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Podcast

David Vitale From Starward Whisky

Australian Whisky may not be well known but David Vitale from Starward is leading the charge to show that Australian Whisky has a story to tell.

By: Tiff Christie|April 24,2020

You could easily say that every whisky has an interesting story to tell – stories that are formed through the grain, the cask but primarily where the liquid originates.

Most of us are familiar with the stories that begin in the UK, the US or Japan but brands like Starward are endeavouring to show that Australian whisky has a story all of its own.

Picking up awards like the “World’s Best Craft Distilled Whisky” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Starward is beginning to redefine the nuances of what a whisky can be.

To discuss this further, we talk to Starward’s David Vitale about casks, grains and of course cocktails.

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You could easily say that every whisky has an interesting story to tell. Stories that are formed through the grain, the cask, but primarily where the liquid originates. Most of us are familiar with the stories that began in the UK, the US or Japan. The brands like Starward are endeavouring to show that Australian whisky has the story all of its own.
Picking up awards like the World's Best Craft Distilled Whisky at the San Francisco world spirits competition, Starward is beginning to redefine the nuances of what a whisky can be. To discuss this further, we talk with Starward's David Vitale about casks, grains and of course cocktails. Thank you for joining us David.

Thanks Tiff.

Now, in Australia at least, Starward is known for its use of red wine barrels to mature whisky. Can you explain what sort of flavour that maturation in parts?

Yeah, look it's a really interesting point of difference cause you'd think that given the abundance of barrels that we use to make wine, that it'd be a natural source of barrels that other Australian distilleries use. But up until we arrived, no one was using them and even after 13 years to the day that I started the company, they're infrequently used. But for us the magic that red wine barrels deliver is just this amazing amount of fruitiness to the whisky and those fruits obviously in that sort of Berry family and have that lovely sweetness and I don't know, sometimes I feel like I'm kind of putting my nose to a jam jar. You know, it's really approachable.
So on the nose, you get a lot of that fruitiness coming through, but on the palate, it really does kind of still deliver on the promise of a whisky. But if you like red wine, you're going to love Starward, but you don't have to like wine to like the whisky either. And it really is really versatile and makes amazing mixed drinks as well because of that wine characteristic.

Now, distillers seem to be in two camps that settle either around the choice of grain or choice of wood for barrels. Obviously you tend towards the barrels. How important is that do you think, to a flavoursome whisky?

Yeah, it's a good question. I think convention has always been that the barrel imparts, I don't know, upwards of 70% of the flavour, 80% of the flavour of the whisky and we felt like it was really important that the whisky talks to the place it was made. As you kind of mentioned in the introduction, I think great whiskeys from around the world do that really well and ingredients form a part of that. I also think that the best of those whiskies talk to the culture of the place it's made and we'll get to that I guess a little later. But it was easy for us to source those amazing wine barrels. But we also use Australian malted barley and Australian wheat. So we've got two products, one's a single malt, which really focuses on the multi-characteristics and fermentation characters that come through, through the distillation process.
But then with Twofold, our double grain whisky, we took a bet each way in that it still delivers on that promise of amazing, fruity, delicious, approachable whiskey. But the wheat component gives it a bit of roundness and softness that you don't necessarily get from just a single malt whisky. So depending on the day of the week, I guess they're like my kids, I love both of them equally, but depending on the day of the week, I'll probably choose one over the other. We're quite fortunate to have both settled on wine, you know, wine barrels are the signature kind of note for the house of Starward but then within that, we've also leaned into the grain world a little bit and have two products. One is a double grain whisky, wheat and malted barley, and then the other one's a single malt whisky.

Now tell us a little bit more about why you decided to settle on the wine barrels. Was it simply because they were the barrels that were most easily available or are you a particular wine connoisseur yourself?

Yeah, I'm not a wine connoisseur. I think becoming an adult in the early nineties was quite an interesting time. What you did on the weekends was go and visit wineries with your mates and go concerts, Spender On The Grass and things like that. Wine was part of my repertoire, no doubt that it certainly wasn't a reason why we used wine barrels. It was probably more a question. Is there a reason why people aren't using wine barrels because they're in abundance? You know, this comes to availability and more importantly if we can crack this start, we've got something that's quite unique in the world of whisky and in that way it gives us permission to be in that sharing cabinet alongside great bourbon, scotch, Irish whisk(e)y from around the world.
That was really important to me. We didn't want to be just a modern take on tradition. We wanted to come with a genuine alternative to those amazing whiskies that exist in the bars around the world and at home. So wine was like an option. It wasn't an obvious choice cause no one had done it before and we really didn't know whether it was going to work, but we figured we needed to give it a go.

