Malt Mileage interviews David Vitale, CEO and Founder of New World Whisky Distillery, about Starward Whisky

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New World Whisky Distillery is a Melbourne (Australia) based distillery that produces Starward whisky. Starward was released to the market earlier this year and from what we have seen and heard it has hit the ground running, taking out first prize in the Single Malt category at the 2013 Australasian Whisky Awards and appearing on the shelves of Australia’s largest liquor retailer. We interview the CEO and Founder of New World Whisky Distillery, David Vitale, to find out more about the newest Australian whisky on the scene – Starward.

  1. Why did you start production? Did you see a gap in the market or was it to fulfill some passion? 

Starward was actually started by accident. I moved to Tasmania with my then fiancé (now wife), and had a chance meeting with Lark Distillery. I wasn’t much of a whisky drinker then, but everything about whisky captivated me. The opportunity to create an iconic Australian whisky that we could offer the world with pride was the dream, and is what gets me up every morning.
  1. Do you think that your product is distinctive? If so, what makes it distinctive from other whiskies on the market?
We operate in a very competitive and crowded market. It was really important to me that we justified our existence on the shelfs of bars and homes by creating something distinctive – not just a product from Australia or Melbourne. For us that means looking at every part of the production process and exploring how we can add something to it and make it our own. Every part of our process has been tweaked (either slightly or significantly) to create our unique and distinctive whisky. It is unique in that it is very young, yet complex and approachable. In the Australian whisky context it is also affordable.
  1. For those that do not know Starward is matured in Melbourne, Australia. The weather this past week in Melbourne has fluctuated from a low of 8°C to a high of 35°C (some nights I’ve worn and coat and others I’ve worn a t shirt and shorts). Do you think the weather fluctuations in Victoria contribute to Starward’s character? Do you take advantage of these weather fluctuations to give Starward a particular flavour profile?
There is no doubt in my mind that we could not make Starward anywhere else in the world. Our weather plays a huge part in our maturation process and we use this to our advantage. Our approachability and complexity comes about through the time the spirit spends in the barrel. That is not really that different to any distillery (Whisky, Rum or Brandy) – but we measure the progress of our whisky in days not years. That is unique.

In terms of flavour profile, we were very cautious of releasing a young spirit, which in our environment could have the potential to be one dimensional – completely wood focussed and harsh. So, we’ve got a very structured wood policy which provides us with barrels that have a broad spectrum of characters – some highly focussed on extractive wood characteristics (raisins and dried figs from the Apera, caramel, vanilla and marzipan from the oak) others that focus on the tropical & orchard fruit (banana, apples and pears) and malt characteristics which come from the spirit, and others that provide mouthfeel and finish.
  1. Starward won first prize in the Single Malt category at the 2013 Australasian Whisky Awards. What processes do you follow to ensure that your whisky is high quality?
We are fortunate to have a group of brewers and distillers that have worked in large – and small – breweries, wineries and distilleries. This has given us the opportunity to really learn from the best when it comes to quality systems. Everything we do is tracked and monitored on-line. The benefit to me is that I can have confidence in the consistency and quality of each part of the process. Each bottle is uniquely identifiable and gives us the ability to trace right back to the barley used in the brew. Our goal with Starward was always to create a consistent whisky from each bottling we do. We limit our bottlings to 4 batches per annum and our hope is that those 4 batches will just get bigger and bigger each year until the bottling line doesn’t have any down time!
  1. Is there a flavour profile that you aim to achieve when distilling? Do you select casks to achieve this flavour profile? When blending casks for your final product what flavours, texture and character do you aim to achieve? 
Yes, upstream of the barrel we focus on 3 things: Barley, Fermentation and our cuts. These are done with very minimal variation between each brew. Each batch of barley is tested in our lab so we have an idea of what we need to do to manage extraction of sugars and optimise fermentation. Our fermenters are temperature controlled to ensure we get a consistent fermentation throughout the year. We have them working overtime now, to maintain the temperature we are looking for during fermentation.  And our cuts – particularly between hearts and feints – is something that is critical for us to ensure we can come to market with a dynamic and complex spirit that doesn’t need to spend years in a barrel to “clean it up”. In terms of spirit flavours we look for the following: orchard fruit; butterscotch; anise; biscuity sweetness and an oily note from the barley.

