Aussie Distiller Who Literally Stumbled into the World of Whisky

Aussie Distiller Who Literally Stumbled into the World of Whisky

David Vitale had a dream: to be a microbrewer. But geographical constraints and happy chance turned him into one of the greatest Whisky makers in Australia.

He founded Starward Whisky and his new dream was to create a Whisky that's unmistakably Aussie. Barrels of Australian red Wine, local malted barley, and the insane Melbourne climate that warps time helped him realize that vision.

We sat down with David and asked him how to create a Whisky with unambiguous terroir, talked about the magic of climate, and his wife's lasagna.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

David: I am David Vitale, the founder of Starward Whisky. My role kind of varies from Chief Bottle Rater all the way through to Chief Brand Advocate, spreading the word of Starward around the world.

Tell us more about Starward Distillery and the wondrous new world of Australian Whisky.

David: We started in 2007 and it was a really simple proposition: to create a really distinctly Australian Whisky that we can take to the world and serve in progressive bars and stores that are curious about the new world and Whiskies; that can talk to flavor and sense of the place the way great Whiskies from the traditional Whisky making countries do, but with an Australian flair.

When we started, we'd already begun a bit of a craft Whisky movement in Australia. There have been three waves of Australian Whisky. The first one was in the late 19th century, during the huge gold rush similar to the one in San Francisco. Miners were pretty keen on celebrating their wins with booze, and Australia makes amazing malted barley, so it didn't take long before they started distilling it into amazing Spirits. Then, by the early 20th century, a lot of those distilleries consolidated, and we had a very vibrant local Whisky making industry - just like Japan - and it went all the way through to the late 1980s. Then, like the rest of the world, Australia was in recession, so that industry was pretty much mothballed.

Australia is one of the best places in the world to mature Whisky, particularly Melbourne. We're famous for having four seasons in a day, every day.

The third wave began in 1992 and it brought us the original craft Whisky in Australia via the Lark Distillery. That's actually where I learned how to make Whisky in the early 2000s. I was kind of new to Whisky and I was completely captivated by how you could take a product that had been made famous by brands like Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal, and really start to think about it the same way I did about craft Beers, which were my first passion.

How did you end up in the Whisky making business?

David: I'm actually a frustrated microbrewer. My original passion was craft Beer and I made way more brew at home than I could drink myself. I was wondering whether I should set up a craft brewery as a career change. At that time, my wife and I were working and living in Tasmania, the island state of Australia, and we quickly realized that good Beer doesn't travel well.

Not only were we kind of stuck with a Tasmanian audience, but there was really no potential to export the product. My wife is actually American, so if I was ever going to keep my mother-in-law happy, I had to think of a way of creating a product that could be geared towards exporting to the United States. So, I shelved that brewery idea and started thinking about the next step. Someone said: ‘Well, you do realize that Whisky is just distilled Beer?’ It's fundamental, but I had no idea at the time.

I visited the local distillery that was making single malt Whisky. In the corner, there was a still and about 150 bottles of Whisky. That was early 2000s, before Whisky was hot. I thought, 'My goodness, these single malts are the craft Beers of the Whisky industry.’ I became captivated by the thought that perhaps I could turn my craft brewery idea into what then wasn't a craft distillery, but it's what it effectively became.

What makes your product distinctly Australian?

David: That's a good question and something we thought about long and hard when we started. I didn't want it to be a modern take on Scotch or Bourbon or Irish Whisky. They do their thing really well and you can't out-Scotch Scotch. You need to come to the market with something that's your own.

Our Whisky is fully matured in Australian red Wine barrels from day one.

We pondered about that and realized great Whiskies talk to the place they're made in. We just went back to the ingredients and it was obvious to us that we should use Australian malted barley and grains that originate in the Grain Belt of Australia - which is very close to our distillery. Then, a lot of flavor also comes from barrels. Why not explore Australian Wine barrels to get that distinctive characteristic?

The big challenge was that at that point in time, there weren't many cooperages. There were lots of Wine finishers, but no wine “starts”. One of the things that sets Starward apart is that our Whisky is fully matured in Australian red Wine barrels from day one. That gives us permission to be in those amazing bars and stores that celebrate Whisky. We have something very distinctly Australian with those Wine barrels and the grains.

1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
To be more focused.

2. How would you describe Starward in three words?
Bold, rich, and bright.

3. What is your favorite music, and what drink goes with it?
It depends on the time of the day and the Whisky at hand. If it's late in the evening it may well be some Rachmaninoff with a neat serve of Starward Nova. If it's a barbecue, and we listen to some amazing Australian music like Powderfinger, or some American rock like The Killers, I would definitely be steering toward an Old Fashioned.

4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
It would have to be my wife's lasagna - which is next level - and a Starward Nova Manhattan with Cocchi Torino.

