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Whisky Supernova: Starward Shines Bright Among New World Distillers

The bar inside Starward Distillery

Midway through last year, Starward Whisky made the long trek from Australia to United States.

We had the opportunity during this year’s digital Bar Convent Brooklyn conference to learn more about this exciting craft whisky brand from Kotryna Gesait, a Starward brand ambassador working out of New York.

Starward isn’t trying to empty American wallets by being Australian for “whiskey,” unlike a certain beer brand. The inventive brand, created by David Vitale, was founded in 2007 to showcase Australian distillation with a focus on Melbourne terroir.

Australia is known for big, bold, chewy red wine. Melbourne is known for weather that can change in a snap, and a vibrant food scene—it’s the Culinary Capital of Australia. Those characteristics are honored and highlighted by Starward’s team of distillers and brewers who are encouraged by Vitale to experiment.

Wet-filled Australian red wine barrels play a crucial role at Starward

Starward’s founder kicked off his journey into distillation by first becoming obsessed with homebrewing in Tasmania. Vitale was headed down the path of brewery ownership when he realized that quality tends to degrade as beer travels. Tasmania is an island with a population of more than 500,000 people situated southeast of Australia, 150 miles off the mainland. After Vitale’s beer completed an oceanic journey, it would have to travel through large expanses of open land throughout a massive continent. Not awesome for beer quality.

Kotryna says it’s all that land that moved Starward to implement an unofficial rule in the spirit of ensuring only the highest-quality ingredients make it into their liquids: Everything Starward uses to craft their whiskies is no more than a 24-hour drive from the distillery.

After meeting with Bill Lark, founder of Lark Distillery in Tasmania, Vitale learned the art of distillation. He convinced Lark to give him a job, which he kept for a few years. Vitale found a true mentor and champion of Australian whisky in Lark. The seasoned distiller was all too happy to share his knowledge with Vitale, driven by the belief that passing on what he knew would only strengthen the Australian whisky community and industry.

Vitale’s vision for Australian whisky was inspired by his Italian roots. He wanted to create a “dinner table whisky,” a “BBQ whisky” meant for sharing with family and friends. Starward is a truly New World distiller: located in Melbourne and roughly five minutes north of Port Melbourne Beach by car, distillers and brewers craft premium liquid free of the need to take their craft too seriously. How else does one explain a distillery that has aged whisky in ginger beer casks?

Starward’s eagerness to experiment with casks will very likely appeal to American whiskey drinkers (Kotryna says Starward resonates with bourbon fans in particular), along with consumers who are interested in experiencing major spirits categories in new ways. One such example—beyond the limited-edition, distillery-only ginger beer cask that we’d do shameful things to get our hands on—is Fortis.

Latin for “bold,” Fortis is a high-proof bottling aged in 100-percent American oak barrels—some that were charred, some that were uncharred, most wet—that were formerly filled with big, bold Australian Shiraz and Cabs from Australia’s Barossa Valley. The Barossa Valley is considered one of the world’s best wine-producing regions and is known for powerful, sophisticated red wines (and Rieslings).

When Starward landed on our shores in May of last year, Nova made first contact. A single malt, Nova introduced Americans to a uniquely Australian approach to premium whisky. A crucial element of the Starward production method is the use of Australian red wine barrels for maturation. These barrels receive no additional char (special bottlings notwithstanding) and often arrive at Starward still wet with red wine, allowing for wet filling. Barrels that once contained Australian Shiraz, Pinto Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon—lightly or moderately charred or steamed by the winery—impart fruit notes and Australian terroir.

Nova having earned a positive reception, Starward sent Two-Fold to America next. As the name implies, Two-Fold is a double-grain blend of malt and wheat whiskies, both aged in Australian red wine barrels, of course. Starward says that Two-Fold drinks well neat but challenges consumers to “bin the gin” and try it with tonic. It’s a versatile whisky that may reach the status of bartender’s Australian ketchup, at home in a Glencairn, highball or cocktail glass.

Then there’s Starward Solera. In the early 2000s, America made the choice to not label domestic products with protected terms from other countries (minus some grandfather-status items) like Champagne, Sherry and Port. Way back in 2011, Australia decided to label Sherry-like fortified wines “Apera.” (Incidentally, Canada made the same choice in 2014.) Starward Solera features their signature whisky aged only in barrels that were once filled with Apera and are four or five decades old. In an intriguing departure from how the core Starward whiskies are produced, the Apera barrels are treated to resizing, re-coopering and retoasting before being filled with whisky.

Australian whisky is, the for the most part, an undefined category. There are laws in place of course. Whisky produced in the country—along with rum and brandy—must be aged in wood for at least two years. Labels and advertising must not contain deceptive or misleading information. For the most part, distilleries are free to experiment, developing the definition and writing the rules as they create.

Starward, thankfully, seems more than happy to take their time exploring what Australian whisky can and will be, and sharing their discoveries with the rest of the world.

American consumers can have Starward delivered to their homes by Drizly. Click to order Nova, Two-Fold and Solera. Once it arrives, Kotryna says Starward really shines in a Manhattan. She also suggests enjoying Starward in Australian fashion: combine the whisky with fresh-squeezed apple juice. Cheers!

Be sure to follow Starward on Instagram to learn more about the core lineup and distillery-made bottled cocktails, upcoming Starward Projects whiskies, and cocktail inspiration.

Hospitality Villains is a member of the Drizly Affiliate Program. Drizly offers affiliates a small commission on sales made through affiliate links. Some of the links above are affiliate links that will help support Hospitality Villains at no additional cost to you.

David Klemt View All

I’ve been studying and writing about the hospitality industry since 2006. Like so many people, I started my journey in this business by working as a host, server and bartender. I was introduced to nightlife in Chicago, learning the ins and outs of nightclubs and after-hours hot spots.

After moving to Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago, I both co-owned a valet company and helped promote the club it serviced. That led to me taking on the role of editor for a Las Vegas hospitality industry publication.

A few short years later, I continued along my journey of hospitality industry reporting. I went from contributing to a major industry outlet to taking on the role of editor and content curator.

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