David Vitale had a moment of clarity in 2007 when the Aussie entrepreneur envisioned a whisky brand steeped in the flavors and culture of his Melbourne hometown roots.

Sounds obvious, but for 200 years Australian whisky has been more of a Scotch clone than one immersed in its own traditions and identity. Vitale made it his mission to change that. Three years later, Starward was born, a whisky that’s steeped in its own terroir and the resources native to his Melbourne home. The result in a distinctive Australian style that Vitale is determined to see alongside bourbon, Scotch, and Japanese on the world whisky stage.

Early producers rooted their identity in scotch whisky making traditions. “When your identity is rooted in Scotland’s traditions, then people are better off just drinking Scotch,” Starward founder David Vitale states bluntly. “Our goal was to create an Australian whisky that could define the category and offer something truly Australian to the world with pride.”

A Brief History of Australian Whisky
Australian whisky came of age in the 1860s when entrepreneur Henry Brind expanded a fledgling distillery in Victoria’s Goldfields region, where he produced genever and single malt. The distillery consolidated with other local distilleries and relocated to Geelong in 1924, where it operated until 1986 under the brand name Corio Whisky. It was forced to close when it could no longer compete with the influx of Scotch imports. 1992 marked a watershed moment for the local industry when a businessman named Bill Lark, who is considered the founding father of the modern Australian whisky movement, successfully petitioned the Australian government to relax distilling laws. This allowed farmers and producers like Vitale, who got his start as a distiller at Lark, help spearhead an Australian craft spirits movement.

Grains: Melbourne is a Brewing Town
“To create a distinctly Australian whisky that could define the category” was literally the first line of the Starward’s business plan and remains the company’s mantra to this day. Everything about Starward needed to be rooted in local culture, beginning with ingredients. Australia is a massive grain-producing nation, and the malted barley and wheat inside Starward are all locally sourced. Its barley is malted by local maltsters who typically serve Melbourne’s robust microbrewing community. By distilling highly flavorful brewer’s malt instead of traditional, yield-minded distiller grains (chosen for extracting the most sugar), Vitale locked in the first piece of Starward’s identity. Whether it’s a pale ale, amber ale, or stout-based barley, these varieties each impart distinctive flavors in the distillate. By taking a brewing philosophy of deriving taste from its grains, Vitale distanced himself from the distiller mindset of achieving its flavors from the barrel. While it’s not spoken about often, another ingredient that informs authentic Australian flavors is yeast.

Vitale turned the local brewing scene to select a flavorful yeast with which to ferment mash. The result is a quaffable beer as opposed to a wort, as it’s called in Scotland. Starward’s ferment tastes similar to a Belgian ale, loaded with fruit, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper spice. The emphasis of finding flavor in the still rather than spending years in the barrel has nothing to do with bucking Scotch traditions; Australian producers like Vitale simply do not have that kind of time.

“The climate in which we age in Melbourne is known for having four seasons in a day,” says Vitale. “We are surrounded by a dry, hot desert to the north, and we have Antarctica just below us. The wind is either warm and arid or cold and humid. These weather swings create a lot of action in the barrel, so three to four years of aging is our sweet spot.”

Maturation: Melbourne Is Wine Country
While the fermentation is inspired by Australians rich beer-making history, its maturation is rooted in its wine traditions. This is another critical distinction between Scotch and what Vitale deems authentic Australian. Scotch ages their whisky predominantly in ex-bourbon casks from the United States or imported sherry casks from Spain. Starward is aged in locally sourced ex-wine barrels, which are of premium quality and plentiful in Australia, who produces about 1.2 billion liters of wine annually. This allows Vitale to set Starward apart from Scotch and explore unlimited and unique flavor combinations. The differences in French, American, and Hungarian oak all have a tremendous impact on a whisky’s flavor, as do the varietals that were once inside. A whisky aged in a shiraz cask will taste different than one aged in cabernet sauvignon. Vitale is endlessly exploring how these unique characteristics affect a whisky’s potential. Another bonus is relationships. Vitale knows these winemakers, allowing him to understand the philosophy of why they chose their barrels. This provides insight into how the whisky will ultimately taste.

“Everything we make until maturation is overseen by brewers, and the downstream side is managed by winemakers. Our whiskey is steeped in these Australian traditions because if we are going to compete, we won’t do it by out-scotching Scotch. We need to be a genuine alternative, and that’s where the idea of an Australian whisky style was born. This includes the packaging, production, and the way we drink it. Our whisky is intended to be drunk in cocktails with friends, not sipped formally in a smoking jacket. “

“We are not about recreating something of a bygone era. We are about looking ahead and bringing people to whisky.”

— David Vitale, founder of Starward Whisky

John McCarthy is a spirit, travel, and lifestyle journalist, managing editor, and author of The Modern Gentleman.