And how much experimentation did you need to do with the maturation until you actually got the balance?

It's a good question. So we did find, early on, fortified wine barrel, most of those barrels were from McWilliams winery which is a sort of a very popular fortified wine producer in Australia. And we're fortunate enough to get those fortified wine barrels and in that instance we took a traditional approach to producing that style of whisky called Solera and that was shaving, toasting and recharring the barrel. So we experimented with wine barrels in that same passion of shaving, toasting and recharring and just seeing what the possibilities were from that perspective. And I think the results were amazing, in fact. It was a whisky drinker's whisky, but it really didn't fit the brief that we were looking for to start off with. And that was something that was really approachable and accessible to everyone. You know, this idea that, "Hey, I didn't come from a whisky background or I didn't grow up with my parents drinking whisky or family drinking whisky. This is something new to me and I've come to it and enjoy the broad continuum of intense flavors and delicate flavors." So why not think about the modern whisky drinker, the new whisky drinker, and give them something as opposed to focusing on just those rusted old scotch drinkers that more often than not chasing a very big number in terms of age and also a very big number in terms of proof-point or alcohol content. we wanted to dial back the intensity of what those red wine barrels initially gave us when we shaved, toasted and recharred them and tried filling barrels wet. So effectively wine goes out on a Wednesday, Thursday morning whisky's in, to see what would happen in that fashion.

Oh okay so there is still some wine in the barrel?

That's right but the important point there is that not only do you get that wine characteristic but we haven't adulterated the barrel. So effectively we're using the same barrel that the winemaker used to make their wine for whisky. And that was a big step because convention was, whether you're making bourbon, you char the barrels, they call it, get to an alligator skin char, that's how much it really is charred. And certainly in Scotland when they're reusing port and Sherry barrels, they're shaved, toasted and charred, that's the model. So to walk away from charring a barrel was a very, very big step.
But I think the results are in, right. It delivers a really softer version of that wine characteristic, it's way more fruity and delicate and has those malt characteristics although the spirit that we use has an opportunity to shine. We use a lot of Shiraz barrels as an example. Starward isn't the big Aussie Shiraz of whisky, it's not that. It's far more approachable and something that most people can try whisky for the first time drinking Starward and actually be captivated by not just Starward, but the whole category of whisky. It's quite exciting when I hear those stories.

Now you use the term elemental maturation, do you want to explain exactly what you mean by that?

Yeah. So, I mean, obviously, whisky needs to spend time in wood to be called whisky. And depending on which country around the world you're in, the time varies by law. In Australia, we've got a really simple regulation that defines whisky. It's one line long. Scotch whisky regulations are sort of like the size of war and peace and bourbon's not that far behind it in terms of the restrictions you have in terms of what you can and can't call a bourbon or a scotch whisky. But in Australia it's basically very simple. It's a fermented grain mash, so that's effectively a beer, that's distilled, doesn't tell you what type of still, but it just needs to be distilled and needs to spend a minimum of two years in wood. That's it. That's the regulation.
So you can shoot a cannon through that in terms of innovation and exploration of what the possibilities are, that's how broad it is. It's just a lovely, lovely and elegantly simple regulation. So for us, a minimum of two years in wood is the regulation for time.
This is a little bit of philosophy, you know the day is as long for me as it is for you but certainly it's really different in Melbourne when it comes to maturation. And the reason for that is that we're famed for a four seasons in a day climate and lots of places kind of talk about that. But when we explain just how varied the temperature can get, it sort of does set us apart. And the thing that really sets us apart is that that range of temperature and humidity is not just something that's unique to summer or winter, it's throughout the seasons.
And so elemental maturation really talks to this idea that a Melbourne year is very, very different in terms of timescale of maturing whisky than it would be in say even another city, Sydney or Hobart, Tasmania or certainly Kentucky or Speyside in Scotland. So our climate is a really interesting part of the way that we mature our whisky. We say it's ready in three Melbourne years. And to put that into context, if we used evaporation of the barrel as progress, which happens in all whisky barrels, we're evaporating at about four to five times the rate of the scotch whisky barrels. I would never say that our three year old is equivalent to a 12 or 15 year old whisky. It's just not, no, but it is progressing along in that rate. We would never release a whisky that we didn't think was ready, but we're quite fortunate given our climate that it means that certainly as a startup distillery, we can take advantage of that and come to market with award-winning whisky in three years.
Without getting too technical, a lot of distillates, are actually made for time for age. So it's not a matter of like a shorter maturation means that it's a worse whisky or a longer one means that it's better. If we left our whisky in a barrel for 10 years, it'd be terrible. It would just basically be chewing on an Oak stave like it would just be over-oaked and overcooked. In the way that spirits in Scotland are kind of made for age, so there are some six-year-old whisky in Scotland that you just wouldn't want to drink. And then other three-year-old whisky in Scotland that are absolutely delicious.

