’re caramelizing is a gram of sugar we’re not fermenting. We think that those flavors and textures create a rich, oily mouthfeel in Starward that belies its age.
MALT: I read that you’re using a brewer’s yeast as well?
Dave: Yes. A lot of the flavors that you’re seeing are a combination of darker-colored malt and also a brewing-style yeast, which drives a huge amount of esters that would not commonly be found in traditional wort. A lot of that is fermentation actually, the character that we’re getting in the new make spirit.
MALT: How long are your fermentation times?
Dave: They’re quite short, between 69 and 72 hours. A lot of craft distilleries – particularly in Australia – do long fermentations, like week-long fermentations. That wasn’t something that particularly interested us. Melbourne is famed for its “four seasons in a day.” That huge diurnal range means we have difficulty controlling the temperature of the fermentation over that seven-day period in a consistent fashion. We could, but it would be very expensive with refrigeration and temperature control. Keeping it short, we still temperature control it, but it’s far more effective and efficient to do that.
MALT: The new make doesn’t seem to have suffered at all for that.
Dave: 100%. That comes from the fact that, rather than waiting for that secondary fermentation to take place on its own with natural yeasts, we’ve just chosen the yeasts that give us the flavor profiles that we want to work with. So, it’s far more controlled.
There’s a huge amount of tropical fruit, orchard fruits, there’s malty characteristics, a bit of spice coming through, all coming from the new make that really is the backbone of that fruit structure that we’re getting in the whisky, that then is laddered up with the style of barrels that we use.
MALT: What have you learned about maturation?
Dave: I learned how to make whisky in Tasmania. When we first started, we launched with Starward Solera in Australia. It was just called Starward then because we only had one product. I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Glenfiddich to just have one product for all of those years, when they started, maybe I should take a leaf out of their book.” I think barrel four was a wine barrel. Starward Solera was really built around fortified wine casks.
There are 40-to-50-year-old barrels that were surplus to requirements at these fortified wine houses. We were able to source them falling apart; we had them shaved, toasted, and re-charred, and re-sized. We filled that new make spirit into those fortified wine barrels knowing that – having come from the Tasmanian world – the innovation was really coming from the spirit, not the barrel itself.
From a wood policy perspective, we banked a known quantity from a maturation point of view. We’re really innovating and piloting timing wood; how long did it take us to mature given Melbourne’s climate? Also, the interaction of the spirit with the wood, and getting that perfect balance right.
That was phase one. I’ve got to bring people along a journey – not the least of which investors – with a modern approach to whisky making. Starting off with: we’re going to innovate from a new make spirit. We’re going to innovate from a climate perspective, with a non-age statement whisky that probably is going to be ready between two and three years, when the norm in Tasmania is six to seven – already young, but we’re going to go even younger!
MALT: And that’s due to the temperature fluctuations?
Dave: The diurnal range, every day. Hardest working barrels in the world. Oh, and by the way: we’re using a barrel that no one in the world uses. That was probably one step too far in that first phase. I knew the limits, I guess, of people’s appetite for risk from an investment perspective, but also: we’ve done a lot of disruption. Not a word I like to use, but it’s the only way I can really describe it, in those two areas of spirit production and maturation. For me, let’s just bed those things down, and then move to the next thing, which had always been wine barrels.
We started off with charred red wine barrels. Fortuitously, I had a phone call from an amazing winery in South Australia called Yalumba. They make a beautiful wine called Octavius; it’s in 100 liter quarter casks. One of the very few wineries in the world left with a cooperage on site. The magic of that, for us, was that I could talk to not only the winemaker, but also the cooper who made the barrel for the winemaker.
They had over 100 barrels to dispose of. I still remember it; it was like, “David would you like these hundred barrels?” and I was like, “Yeah, sure. I can’t afford to pay you.” They were very generous in giving me very long payment terms.
MALT: What’s the going rate for a barrel?
