The Man Building Australia’s Whisky Scene

Let’s list off all the great whisky-making regions of the world: Scotland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ireland, to start off. Canada, perhaps, and Japan… But what about Australian Whisky?

Australian Whisky Producer Starward Distillery Bar

The country definitely isn’t top-of-mind when it comes to whisky, but Australia is having a renaissance that whisk(e)y lovers need to know about.

Over the last few years, a spate of excellent whiskies from down-under have billed top honors at international awards. Not surprising, considering Australia has a bounty of grains and one of the world’s biggest wine industries. But consider this: the surge of stellar Australia spirits is particularly impressive considering the country’s oldest distillery (Lark) was only founded in the 1990s. Now, there are a few dozen distilleries across the country.

But Australia’s whisky industry is not without its hurdle. With new distilleries opening up across the country, inconsistency is common as distilleries try to capitalize on the boom and form an identity for Australian whisky.

That said, if the bottles coming out of such a young industry are any indication, the future is bright.

Master Distiller David Vitale
David Vitale

One of the said leading faces in the industry is David Vitale, founder of the Melbourne-based Starward Whisky. A former founder of an e-learning company, he left his job in the early 2000s to pursue something that would give him a legacy. He started experimenting with home fermentation, exploring yeasts and grains. Down the beer rabbit hole, he went until he met Bill Lark, founder of Lark Distillery.

Vitale cut his teeth under Lark until it was time to venture out and leave the nest. So Starward was born.

Now, the distillery produces distinctly Australian single malts using local grains and pulling inspiration from regional red wines (primarily shiraz and pinot noir). The flagship offering, Nova, is a decadent bottling made with Australian barley, but keep an eye out for newer releases, like the Solera: a barley-based single malt matured in Apera barrels (an Australia fortified wine similar to sherry).

We sat down with Vitale to discuss why Australia should have more room on your bar cart.

How did you get started in whisky?

I actually learned how to make whisky in Tasmania—the island state south of the mainland in Australia. It was kind of by accident. I was originally thinking of starting a microbrewery and someone organized a meeting with me at a cafe which also doubled up as a distillery and tasting room—and I never looked back.

Outside of Starward Distillery
Outside of Starward Distillery

How did Starward begin?

Once I started to discover more about the whisky-making process, I fell in love with the idea that we could make really delicious whisky that was as good as any in the world. The challenge was that most of the whisky being produced was very, very scarce, and very costly to produce. I had an entrepreneurial moment of madness and decided to take on the challenge to put Australian whisky on the map with an approachable but flavourful whisky that could sit in the “sharing” cabinet rather than the “special occasion” cabinet at home.

It must be interesting pushing a whisky not made in the US, notoriously a big whisky hub – how do you find consumers react?

With a lot of surprises initially. Firstly that Australia actually makes whisky, and then how bloody delicious it is to drink.

Starward Nova Australian Whiskey
Starward Nova Australian Whisky

On that note, how does Australian terroir differ and how do you highlight it?

I think all whiskies talk to the place they’re made in terms of ingredients but the best talk to the culture of the place and that for me is a true representation of terrior for whisky. Of course, we are known the world over for our amazing red (and white wines). This gives us the ability to age our whiskies in these wine barrels which creates a distinctive flavor profile, but culturally, our inspiration is anchored in our casual food and drinks scene that maintains uncompromisingly high quality and attention to detail but no “airs and graces” in terms of the experience. And with Starward, it’s our aim to do the same, uncompromising quality but great value for money and as much an ingredient in a great cocktail as it is a neat whisky serve.

Distillery Distillation Process

Could you describe the production process behind the whisky?

We are so lucky to have all of our ingredients within a day’s drive of the distillery: the grains, and the amazing wine barrels we use to age our whisky. That close proximity to wineries means that after the distillation of our spirit, we are able to have wine barrels emptied and delivered to the distillery still saturated with wine and filled with our whisky to age over the next few years. It creates a fruity, textured, and smooth whisky that—as you would expect with red wine barrels—pairs amazingly well with food.

Looking to the future of whisky, do you expect to see Australian whisky step further onto the world stage?

The quality of the Australian whisky distilleries is world-class. We are all producing amazing whiskies. Every distiller I’ve spoken has already increased production or is keen to do so in the near future to serve an international audience. I’m so excited to see them make the step into the American market so we can showcase just how amazing our whiskies are.

Master Distiller David Vitale with barrels of Starward Whisky

Do you have any other predictions for the future of whisky?

I think the new world whisky category—whiskies from the unexpected corners of the world—is going to become the next section of the whisky aisle to explode with well crafted, interesting, and delicious whiskies, and I’m so excited to be a part of that next wave.

Kate Dingwall
Kate Dingwallhttps://www.kate-dingwall.com/
Kate Dingwall is a writer and editor, primarily covering the spirits and travel world. Her work has appeared in Forbes.com, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com, MAXIM Magazine, DuJour Magazine, Eater, VinePair, Culture Trip, Canada's 100 Best Restaurants, and a number of other publications, online and print. Outside of writing, she is a sommelier and an avid martini drinker.
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