Unfiltered columnist Ian Buxton meets the distillers from Down Under who are setting their sights high

Perhaps it’s remiss of me, but I haven’t looked at Australian whiskies for more than three years now – and a lot has happened in that short time, so let’s catch up.

I was reminded of the dynamism of the Australian whisky scene at a recent meeting with David Vitale of Melbourne’s Starward Whisky. Starward are the new glamour boys of Aussie distilling. Founded in January 2010, they soon attracted attention for their forward-looking attitude and bold ambition to be “the global Australian whisky”.

That’s a big claim. After initial interest, though, such is today’s domestic interest and demand for Australian whiskies that few of their competitors have stock to spare for anything other than their home trade. However, Starward aimed higher from the outset. That soon attracted the attention of Diageo’s incubator fund, Distill Ventures, who in December 2015 were the lead investors in a funding round, said to be worth around £6 million. And that, as you might expect, has turbo-charged Starward’s growth with a new and expanded distillery now opened in Port Melbourne and a number of exciting and innovative small batch projects underway.

David is very clear about one thing. “Scotch whisky is great. We don’t need proof of that and [Australia] can’t out-Scotch Scotch. What we ask ourselves is ‘what is whisky in the Australian context and conditions?’ How can we bring Australian whisky into the 21st century with diversity and new ingredients?”

Good questions, and UK drinkers will soon have the chance to find out exactly what he means. Starward’s original style, Solera, is currently available here and further launches are planned, including the Wine Cask expression, which we should see this autumn. This was a worthy recent winner of two Gold Medals (including World’s Best Craft Whisky) at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, so arrives with impressive credentials. The key flavour influence is derived from South Australian Shiraz wine casks, resulting in a rich red ochre colour and a balanced sweet/savoury palate with a long, slightly drying finish. It’s stellar stuff from some serious whisky makers.

If you could transport yourself to their striking whisky and cocktail bar in Melbourne you might be lucky enough to try one or more of their ‘projects’, the Starward term for “unexamined ideas in the world of whisky”. A recent example was their funky ginger beer cask finish, the necessarily-limited stocks of which were split between the distillery bar, long-standing supporter accounts and a public ballot. There are more surprising and challenging projects in progress, though, and they may – if we’re lucky – reach an even wider audience.

Starward may be the advance guard, but they are not the whole story. The Australian whisky scene began in 1992, when Bill Lark, widely acknowledged as the ‘father of Australian whisky’, opened his first distillery in Hobart, Tasmania. For some time, Tasmania was the centre of this new wave and still today around half of the more significant operating craft distillers are based there, though supplies are restricted and relatively little whisky makes it to the UK.

One exception is Tasmania’s most northerly distillery, Hellyers Road, which has been operating long enough to send us a 10-year-old single malt. We also see Bakery Hill, relatively speaking a near-neighbour of Starward, which I reviewed in Unfiltered’s April 2014 issue.

However, their releases are expensive – around £150 for a bottle equivalent – which, historically, has represented a problem for Australian whiskies in international markets. With small production runs come higher unit costs and many consumers are understandably reluctant to experiment at such a price level. Here again, more established or better funded operations have an edge and both Hellyers Road and Starward are able to offer UK retail prices around £50-55 per bottle, greatly reducing the barrier to entry.

Australian whisky remains small and is still a niche offering. But it’s maturing fast and at least some of the new wave have larger ambitions. Starward’s challenging slogan is ‘What whisky can be’. On the evidence of the whiskies I tasted, they are offering something fresh and new that will appeal to enthusiasts the world over. Australia has come a long, long way in the last three years, so I’m excited and interested to see what they can offer by 2020.