Australian Whisky is quickly developing a reputation amongst the best in the world, in no small part because the lack of any traditional whisky making practices has freed up new distilleries to employ their own intuition in creating boundary-breaking whiskies. We went to Melbourne and spoke to brand ambassador Paul Slater of Starward distillery. We believe Starward are amongst the pioneering distilleries in establishing Australia’s reputation for brilliant whisky, having created groundbreaking whiskies, at the heart of which are local ingredients and our Australian climate, itself about as far from the conditions relied upon to age Scotch, as can be.
Starward began production in 2009, and their first product Solera hit the market in 2013. "In hindsight it’s great to look back, but it was hard in the early days,” says Paul, "we buckled down making a lot of whisky, and tried not to get distracted in white spirits and things like that.”
Following Solera, Starward released their Wine Cask release in 2015, and in 2016 they outgrew their original site in Essendon Fields and moved to their current site in Port Melbourne.
Starward distillery produce spirits under two brands. Amongst the two staples which make up the Starward label: Solera and Wine Cask. Single releases are produced under the New World Spirits label, including single barrel releases, a white whisky, and a gin.
“Ninety percent of our output is under the Starward banner,” said Paul, "last time I checked, we’re near five thousand barrels."
Starward’s initial Solera release is aged in charred Australian apera (previously called sherry) barrels. It takes it’s name from Starward’s solera system, a system modelled after sherry and port systems which are blended amongst ages and vintages to ensure consistency. For Starward, this is implemented by way of a five thousand litre tank between the barrelling and bottling of their whisky. The modern solera system ensures consistency in all bottles of Starward, and also means that every apera barrel used in the production of Solera is present in some form, in every bottle produced.
“We take a small amount out of each barrel, do a mini blend to get the right combination of barrels, and we get it pretty consistent. Consistency is a big thing for us.” Said Paul.
"From the early days, we’ve learned how to get the same result using different barrels. Filling to different capacities and for different amount of times can give a similar flavour profile. There’s no formula or spreadsheet, it’s just using your nose."
Starward’s second expression, Wine Cask, takes advantage of the distillery’s proximity to great Australian wine in Victoria and South Australia. Paul said that the Wine Cask expression was originally based on “Barossa shiraz, as the archetypal Australian wine,” but over time they have been able to branch out and grow their inventory.
“If it smells good, the whisky should take on that character. As we add more different barrels, the more colours we have for the whisky.” Paul said.
Whiskey in Melbourne
The conditions under which Starward Whisky ages could not be more different from the Scottish whiskies it competes against. Harsher, hotter and less predictable Australian climates contribute to more batch variation and a higher rate of evaporation called ‘angel’s share’. They do not consider this a disadvantage, however, as the more complex conditions enable their whisky to be aged quickly and to a great deal of complexity.
In order to further take advantage of their shorter ageing time, Starward’s whiskies are watered down to 55% ABV before going into barrels, considerably lower than the Scottish standard of 63.5%. Since the vast majority of spirits are further watered down to between 40% and 50% ABV before bottling, the resultant Starward spirit has had much more barrel contact than its Scottish counterpart.
“There are a lot of water soluble sugars in oak, and the lower ABV across a short maturation time means more sweet stuff out.” Said Paul, “A higher barrel entry would be a whole lot cheaper to mature, but this yields a better result for us.”
Starward are able to further distinguish their product by taking advantage of a great deal of Australian provenance. Locally sourced Barley is malted off-site and local rainwater runs as mains throughout the distillery.
While each of Starward’s expressions have had their share of international acclaim, Paul says it’s also important to them that their product can remain a product for the Australian population. This includes striving for consistency amongst their products so that, “someone can try a bottle now and then in two years pick it up from a bottle shop and get the same product they remember enjoying.” and this ethos also continues into their pricing, which has remained stable and accessible throughout their production. "We want to make whisky people won’t be shy about drinking.” said Paul.