Australian whisky, Australian chef, Australian vibes – what’s not to love? Join us as we look back on STARWARD Whisky’s Ultimate Dinner Party Aussie Style at London Cocktail Week.
When most of us in the UK think “Australian food”, we think “shrimp on the barbie” with a cool brew and a relaxed vibe. Whilst these may still be part of the Aussie culture, there is so so much more out there. It would not be far from the truth to state that Melbourne rivals London in terms on gastronomy and cocktail culture, boasting fine dining hotspots like Andrew McConnell’s Culter & Co and Shaun Quade’s Lûmé, and award-winning booze haunts such as Black Pearl and The Everleigh. Luckily for us, we’ve managed to pinch a couple of the greats such as Scott Hallsworth (Freak Scene, ex-Kurobuta, ex-Nobu) and Iain Griffiths (Mr Lyan Group, Trash Tiki), who have taken the UK scene by storm. This year’s London Cocktail Week saw another Aussie icon, Michelin-star chef, Andrew Wandless (Texture, ex-Ledbury, ex-Hibiscus), join forces with STARWARD Whisky to offer a dining experience like no other inspired by the “five Boroughs of Melbourne”.
We find ourselves, once again, meandering through the lamppost-lit backstreets of Shoreditch, questioning the veracity of Google Maps and looking out for any sign of the venue it was apparently directing us to. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we spy a road-sign with a wombat on it, lopsidedly lodged in a door. We’ve arrived.
Making our way up the steps of a converted Victorian zip and suspenders factory, we come to an open-plan, bare-brick space with a kitchen island at the back and long, banqueting tables on either side. Beyond and up another step is the welcome site of the bar, with a twinkling STARWARD logo overhead. Naturally, we make a beeline for this and are presented with a delicious welcome drink whilst we wait for the other diners to arrive. Over a cocktail, UK Brand Ambassador, Pete Garraway, chats to us about STARWARD’s unashamedly local roots and how it uses locally grown barley and 100% Australian red wine barrels for maturation, as well as harnessing the Port Melbourne area’s “four seasons in a day” climate, which results in the whisky’s rich, balanced and approachable character. He’s soon joined by STARWARD’s Drink Curator, Alex Hart (ex-Milk & Honey), who has dreamt up the cocktails we are about to enjoy with dinner.
We take our seats on the beautifully laid table as Pete welcomes all present diners. He states that over in Australia, they’re used to having whisky with food so they thought they’d bring a bit of the Melbourne way of doing things over here.
Our first course is Earl Grey Cured Salmon, Cucumber and Dill, accompanied by a tiki-style cocktail in an impressive and slightly ridiculous pineapple-shaped glass. The delicate flavour of the tea comes through in the fish, whose smooth texture and flavour contrast with the crunch of the lightly pickled cucumber. Fresh and refined, the creamy dill sauce completes this enticing entrée. The cocktail is a surprisingly great pairing. Visually in-your-face and with a strong ABV, it combines STARWARD Solera (the first-born child of STARWARD matured in fortified wine barrels taken from a winery less than a day from the whisky distillery) with sesame orgeat, apricot brandy, lemon and Peychaud’s Bitters to deliver a sweet taste full of juicy apricot and citrus that cuts through the fatty salmon. STARWARD’s Drink’s Curator, Alex Hart, tells us that Whisky Tiki drinks are making a big comeback in Oz and showcase the tropical flavours that are the in whisky.
“We have beautiful stone fruit characteristics in our single malt and there’s wine influence from the barrels so we brought that out with apricot brandy. The sesame orgeat gives umami flavour and a bit of citrus finishes it off.”
Next up the ode to Port Melbourne’s distilling history, Brothers in Arms (STARWARD Wine Cask, Sweet Tea Moonshine, Shiraz Grenadine, Absinthe, Earl Grey Bitters) – a complex and heady cocktail approaching a bitter version of an Old Fashioned, with a notably aromatic lemon peel garnish. For this, Alex explains they’ve brought in Melbourne Moonshine who produce spirits just down the road to them, as well as a grenadine using native pepperberry. Its pairing is the equally delicious Harissa Coated Cauliflower, Cous Cous, Pickled Nectarine, pulled together by a yoghurt sauce. A crunchy and dynamic dish, the “cous cous” is revealed to be diced white cauliflower tossed with poppy seeds.
We travel over to Melbourne’s CBD (Central Business District) for our next drink, an Asian-inspired Whisky Sour, inspired by CBD’s bustling, multicultural vibe. Typically the place you’d travel to for fantastic dumplings, later washed down with a whisky from a bar down a tiny alley, Alex has combined whisky with yuzu sake, a bit of plum wine and black lemon. The result is a sour, citrus-heavy drnk with a light sweetness and a rounded, peachy body.
Waiting his turn, Andrew steps forward to quietly introduce his dish of New Season Mushrooms, Gnocchi, Parsley. A single, large ingot of fresh, lightly fried gnocchi is laden with crisp yet soft pan-seared girolle, trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms, covered in shavings of cheese. Utterly delicious, the gnocchi base is thick and rich, its thin fried crust and soft centre matching the texture of the mushrooms. The sharpness of the cocktail works with the full mouthfeel of the dish to create a balanced and complimentary course.
All the dishes so far have been delicious, but it is the main course that makes us let out one of those slightly inappropriate-sounding, food-induced moans. Two perfectly pink fillets of Lake District lamb roasted in rosemary butter sit atop confit beetroot, drizzled in a cherry juice, raspberry and beetroot-based sauce. The meat is impossibly tender and flavoursome, mingling in the mouth with the fresh and fruity sauce to sensational completion. We would never have thought to introduce raspberries to red meat but we’re so glad that Andrew did.
Our accompanying cocktail takes us to Fitzroy – Melbourne’s Shoreditch. Alex tells us the tale of Mac Robinson, a Fitzroy resident who once ran a confectionary shop that he sold under-the-counter grog from. Mac’s Sly Grog is a Manhattan-esque tribute to this, with Mr Black’s coffee liqueur, cacao macadamia bitters from Mr Bitters, vermouth and cherry. Full of intense, earthy coffee flavours and a strong booze kick, it holds its own with the lamb, bringing a deeper, wood flavour out in the pairing.
Sadly, we have reached our final course, but Alex and Andrew see us off in good style. For the last cocktail, a Snakebite-inspired cocktail, drawing on Abotsford’s iconic stout brew (once given to the sick as a form of medicine) presents rhubarb verjus, tawny port, stout reducation and a “healthy” dose of STARWARD, fizzed and frothed up for our enjoyment. Fresh, fruity and sweet, it matched perfectly with the deeply flavoured, warm, caramalised roasted fig sprinkled with rose and hibiscus powder that comes to us swimming in a sea of lush, lightly floral vanilla custard.
Our romp through Melbourne’s gastro-scene has left us feeling entirely relaxed, full of laughter (and food), and more than a little merry. The atmosphere throughout the night has been laidback and jovial, far-removed from the drab and dour days of tweed and exclusion that so many think of when they hear “whisky”. STARWARD as a brand truly embodies that Aussie spirit and their whisky has proven itself to be phenomenally versatile. We can’t wait to hear what this exciting young brand will do next.
STARWARD Whisky’s Ultimate Dinner Party Aussie Style was priced at £65 for London Cocktail Week 2018.
STARWARD Whisky can be purchased from £50.44 here.