Thursday 5 December 2013

Distillery Tour #1: New World Whisky Distillery | Purveyors of Starward (Victoria, Australia)

In what I hope becomes a more prominent category on this blog (especially after a planned trip to Scotland next year), here comes's first distillery tour write-up...

Those who have been reading this blog for a while now might be familiar with the New World Whisky Distillery. Back in March I sat down for a coffee with CEO David Vitale and a week or so later posted my tasting notes on their Starward Australian Single Malt Whisky. In short: a very impressive sub-3yr old whisky distilled and aged in an old maintenance hangar at Essendon Airport, and every part a "new world" whisky.


David made the offer then for me to tour the distillery any time I was in Melbourne. Despite being in Melbourne almost monthly since, it wasn't until a few weeks ago I actually had time to drop in for a visit. A very last minute phone call was made and David kindly said he'd be happy to show me around the next day.

After a safety introduction and donning of the obligatory hi-vis vest, the tour was underway. A very personal tour I might add, as it was just David, Ian (Distillery Production Manager) and myself. The setup reminded me of some of the Australian breweries I've visited - industrial but very clean and organised. Barrels took up a significant proportion of the (massive) floorspace, with the distillery itself taking a comparatively small corner. There was still plenty of space remaining and given the increasing popularity of Starward, I wouldn't be surprised if they start to fill it up soon.

We started with the tasting malted barley (always good to eat before drinking, right?) which is brought into the distillery already malted. Then onto the mashtun, and the stainless steel washbacks. Ian let me sample the wash, which (at close to 7% ABV) had a sour but smooth taste and reminded me of probably the most unusual beer I've ever tried - the Red Duck Gruiter.

Over to the wash and spirit stills,  where the liquid comes off at around 24% ABV and 71.5% ABV respectively. Cuts from the spirit still are made manually, and (having only toured distilleries in the UK before), I was a little surprised to see the "spirit safe" being completely open (in the UK, customs mandates the use of a spirit safe to secure the new make output). I was even invited to taste the new make right then and there as it came off the still. It's not every day you get to do that! It was surprisingly smooth and robust.

From here it was over to the barrels, most of which are palletised and stored upright to provide better wood extraction and more favourable evaporation. David talked me through the various barrels in use - including the usual ex-sherry (apera) and bourbon casks, as well as a few other varieties. It was pretty clear from the discussion that the guys place a huge emphasis on wood, which isn't surprising given the temperature variation that occurs in the region, and the resulting contact the spirit has with the wood.

David then took me over to the in-distillery "Tiki Bar", where he talked me through their sensory program - something the distillery considers hugely important to ensuring consistency and quality in the final product. Without going into too much detail, the sensory program involves blind tasting from a sample of barrels (at a cut-down 20% ABV), against a reference whisky (Famous Grouse), and noting characteristics, qualities, and whether whiskies are acceptable, unacceptable or "single cask quality". Note: the distillery doesn't currently bottle any single cask releases commercially, but based on what I tried, I hope they do in the future!

 Standing at the bar, David ran me through a sample sensory program, starting with new make and running through an example of single cask whiskies from 50L, 100L and 200L casks.

New make: Pears and freshly-cut grass on the nose. Pears with as slight nuttiness on the palate (no bubblegum or bananas here!). Medium-length, nutty finish. Smooth throughout.

50L cask sample: Rich, creamy with a sherry backbone. This tasted WAY beyond its years, and had the most amazing, rich sherried nose. I want a bottle from this exact cask! This was a seriously enjoyable and impressive whisky.

100L cask sample: Lighter than the 50L cask sample, with a fresh, citrus palate and a smooth, medium-length finish.

200L cask sample: Seemed younger and "hotter" than the previous samples - long finish though, and with similar characteristics to 100L in terms of palate.

After the tasting it was time to let David get home, and time for me to catch my flight back to Sydney. I hope David and the team consider running the occasional tour every now and then (perhaps similar to James Squire Brewery at Camperdown, who open once or twice a year for tours) as it was interesting, enjoyable and not something that's usually very accessible for those living in major cities in Australia.

A huge thanks to David and Ian for giving up their time, answering my many questions and showing me their setup in minute detail. I said this would be a distillery to watch earlier this year, and I stand by that. This whisky is already excellent and will only get better as time goes on.


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