Dave: It varies from wine producer to wine producer. Like American bourbon barrels, they can be anywhere between $100 and $300 a barrel. It fluctuates. Some of the sherry casks now from Spain can be more than $1,000. So, not necessarily that expensive, but the demand curve is a little different, too.
Talking to Yalumba, I said, “I’d love all these barrels.” In fact, we didn’t have enough spirit to fill all those barrels. We really wanted to give a nudge to this idea of “what happens when we fill a wet wine barrel?” All the spirit I had on hand, we put into half of those barrels. Wet wine barrels, like they were emptied on a Wednesday and on Friday they were at the distillery and we just filled them straightaway. The other half I couldn’t afford to fill, but I had paid for the barrels, so we sent them to a cooper to re-char. They were the first batch of red wine barrels at scale that we had done.
It was a big bet; it was all the spirit that I had. Had that not worked, there would have been a big gap in my production, in terms of being able to source barrels to supply the market on a consistent basis.
At the six-month mark we started tasting these whiskies and there were just strawberries and cream. We had this amazing new make; it wasn’t like we needed the spirit to necessarily evolve all that much. It was about integration and refinement.
And then at about the 18-month mark they began to fall off a cliff. I felt like I’d just flushed half a million dollars down the toilet. Funnily enough, coincidentally Jim McEwan from Bruichladdich was visiting Australia and he came to the distillery. He’d heard about our use of wine barrels and he was very curious. Bruichladdich used to do a lot of wine expressions.
He came to the distillery and I was showing him some of that younger stuff. I said, “I’ve got something to show you; I’m really bummed out about it.” He’s like, “What are you doing, looking at these barrels at 18 months, for goodness’ sake? Give them some time!”
What had actually happened at that point was the natural oxidation that takes place in maturation – the head space in the barrel got lower – so, it was just going through a temperamental period of time…
MALT: Awkward teenager?
Dave: Totally! So, within six months – which is another summer, which I think it more important, actually – they turned a corner and then we released the first batch of Nova, which was substantially those first 100 liter Yalumba barrels.
The benefit of working with one winemaker – particularly a winemaker that had a cooper on site – was that I could say “These are all delicious, but they’re very different. Why is barrel 332 different to barrel 333? You put the same vintage wine in, I filled them the same day… I don’t understand?” They’d say, “Oh, that’s pretty straightforward: that’s a Hungarian oak and this is a French oak, or this is an American oak…” almost to the point of “It faces this aspect of the forest, from the Ozarks.” You could go really deep down.
All of the sudden we had not only a delicious-tasting whisky, but an amazing test bed of different styles of oak, particularly, that we could learn from, with a winemaker and a cooperage that was willing to support us in that endeavor. It was a blessing.
I wouldn’t call them missteps; it was more about understanding more about flavor. There were plenty of opportunities for us to do that. Whether it was, “Let’s just give this a little more time,” or “I totally get why these two barrels that look the same are different,” we had a great test bed to do that with.
MALT: How much cask-to-cask deviation is there now?
Dave: It’s magical. It’s a blessing and a curse. I think the team would love to use brand new American oak barrels with a char #3 or something like that because they’re bloody consistent every single time. You know that you can kind of dial that in to a couple of week period and sample two or three barrels from a row and say, “Yep, these are good to go, get them out.”
That’s not the Starward experience. This is a singular exercise, barrel at a time, understanding the component parts and what role they play in the product. Interestingly, even in those American standard bourbon barrels char #3, there’s variation. The funny thing for me is the variation can navigate a pinhead of flavor differences in a way that, for us – we’ve got such a diverse area that it gives us the ability to really dial in the exact profile of flavor that we’re looking for. We view it as a spice rack.
From month to month, quarter to quarter, even if you’re using the same barrels… each barrel’s a tree, it came from a forest, it’s planted in different soil. There’s still going to be variation there. What we’re able to do is really iron out any of those kinks at a micro-level. In a weird way, all of that diversity enables us to be more consistent.
