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When David Vitale started distilling whisky in Melbourne in 2007, there were three other distilleries on Australia’s mainland. Today, Starward is one of over 50 whisky distilleries in Australia, according to the Australian Distillers Association, but the only one whose products are distributed broadly in the United States.
This achievement can be chalked up, in part, to Americans’ growing curiosity—if not obsession—with global spirits. Vitale saw the signals early on, just as the global whiskies were starting to emerge. He became so committed to spreading the Australian-whisky gospel in the U.S. that he packed up his family in 2019 and moved from Melbourne to Bainbridge Island, Washington, giving him an opportunity to best understand American drinkers and connect with them on their terms. Today, he’s the chief apostle of Australian whisky in the U.S.
An Uniquely Australian Whisky
Homebrewing fostered Vitale’s love for the drinks industry. When he sold the e-learning company he founded in 1998, Vitale first thought about developing a craft beer, but it quickly became clear that whisky was a better bet, especially considering his interest in reaching a global market.
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That revelation happened one day in 2002 when he visited Bill Lark, the godfather of Australian whisky, who founded Lark Distillery in 1992. The distillery featured a whisky bar, a novel concept at the time. Twenty years ago, after all, Scotch was for grandfathers, and bourbon’s renaissance was but a glint in a corn-grower’s eye. At the time, however, Americans’ drinking habits were widening, with the discovery that top-rate wines didn’t have to come from Italy or France. The stage was set for something new.
“I was fascinated by how well Australian wines were doing overseas—especially wines from small indie winemakers,” says Vitale. “There’s a huge amount of diversity to wine and a lot of styles of craft beer, but I just thought whisky was whisky.” And then he met Lark. “I tried all these single malts at his bar that talk to provenance and style and an amazing history.” (Today, there’s a 300-person bar at Starward’s Melbourne distillery, ready for a hopeful future distiller to be inspired like Vitale was.)
For a short time, Vitale worked for Lark, who was making single malts in the Scottish tradition. The most curious Tasmanian imbibers drank Scotch, thus inspiring Lark’s style; but Vitale saw potential in reaching consumers like himself, people who didn’t even know they liked whisky. He set out to create something that wasn’t modeled on Scotch, something uniquely Australian.
Considering Terroir Through a Melbourne Lens
New World whisky distillers are pushing the boundaries of terroir. Israeli distillers play on their extreme altitudes. Finnish distillers highlight their indigenous rye. In Taiwan, they capitalize on their intense jungle climate. For Vitale, local culture factors into his whisky. Melbourne is his muse; Starward is his love letter.
Melbourne’s defining aspect, he said, was obvious: the hospitality-forward, quality-focused, no-airs food and drink scene. In homage to whisky tradition, he equipped the distillery with pot stills. Then as a nod to Melbourne, he decided to age his spirit in freshly emptied Australian wine barrels, none from further than a day’s drive from Melbourne. Nova Single Malt is matured entirely in Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir casks. Two-Fold Double Grain combines wheat (60 percent) and malt (40 percent) which are distilled and matured separately first, then expertly married together in wine casks once more before bottling.
He hit on something good. Recent accolades include 12 “Double Gold” and three Gold medals at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, earning it the distinction of “Most Awarded Distillery of the Year,” a first for an Australian whisky. This year’s achievement follows a smattering of medals received in years past, including “World’s Best Craft Distilled Whisky” and “Best Australian Single Malt Whisky” prizes at San Francisco in 2016.
The whisky’s Melbourne quality is also defined by classic notions of terroir, like climate. Temperatures can vary by up to 40 degrees on any given Melbourne day. That huge diurnal range fast tracks the aging process. “In three Melbourne years, we got a whisky that belies its age,” says Vitale. “Climate is such an important part of the story from an aging point of view. It inspires me to think differently.”
According to Australian law, you can ferment and distill any grain and age it in wood for at least two years and call it whisky. Without any formal geographic indicator, Australian whisky-making has a ‘wild west’ element to it. To Vitale, that’s a good thing.
“We are all Australian whisky in different ways. I’m really excited by the fact that it could be so broad,” he says, noting that Australian whiskies range from four-grain American-style whiskies to continuous-distillation grain whiskies. “It gets to the root: what is and what’s not a whisky? I’m an advocate for broader rather than tighter regulation that promotes innovation. I think we are the most innovative whisky making country in the world.”
The Next Big World Whisky
Long before it racked up piles of awards, Starward’s distinction was recognized by Distill Ventures (DV). In 2015, the independently owned, Diageo-backed drinks accelerator invested in the company. “What was different with Starward and David was a mentality around how to build something—a whisky that could be enjoyed broadly,” says Josh Wortman, the whiskey portfolio director for DV.
Taste and character were paramount, but Starward stood out because of its ability to scale and its price point. Buying local barrels is easier than importing ex-bourbon or ex-sherry. “This was something that could scale and go places. When we look at brands, they don’t necessarily have to be at scale at the time of investment, but we look for brands with a vision of how to scale.”
Global whiskies, like Starward, are in a prime position to draw a new generation of drinkers to the whisky category. In the last few years, whiskies from Denmark, France, Taiwan, Israel, England, and Romania have all arrived on American shores.
“One of the things that’s exciting about New World whiskies is that they aren’t tied to tradition or preconceived ideas—like you can’t add ice or you have to drink it neat,” says Becky Paskin, a U.K.-based whisky specialist and founder of OurWhisky, a whisky-education platform and subscription club. “Australian whiskies provide a model for how brands can appeal to a new generation by widening the whisky experience beyond traditional flavors, serves and consumption occasions. New World whiskies appeal to younger drinkers craving new experiences, but who want to have them in a familiar framework, with flavors they understand.”
Indeed, that’s Vitale’s focus: make whiskies that are unique but approachable, complex but not too intense. In other words, create a whisky ideal for cocktails. And as an aperitif. And as an ingredient in a sessionable drink, like whisky and tonic.
“For me it’s not just about sipping a whisky that’s great and the best in the world. Whisky is to be drunk on your terms in a way that meets you where you’re at,” says Vitale.
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