5. Assuming Starward is your favorite, what's your second favorite Australian Whisky?
It would be the Lark Classic Single Malt, because without having stumbled into that distillery and discovering the world of Whisky, we wouldn't be talking right now.

Tell us more about the significance of Australian Wine barrels in your process.

David: Like I said, we didn't really have an idea what would happen if we matured Whisky in red Wine barrels from day zero. Being so close to Wine regions enables us to move Wine out and put Whisky in the barrels in one day. But we didn't have any evidence that it would succeed, because a finish really is just that; it's a short period of time where you're laddering up flavors on top of the base Whisky. When we're starting, we're already interacting with Wine.

Due to different varieties of grapes and approaches to the style of oak the winemakers have, we had a huge diversity of barrels. The challenge is to create something delicious but also consistent from batch to batch. The Whisky actually offers all the characteristics you expect from a Whisky, but also the body of Wine in terms of mouth feel, the texture and the mid-palate tannins that come from grapes.

By maturing Whisky in Wine barrels, we're able to capture the essence of what great Whiskies are all about, but also the abundant flavors of red fruits that we typically associate with red Wine.

What's elemental maturation?

David: Australia is one of the best places in the world to mature Whisky, particularly Melbourne, so we were trying to describe its amazing climate. We're famous for having four seasons in a day, every day. Take Scotland, where it's five days of summer and the rest of the year is cold; or Kentucky, where it's quite seasonal and it can be quite hot and humid in summer, and cold and snowy in winter.

Most people are surprised when they learn how young our Whisky is. But three Melbourne years are different from three years elsewhere.

What Melbourne is able to do is capture a bit of all those climates every day and the reason for that is geography. Northwesterly breezes that come from inland deserts are hot and dry, while the southwesterly winds from Antarctica are very cold and freezing.

The temperature can go from over 100f/37c degrees to about 70f/21c within 20 minutes. That dramatic shift in temperature means the barrels are always working. They're expanding and contracting as the temperature rises and cools, which means more interaction with oak. Most people are surprised when they learn how young our Whisky is. But three Melbourne years are different from three years elsewhere.

In one year, we lose between 5% to 10% of Whisky to the angels. The norm in Scotland, which is the standard for single malts, is around 2%. 3% would be considered bad. I wouldn't say our 3-year-old Whisky is equivalent to a 15-year-old, but it evaporates 3 to 5 times faster. It means things happen a whole lot quicker and we don't keep any barrels longer than three to four years. That's just environment that turns the whole paradigm of maturation on its head a little bit.

Let's pick the Starward single malt Whisky and talk about the Flavor Profile.

David: In short, it delivers on the promise of a Whisky matured in Wine barrels. If you put your nose to it, you're going to get a huge bouquet of fruit, which isn't necessarily unique to Starward. You'll get lots of berry fruits and jam notes. There are baking spices coming from the amazing Wine barrels we source from winemakers.

The texture of Whisky is influenced by the grapes and as you'd expect from Australian red Wine, there are a lot of grape tannins that create a juicy and voluptuous mid-palate texture. We're taking a different approach to creating a complex and rich Whisky.

What are some great food pairings?

David: Look, Melbourne is considered the foodie capital of Australia, but I'd argue it's one of the foodie capitals of the world. Some of the Top 50 restaurants are in Melbourne and the New York Times has a food bureau based there. It made sense to us that this was going to be a foodie's Whisky of choice.

So, if we're using Aussie red Wines, the Whisky's going to pair with those sorts of meals that would work very well with big red Wine, namely cheese and desserts.

It also works great in cocktails that can be as simple as a Whisky and tonic. Using a light style Mediterranean tonic from, say, Fever Tree, with Starward Nova is a revelation. It's very easy and great as an aperitif before dinner. Plus, every craft distiller wants their Whisky to make a great Manhattan cocktail. The Wine characteristics of our Whisky are able to integrate with Vermouth in a way others can’t. We often have a round of Manhattans with a beautiful steak. We don't really mind how people drink it as long as they're respecting the flavors and the spirit of the drink.

How did the Australians receive a high-quality Whisky that’s less expensive?

David: We struggled with the idea of being both an iconic Australian Whisky and affordable. We kept marching to the beat of our own drum and delivered on that promise of great quality Whisky that's well-crafted and stands for something distinctly Australian. People started wondering why should they buy an expensive bottle of Whisky while Starward is delivering 91 points from Whisky Cast at half the price. It won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, and a whole flag of awards at the World Whiskies Awards. Starward is well regarded and accoladed, it represents great value for money. It did take some time for people to understand that.

That's the greatest sign that we're doing something right when people go, "Hey, I need a Whisky. Where should I start my Australian journey?" and people say, "Well, you should start with Starward. It's great value for money and a good example of an Australian Whiskey."

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