Now the brand started in 2008, how influenced have you been by overseas whisky and from what region has influenced your style?

That's a great question and you know, I think for me all whisky have had an influence on Starward in some way. You’re always taking inspiration from your surroundings and others. So for us it's obviously scotch whisky and the styles there are varied. Like the two that come to mind are the Balvenie which is just an amazing single malt whisky that delivers on its promise and the master distiller worked for the company for over 50 years so that kind of continuity of vision is something that's inspirational to me and just the standard of quality delivered at a really affordable price point. That's something that has always struck me. It was also my gateway into a single malt so it's also got a soft spot in my heart for that reason.
And the other scotch whisky, Laphroaig which is really smoky and peaty you can almost pull the cork on it and across the room identify it for what it is. I guess in a nutshell, that's what really inspired me, was that this is a distinctive whisky and I would love to be as distinctive as those peaty whiskies are to scotch, but a little more approachable if we can. Those smokey whiskies aren't necessarily the gateway into scotch right? Like they can be quite confronting and an acquired taste.
And on the American side, Maker's Mark, there's a reason why we have a wheated whisky in our portfolio. Maker's Mark are kind of famed for having a high wheat content in their bourbon and it makes for a softer, rounder whiskey. And that was something that really rung true to me. One of the inspirations behind twofold was definitely Maker's Mark. And at the other end of the continuum on intensities is Wild Turkey, which is a high rye content so again, coming to that distinctive, very, very delicious and identifiable flavour. But both of those products are really competitively priced and are stewards of the American whiskey industry. So I love both of those whiskeys because they do what the box says, I guess.
So there's been inspirations from both sides of the Atlantic, I guess in terms of the ideas that we take for Starward but we always wanted it to be something that could only come from Melbourne. That was an important part of that. So having these amazing wine barrels where we can have them transported to the distillery within a day and have that wine goes out and whisky goes in sort of mindset, taking advantage of the climate and the four seasons in a day. And of course being inspired by our food culture was an important part of it as well. And thinking about whisky done differently, but also served differently too.

What do you mean by that? Can you go into a bit more detail?

I mean, anybody that's visited Melbourne knows that our food scene's pretty vibrant and highly regarded globally. This is my hypothesis, I think that comes from generations of migrants establishing themselves in the city and having an opportunity to express themselves through food. The magical thing now is that we're getting into the second, maybe even third wave of that migrant cuisine and there's a melding of old and new. There's that sort of, infusion's an overused word, but it's just this idea that actually I can take a modern approach and stay true to the roots of the cuisine and its origins. And that was something that really was important for me to reflect that, you know that marriage of old and new, lots of things that we do it in tradition and history because they work. And for me it wasn't a desire to tip our hat to the past. It was more like, well this makes a lot of sense.
But there are a lot of things that are done traditionally that actually in 2020 make absolutely no sense in terms of production processes. And you can get to the same outcome without having doing that. And I just felt like as a modern brand, we had no need to be nostalgic about something that actually we didn't do or someone else that did. In Melbourne, there is a very thoughtful respect for tradition where it makes a lot of sense. But also this rolling stone mindset of like let's not gather any moss here and continue to innovate and be inspired by what's going on around us. so that's something that we took really seriously and the way that that is reflected I guess is that like great bourbons particularly we have no fear or compunction about using them in mixed drink, using our whiskeys in a mixed drink.
So they are award-winning whiskeys that are sampled and tasted in those awards neat and can stack up against the best in the world from that perspective. But because we're using those wine barrels, there's a versatility that comes to Starward that means that it works amazingly well in long drinks, with mixes but also in interesting cocktails. I always get inspired by how bartenders take Starward on a riff, with an idea that they have in their own mind. And you know, the classics work too. Like let's face it, if a whisky matured in wine barrels can't make a decent Manhattan, given that the other main ingredient's Vermouth, we might as well just kind of close the shutters right away.

So the reaction from bartenders to the whisky has been good?

