Starward Whisky: A Star is Born

Note: This article is composed of excerpts from the blog Native Drop - soon to be released. This article is written by Dave Withers, a leading authority on Australian whisky and spirits.

 

Starward Whisky in the Hands of David Vitale

Starward Whisky in the Hands of David Vitale

New world distillery (or the artist formerly known as Victoria Valley distillery) has added a brave new face to the Australian whisky scene. The man behind the bold Starward venture goes by the name of David Vitale – a man so switched-on you can positively hear the crackle of sparks coming off his hairline.

Pulling up to the distillery in a precinct known for its light planes and runways is one of those rare surreal experiences. Not picturesque or quaint as one romantically assumes. A large warehouse graces your view against a backdrop of take-offs and landings. It is perhaps coincidental that your eye draws you upward, Starward perhaps, an apt action given the name of the whisky produced on the ground. But the real surprise is the juxtaposition between the semi-industrial, practical space inside the distillery and the burning passion that glimmers in the eye of each of its workers.

The NWD story starts and continues with Vitale’s passion and dedication for an Australian category still sprouting from the clumsiness of adolescence. With an IT background, Vitale worked on a close level for Bill Lark (of Lark distillery) for two and a half years. Rather than banking on the success of a pioneering but now established brand, Vitale saw the opportunity to create “an iconic Australian whisky we can offer the world with pride.” Rather than being restricted by the regionality of a ‘place’ Vitale looked to diversify, not confining his whisky to notions of provenance but rather creating something unique for a global scale.

Starward was conceptualised to make the most of an Australian nationalism rather than a regional identity. From day one, NWD wanted to create a modern whisky “unshackled by tradition” not relying on the assumed wisdom of heritage but rather resting on the pioneering Australian spirit that makes folklore. This break with tradition is mandatory for such a modern venture which inherently cannot rely on generations of practiced experience. In an interesting parallel to the Australian wine industry, the philosophy taken to production at NWD is analytical, methodical and diagnostic rather than lassiez-fare. The excuse oft heard in Scotland “we do this because this is the way they did it generations ago” has little creedance at New World distillery as science is the muse – not custom. It is perhaps this bold reliance on explanation and experimentation that has given such personality to a spirit so young.

DISTILLATION

David Vitale with a very Old Australian Whisky Cask

David Vitale with a very Old Australian Whisky Cask

Back in January of 2010, David Vitale took on staff member Sam Slaney. Slaney’s understanding of distilling was forged from a malt driven education afforded by the craft beer scene of Melbourne. In the first six months of the journey (Starward?), Vitale and Slaney’s time was divided equally amongst cleaning up the huge industrial site and running numerous trials on a hobby sized 5 litre still. The principle focus of the trials were to shape a set of flavour profiles from which a unique product could be created. No additional flavours would be created from distillation so all the elements required for a distinctive and quality whisky must be present from the start.  First and foremost was to select malted barley that would give a bolder disposition than what was created in fellow distilleries. Where other distilleries utilise a pale or pilsner malt, known for its lightness and finesse, here a fuller malt character was desired to balance the flavour injections of the hard working Australian casks. Indeed this bespoke mash bill reflects a more cereal flavour profile given to nutty quality.

Fermentation was also of pivotal importance. A high ester spirit was Vitale’s goal and a medium fermentation of 86 hours (though 92 in practice) yielded marvellous results. A combination of brewer and distillers yeast struck a balance between full flavour and optimal alcohol output (a necessary consideration given the huge expenditure to set up the distillery).

The wash still itself has a life and story of its own, Vitale picking it up in the back roads of Mittagong in New South Wales for a song. However, when the 500 litre still was first fired up, the team found that a great deal of the profile, the fingerprint of New World Distillery had been left behind. The solution was inventive and ingenious; the broad neck of the still was water jacketed to increase the reflux of the still and thereby increase the copper contact. This water jacket was installed with adjustable water taps such that experimentation could be carried out to ascertain the optimal water flow for the still and spirit. In practice, this tap remains on a constant however, does afford the distillery the option of adjusting their spirit cut if their mash bill changes later on. The spirit still was installed the same month as the wash still and while considerably larger, does demonstrate the exact shape of what the future wash still will look like when eventually the current one is retired.