MALT: What’s the barrel entry proof?
Dave: We take a leaf out of Maker’s Mark, at a lower proof point. We go in at 55% [ABV; 110 proof]. It comes out at about 63%. Alcohol goes up instead of down.
MALT: What’s the approach to blending?
Dave: We take a big leaf out of the Scotch whisky craft and art of blending. They’re all from the house of Starward, but just different barrels as opposed to distilleries and flavor profiles coming from distillates. In the same way, we have a very detailed understanding of what the inventory looks like. We’ll have a base that we’re working towards.
With Solera, we use a Solera vat. That is, by definition, exactly 80% of the product we had last time, with 20% added each time. It has changed over the years since we launched it. I launched that product seven years ago; in fact, next week will be seven years to the day since we started to disgorge barrels.
In that regard it’s a very consistent product, but very different from the first batch we released, if that makes sense? Incremental changes over a period of time; two to three degrees of navigational heading. That’s the variation that is typically common in a lot of the distilleries that I revere in Australia and love working with; they’re all magical whiskies but they sort of chop and change headings all the time, whereas this is more of what it is every release that gets launched.
MALT: Tell me about your capacity expansions?
Dave: We are now drinking the whisky from Port Melbourne, which is hard to believe because it’s only three years removed. That’s the beautiful thing about our climate and the barrels and the spirit. We’re able to get to market quickly with a quality product.
MALT: What are the biggest variations between the facilities?
Dave: Not much. We did a lot of work. I’ll tell you where the biggest challenge was: fermentation. Everything changed. The mill made it over but it was too slow, so we bought a new one. The mash tun changed. The wash still became the spirit still. We bought a new wash still. The fermenters all changed, the piping changed, it was a new site. The biggest challenge was actually in fermentation. It’s a well-known brewing challenge: the geometry of your fermenters changes the profile. We went from 5,000 liter wine tanks to 25,000 liter stainless steel fermenters. It took us some time to mitigate and dial that back in.
MALT: What were the levers that you pulled?
Dave: Our work clarity is a big one. Dialing in the mill and the way that the mash tun works was a big part of that. That has a lot to do with strike temperature and all that. It’s going back to brewing 101. Pitch temperature of the yeast. We have jackets on the fermenters to control the temperature over the 72 hours. That became way more important with the geometry of the fermenters we had. There’s just more density of energy in that tank.
Not much on the still side, actually. Our stills are quite unique in that the neck of the spirit still has a jacket on it. In simple terms, it means that we can adjust reflux. As we know, the taller the still’s neck – think Glenmorangie – the lighter the spirit. The shorter, the heavier. This effectively gives us a telescopic neck. If we open up the valve and let the water run through the jacket: more reflux. If we shut off the valve, lower. Dialing in the spirit character was a relatively straightforward exercise because we can just fine tune that, which was a learned skill because of our temperature variation. The ambient temperature has an effect on the distillate anyway. In the middle of summer we’ve got it dialed into a different valve setting than winter.
Almost as soon as we turned the stills on, starting to think about the United States, it became very evident that we were under-booked. We needed to upgrade again. The poor investors were like, “You barely turned on the stills and you want to go again?” Very easily and quickly everybody agreed it’s in our best interests to do that. That upgrade is going to take place in March, which is very exciting. We’re going to more than double capacity again. That then well and truly makes us the largest urban distillery in terms of volume. We’ll be filling just a little shy of a million liters of pure alcohol into bond every year. There are very few distilleries of that scale a mile from a downtown city anywhere in the world.
MALT: Describe the evolution of your investor base?
Dave: Family, friends, and fools, to now the Distill Ventures relationship. It’s been amazing. The common through line with all of these investors has been belief. I’d be glib to say that the risk profile today for Starward is any less than it was ten years ago because the stakes are a lot higher. It still requires a great deal of belief in what we’re doing. How lucky am I to have that?
