Distillery Focus - Starward Whisky
From Starward to starboard, one of Australia’s most well known whisky distilleries is still making waves over ten years on with its latest project, the Seafarer whisky.
On an overcast evening in February 2019, the majestic Queen Elizabeth cruise liner pulled into Sydney Harbour, following a short stop in Melbourne prior. Unlike other trips, this time it was carrying something rather special on board - the results of an experiment in whisky maturation that had been a year in the making. Although it’s not the first time a spirit has been aged on board a ship, this was a first for an Australian distillery and the result of a collaboration between the QE’s parent company Cunard and Starward.
Who is Starward and what’s so special about it?
As one of Australia’s most well known (and largest) whisky distilleries, Starward needs little or no introduction. With its own unique brand of whisky, the one thing that sets Starward apart from other whisky producers in the country is its accessibility. Whilst Australian whisky has won accolades world wide for the quality of its liquid, it’s also attracted its fair share of criticism in recent years over the pricing of said liquid. It’s not uncommon to see standard Australian whisky releases selling upwards of $200, and that’s putting it mildly. Putting to one side if such criticism is justified, Starward is cited frequently as an example of how quality Australian whisky can be made for a reasonable price - its core range sits comfortably around the $100 and under price bracket. This is primarily down to its founder’s vision to make whisky designed for every day drinking, rather than exclusive liquids designed for admiration from afar. It’s a vision that’s paid off in more ways than one - aside from winning awards for its whisky, Starward has also attracted investment from one of the world biggest alcohol companies Diageo, via its start up accelerator fund Distilled Ventures. Today, it seems Starward can do no wrong.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Starward started life in 2007 as New World Whisky Distillery in Essendon in the outer skirts of Melbourne. Housed in an ex-airport hangar a stone’s throw away from Melbourne Airport, the distillery was the brainchild of e-learning specialist David Vitale, who originally started off wanting to make beer. A trip to Tasmania and some time spent in the company of some of Australia’s most well known whisky producers saw David return to Melbourne with a resolve to make whisky instead. With a small team assembled, New World Whisky Distillery released its first whisky under the Starward label in 2013, aged in Australian apera (sherry) casks. This was followed by the Starward Wine Cask Edition that was matured in Australian red wine casks. At the time of their release, both were priced at well under $90, which even then, bucked the trend of fellow local producers who were pricing their wares at easily twice that sum. With its second release, Starward was also unique in choosing to fully mature its whisky in Australian wine casks (sourced mainly from the Barossa) as opposed to merely finishing the liquid in such casks.
Even from those early years, Starward’s whisky has always had that distinctive tropical fruity note on the nose, though for me, its earlier editions were not quite the balanced liquid that it is today. Not one to shy away from the unconventional, the distillery also started to release whiskies under a label called New World Projects, designed to be small runs of “experimental” whiskies or that released in collaboration with third parties. It is under this label that the distillery has put out some truly stunning releases, as well as those that have attracted an almost cult like following; its Ginger Beer Cask editions have been so popular, the distillery has had to use a ballot system to allocate sales.
A new world beckons
In late 2015, Distilled Ventures announced that it had invested in Starward on terms that were not disclosed. The distillery dropped the New World moniker and renamed itself as Starward Distillery, moving to new and bigger premises in its current location in Port Melbourne.
Starward’s business model has always been based on volume and achieving scale to maintain that accessibility. It’s an admirable model, and one that is not aspired to (or perhaps not planned for) by most whisky producers in the country, who remain boutique. Making whisky in Australia is a tough and expensive gig - it is well known that our tax regime on alcohol is one of the highest in the world, as is the cost of materials and labour. Add on the requirement that whisky in Australia has to be aged for at least 2 years before it can legally be sold as such, and you start to get an idea of why Starward’s model was such a brave aspiration for a fledgling whisky distillery that did not have the backing of a major corporation (at the time). Unlike many others, Starward also did not release any unaged spirits (gin, vodka etc) to help with cash flow in those foundation years, though it has from time to time released limited run gins in its later years. Whether the distillery would have survived in the long term without that injection from Distilled Ventures is a matter of conjecture. But considering the nature of DV’s other investments, it would seem that Starward’s scale (and/or its ability to scale) was likely a major factor in the fund’s decision to invest.