There's always a bit of trepidation when you launch a brand. You don't know whether your irrational belief in an idea is actually going to manifest in a version of success, right? Like is it actually going to land the way you thought it was? I think we were really lucky in some ways to kind of have that idea of whisky maturity in wine barrels at the time that we did, where there was certainly in Australia, but also obviously in the United States, this rebirth of cocktails and it meant that actually we came to the bartenders with something that they didn't have in their toolbox already that they could use to make interesting drinks. And that's all you could ever ask for really. So we were pretty blown away by the support we had with bartenders.
But also, retailers were getting excited about Starward too. And they knew their customers really well and there's a subset of drinkers that are quite promiscuous. They're not just whisky drinkers, they're not gin drinkers, they're not rum drinkers, they drink everything. And I think a lot of those store managers did a lot of recommending to Starward and saying, "Hey, if you like gin and tonic, I think you might like this whisky with tonic too, give it a go." And we'd support them so all of a sudden we're seeing a lot of people that make cocktails at home, having Starward in their drink cabinet to make, not just whisky cocktails, but interesting cocktails that would have otherwise used a rum or a gin, which is exciting.

So you're perhaps a little bit of a gateway whisky?

100%. I think that if we do our job well, people will discover a stay in whisky through Starward and what a wonderful world of whisky there are. Not just our own, but Tasmanian whiskies, I think every state has a whisky distillery in Australia and I'd be proud to call any of them my own. Such is the quality of product that's being made and if we can kind of be the gateway into Australian whisky, then that would be an amazing achievement and outcome for the industry altogether. But it's difficult, particularly in the United States as a category of one. Japanese whisky kind of had a few in there and some large multinational behemoths to kind of really prosecute their case. But we're here on our own in 35 States trying to beat the drum. The good news is that I know that the reasons why people love us in Australia resonate well with an American audience too.

Now you talked about the two fold particularly being good in Manhattan. What other cocktails do you think work particularly well with that expression?

Because it's a double grain whisky, it's a 60-40 split wheat with malted barley, the wheat provides a lovely roundness and silkiness to the whisky, but also a little bit of spice in a good way. A lot of the spice characteristics we get from Starward are typically from the barrel, either peppery spice from the Shiraz barrels that we're using or baking spices from the oak itself, but this is more white pepper would probably be the way that I describe it. It adds a little bit of punch to a whisky and so I find it working really well with things that are aromatic. Vermouth's the obvious candidate there but also going with an Amaro, it works really well. We make a pretty wicked barrel aged Boulevardier at the distillery. That is a mixture of Campari, dolin vermouth and two fold and it's a cracking and depending on the day of the week at home I'll typically have one of those. But that's quite boozy and bitter.
At the other end of the continuum, as I said earlier, like mixing it with tonic is just really refreshing and easy, garnished with some grapefruit or orange, it's a really great alternative to a G&T that does have a bit more flavour and character to it, but still quite refreshing. So it has that kind of versatility of being at any part of that continuum of intensity and flavour.

The brand also has two single malts, the Solera and the Nova. Now obviously the Solera is produced by the Solera method, but do you want to expand on the difference in flavours between the two?

Sure. So the Solera was actually the first whisky we came to market. As I said earlier, Australian whisky matured in Australian wine barrels was kind of the first line I wrote down when I thought, this is what we're going to stand for. So Solera is using fortified wine barrels. These are amazing heirloom barrels from some of these iconic producers of yesteryear that are no longer making much fortified wine and therefore selling those barrels. So we were lucky enough, very early on to pick up a very big parcel of those barrels and mature our beautiful single malt whisky in those barrels.
And the way I kind of describe Solera is that it's a lot of those typical fortified slash Sherry cask finish whisky characteristics. They're often described as being Christmas flavours and Christmas pudding flavours, which you know, raisins and apricot's and baking spices. I think Solera is still Christmas but instead of being Christmas pudding style, which is like that fruit cake, fruit mince sort of area, I'm thinking more in terms of Italian paratoner, like bright candied fruit and orange peel and caramel and vanilla. So it's still Christmas, but just a little difference or really quite rich but bright fruit characteristics as opposed to those dark fruit characters.
So the second single malt that we have is Nova, that's entirely matured in red wine barrels and the magic about those red wine barrels are that they're so close to the distillery, we can get them within a day's drive. And so within that timeframe, you've still got that fresh wine in the barrel that is infused into the oak. So wine goes out, whisky goes in, as I said earlier, and what that delivers is a beautiful rich fruity whisky that if you were a wine drinker, you're going to kind of identify some of those cues but you don't necessarily have to like wine to like the whisky.
And without getting too technical, the reason why wine makers use barrels is to give wine structure and it helps them cellar their wines for a longer period of time. And the way that comes across typically is in that mid palate grippiness of a wine. That's not everybody's cup of tea, those tannins and so because the winemaker's using a barrel to put tannins in the wine, it means that the whisky doesn't have those tannins. So it has all of the lovely bits that people love about red wines but with none of that astringent sort of thickness that comes from wine. So that was really important for us.
We didn't want to be the "poke you between the eyes, slap you across the face" kind of high whisky maturity and wine barrels just like a big Aussie Shiraz. We wanted to be a bit more nuance with those characteristics and I think Nova does that. My favorite cocktail is almost an evening ritual in the Vitale household is a perfect Manhattan. So that's two ounces of Starward and then a half an ounce of sweet Vermouth and a half an ounce of dry Vermouth. So, it gives a really lovely balance of flavours and still has, it has some depth and complexion.

