I was very fortunate to have a sneak-peak taste of Starward not only in Sydney but also at a distillery tasting that I attended the day before my visit. I can imagine most brand ambassadors would agree that as someone who hosts tastings all the time, it is quite relaxing to be the student! I love hearing other whisky enthusiasts speak their passion and teach me something new. Everyone at Starward is exceptionally educated and passionate about what the New World Whisky Distillery represents.
I met with the founder of the brand Starward and the New World Whisky Distillery, David Vitale. Although the distillery officially began about 10 years ago, they have only been in their current sea port Melbourne location for about a year. If you have caught glimpses of their labels you will recognize the modern, extraterrestrial branding and they follow suit at the new location. Industrial, vintage, “out of this world” and yet modern at the same time. This is exactly what David wanted. He wanted to be distinctly Australian with an emphasis on modern Australia. As an American, I have grown up feeling that Australia was a place of adventure and a world far, far away in the Pacific that was just waiting to be discovered. It makes sense that David would want to capture this perception due to the fact he is making whisky in a “new place”. A place that no one ever imagined single malt would be made. As you can see in the picture to the left, the distillery is quite a sight in the evening.
I feel it is important to give a bit of background on the New World Whisky Distillery before diving into the visit because although you may think this is a brand that has a few years before it is seen outside of Australia, think again. David had two main missions for his new brand. The first being the true representation of modern, Australian whisky. The second mission was to be “in the sharing cabinet” and not just a special occasion whisky. Right now, many of the Australian and Tasmanian single malts are not only extraordinary but also small-scale producers releasing mostly single cask bottlings. Essentially making everything a limited release and leaving the everyday consumer left out due to availability and price. In 2015 Distill Ventures, the investment/start-up arm of Diageo, chose to invest in the brand Starward. This would immediately help to propel them with the financial support needed to step up their production and facilities. The good news is that this new investment will also help get Starward the brand into other markets sooner rather than later.
Production must go on as usual though. The production process has many peculiarities. At the New World Whisky Distillery they use Australian grown barley and typically run three mashes per day. Making their single mash tun quite the workhorse. After moving the wort over to the washbacks they pitch a brewing yeast to start the fermentation. This period will go on for about 72 hours and is temperature controlled. They feel that longer fermentation although typically leading to additional (unwanted or wanted) flavors can make for a less consistent beer. At the end of the fermentation period they are left with about a 7.5-8% ABV beer. At first glance the two pot stills look quite unassuming but when you learn the volumes for each you see that there has been a slight retro-fit of sorts.
David worked with Peter Bailey for his first set of stills and as a startup, sometimes you will take what you can get. Mr. Bailey had a 500 liter still that was originally meant to be a wash still and an 1,800 liter still already fabricated and available for sale. They moved forward with the purchase, but this is not your typical volume ratio for a double pot still distillation set up. This would lead to the spirit still needing to be overcharged to keep the batches consistently flowing. Overcharging can lead to heavier alcohols making it over the lyne arm into the condenser and not enough copper contact. To solve this issue, they installed water jackets on the spirit still to help with reflux. The only two locations I have ever seen use water jackets are in Scotland at Fettercairn and Dalmore. At the new facility they had to keep this same model to not alter flavor profile. Now they use that 1,800 liter wash still as the spirit still and have a new 3,300 liter wash still. Their new stills were built by Frilli, an Italian company.
Another rare process that at first glance is unassuming, is how these stills are heated. There are no electrical elements in the stills delivering heat to start the boil. All the wash and low wines are pre-heated outside of the still (the blue apparatus in the photo). This has decreased distillation times from what was an 8 hour wash run to now 6 hours and an 11 hour spirit run now taking 5.5 hours.
Once they have their new make spirit it is filled into casks right on site. The staple for Starward has been both sherry (apera) and Australian wine casks. The wine casks posed a problem for David. Sulfur and vinegar issues are a major concern when aging whisky in casks that previously held wine. They are volatile and don’t progress in flavor in ways that whisky makers are used to. David mentions that re-charred sherry casks are predictable, and we can see how they are supposed to increasingly get better with time. Sherry casks are tried and true based on data from Scotland and the rest of the world. Wine is tumultuous and there isn’t a lot of hard data. He remembers the first 15 months of a few of his first ever wine casks that were aging single malts and how nervous his was after each sampling. The up and down of quality spirit was unnerving and then it took a turn. He now has mastered his wine casks and has trained his staff how to watch them. He fills casks at 55% ABV and all expressions go through a solera vatting before bottling to ensure consistent releases. Their core range is listed below along with a recent limited-edition expressions.
Starward Sherry Cask – 3 years is the sweet spot and these casks can be reused and released at 43% ABV.
Starward Wine Cask – age varies but the minimum aging time for Starward is 2.5 years. Wine casks cannot be reused, so they are one and done. Released @ 41% ABV.
Starward New World Projects – Cognac Cask Distillery only. Released in March 2018 @ 48% ABV.
Nose: Chocolate and maple syrup over Belgium waffles. Almost like a chocolate granola bar with some creamy nuts and a raisin coffee quality to it.
Palate: Dark chocolate and chai spice. Long malty coco finish.
Keep an eye on this brand as they head to the States in 2018. Hopefully this can be on everyone’s back bar over the next few years just as David had envisioned a decade ago.