The big difference is that early on the support was really moral; picking me up, dusting me off, pushing me back into the ring every time I’d fall over. Now, the support is multifaceted; still that, because we still have missteps and fall over. We’ve got everybody in our camp believing that we can do this. Also, the support is for anything from intelligence, in terms of “This has been our experience with this particular occasion for whisky. We’d really be curious to see how you go doing that but watch out for these missteps.” Or recruitment; we’re scaling up. We’re going to scale up production again in March. Getting the right talent on board to support that; having the right technical resource with Diageo to help us make sure that we’re doing things to a standard that means that we’ve got A) a sustainable platform environmentally, but B) it has some longevity; we’re not going to have to revisit these things in two or three years’ time. Strategic support, market insights. It’s all support, it just changes over time.
MALT: How is Distill’s involvement structured?
Dave: They own a minority stake, but meaningful. That’s the approach we wanted them to take; we didn’t want this to be something that wasn’t meaningful to them. I think – for both parties – that was a meeting of minds. They want the founding team and investors to share in the success of their investment.
For them, it was never about control, it was never about doing things their way. It’s not an insignificant sum that they’ve invested; of course, they have a seat on the board. I appreciate that because they come with really good ideas, and really good “watch outs,” and really good provocations and challenges. “Explain to me why you think this is a good idea.” It’s not about tempering our enthusiasm, it’s just making sure if we’re going to take a big swing at something that we execute with military precision.
MALT: Based on Distill’s website, I understand they have a call option to purchase the entirety of Starward in the future?
Dave: That’s still a ways away, years and years. More than five, less than ten. Unless we have some sort of outstanding traction in the market. So, this is a long view for them. A call is healthy. For me, again, it comes back to: we need to deliver on the promise we make. We try to do that every day with our drinkers; I have tried to, as best we can, along the way, do that with our investors. That’s no different; if we say we’re going to do something, that we do that.
MALT: Has there been an item of substantive disagreement between yourself and current or prior investors?
Dave: I can genuinely say there hasn’t been. I can put it down to one clear reason. It’s not because either of us are weak minded or don’t have a very strong sense of what the vision for Starward should be; it’s just that we’re completely aligned in what it is.
My recommendation to any distiller that is exploring funding, whether it be from Distill Ventures or anybody, is: seek clarity and alignment before you sign on. If you have that alignment, it’s one less thing you need to navigate when those issues come about. Typically, it’s about a missed assumption or timing. Like, “Yes, this is something we should be doing, but not now, because we’ve got to do these things first.” I’ve heard that said to me, and I’ve also said that to our investors.
Alignment is critical because it’s the fundamental truth. We all want the same thing? Great. Now we’re talking about how we get there. We always check our egos at the door. The idea of “strong opinions, loosely held” is my playbook. In a vacuum of opinions, I’ll certainly furnish one.
We were fortunate in that the hypothesis in the business, and that alignment that we both shared, turned out to be a space that we can thrive in as an Australian whisky company taking it to the world. I don’t know what may have happened if we had that hypothesis and it hadn’t worked. Perhaps at that point in time, I might have been, “we need to stick this out, it’s just taking longer,” in a way that the other investors might have seen it differently. We haven’t really had to test it, either.
MALT: People naturally assume, when Diageo is involved, that decisions such as releasing whisky at 40% ABV are purely economic ones. How do you respond to that?
Dave: It’s a really simple conversation. Diageo didn’t invest in us for another Diageo brand. They’ve got plenty of those already. The last thing that they would want to do is make us one of those products. It’s far easier for them to incrementally grow their businesses than it is to invest in a business like ours. They’re looking for a next generation of spirits companies that are doing things differently. The notion that somehow we’re making decisions to satisfy a mandate from Diageo is contrary to the whole reason why they would invest.
Even if we wanted to, how are we going to reproduce 200 years of ingrained history and learning and magic of brands like Walker or Tanqueray? From our perspective: there’s no mandate.
