This Travelling Life: David Vitale

This Travelling Life: David Vitale

Starward Whisky founder David Vitale talks to Joe Bates about the impact of Melbourne’s climate on whisky maturation, the collegiate relationship between Australian whisky makers and an impromptu whisky masterclass at 30,000 feet

Travel | 20 Jun 2022 | Issue 176 | By Joe Bates

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Joe Bates (JB): Our theme this issue is whiskies that are made in countries not traditionally associated with whisky production, like Australia. What do the regional Melbourne conditions contribute to the final character of your whiskies?
David Vitale (DV): Our distillery is in Melbourne, which plays an important variable in maturation. We age our whiskies for ‘Melbourne years’, which refers to the region’s highly reactive climate and the interaction our whisky has with the elements over a year.

Our climate stimulates the interaction between spirit and wood, with frequently large changes in temperature helping to create a richly flavoured, smooth, balanced and easy-to-drink whisky in just three to four years.

The temperature in Melbourne can fluctuate up to 12.5oC within a day in summer months, and even during the winter our barrels are working as hard as barrels at the height of the Scottish summer. Rather than resting in the bond store, I think our barrels are the hardest-working barrels in the world. Melbourne’s climate is also significantly dryer than Northern Hemisphere whisky producers’, leading our barrels to increase in ABV rather than decrease.

Ultimately, there is no formula as to how long a barrel of whisky needs to mature. It is the decision of the team as to when the whisky is ready. We are also lucky to have all of our ingredients within a day’s drive of the distillery: the grains and the amazing wine barrels we use to age our whisky. That close proximity to wineries means we are able to have wine barrels emptied and delivered to the distillery still saturated with wine and filled with our whisky.

JB: How do you feel the Australian whisky industry is developing? Are there shared experiences, opportunities and challenges that bind you all together?
DV: I think we have a wonderfully collegiate relationship with other whisky producers. They say a rising tide lifts all boats and in the context of the whisky industry that’s been true. I’ve been so proud of the industry’s achievements and genuinely I’d be happy to take the keys to most whisky distilleries in Australia and call it my own, such is the quality of the products.

As we start to spread our wings and broaden our reach both at home and abroad, it’s important that we work together to create a category. Living in the US now, I’m reminded on a daily basis that as much as we think we might be ‘internationally renowned’, no one has heard of us and it is something that is easy to take for granted when we are building some momentum in Australia.

And the New World category is so exciting, it’s important that we stand out. Award-winning, great-quality and delicious whisky is a good start, but it’s not enough to succeed; we need to get our message across to curious whisky drinkers in a clear and engaging way that makes them want to pick up a bottle off the shelf and take it home.

JB: Can you remember the first time you tasted whisky?
DV: My first whisky memory was probably a pinky in my Dad’s glass when I was four or five. As for single malts, it was Balvenie Double Wood 12 Year Old and I’ve never looked back.

JB: What’s the most memorable dram you’ve had on your travels?
DV: My first Starward in the US after arriving to launch the brand was pretty special. I stumbled upon a bar about four hours after landing in New York and walked in and there it was on the menu. I later found out that our sales team had blitzed the local area around the hotel and I would have been hard pressed not to find a Starward within a quarter-mile radius of the hotel. Nevertheless, it was a pretty special moment as a founder.

Bottle of Starboard

JB: You must have spent a lot of time on the road. What travel tips do you want to pass on to our readers?
DV: A good backpack is worth its weight in gold. Ear plugs are a mandatory for long-haul flights – better, cheaper and more comfortable than noise-cancelling headphones. Find a local distillery when you visit a new city. I feel that the best whiskies in the world talk as much to the culture of a place as they do the provenance and local ingredients. And most distilleries know which bars are the best places to visit in a city.

JB: If your flight was delayed, who would you most like to share a dram with in an airport bar?
DV: Bill Murray. Even if it were for five minutes, I think you’d walk away feeling better than when you arrived.

JB: If you had 24 hours to spare, what city in the world would you most like to explore?
DV: Barcelona. I think between the museums, galleries, architecture, food scene and nightlife, you could have one hell of a 24 hours.

JB: We have a long 12-hour flight ahead. What book would you recommend we read to while away the time?
DV: The Overstory by Richard Powell. I don’t think you’ll look at trees in the same way again.

JB: When we are all travelling again, what Starward Whiskies should we be on the lookout for in duty free?
DV: All of them, but the one that’s most exciting to see with more distribution is our latest release, Starward Fortis, which is aged exclusively in American oak red wine barrels and released at a juicy 50% ABV.

JB: Tell us about a funny, strange or unusual thing that happened to you on your travels?
DV: Qantas was generous enough to offer Starward Solera as part of its in-flight duty-free programme. I happened to be travelling across the Pacific to the US one time and introduced myself to the team doing the in-flight duty-free service. They were so excited to have me onboard, we did an impromptu masterclass for anyone who bought
the whisky.

JB: You’ve been shipwrecked on a desert island. What bottle of whisky would you like to find washed up on the shore?
DV: Only one bottle? It’d have to be Starward Two-Fold. It’s the perfect whisky to pair with tropical fruits and coconut water.
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