Since then, Starward has gone from strength to strength, increasing output, expanding its distribution overseas and initiating exciting new collaborations. If we thought the distillery had set the bar for making Australian whisky accessible to the mainstream, it redefined those boundaries in late 2018 with the release of the Two-Fold, a whisky consisting of both malted barley and grain spirit aged in the distillery (most Australian whisky is made from malted barley). Two-Fold retails for around $69, putting it closer in price to the likes of Johnnie Walker Double Black and Chivas Regal.
At the same time, the distillery unveiled a new look for its core range, with its Single Malt now known as the Solera and the Wine Cask Edition now known as the Nova. Both remain some of the most accessible Australian whiskies on the market today.
Pushing the boat out with the Seafarer whisky
For Starward however, it’s not just about making whisky on terms accessible to the every day drinker. True to its ethos of pushing boundaries in Australian whisky making, the distillery has continued to pursue projects such as that undertaken with the cruise line company Cunard, which saw it fill in early 2018, a 225 litre oak barrel with whisky it had aged for 2 years in Australian shiraz casks. Dubbed the Seafarer, the barrel was bolted to the deck of the Queen Elizabeth. It then travelled around the world on the ship for a full year, exposed in its glory to elements ranging from extreme heat to freezing temperatures as well as the full motions of a moving ship. Can a whisky barrel get seasick? Some might say these conditions are no different to the four seasons of Melbourne but just amped up on steroids. By way of control (it’s an experiment after all), a sister barrel was filled with the same whisky back in Melbourne.
On the ship’s return to Australia in early 2019, both casks were decanted and yielded some interesting results. In a first for Starward, the Seafarer found its alcohol by volume (ABV) decrease over time, rather than the increase normally seen in barrels aged at its distillery. But the differences didn’t stop there. The Seafarer is noticeably darker in colour and also displayed less of the usual tropical fruit overtones associated with the conventional Starward whiskies, with the fruit notes seemingly developing a deeper, richer flavour with a touch of salinity. Although by no means over oaked, there was a definite heat to the liquid.
Never mind that, where to buy the Seafarer whisky?
It’s fair to say this particular release is a rather unique one and unlikely to be repeated. So where and how can you lay your hands on a bottle?
A small volume of the Seafarer as well as its sister cask has been bottled at cask strength (54.2% and 54.6% ABV respectively) and will be made available in pairs. These twin packs have been ear marked for a charity auction via the Whisky Exchange in the UK, likely to take place around May or June 2019. Want in? Your best bet would be to sign up to both Starward’s and the Whisky Exchange’s mailing list. Luckily for those of us in Australia, the Exchange ships worldwide (unless you live in the USA, in which case, tough luck)
Twin packs of the Seafarer and its sister cask at 48% ABV will be made available for sale via the distillery online. Word is this will be live around mid March 2019. If you’re on the distillery’s mailing list, you’ll no doubt get the heads up. If you don’t live in Australia, make a friend. Quick.
Book a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth liner. Not only will you be able to enjoy the 48% ABV Seafarer on board, you can buy bottles to take away too. Just make sure you don’t book the QE2 or any of Cunard’s other liners if the Seafarer’s your reason for setting sail.
Where to buy Starward’s current range of whiskies in Australia
Starward’s core range consists of the Nova (previously known as its Wine Cask Edition), the Solera (previously known as the Single Malt) and the Two-Fold. You can find those at most bottle shops in Australia as well as from the distillery’s cellar door. In addition to its core offerings, the distillery also releases special editions under its Projects label (previously known as the New World Projects) and bottled cocktails, with the former usually only sold direct from the distillery on its website
WORDS BY INOKA HO
With thanks to Starward Whisky for the invitation to come on board the QE. Opinions remain strictly our own.