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Starward Single Malt Australian Whisky (700ml)
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- ABV 43%
The ‘New World Whisky Distillery’ is one of the latest to join the rafters of Australian distillers. Alongside Bakery Hill, it stands as Melbourne’s second whisky distillery, in a location more metropolitan than you might think. After tasting the first release called 'Starward', which is impressive by any measure, we fired off a few questions to founder, David Vitale, to find out a little more about the inner workings of his operation, and why he feels Melbourne is a world class destination for producing whisky.
Can you outline the thought process behind basing the distillery in Melbourne?
The idea of starting a distillery was actually born in Tasmania, but being Melbourne born and bred, Starward was always going to be a Melbourne drink. Practically, Melbourne has a deep talent pool of brewers. I have been able to poach some bright sparks from micro-breweries and give them a new and exciting sand pit to play in.
What are the main points of difference in the production process?
We have tried to take the best of the old / best of the new approach to our production process. At the end of the day it is a single malt whisky, so there are only a few things you can work with to create something modern and different. But we did try and approach each stage of the production process with an open mind – looking at ways to improve the process.
Barley: see below
Yeast: Scotch whisky distilleries mostly use a wet yeast. This is not highly practical for small scale distilleries. But it provides an opportunity for us to innovate. Using a combination of distilling and brewing yeasts enables us to combine the efficiency of distilling yeast strain, with the high ester profile of our brewing strain. This unique combination provides the tropical and orchard fruit backbone to Starward malt whisky. The highly variable climate in Melbourne is a key advantage to barrel maturation, but can play havoc with fermentation. Our fermenters are jacketed, which enables control of the temperature of fermentation in extreme conditions – ensuring a consistent wash and flavour profile.
Distillation: We use two very small batch copper pot stills made in Australia: 1 x 1800lt Wash Still; 1 x 500lt Spirit Still.
These stills were acquired second hand from an old Shale Coal mine tourism venture. While not ideally sized for our long term aspirations and scale, they offered a great starting point.
Their design was loosely modeled on those at 'The Macallan' but have been altered by the addition of a modified neck- jacketed to provide additional reflux. This is a rare feature and provides the distillers the ability to dial up or down the reflux on the still as desired.
You describe Starward as a “midpoint between Scotch and Bourbon” how does the process lend itself to this statement?
This is definitely our wood policy and the influence of our climate on the maturation process. The depth of oak character and mellowness of Starward comes from the combination of the barrel sizes used to mature the whisky. Rather than focus on one size, 50lt,100lt and 200lt casks are used to provide a diversity of character and complexity. Varying surface area to volume ratios combined with a highly variable climate mellows the whisky faster. While this increases the cost of maturation and complicates inventory management, the results speak for themselves.
Is the whisky matured on site?
Yes the whisky is matured in our distillery. The hangar exterior has been painted black to absorb the sun’s energy during the day. We also have good cross-flow ventilation with roller doors either side of the distillery which allow us to dispel the absorbed heat of an evening if we choose to.
You mention the use of specific malted barley crafted to the distillery’s specific requirements. Does this yield any unique contributions toward the end flavour?
We exclusively use Australian barley. Working with our maltster, we use a bespoke malting regime to suit the requirements of the distillery - a balanced cereal note providing a full mouth-feel. I think what is of note is what is not in the spirit. My experience with younger Australian whiskies and new make spirit is a grassy green character – described to me once as “pickled onion juice”. With time it dissipates, but our new make spirit doesn’t have that character and I believe it is the malting process.
Scotch malt whiskies traditionally use a lighter malt. Starward’s malt is darker in colour (EBC 3-4). Like a beer, the darker the colour the more character the malt provides the whisky. This is measured by a unit called EBC. An EBC of 3-4, compares to an Amber Ale. By comparison, Scotch whiskies would compare to a Pilsner - an EBC of 1.
Our key distillers are qualified brewers, which provides a unique insight into the possibilities of Australian malts. It is still early days yet, but it is our aspiration to one day release a uniquely Australian mash bill. For the time being though, we remain focussed on our flagship Starward Malt Whisky.
How does Melbourne’s water source fare for whisky production?
Melbourne Water is great. We harden it up for brewing but for breaking down the whisky to bottle strength we simply pass it through a particle and carbon filter. We did fleetingly explore the option of carting in spring water from a secret location, but it proved too problematic.
How is the distillery geared in terms of production? What volumes are you currently capable of producing?
The annual capacity of our distillery is 80,000 lts of pure alcohol. This is the equivalent of approximately 155,000 lts of finished product (or 37,500 packaged cases p.a.). The typical distilling schedule at Starward is 3 x 1250lt wash runs / day x 7 days a week.
In terms of Australian distilleries currently producing, we would be #1 or #2. Of course, globally, this is still very small scale. Our goal is to eventually produce about 100,000 x 9 litre cases per annum – about 6 times the production volume we are at right now.
What’s down the pipeline in terms of future releases? Is there scope for single cask bottling’s, wood experimentation?
We really want to focus on Starward. Get it right and build a loyal following. But there are some exciting things in the bond store which we’ll keep an eye on. We have second fill barrels from a special project last year which show exciting promise only after 12 months in oak. Also, still in early development, we have 100lt Shiraz barrels. We are really excited by their progress but I can genuinely say I am not sure yet what we will do with them. Will Starward evolve to incorporate them, will we launch a new product? If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in distilling: time will tell.
Tasting note: Dull gold, brassy appearance with a pale straw hue. The soft yet lifted bouquet exudes notes of stewed fruits and boiled confectionary. On second pass the fruitiness is more distinctively banana cake-like along with hints of vanilla. A seductive whisky sniff! Entry is super soft and leads into a medium dry, concentrated profile offering a gorgeous infusion of dried fruits rounded off by a toasty, honeyed finish while gently warming spices add depth. Outstanding length. Perfect balance. Concludes dry and mildly spicy with a secondary flavour burst of caramel and cocoa; the soft spiciness reverberating with astonishing length for such a youngster. A superb new release. 43% Alc.Vol.