Downstream – in the barrel – we almost exclusively use Apera casks for Starward. We have a 13 point sensory checklist that every shortlisted barrel goes through before being considered as part of a release candidate. While not statistically significant, we have at least 4 team members – typically 6 work through our sensory program. The results fall into three categories: Starward candidates, future Starward candidates, Not Starward. The “Not Starward” barrels are really strange and exciting. Some have phenolic (smokey) characteristics, others are floral and light (think Glenmorangie), they are great and interesting whiskies – but they just don’t meet our specification. 

There shouldn’t be any surprises with Starward. A good balance of extractive wood and dried fruit characters, along side our signature spirit: Banana, Apple and Pear, Pepper, Sweetness and Spice. A rounded mouthfeel and lingering taste with a that invites you back for more.
  1. Apart from the weather (if relevant), why did you set up a distillery in Melbourne?
Weather was a part of it, but there are a few reasons. Melbourne is the food capital of Australia.  We have the most restaurants per capita in Australia. We have a great cultural diversity which has of course influenced the food and drink scene. I also wanted the best team available to make our whisky, and situating ourselves in the far-flug corners of Australia would have compromised my ability to get – and keep – the best talent. We are also a modern distillery. I didn’t feel the need to try and play the heritage card and come up with some sort of historical connection to a place. We are a company that started in 2007 – there is nothing Old about us! Scotland will always capture people’s hearts with the romantic notions of rolling hills, rock filtered springs and wind swept mountains. I want to capture people’s minds and challenge their perceptions of what whisky can be. We do this by being equally passionate as any other distiller in the world, but apply a good dose of analysis and innovation to the way we approach things. 
7. Why did you choose to bottle Starward at 43%?
It tasted better (to us) at 43% than it did at 40-46% abv. Having said that my personal preference is a dash of water.
8. The vast majority of Australian whisky from operating distilleries was around $100 or more until Starward came on the scene. Other Australian whisky also bottled at 43% retails for around $50 more than Starward. Why release Starward with a price tag of around $80?
$80 for a single malt whisky is a lot of money. At home, I have two sections to my collection. My “standards”, and the “rotation”. Glenmorangie 10yo, Balvenie 12yo, Laprhoaig 10yo, Bruichladdich 10yo, Buffalo Trace and of course Starward are my standards. These are the whiskies that I always have at home and form the basis of either the whisky cocktails I make, or the whiskies I have for a mood I am in. I then have my “rotation whiskies”. This is the section of guilty pleasures that I have and will spend any amount on – depending on the budget I have available. I think once you start approaching $100 and above, it is difficult to justify being in peoples bar as a fixture –as a “standard”. And that us our goal. I want to build a loyal group of drinkers that come back to Starward for the unique qualities it has and its ability to work well either neat or in a cocktail.
9. Why do you think people choose to buy Australian whisky, including Starward?
I think there are lots of reasons. I buy Australian whisky because I am curious about the category and understanding why people have bothered to make whisky. It’s bloody hard work and very risky! I want to understand what story lies behind the whisky. What philosophy does the distillery have towards the spirit.
10. What is your favourite way to enjoy Starward? Do you find that Starward matches particularly well with anything?
I cant get enough of our own take on a Manhattan. We call it the Ned Kelly (ie an Aussie Rob Roy).

60ml Starward

30ml Maidenii Sweet Vermouth

A healthy dose of orange bitters

A slither of orange peel.
11. What three words do you want people to associate with Starward?
Unshackled from tradition
12. We all need to know, what is your AFL team?

The Mighty Blues.
Thank you David for your time… and we hope you enjoy the highlights below from the last Carlton v Collingwood game (and for our readers outside outside Australia, this is our national game – Australian Rules Football or “AFL”). It actually started in our home state, Victoria. 
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