CASKS

Starward was born of an, indeed, ‘new world’ approach to wood policy, banking on an Australian wine making heritage to support its point of difference. At New World distillery a motley assortment of ex- Australian Port, ex- Apera (Australian sherry), ex- Bourbon, ex-cognac and even ex-shiraz (Australian) casks can be seen maturing in bond. Yet the former lives of the barrel are not the only thing leading to a broader flavour profile in the finished whisky. As is common across many Australian distilleries, full sized casks of between 400 and 550L are broken down into smaller sizes (usually either 50 litre, 100 litre or 200 litre). At NW all three sizes are utilised to give a greater depth to the final batch, as each barrel will impact the spirit to a varying degree. Toast times on barrels are also being investigated.

Starward Barrels in Bond

Starward Barrels in Bond

Experimentation is one of the guiding philosophies behind the wood policy here. To accommodate the large number of varied barrels, New World distillery has taken a very modern approach. Every barrel is tasted blind against a reference 3 times a year and all information is fed into a computer database known as D.R.A.M.S to best plot its progress. Spider graphs can be pulled up to articulate the development of specific barrel families, with expected flavour profiles and maturation times.  It is this sort of research and development that is what Vitale calls “significant investment in the category,” creating not only information for an emerging distillery but for a burgeoning industry.

MATURATION

The manner of maturation at New World distillery speaks volumes of their contemporary regard. Rather than maturing the barrels in a traditional dunnage style (with the barrels vertical so as to show their ends) the barrels are positioned vertically. There are a number of factors which informed this decision. Firstly, the Melbourne climate known for its four seasons in one day, fluctuates dramatically. This means that the ‘angle’s share’ or loss of spirit via the barrel is a scarily high number; 8.6% for 50L, 6% for 100L and 4.5% for 200L barrels. Accordingly as the spirit is lost to the atmosphere the proportion of contact between wood and spirit in a vertical barrel remains roughly the same. This has the effect of giving less wood extraction but a greater mellowness to the spirit (a useful tool in such a young whisky).

In the early days, a large percentage of the casks laid down were of the 50L size to give greater evaporative losses and thereby logically greater softness to the whisky. Interestingly, the NWD experiments have shown that such vertical maturation gives a comparative mellowness to a spirit taken from a 50L and 200L cask. This demonstrates a much more economically viable way of bringing a quality Australian spirit to market at a fair price.

 Starward Malt whisky, 43% (Batch 1)

 Warning: Dangerously morish whisky…

This whisky is an interesting assembly of characters that one rarely encounters in old world production. On the one hand feminine and soft, caressing with floral tones and on the other, a bold disposition given to a depth usually associated with a longer aged whisky.

In the glass there is the immediate impression of a malted banana smoothie (heavy on the ripe banana) while barley grist gives texture and complexity. Blackberries sit comfortably toward the back of the nose while floral characters of violets, geraniums and kiwifruit give presence, personality and ‘prettiness.’ With time in the glass a swathe of layered jams come to the fore, ranging from marmalade, apricot and peach with a suggestion of strawberry compote. Classic figs and dates are present too with mandarin zest which sit atop honey drizzled pancakes laced with vanilla.

A silky palate starts with some balanced medium sweetness that drives salted barley sugar across the tongue. Spices appear late with buttered toast, almond paste and more dried fruits (apricot and dates). A truly surprising length finally relents to let banana skin dry the back palate before white choc coats the tongue with luxurious softness. Lingering suggestions of raisins and milk chocolate prevail.

Balance, poise, length and complexity with enough richness for serious interest.- What is there not to like?!

To Purchase Starward Whisky click HERE

 

 

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