Until recently, Australian whisky has taken a back seat to the romance of Australian wine. Finally it is garnering similar interest, thanks to the long and slow efforts of a band of whisky pioneers, and more recent innovators, who have brought a wine sensibility to Australian whisky making.
“We had to create the smallest mining company in Australia,” chuckles Bill Lark as he recounts the early days of using Tasmanian peat to make his whisky. If you wanted Tasmanian peat you had to dig it up; however, before you could dig it up, you needed to get a mining permit. Many of the early struggles of the modern Australian whisky scene began with similar peculiarities.
Though it once housed some massive whisky distilleries, Australian whisky production was all but extinct by the 1980s when Bill and Lyn Lark decided to start making the spirit in Tasmania.
At the time, Australian spirits production and consumption was focused on rum. Moreover, Australian laws limited the minimum size of wash stills to a whopping 700 gallons, far too big for whisky-loving entrepreneurs to enter the market. But, no matter: Bill Lark worked with local politicians to change the legislation and allow for a number of new key players to enter the market – Lark Distillery in 1992, followed shortly by the well-known Tasmanian distilleries Overeem, Sullivan’s Cove and Hellyers Road.
Today, more than 50 Tasmanian distilleries make gin, brandy, rum and whisky. Tasmania has become the spiritual home of the modern Australian whisky industry and continues to attract many whisky tourists and customers. The whisky made on this island, off the southern coast of Australia, often focuses on oily distillates and small casks which result in a big, fruity style. This is accomplished, in part, by the extensive use of re-coopered casks which previously held Australian Tawny, a fortified wine made in the same style as port. The barrels are made ready for whisky by scraping wine residue off the staves then re-charring the barrels. This imparts a fruity, rich, woody character to the whisky.
David Vitale got his start making whisky in Tasmania, at Lark Distillery. It was Vitale’s wife who drew him to Tasmania. “I said I’d go to the ends of the earth for her, and I did, literally!” Vitale hoped to start a craft brewery, but was discouraged by Tasmania’s remote location and the subsequent impact that significant transit time can have on the flavour of beer. Then one day Vitale stopped into Lark Distillery, and, after tasting the whisky, his dream did an about-face – straight from craft beer to whisky. He quickly convinced Bill Lark to hire him.
A few years later, it came time for Vitale to venture out and create his own distillery, but not in Tasmania. Melbourne, the centre of the booming Australian coffee and food scene, kept calling. “We wanted to be closer to the heart of the food and wine scene in Australia,” Vitale explains. “Scotch has its own place, and we wanted to create our own place for Australian whisky.”
Starward, Vitale’s distillery, was not created on the Tasmanian model. Rather than those cramped, relatively tiny whisky production houses, Starward Distillery is a vast open space in a massive industrial building, with lofty ceilings high above the bar, a production facility, and thousands of maturing barrels. Visitors have the rare experience of smelling the rich aromas of whisky production, fermentation, distillation, and maturation, while enjoying the whisky itself in the distillery bar.
Just as the huge space contrasts with distilleries in Tasmania, so do production practices themselves. As Vitale will readily admit, “If you want a cask-strength Tawny whisky, go to Tasmania.” He set out with a different aim: to match whisky with perhaps the best-known agricultural product of Australia, wine. “You craft a distillery very differently if you are set on wine maturation from the start…fundamentally we needed bold and complex flavours in the distillate to stand up well to the rich oak and fruit characters that come from our red wine barrels.” Starward accomplishes this through careful selection of malt, using multiple yeasts, while also integrating high-reflux distillation.
Unlike the typical scraping and re-charring common to preparing barrels for whisky, Starward fills its whisky spirit directly into wet wine casks. The focus isn’t a wine “finish” – a short maturation that adds barrel-soaked flavour into a whisky – rather, the whisky interacts with both the wine and the cask itself as it matures to full term in the wine barrels.
This use of unmodified or non-re-coopered wine casks is significant because whisky makers and wine makers take different approaches to how they use oak. While whisky makers often leverage oak to completely shape a whisky, wine makers use oak to tame and evolve a wine. Modern whisky makers sometimes use small barrels and barrel staves to maximise oak interaction, whereas wine casks are often many times larger than whisky casks to minimise oak interaction. While whisky casks might be used for decades, most of Starward’s wine casks have been filled with wine for just four to seven years. And while whisky casks are often heavily charred, more often wine casks are simply toasted or charred lightly. As a chef might put it, it’s like you’re taking a look at a seared product versus a roasted product.
As winemaker Sarah Fagan of De Bortoli vineyard explains, “I have my preferred coopers, forests and toasts that suit our wines… I want savoury, and fruit freshness; integration of oak too. I don’t want overtly toasted notes either. Some coopers will be quite intense and I would only use them in small amounts… Some coopers are quite subtle and I can use more…. Over-oaked wine is an all-too-common in Australia… All you taste is the oak. This is not what we are after. We want the oak to support the fruit rather than overpower it.”
Starward benefits from the rich experience of Australian winemakers such as Fagan in their cask selection and wine character. Vitale is quick to emphasise this, “To me, there’s a lovely and quite unique relationship with the winemakers we use. Their intent and purpose in choosing a wine barrel is very different from our intent and purpose in using them. All great Starward barrels are from great wineries that use amazing barrels, but not all amazing barrels make great Starward barrels. So we’ve developed – with their help – a ‘rosetta stone’ to decode what works for us. It’s about laddering up flavour into the almost-ready spirit, primarily the oak characters which have had the edges taken off while holding wine, but importantly highlighting the wine itself and using alcohol as a flavour carrier, what happens as it’s exposed to the elements over time.”
Starward’s flagship malt, Nova, brings out these characteristics flawlessly. The whisky is a fruit bomb while also displaying characteristics of rich red wine and sweet oaky caramel. It shows the wine in a particular way, as Vitale adds, “The mid-palate texture is all grape tannin, which is quite distinctive to red wine; it gives it length and body in a different way to standard barrels and I think they are the secret to why it makes such a great drink.”
But, enough with the romantic notion of wine cask maturation in Australia – does the whisky actually taste good? The simplest testimonial, perhaps, comes from Cutler & Co., one of Melbourne’s premier restaurants. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Cutler & Co. chose its own private cask of Starward. On release day, the phone was ringing off the hook before the restaurant had opened. Eager customers were lining up for a chance to buy one of the 250 bottles. “It was manic,” is how one of the sommeliers described it. Clearly, wine maturation in Australia does more than just satisfy romantic notions.