I understand why it happens. Let’s just wait and see. Time is the best measure of whether things have changed or not. There’s always going to be people with varying views, but I think that the general consensus would be that the investment that we’ve been able to seek into Starward has been beneficial not only to us – in terms of realizing the dream that we had for Australian whisky – but also has invigorated the entire Australian whisky category at home, for a number of reasons. They can use us as a proof point to seek investment.
We’ve got scale now to be able to be at a price point which makes us far more accessible to new whisky drinkers. The first run of Australian whisky is probably going to be Starward at a $35 price point. That’s great for the Australian whisky industry because I think we do a pretty good job of it, as do all the medals in the cabinet. We’re rewarding people for taking that leap and therefore the next Australian whisky to come along is benefiting from that positive experience.
I should qualify: 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.
MALT: You mentioned accessibility; what does accessibility mean to you and Starward?
Dave: It’s relatively straightforward: it’s making whisky on our drinkers’ terms – as opposed to terms that we would dictate to them – and serving it in the same fashion. My middle daughter’s name is Islay, to give you an idea of where my whisky palate goes. I love rye whiskeys. Both of those styles of whisky are not really gateway whisky experiences. The reason I love them, though, is because they’ve got really distinct and bold flavors. You know, when you pull the cork on a Laphroaig: it’s a Laphroaig. The same can be said of rye whiskeys, and bourbon.
When I started Starward I loved the idea of a distinctive Australian whisky. What I didn’t want to do was be an acquired taste. I wanted to be distinctive but approachable; something you could have in the sharing cabinet and be inclusive. Like, get people to try and go, “Well there you go: I like Australian whisky, I didn’t even know I liked it. I didn’t even know it was a category.”
Accessibility for me is about recruiting new people to the category that I know exist. As I said earlier, I’m a frustrated brewer. I came to whisky from a beer perspective; I saw single malts as the craft beers of the whisky world. If I can get my head around this, I know a whole heap of other people that are probably going to graduate from craft beer into wine, that can leapfrog straight into whisky. We just need to make that first experience something that’s not bombastic.
MALT: I appreciate that it’s difficult to build a successful commercial strategy around single cask, full strength whisky.
Dave: You can, it’s just that you need to price it accordingly and position it correctly. Instantly you’ve diminished your market by 98%. So, for those 2% that do want it: for me to be able to make it at the scale that meets that demand, I’m going to have to price it accordingly.
The wonderful thing for me is that two of the proudest awards I’ve achieved come from the two most disparate audiences in the world. For Nova, winning Double Gold [at San Francisco World Spirits], up against some amazing names, has been a moment. It’s the epitome of recognition.
Equally, earlier this year we won the people’s choice awards at a whisky bar in Melbourne called Whisky and Alement, which is over 1,500 bottles of whisky on the back bar. We were up against some titans of whisky, spelled both ways. The top five whiskies – which included Nova – were put in a blind tasting panel. Over two months, people voted. You had to pay for the tasting. People, with their hip pocket, chose Starward as their #1 favorite whisky.
To me, that’s the measure of success. Not only that we can get people who love their Glencairn glasses and love to sip Starward recognize it as a well-crafted spirit that stands for something unique and distinctive, but also that people love it, too. Let me tell you: it’s not all neat. It’s in a Manhattan. If a whisky matured in a wine barrel can’t make a decent Manhattan, we might as well close the shutters. Also, things like a highball with tonic, which shouldn’t work but does. To us, accessibility and approachability are two things that have anchored every single decision that we make from a product perspective on.
MALT: How do you think about the changes to the Scotch Whisky Association rules about cask types? Does that step on Starward’s turf at all?
Dave: I think Scotland does Scotch really well. If they are going to be doing any kind of barrel variation, it will be at the margins of exploration and limited releases, as opposed to throwing out 50, 60, 70 years of consistent wood policy.
