Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Nuance is the watchword in whisky nowadays, but it’s often not a word we associate with Australia. Australia can too often be seen as a sort of caricature of its true self. This notion that Aussies are all brash “that’s not a knife” crocodile “wrasslers” creates an impression that diminishes the nuance and complexity of the island continent’s culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the multicultural metropolis of Melbourne.
Melbourne native David Vitale was looking for what was next. He’d had success in the tech industry and wanted to shift gears. What was important for Vitale was that whatever he did should celebrate Australia, and Melbourne in particular. “Melbourne is the best multicultural experiment in the world,” he opined. “It’s a city where more than half of the inhabitants come from somewhere else. We’ve come together in Melbourne, and we’ve brought the elements of home—most importantly our food—and it’s through the food that we’re all equals.”
Wine has been established for a long time in Australia, and the Yarra Valley is a world-renowned growing region outside of Melbourne, where the cooler climate produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But it wasn’t wine that captured Vitale’s imagination. An experience in Tasmania with a craft whisky (the Aussies are using the Scottish spelling) made in the proprietor’s kitchen got his attention. “I didn’t have much experience with it, but as I did some digging, it became clear that great whisky comes from Australia.” These were single malt, Scotch-inspired whiskies that reframed what it meant to make something the Aussie way according to Vitale. His Starward brand was born.
We know that wheat and water are important elements of a good whisky; but weather is the third “w” (or maybe there are four, because whisky itself is often underestimated). The weather in Melbourne makes it a whisky sweet spot. The maturation process for whisky is what makes it a drinkable spirit to begin with. You can drink a newly distilled whisky, but it would both taste and look mostly like rubbing alcohol, and so it’s the maturation process that makes whisky special… and weather impacts maturation. In Scotland you have long, steady and generally cooler conditions. While the winters are mild, so are the summers and so the maturation process is far more gradual. In Kentucky’s Bourbon County you have a variable climate over the course of the year; it can be both quite cold during the winter and very hot in the summer.
Melbourne offers a dynamic climate where whisky maturation experiences a bit of a fast forward. Situated on the coast of a continent that is mostly arid desert, and subjected to the influences of nearby Antarctica, Melbourne’s daily weather changes are dramatic. These wild swings in temperature facilitate the respiration between the whisky and the barrel at a much greater frequency and Starward has found that the weather can age its whisky too long in the barrel.
Starward has focused on the maturation process to create nuanced whiskies while keeping a focus on sourcing everything from Melbourne and its surroundings—such as utilizing wine barrels from the nearby Yarra Valley that often arrive still wet. For Vitale, the idea of creating a local whisky is more than just about a trendy concept. All the ingredients of Starward whiskies are within driving distance from Melbourne. An abundance of wheat is grown outside of the metropolitan area. “Distance tends to dumb down character,” he says. So the idea to focus on local ingredients is driven by the end goals for his whiskies: elegance, nuance and subtlety.
The flagship Starward whisky is the Nova. This is a single malt Australian whisky made from malted barley with an addition of brewer’s yeast to add character and depth. The whisky ages in fresh wine casks from the Yarra Valley that previously housed Aussie Shiraz or Pinot Noir. The barrels add notes we often associate with wine. The palate is a mix of berry fruit, dried apricot and honey. This is a great, elegant whisky nuanced and mellow. While the Starward whiskies are great for sipping neat, true to the Melbourne ethic they’re really after a whisky that’s perfect for cocktails, complementary with other ingredients and doesn’t overwhelm the palate.
From issue 105, get your copy at pelotonshop.com