Bottle Breakdown: Melbourne, Apera, And The Making Of A Distinctly Australian Whisky, Starward Solera
It has been over a decade since David Vitale founded Starward Whisky, and nine years since its first offering, Solera, hit the market. The distinctly Australian Whisky hails from Melbourne and has its roots in the city’s food scene. The garden city’s dramatic temperature swings are responsible for the spirit’s relatively quick, three year aging process. It also matures in Apera barrels, a fortified wine similar to Sherry. Looking at the bottle breakdown, it’s easy to see that the “Bold, Rich and Bright” Starward Solera Whisky is quintessentially Australian and speaks volumes about the richness of its hometown.
Everything that goes into Solera comes from Australia. Grains, barrels, and water are all locally sourced. In part, it’s that unique background that makes the tipple fit so well with Melbourne’s bursting culinary scene. In this week’s Bottle Breakdown, we sat down with Starward Founder David Vitale to dive deeper into Solera, the iconic Australian offering that revolutionized New World Whiskies.
SZ: When the average person thinks Whisk(e)y, they think Scotland, Ireland, Kentucky, maybe even Japan. Of course, there are examples of Australian Whiskies that have been on the market for a couple decades, but what got you thinking about making an Australian Whiskey?
DV: It’s a great question, as you point out, there were a number of great whiskies already on the market when we started Starward. A lot of those whiskies were made in the “finest of scottish traditions” and I felt we had a great deal to offer the world of whisky by producing something modern, and distinctly Australian – aged in Australian Wine Barrels.
SZ:Your hometown, Melbourne is one of the world food capitals at the moment. Looking at the city’s relationship with food, how did that inspire you to begin Starward? Was there a ‘lightbulb’ moment where you just knew that this is what you needed to do?
DV: Well without Melbourne Starward wouldn’t exist. I think there’s two ways that Melbourne inspired Starward. The first was this approach to modernity and quality which I characterise as quality & attention to detail, without “airs and graces”. It’s relaxed high-end quality. Be it restaurants, bars, or cafes. So with Starward, we wanted to have a whisky that could take it up to the best in the world in terms of quality, but wanted to leave behind the “stuffiness and old-world” that historically existed with whisky.
The second way is our relationship with food. I judge the diversity of a city by the vibrancy of it’s cuisine. And Melbourne is quite the melting pot of culture – you see that in the food scene. I’ve always held a view that whisky has a place at the dinner table along-side food the same way beer and wine does. To that end, we’ve created a really versatile, delicious and easy drinking whisky that is as much an ingredient in an easy to make cocktail, as it is a sipping whisky for after dinner.
SZ: What makes Australian Whisky special? And how is it a unique environment for making Whisky?
DV: Melbourne is famed for its four seasons in a day weather. It has huge temperature swings that mean we are able to age our whisky quite differently to the way whisky ages in Scotland, Ireland or Kentucky. New World whiskies don’t need to abide by the same rules as traditional whisky making countries so in 3 “Melbourne years” we have a smooth, balanced and easy to drink whiskey.
We’re also lucky enough to be able to source all of our ingredients from within a day’s drive of the distillery. Grains, Barrels, Water all locally sourced.
SZ: It has been a number of years since Solera hit the market. At the beginning, did you ever think you’d now be sitting here with three different expressions on the market?
DV: Right at the beginning – no. But we quickly realised that we’d cracked a nut with aging whisky in wine barrels and wanted to explore this area of whisky making. Not many distilleries in the world fully age their whisky in wine barrels and certainly not many still wet with wine from barrels delivered over-night. It’s an exciting new area of flavour that Starward explores and we’ve become quite the expert in aging whisky in wine barrels. So stay tuned, there might be some more limited expressions coming to the US!
SZ: Could you describe your creative process when you began putting together the plans for Starward Solera?
DV: Three words: Bold, Rich and Bright. That’s what we wrote on the page. That talked to Australia and the style of whisky we wanted to make. Aesthetically, we also wanted a package that said “We are not the whisky your dad drank in the 80’s”.
SZ: Can you take us through the ingredients that go into Starward Solera and how they speak of the area’s surrounding terroir?
DV: We are so lucky to have amazing fortified wine barrels – some of which have been holding sherry style wines (called Apera) for over 50-60 years. These are heirloom barrels that we are not likely to see appear again. So in 2010, we were able to source a substantial quantity of these barrels to make Starward Solera. As part of the process, once mature, we then empty barrels into our Solera tank. Imagine a bottomless vat of whisky, every time we prepare a batch of Starward Solera, we empty 20-30% of the vat and send that to the bottling line, and then top up the Solera vat with more aged Apera barrels. It means that the very first barrel we emptied (albeit in homeopathic quantities now) is in every glass of Starward Solera we serve. Quite special and very rare for distilleries to do.
SZ: Solera was Starward’s first release. How did its creation influence the rest of the Starward Whiskies?
DV: Well most Australian whiskies before Starward were single barrel releases, Solera was – by design – not single barrel. We wanted a consistent whisky that could be in the “sharing cabinet” at home rather than the “special occasion cabinet”. To that end we were also about ½ the price of other Australian single malts at that time. Early on, this was a bit of a challenge, people were suspicious of quality, but that price was a result of scaling up production rather than any compromise on quality. As soon as our awards cabinet started to fill-up, that concern went away and we are now the #1 Australian whisky at home, and in the top 3 international whiskies sold in Australia.
SZ: As we alluded to earlier, Starward has a number of Whiskies out there now. What motivates you to keep pushing the envelope and trying new ideas?
DV: Well, whisky is such an exciting drink. The UK and US have really codified what makes a “scotch” or “bourbon” so I feel like it’s incumbent on us as modern whisky producers to push the boundaries, and challenge perceptions of what whisky can be. And, to me that’s a goal that has no end.
SZ: Is there anything new coming down the barrel you can tell us about?
DV: The pipeline of innovation is always primed at Starward. The consequence of pushing boundaries is that not everything works – which is ok. We’re really excited to share more of what makes Starward so unique with our Single Barrel program which explores our wood policy and how we work with Australian winemakers to craft our whiskies.
SZ: How do you recommend enjoying the Solera and what should be paired with it?
DV: It’s a bit cliche’d every whisky producer says their whisky makes an awesome Old Fashioned – but really, Solera makes a wicked Old Fashioned!
In terms of Food Pairing, it’s such a versatile drink.
So appetiser – Old Fashioned with Cantaloupe wrapped with Prosciutto.
Dessert – Equal parts sweet vermouth & Solera on ice with Banoffee Pie.
Have any questions about this week’s Bottle Breakdown with Starward Solera, please leave a comment.