Now you are about to completely upgrade your distillery. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about what you're doing and what you have planned?

Yeah, the distillery is about a mile from downtown Melbourne and we set it up as a place where people, can kind of discover a little bit more about the brand and what we stand for but more importantly for me, it's a 300 person bar that means that people can come along and really explore whisky and discover it on their terms. And there's no better way to discover anything I think than through application.
So rather than just kind of walk people through a tour and get them to walk through the gift shop on the way out. It's like, of course we do those things. We don't have a gift shop, but people can really go deep on geeking out about the process of making whisky but for me, it's always about the drink. And the home of Starwood is obviously in Port Melbourne but really it's in a bar, and so we want to bring that to life and be a beacon of inspiration for both drinkers at home, but also bartenders to kind of really take whisky for a walk
So we moved into the site in 2017 and as part of our kind of growth we're doubling production capacity and improving that visitor experience as part of that so it's pretty exciting. From day one I've always really kind of full tilted production. I remember when we first started making whisky, it was a 24/7 operation, I'd get there at six in the morning and get the stills going and then come back home at eight and have some breakfast with the kids and then go back to work and go back there at 10 o'clock at night and turn the stills over again.
So none of that's really changed. It's just that there are a few more zeros on the end of the volumes that we're making, which is very, very, very exciting and all of that whisky is effectively going to be ready to drink in three years time. So between now and then we've got our job cut out for us, doubling the size of our sales.

Now, part of the doubling of the sales I imagine would be conquering the US market. How difficult has it been, not only in terms of the different regulations per state, but also presenting an Australian whisky?

Yeah, well the short answer is very difficult. As you point out, each state has its own regulations almost dating back to prohibition times in terms of the service of alcohol, the way it's sold. There's a few more layers in the United States at a state level than there are in Australia, which is relatively straightforward and so that's been a big learning experience for us as a brand cause we haven't really experienced that before but the good news is that we've got amazing trade partners that that's sort of like middle layer that does a lot of the distribution for us.
And when we get in front of, whether it's a bartender or a buyer at a retail store, overwhelmingly, the response has been positive. It's heartwarming, it's very, very exciting. The challenge for us is that no one knows about the Australian whisky category and so it's equal parts building availability of the product physically on shelves, but also building some space in people's minds for an Australian whisky to exist too.
So PR and just kind of getting out to consumer events are also equally as important as making sure that the product's available and it's just a lot of work when you've got, we're available in 35 States across the United States. So it just, it boils down to trying to make the most of every hour of the day and having a team on the ground that can support us on this Starward bound journey.

Now other than the US and of course, Australia, what other markets are you available in around the world?

Yeah. So we launched in the UK actually four years ago. That was something that we felt like was a good market for us to trial, this idea of a modern Australian whisky and see what would happen. It really did help us iron out a lot of the kinks that if you multiply by 50 States in the United States becomes, if you get things wrong, they can become very expensive mistakes.
So that's our oldest export market. We're also available in France and Japan, which is just new. We launched Japan, December last year so I'm still in that sort of incubation phase. And realistically in any of the markets that we launch in, more often than not, there's three years of feeling like you're in a hamster wheel, spinning really fast and not going anywhere and then all of a sudden you get some traction and off you go.

How important are international markets to the story of Starward?

Well, personally, from a vision point of view, the idea was that we would have this distinctive Australian whisky that could sit in whisky cabinets and bars around the world that offered something quite unique and there's a lot of work that we need to do in Australia to kind of get that message across but for me, it's important that the world sees just how amazing Australian whisky is rightly or wrongly, for better or worse, I've decided to kind of take the mantle and lead the charge from that perspective.
So it's a very important thing personally for me to do. At the moment, export sales represent about 25% of our business but within about five years, it'll be the other way around. It'll be closer to 60 to 75% depending on just how quickly we can grow.

Now, if people want to find out more information, they can, of course, go to your website, which is starwood.com.au. Thank you for joining us, David.

Absolute pleasure too. Thank you so much.

For more information on Starward, go to starward.com.au

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