Nothing quite like a wee dram on a cold winter’s night in Melbourne. Starward is a new brand, the latest addition to the growing number of Australian whisky producers, and I came across it due to one of my many personal failings. As the wise people say, the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipe, but doesn’t. The Production Manager of New World Distillery, Ian Thorn is accordingly not a gentleman; nor am I. He did however furnish me with a sample and a tour of the distillery.
Here’s my tasting note:
Colour: like a well used, burnished copper pot, light tinges of red.
Nose: toffee and caramel, hints of pear and vanilla with the odd spicy note. Intriguing, complex and inviting.
Palate: this is so smooth, not a hint of coarseness in the spirit, all of the complex flavours promised by the nose are carried seamlessly across the palate with spiciness, warmth and complexity; a long deep estery finish. Hints of pear, dried fruits, cinnamon. Lovely references to Sherry (Amontillado) throughout.
700ml; 43%; $80 or thereabouts at Australian retail stores.
Doubtless some will want comparisons and maybe that’s in the nature of those who drink whisky. However it is not “Scotch” (no peat reek) nor is it “Bourbon” (no corn involved). There are echoes of each, and while that’s perhaps inevitable, it deserves to stand on its own feet.
From barley to bottle the process is much the same as that used to produce Scotland’s great single malts.
The spirit is the product of a meticulous double distillation, using Australian barley malted in Ballarat in Victoria and mashed and brewed at the distillery. The wash and spirit stills are old copper units, made by Knapp and Lewen and slightly modified by the New World Whisky team.
Tasted at cask strength the new spirit is a pale, clear, warm rich and sweet whisky base with cereal and nutty notes. The new spirit is taken to cask at 55%. Scotch whisky cask strength is around 62-64%.
The barrel maturation is in re-coopered Apera casks (for the uninitiated these were once called Sherry casks) ranging in volume from 50, to 100 and 200 litres. In Melbourne’s fickle climate the uptake of colour and flavour is optimal somewhere between two to three years (depending on the size of the cask), as the ambient temperature sucks out the ‘Angel’s Share’ at the rate of between 5-7% a year. The barrels are not topped up.
All up, from barley to bottle, the process takes around four years. Starward was launched in February 2013, and its founder, David Vitale started the venture in 2004. Patient investment has rendered great rewards. Here is a terrific start.
Experimentation with old shiraz barrels is producing whiskies with more savoury spicy notes. According to Ian Thorn the resultant whisky does not blend well with the whiskies from sherry casks, and may well end up as a separate bottling. There isn’t an endless supply of old Apera casks.
Tasting spirits distilled in 2010 from re-coopered Apera casks in 50, 100 and 200 litre barrels was an interesting experience and explained the decision to limit cask ageing to somewhere between two and three years, depending on the size of the vessel. Whisky from the 50 litre cask had a strong, sappy and rather astringent note, and dark colour; the 100 litre cask showed lighter colour, sweeter smoother influences. The 200 litre cask was lighter in all respects, and better balanced.
The home of Starward is an old hangar at Melbourne’s Essendon Airport. Unromantic, I hear you say, and so it is, but my visit there only served to confirm the commitment of the owner and his team to produce outstanding Australian whisky and to continue to experiment with the endless possibilities offered by ageing in a variety of casks.