Late last year we were fortunate to be able to discuss the direction and latest happenings at Starward ( the Melbourne distillery that has always done things a bit differently and with eyes on taking Australian whisky from the New World down under to the rest of the world) with the founder David Vitale who is near spearheading a push into the United States for Starward
What part of Starward’s Australian heritage/story/production do you highlight when speaking about Starward to audiences overseas?
Definitely, our exclusive use of red wine barrels. I think that for our two hero products in Nova and Two-fold, we have made a name for ourselves just using red wine barrels, sometimes straight from the winery to the distillery, empty, but still saturated with wine, which is pretty special and quite unique. I think that is something that typically piques people’s interest because there are a lot of wine finishes but very few full red wine maturation whiskies in the whisky world.
Does the fact that Australian red wines are involved help with getting the Starward story across?
I think it does.
We have quite a few hurdles to jump as an Australian whisky maker overseas. The first is, does Australia make whisky? In the world of whisky tragics that’s easy to explain, because why wouldn’t they (make whisky in Australia)?
For newer whisky drinkers and people just shopping the aisles of a liquor store its more difficult. Certainly in America, if there is a row of whiskies 30 feet long, 26 of them are American whiskey, 3 of them are Scotch and the last foot is half Irish whiskey and the other half is for the rest of the world, which includes Japanese whisky. Edging out some space in this environment and saying ‘Hey, we are an Australian whisky and it’s awesome’ is a challenge in and of itself. The next is then saying what is it that is so different about Australian whisky and it’s like, well, great whiskies talk to the place they are made. We exclusively mature our whisky in Australian red wine barrels, you couldn’t get more Australian than that, and people get it. This results in a delicious, fruity, versatile whisky.
Starward's latest whisky - Limited Edition Tawny Cask
When speaking to the overseas audience about the use of Australian red wine barrels and Starward in general which aspect of the story or product do they latch on to? Which aspect comes back to them when they see Starward or an Australian whisky in a bar or a liquor store?
It’s easy to drink. We’re not trying to make a whisky that is bombastic or confronting. Don’t get me wrong, our middle daughters name is Islay, so that gives you an idea of where my flavour spectrum goes at home. And I love the big flavours, but by the same token it’s not typically people’s first rung in to whisky and if it is it may not last very long. So we felt there was a real opportunity for people who are curious about whisky to try something different that talks to the place it’s made, and by the way, it’s familiar thanks to those red wine characteristics and it’s easy to drink. If we do that job well, a rising tide lifts all boats, so all Australian whiskies benefit from that, because I would like to think that people drink it (the whisky) and think, that was really delicious, I’m actually happy to be a bit more adventurous in that category, and maybe spend more than $60-$70 on a whisky and venture up to $100 or $150. But if you’re first rung on the (whisky) ladder is a $150+ single malt, single cask, cask strength whisky from a distillery in Australia it’s a hard sell against an 18 year old Scotch (with Scotch’s domination from a branding perspective).
We understand that you are primarily based in the United States, but has there been much chance for you to engage with European audiences, particularly in light of the recent collaboration with The Whisky Exchange in London for example?
Yes. I have been fortunate in 2019 to be able to attend both the Whisky Show in London, which was it’s 20th anniversary, which is why we did the 20th anniversary bottling with The Whisky Exchange, and also Whisky Live Paris. They are two very different shows. Both of them are amazing, really well executed, the best shows in the world. They talk to very different audiences, which I think is very much a by-product of France’s appetite for whisky and typically they seem far more open minded about blended whiskies. We had a great time introducing Nova and Two-fold at Whisky Live Paris for the first time and it was probably a 50/50 split (in popularity) by the end of the show, which was really exciting for us (at Starward). Just going back my point before (about making the whisky approachable), the whisky is soft and silky, and brushing up on my twelfth grade French, just talking about the benefits that wheat provides to whiskies, like that ‘roundness’. Particularly in our context where we are using those red wine barrels, it really makes the red wine barrels sing.