It is genuinely exciting as a whisky drinker, but also in a weird way – and maybe this just the optimist in me – I think it validates what we’re doing. It actually is a great validation of the work that we’re doing that the industry is saying “Perhaps we need to broaden the category because our thinking on this might have been a little bit too myopic and too narrow. There are other examples that are really compelling.”
I think the SWA’s primary concern is protecting the Scotch brand, and they do that by making sure that there’s a quality gate that all whiskies that have the Scotch name on it have to walk through. I think it’s an endorsement if they’re all of the sudden saying that you can use different barrels, that doesn’t compromise the quality.
MALT: Would you ever consider doing a store pick of a single barrel?
Dave: We’re starting to do that. We just launched one in New York with Astor Wines, who has been a huge supporter from day one. It was amazing. It gave us the opportunity to taste that difference that I was talking about earlier: “Well, here’s a Barossa Shiraz French oak barrel and here’s a Barossa Shiraz American oak barrel, let’s have a taste.
MALT: What did they end up going with?
Dave: It’s actually a double cask, a mixture of both. We took a bit each way. There are some really interesting barrels in the bond store, some of which are completely… drawing a nexus between Nova and the barrel would be pretty difficult. They’re that different. We didn’t feel like that was necessarily the first place to start on these store pick barrels. It’s exciting and stay tuned, because there’s going to be some really weird and wacky stuff coming out.
MALT: I saw the announcement of a Tawny expression. How did that come about?
Dave: The two fortified wine styles that exist in Australia are Apera – like aperitif – and Tawny, which is another word for Port. Apera is most like Sherry. Interestingly, where I learned to make whisky in Tasmania, at Lark Distillery, they almost exclusively used, when they were using fortified barrels, Tawny barrels. Port barrels.
I felt like, “We can bring something new to the Australian whisky category at that elevated level of sipping whisky, by using Apera instead of Tawny.” These barrels that we’ve selected are one of the first Tawny barrels that we’ve disgorged. These are all from Yalumba, quarter casks from the winery. It’s a little bit corny but it’s the perfect Christmas whisky. It’s got all those dark dried fruits and raisins and chocolate.
We’ll have these limited releases come out on a quarterly basis throughout the year. We have one that’s a ginger beer cask finished whisky, which I’m really hoping to get some to the United States. We’ll have a couple of others throughout the year. We really want to celebrate different styles of whisky, but also really challenge people’s perception of what whisky is as well by testing where the boundary is. It might not work, but that’s OK.
Thanks again to Dave for this deep dive into all things Starward. His candor was refreshing, and I hope you all enjoyed learning about some of the more technical nitty-gritty as much as I did.
To cap it all off, we now have a review of the Tawny limited release. This was distilled in 2015, bottled in 2019, in a run of 4,000 bottles. It clocks in at 48% ABV and retails for A$119 for 500 ml, though a sample was provided to me by Jake. Per usual MALT policy, this does not affect my notes or score. This release is also available from Master of Malt for £85.95 for a 50cl bottle.
Starward Tawny – Review
Color: Pale gold
On the nose: Abundant, luscious, juicy, enticing, sumptuous. Kiwi, banana cream pie, custard. Some thyme, sweet-and-salty peanut brittle, and a bit of pink rubber pencil eraser. I like that this follows through with a pertly malty note; the cask has left plenty of room for the distillate to shine through.
In the mouth: Starts with an understated yet confident maltiness. This becomes mouth-coating and gorgeous on the middle of the tongue, balancing deftly between the gooey mouthfeel of Sauternes and the a more mineral-driven white wine note of Bourgogne Blanc. Through the finish, the gently nutty notes mingle with the intrinsic sweetness in a swirling dance that lingers through the drawn out finish.
Far and away the best whisky I’ve tasted from Starward. This captures all the fruity essence of their new make, but the cask adds variegated flavors and textures which provide compliments and counterpoints. The most convincing proof of concept from this distillery yet; I’ll be looking to secure a bottle of this for my personal enjoyment once it becomes widely available.
Images kindly provided by Starward. There is a commission link within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement.