Starward uses wine barrels to help create accessible Australian whisky
Source: Australian Financial Review, by Max Allen, 25 October 2018
A new Australian whisky launched this week. I know, I know: another one. But Starward Two-Fold is different. Very different. Unlike almost every other new release from every other distillery in the country, this new whisky is not some super-rare, super-expensive, single-barrel, single-malt aimed at connoisseurs and collectors. Instead, it's a large-volume, blended grain whisky aimed at a mass market. And it comes with a competitive price tag of $65 a bottle.
When David Vitale founded Starward distillery in Melbourne and started laying down barrels of spirit a decade ago, it was always his intention to make good Australian whisky that was also accessible. That's why, in 2013, when he launched his
first product, a single malt called Solera, aged in old fortified wine barrels, he charged $79 for it, much less than the Tasmanian single malts that were attracting worldwide attention at the time.
"Other distillers thought we were crazy," says Vitale. "They thought it was too cheap for the quality. But there was a longer game at play."
Rather than just produce small batches of malt that the whisky geeks bought for special occasions, Vitale wanted to create a brand that stayed in the everyday whisky drinker's "sharing cabinet", alongside the scotch and bourbon and Irish whiskey. The problem was that the economics didn't stack up.
For a start, every six months the government raises the excise on alcohol in line with the consumer price index. "Thanks to the compounding excise increases, this means that a $79 whisky has turned into a $115 whisky, without us taking any extra profit," says Vitale. "If you've got that increase baked into a product, the accessibility of Australian whisky is diluted."
This is one reason why the new Two-Fold whisky sits at 40 per cent alcohol by volume, as opposed to Solera's at 43 per cent.
Scaling up production to bring costs down is one way of countering this, of course, and that's exactly what Starward did in 2016, when the distillery moved and expanded into new premises in Port Melbourne, facilitated in part by investment from Distilled Ventures, a venture capital business backed by global drinks giant Diageo. Vitale says the distillery is now on track to produce 500,000 litres of alcohol a year, with half that volume destined for the Two-Fold brand.
Another way to address the issue of affordability is to think creatively about how the whisky is made, and develop another product to bring to market.
"What makes Starward Starward is the exclusive use of Australian wine barrels for
maturation," says Vitale. "So, we thought: let's make that the story. Let's work with a spirit that highlights the interaction with the wood."
Recalibrating the palate
Vitale says that spirit distilled from malted barley (the sole grain used for Starward's
single-malt whisky) is so full of flavour that it can mask some of the wine barrel characters – whereas lighter-flavoured spirit distilled from wheat allows the wood characters to come through. "Wheat recalibrates the palate towards talking about barrels rather than the spirit," he says. "Having less malt in the bottle magnifies the characteristics of the wine more."
As a result, Two-Fold is a blend of malted barley spirit and wheat spirit.
Wheat spirit has another advantage, of course. It's cheaper – or at least it is if you buy it in bulk, ready-made.
"Wheat distillation requires substantial investment," says Vitale. "So, we've partnered with Manildra [Group, an industrial distiller in southern NSW] and they've effectively created a custom distillation stream for Starward that we mature in our barrels here. We're able to leverage their scale of production and meet the market [with Two-Fold] at a price point that is far more attractive from a sales perspective."
Bearing all this in mind, I have a couple of quibbles with the new product – or, rather, with how it's packaged.
For a start, the label lists the two grains used to make the whisky as "wheat and malted barley". According to Australian food and drink labelling conventions, this suggests that wheat is the primary ingredient, when in fact it's the opposite: spirit distilled from malted barley accounts for about 65 per cent of the blend, and wheat only 35 per cent.
Also, it says on the label that Two-Fold is "truly Melbourne born and bred" – despite
the fact that a third of the spirit was distilled by another company in another state before being shipped to Port Melbourne and put into barrel for maturation at Starward.
Vitale doesn't have a problem with the wording. He points out, for example, that "99 per cent" of the ingredients of the prominent gin Four Pillars comes from somewhere else, but everyone associates it with the Yarra Valley, where the brand is based.
"And the approachability of the whisky comes from the fact that it's matured in the
four-seasons-in-one-day climate of Melbourne," he says. "I know I'm beginning to sound like Dennis Denuto in The Castle, but it really is the vibe of the place that makes it unique: it could only come from here."
Delicious and complex
As you can see, though, from my tasting notes, I have no problems at all with the liquid inside the bottle. In fact, I was surprised by how delicious and complex a whisky it is, given the price point.
Starward has filled 6000 bottles of this first release of Two-Fold and hope that this quantity will see it through until Christmas. Vitale says he's being cautious: it's double the number of bottles of the inaugural Solera single malt Starward sold in its first year and, even though this new whisky is less expensive, it is in a more competitive segment of the market, sitting alongside much larger-volume brands
such as Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and Glenlivet ("all the entry-level Glens", he says).
True. But I think Two-Fold is good enough, and distinctive enough – and priced well enough – to capture the imagination of drinkers in Australia and overseas (the brand will be exported to the United States from January). I think it'll go off like the proverbial frog, and will – as the Starward founder hopes – elbow its way into sharing cabinets all over the place.
"We are pretty excited," Vitale admits. "I am starting to think about whether we have made enough."
A taste of Two-Fold
The temptation, when tasting a spirit for the first time, is to scrabble through your flavour memory banks looking for comparisons with spirits you've tasted in the past.
With this new whisky, that proved to be a fruitless exercise because it really doesn't taste quite like any other I've tried before. It ticks the general whisky boxes of flavour and style expectation without evoking bourbon or scotch. And while it has unmistakably grain-based spirit characters on the nose and the palate, there are some quite distinctive, unexpected characters in there too: aromas of fresh toast, some dried fig, a hint of ripe banana, then a soft, pretty, creamy vanilla texture on the tongue, finishing with a little tannic grip and savoury complexity. As I say, a very good whisky, especially at this price.