Starward's Distillery Bar - they make epic cocktails or try some whisky samples straight from the barrel
What main differences do you find in the responses of drinkers in Australia vs Europe vs the US when each market seems to have a dominant style preference already?
Here’s the thing, in Australia, and this is not to get on my soapbox about excise, because that is a 30 minute call all on it’s own, but because excise is so much a part of the product’s costs, the incremental cost (difference) between a blend and single malt is not that great in Australia. So I think Australians are ‘trading up’ into single malts in a way, that overseas doesn’t happen as much, where excise does not form as much a part of the cost, where the value proposition of Two-fold as a double grain whisky is more clear cut;
Just to give some kind of background (on the term double grain), we felt like (the term) blend wasn’t quite the right word for it, and in America the common vernacular would be a ‘wheated whiskey’ from the Bourbon world, so Two-fold technically in the United States (under current naming conventions) would be closest to a straight wheat whiskey because of the 60% wheat / 40% malted barley, the main problem being we didn’t use virgin American oak barrels. But that is their reference point. To US consumers I say, It’s a wheated whisky matured in Australian red wine barrels. In France and the UK, typically, what’s my reference point here? Well, it’s a blend, I’m not going to shy away from that. It’s not about (blends) having a different value proposition.
I feel like blends are such a wonderful craft that the Scotch whisky industry has developed, sourcing malts and single grain whiskies from various distilleries and then marrying them together. Typically these are finished products (whiskies which are then blended together). In our instance we felt like that wasn’t quite what we were doing either, hence we came up with the name Double Grain. We make no secret of the fact that we worked with Manildra to come up with a specific grain spirit that can stand up to Melbourne’s four seasons in one day weather and also the red wine (barrel) characteristics, but we mature it ourselves. We’ve effectively contracted the production of the spirit to them and everything else is us. Because you know, their distillery upgrade just cost them over 100 million dollars, so the economics of producing the wheat spirit is not there for us like it is for them, for now. They have been absolutely wonderful partners for us to work with, because they are really excited about this category and seeing how they can move from just neutral grain, flavourless alcohol for the craft spirits industry, into something they can work with distilleries, to make something of their own.
The point I was making about Double Grain for us kind of highlighted the fact that its wheat and malted barley, it’s our spirit, it’s our whisky at the end of the day and it’s got our finger prints all over it.
Blend is the reference point for Australia and the UK and generally speaking a lot of people feel that if it’s a blended whisky, it’s inferior. I think that attitude is changing. I have to say I thought it would have been a much harder conversation to have, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that actually, most drinkers have focussed on the fact that I can get an Australian whisky, that I can definitely have in the everyday cabinet, but that can still talk to all the things that are great about Australian whiskies.
Starward's bartenders prepping an old fashioned classic cocktail
Starward have pioneered innovations in Australian whisky and the large scale concerted push into overseas markets seems as though it can only be a good thing for Australian whisky as a whole. What level of awareness was present in the general US consumer market about Australian whisky as a ‘thing’ when you started out?
In whisky specialist stores, where for example Nova is just a natural fit for the repertoire of whiskies, they had heard of Tasmanian whisky, like Lark whisky or Sullivans Cove. The initial response was that it’s very difficult to find, so the biggest challenge we faced with those (retailer) buyers was, ‘If I buy this and start promoting it, are you going to still have more whisky to sell (to us)?’ That was something that a couple of photos of the distillery put to bed, it’s like – we’re here to stay. And to the point that I am here, I’m not going to move my family and resettle our lives if we aren’t committed to this market. So inside those specialist whiskey shops there was most definitely an awareness, but once you move out in the more general consumer world and go to whiskey shows and whisky events or the (US) equivalent of Dan Murphy’s or Vintage Cellars type retailer, no, there is no awareness at all. So what we then have to do is to convince them. They (the retailers) are coming from the perspective that they have no awareness, their customers have no awareness and their shelf is viewed as real estate. How are they going to make money from that section? What is going to get people excited? So what we’ve done with them, is really what we did six years ago when we started in Melbourne, and that’s just basically hand sell. Every month we do events, and in November 2019 we had 100 events in 8 states, that gives you some idea of how we are always ‘on’. Every weekend we’ve got tastings on just to make sure we are getting people to try the whisky and then the whisky does the talking. It’s a relatively straightforward sell after that. Not many people (in the US) are aware that Australia makes whisky despite us winning double gold, best in class here, and all of the accolades Australian whiskies have achieved over the years in international awards.
Starward Distillery is open for tours or just come in for a drink and feed with friends
Is on premise (bars, clubs, licenced restaurants) integral to your strategy?
100%. On premise is critical for a few reasons. The first is; Two-fold is selling for $30 (in the US), which is almost the same as the excise alone in Australia. So now we are able to get Two-fold into cocktails, and bars don’t need to charge $28 for an Old Fashioned (because of the cost of the whisky).
These are $9-$10 USD cocktails; Old Fashioneds, Boulevardiers, Manhattans, all using Australian whisky which is very exciting as it builds awareness, which has always been the plan. The second part of if it is that (on-premise) is very important, there is a channel there that we can monetise and build some volume from. We can literally sell cases, which is great. The third aspect is that it’s a great opportunity for consumers to try the whisky.
Typically in on-premise events we work with them to do a happy hour or a cocktail of the week or something like that. We’ll send in our Brand Ambassadors to support, and just talk to people about the whisky. That’s the great thing about on-premise too, that once you have got some fans in the bartender scene, they (the bartenders) are going to be far more trusted by customers than we would be.
Starward's bond store is just filled top to bottom with barrels quietly aging whisky in the melbourne weather
One of the things we love the most at The Whisky List is watching and helping people discover whisky. What are typical converts to Starward, in the US, that have already begun their whisky journey drinking prior to exposure to Starward Australian Whisky – and which types of spirit/whiskey drinkers are the most open to trying Starward? Do you face resistance from Bourbon drinkers, some of whom (just like Scotch or any other type of whiskey drinkers) can be extremely loyal to a favourite style or brand?
I don’t know how to exactly frame who they are, but I have them in my minds eye. They’re actually quite ‘promiscuous’ spirits drinkers. So tonight, it might be a whisk(e)y and tomorrow night it might be a rum and the night or afternoon after that it might be a gin. It does skew towards younger people, generally.
So for us, it’s about saying, look if you’re curious about whisk(e)y but really don’t want to drink what your Dad drank, or haven’t quite found the whisk(e)y that suits your palette, then give Starward a go, it’s really versatile, it’s easy to drink and it’s bloody delicious – that’s as simple as it gets.
People typically respond really well to that. But if you have found your whisk(e)y then I’m not here to get a crowbar out and wedge you off Bourbon or Scotch and make you a Starward drinker. That’s way too much hard work, and it’s never been our approach to say we’re just as good as Scotch or we’re making Scotch whisky the way it used to be made or any of that stuff that really gets the hair on the back of my neck up.
It’s not for everybody and that’s ok, but like all of those great whiskies from all around the world, we talk to the place it’s made, we have a culture around it’s consumption based off the back of Melbourne’s foodie credentials and we think that it’s one of the things that we have always been true to, being an approachable and accessible spirit. Something that people, if they want to give it a go aren’t going to have any bad news around price or availability get in their way.
How do you maintain loyalty in a promiscuous spirits drinker audience such as the one you have identified is your main audience in the US?
- A) The short answer is that it is the United States of America, so there is plenty of whisky and spirits drinkers who are ‘promiscuous’.
- B) We’re interesting, as a product, I genuinely believe that. Notwithstanding that they are promiscuous, it’s not like they all have ADD. They do kind of have a flavour profile that suits their palate and for us its captivating them with a great drink, whether it’s neat or in a high ball or a cocktail so that they go ‘you know what? I really like that. I’m going to go back to that next time. And that’s more generally, whether it’s Australia or the US or the UK, the approach that we want to take.
Take for example the success of Four Pillars gin, not just from a quality perspective or accolades but just in terms of volume, the sheer volume of gin being consumed. Gin in Australia as a category I think is one fifth the size of whisky. Four Pillars I am guessing, are at least twice the size of Starward if not more. So if we just behave just like a gin for want of a better term, we’ll grow, because price point wise – we’re there.
Starward's distillers sample the whisky as it ages to ensure it's picked when perfect
What would you say to local online fans who perceive Starward’s focus and attention has decreased in the Australian market with the expansion into the US and Europe, your relocation and overseas exclusive bottlings like The Whisky Exchange bottling? Have you experienced any negativity around this personally?
From very early on I realised if I stay awake at night thinking about the internet being wrong, I’ll never sleep. I used to take it personally because this (Starward) was not only something that I had made but it was also my livelihood, and it still is. Imagine if you got the critique I got for the whisky and the business and your job depended on it, you either have to learn to detach from it very early on or get out. You do need to continue to march to the beat of your own drum, that’s always been like that, and it takes a bit of strength to do that. To directly answer your question, to be honest I have only personally heard people be absolutely proud of what we are doing for the Australian whisky category, I know that that is the feeling and the sentiment from the distillers that I have met for taking Australian whisky to the world.
The reality is this market (the US) just gets Two-fold and Nova and maybe 100 cases of Solera for 300 million people vs Australia which has at least four or five projects a year which we release, and then there is all the single cask offerings that we partner with retailers and bars to do, and the bottled cocktails, and the stuff at the distillery which you can go and sneak a sample of. So it’s there if you look for it, it’s not like we’re going anywhere from that perspective.
And that won’t change. Here’s the thing, we copped a little bit of that also when Diageo came on board, ‘oh great we’re going to sell out’, ‘Starward’s sold out’. I’d like to think that time has only proven that has been a wonderful relationship for us, to do exactly what we said we were going to do from day one. Diageo don’t buy into companies to turn them into Johnnie Walker, they’ve already got that. They’re not going to turn it into Lagavulin, god forbid. But just to be mentioned in the same sentence… It’s the same thing, keep doing what you’re doing and over time people will see the rewards of what you’re doing and the effort you put in.
Below is some general points about the Australian industry in general and pricing and perception specifically…
Very early on people viewed Starward as an inferior product because of how cheap we were, and then we released the Projects, single barrel, single cask, cask strength, amazing whisky like the Yalumba stuff for a hundred and something bucks for 700ml, and we were like, well we could sell them for three hundred, we could, even now with the Tawny release, its bloody delicious (but that pricing strategy) that’s not who we are. There was an inflection point in that story, where the penny dropped where people realised what we were doing which is to basically always have interesting products that people can try and not break the bank. If you want to be a little bit more pessimistic (about others in the industry), we’re not here to take the piss out of Australia whisky drinkers by charging $350 bucks for a cask strength whisky just because we can, and that’s never been part of who we are as a brand.
Pricing on some other Australian whisky releases is symptomatic of where the a lot of the Australian industry is at and it will shake out, and I’m not ashamed of the fact that we’re leading that shake out in a way. I don’t think anyone is questioning the quality proposition of the product, it’s just basically what we’re able to do. We’ll see. I hope it shakes out for the benefit of the consumer and the industry for that matter, because I’ll give you the tip – no one is buying even a $200 Australian whisky in the United States. It’s like, no way, you kidding me? $200 in America gets you a 25 year old Glenmorangie. The buyers (retailers) won’t buy it, let alone the consumers.
The Starward Distillery Team and amazing copper stills in the background
So we spoke earlier about the amount of single cask collaborations, the Project releases and cocktail bottlings. Do you see these as being a way (the best way) to keep long term Australian fans onboard?
That’s exactly right – we have a built in mandate in terms of our production process and sales plan to have Projects as part of that. Given the energy and time and effort that goes into making those products, it’s not about making more money. It would be far simpler to make more money by selling more Two-fold at 41%, every day of the week. So for us this (the Projects etc.) is not about making more money, it’s about rewarding loyal drinkers and giving people something really interesting to talk about. And for us, when the Projects are at their very best, I feel like we outdo ourselves, like if we step it up a bit more or do something we haven’t done before or hasn’t been done in a while. Just to think on the original back label copy we used to talk about an ‘unexamined idea in the world of whisky’, which is kind of at the core of Projects.
Are there any brand or product developments in the works for the near to mid future that you can share with us, for either the US or Australia?
No, it’s stay the course. I think we’ve got, particularly in Australia with our bottled cocktail series, just such an exciting area of growth. Cocktail consumption at home is increasing in popularity. We’ve been doing these things now for, well, our first bottled cocktail came out in June 2016. So this is something that we have been pretty committed to and want to see grow. It’s just such a convenient way of delivering craft whisky that’s consistent. I’m probably customer number one for this because every time I’m going to someone’s house I bring a bottle whisky and then I become head bartender for the night, so having a bottle of pre-batched cocktails is a great way for me to just arrive and have a great night like everybody else.
Starward's Core Range of Whiskies
Australia is a passionate market of whisky consumers and are seen as at the higher end in terms of spend per bottle and consumption of single malt and premium whisky compared with a lot of the world. Do you see much growth opportunity in the Australian market for brands who aren’t pursuing overseas expansion like Starward?
Definitely. As discussed before, the audience for whisky is growing. If we view it as a fixed pool of people with a fixed consumption then you would argue that actually, that’s it, we’re all fighting for the same drinker, but I just don’t think that’s true at all.
Being optimistic and not hubristic, if people try Starward and think that’s delicious, I don’t mind that, they’re more likely to try a more expensive Australian whisky.
I think the world is changing. We’ve got way, way more people interested in ‘New world’ whiskies. Accolades wise, if you look at the catalogue of the awards of the ISWC over the last 10 years and you take a look at how many non-Scotch and non-Bourbon whiskies have won best whisk(e)y in the world and all of a sudden you’re like, actually…
Ten years ago there might have been three or four (new world) whiskies on that list that represented 5% and today this is probably closer to ten or twelve whiskies and that’s edging up to 20% of entries. So if you think of it in that context, why wouldn’t even a rusted on Scotch whisky drinker (for example) who loves their Scotch, think, maybe I will try a Japanese or Australian or Taiwanese or Tasmanian Whisky.
So moving on to a more personal vibe, what aspect of Australia/Melbourne do you find yourself missing the most often?
The coffee – that’s the obvious answer. And that’s even being in Seattle which takes it’s coffee pretty seriously. The other thing is the American’s have been very generous in opening their arms to Starward across the board, genuinely, right across the board, from our importer to our customers, every step of the way. We’ve been really fortunate to have been welcomed with open arms. And look I chose this, this is exactly what I wanted, but life is a whole lot easier in Australia. So it’s like going back to day one (of the business), sometimes, if I’m being honest, I miss ‘it’ being easier.
To flip the previous question (and hopefully dig up some controversy) what do you miss the LEAST?
I don’t miss Melbourne as a city as much as I thought I would, because Seattle is so beautiful and I travel so much. I don’t miss the hot dry summers.
Thanks so much for your time David and we wish you and Starward all the best on your continuing journey and mission to spread the word about Australian whisky around the globe 😊
You can find a bunch of Starward whiskies here @ The Whisky List
The Whisky List