Sated sit down with David Vitale, Founder of award-winning Australian Single Malt Whisky brand, Starward, following the company’s recent expansion within the US.
Just five years ago, the idea of an Australian Single Malt Whisky having much commercial success or demand outside of Oz would have seemed unlikely. Perhaps a few whisky connoisseurs would have claimed a bottle as a novel oddity to show off to guests after a few drams of the familiar, or a backpacker may have return clutching their worldly souvenir, swearing that it was all the rage in Melbourne. However, in 2019, you would be hard-pressed to find a good London bar not stocking Starward Whisky or a bartender unfamiliar with the award-winning liquid.
This quick about-turn is in no small part due to David and his fantastic team’s dedication to creating an exceptional and versatile, affordable whisky that takes single malt’s fine heritage and starts a whole new, Aussie-accented conversation about what the category can be.
But, first thing’s first.
What is Starward Whisky?
Like David, Starward Whisky is a born and bred Melbournite. Located just outside of the city, the distillery benefits not only from the famous “four seasons in a day” temperature swings but also the innate craft culture and dynamic F&B scenes Melbourne is known for. The team are proud of the fact that they have everything from barley to bar under one roof and can truly celebrate every part of the process whilst remaining near the heart of Melbourne.
Locally grown barley and a full maturation process in 100% Australian red wine barrels, coupled with the climate come together to produce uniquely Australian whiskies.
Up until recently, Starward has only been distributed in Australia and the UK, following David’s strong philosophy of “going deep not wide and working with [their] partners to ensure that the story [they’re] telling resonates well.” However, six-months ago, the brand – and David – made the leap to the USA.
Cracking the USA
How has the move gone for you personally?
Yeah, really great. Seattle’s amazing – in some ways very similar to Melbourne, in others very different. My wife and I were smart in choosing a place that was culturally aligned but environmentally very different. Sure, you have to give some things up but I’m still taking touristy photos of the neighbourhood; it’s paradise. There’s certainly trepidation moving three kids who are in school but they’ve done very well all things considered.
How’s the move been for the brand?
You need to be pretty crazy to set up a distillery. Nothing ever beats that first step in terms of big leaps as you’re all-in, especially if you do what we do and don’t bother doing gins, you just focus on whisky, which I was adamant about doing. However, this is our second big leap and it’s been a very busy six months for the brand. We’re continuing to double sales every year but as you get bigger, that get’s harder as the number still goes back to zero at the end of the year. That’s been really interesting.
How has your work in Australia and the UK helped pave the way for this next part of the journey?
In Australia particularly, we’ve moved out of whisky drinking circles and into drinking circles, and now, over the past six months particularly, we’ve started to move that ambition forward. Now we’re like “of course a bottle of Australian whisky should be serve with food or at a BBQ.” We want the drink to be celebrated for what it is, not just the category it belongs to and, of all whisky brands, one that’s been matured in wine barrels should have the greatest permission to be around food.
That’s really exciting for us and by doing that in Australia, we’ve been able to fast-track that journey and bring a lot of that to the USA.
Talk to us more about this “permission” aspect.
Great whiskies always talk to the place they’re made. The Scottish talk about the water, the regions etc. and it’s the same with bourbon. I think that the best of them also talk to the place they’re made from a cultural perspective too. We’re very much anchoring our story in Australia, not just because the whisky is distilled an hour from Melbourne and matured in local wine barrels, but because we’re transplanting that Australian attitude and Melbourne foodie culture along with the liquid.
People often don’t feel like they have the permission to alter a whisky but with Starward, there is that untold permission that you’re allowed to have a bit of a play and there’s a job for all of us to bring that to life and create an occasion for whisky that has, up until now, been tweed, a pipe and a fire.
You’re certainly not the tweed jacket and smoking pipes type of whisky!
That’s the furthest from what we want to be. In terms of that as context, we probably borrow more from an American culture as a brand: gender diversity is broader in terms of consumption, cocktail repertoire is already part of the whiskey repertoire, you can drink it on the rocks… As a start-up, we can take on all styles and cultures and create something uniquely us – a bit of the old, a bit of the new, juggled up with some Aussie charm.
Tell us about Starward Nova
Nova is the best example of the idea that the New World whisky category is seeking flavour whilst not being tied down to the traditional. We launched it in 2015 in Oz, then won “World’s Best Craft Distilled Whisky” (World Spirits Competition) in April the following year and have been slowly playing catch-up in terms of demand ever since. It’s effectively taken three years to do that.
All of our attention is focussed around celebrating being able to bring people who are confused, fearful or overwhelmed something that is an approachable, accessible starter to get into the category with.
What’s changed since you first started?
A lot of our original sales in Oz were from whisky drinkers who were intrigued by a whisky that was fully matured in red wine barrels. It became part of their sharing cabinet on the whisky shelf at home. That was job number one. We’re finding more and more that people want to use it as ingredient, so now it’s our job to bring this to life, whether it’s through events where we partner with chefs, or celebrating the liquid and flavour through cocktails.
It’s taken us six-and-a-half years to get to this point in Oz. It won’t take us that long in America as the market and category have moved forward.
Progressive eaters are progressive drinkers and it’s good to think of the world of whisky the way we look at cuisine. There’s nothing wrong with a 5* tasting menu and, if it delivers, then you’ll have a great night. Equally, you can go get some dumplings for $7 and have a great night too.
I think people are thinking of drinks in the same way. It used to be that people saw “the best” whisky as the oldest. This is changing. That still exists but it’s easier for us to have the conversation now. We’re a young whisky not because we’re a young distillery but because we’re from Melbourne [where the climate allows for faster yet equally complex maturation]. Once you explain that to people, they accept it and look at the merits of the whisky for what they are. That’s a way easier conversation to have now than in 2016. When we won Double Gold for our whisky that year, we were 1-in-20 New World whiskies competing. Nowadays, we’re 1-in-5.
The stars are aligning for us to leapfrog the first stage of proving the credentials, to just showcasing that we’re a really great whisky to have neat or in a Starward and Tonic.
As you’ve mentioned, you encourage drinkers, chefs and bartenders to play with Starward. Are you at all precious about how they do so?
Not at all. We’ve already done a lot of the work, layering flavours into the whisky that change as you make it boozier or less boozy. I like the approach gin producers Four Pillars Gin take to their gin – their co-founder Cam MacKenzie often says, “This (gin) is the cast member. You be the director. Make a film.” That resonates strongly with Starward.
Can you give us some examples of “Starward Serves” and where our readers can enjoy them in London?
A twist on a Manhattan using Starward Solera, Wattleseed-infused Cognac, Manzanilla & Amontillado Sherry blend, Macadamia Syrup, Burnt Eucalyptus Honey & Salted Banana Chip garnish.
Craft Beer Co. sites
(Islington, St. Mary Axe, Old St)
A boilermaker pairing of Starward Solera with Soundwave IPA
Starward Solera in a spritz with Seckforde Whisky Mixer
How about something we can make at home?
Our new Summer serve is easy and refreshing and uses our approachable Starward Nova.
Nova & Tonic
50ml Starward Nova
100ml Light tonic water
Ruby grapefruit wedge
Build in a stem-less wine glass or Highball. Add ice and stir. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge.