Friday 27 August 2021

SMWS & Starward: Distillery 148 lands with two impressive releases [Tasted #535 & #536]

I heard a funny comment about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society the other day - that technically only one quarter of their name fully describes what they do. They no longer bottle only Scotch whisky, they no longer bottle only malt whisky, they no longer bottle only whisky...but they are still a Society (one of which I've been a devoted member since 2013).

Some may think the inclusion of grain whiskies, world whiskies and other spirits has changed the Society, and I agree - it's changed it for the better. This blog was always about enjoying whisky (and the occasional dark spirit) on its merits and flavour alone, regardless of where it comes from or how old it is, and that's a philosophy SMWS really take to heart.

So when SMWS started bottling whiskies from "new world" whisky countries like TaiwanIndia, England, Denmark and Sweden, to me it wasn't a case of "Oh no, they're deviating from their roots!" it was a case of "OK, so when will we see an Aussie distillery?" 

That question was answered last month, when Luke McCarthy's excellent Oz Whisky Review broke the news that, finally, an Australian SMWS distillery code had been announced. Distillery 147 (Sydney's excellent Archie Rose) had the honour, with their 2yo 147.1 "Jacaranda Jam". Long-time readers might remember that time Archie Rose let me make a nuisance of myself by "helping" them "make whisky" one morning back in 2015 (long story short: it was great, educational fun).

Photo credit: SMWS Australia

They say "good things come in threes" and that's certainly the case here, as is pleased to be the very first to break the news that hot on the heels of 147.1 comes 148.1 (and in 2022, 148.2) - from none other than Melbourne's Starward!

Further down you'll find further details and my tasting notes on both releases (a huge thanks to Matt Bailey for the samples & opportunity), but I felt this was a good chance to revisit some key events in the history of Starward, and pull out a few highlights Hendy and myself have experienced over the years.

2013 was the year Starward's first whisky was released (matured in Australian ex-Apera casks), and was the result of 6 years of hard work, stemming from founder David Vitale's vision to create a quality, accessible, distinctly Australian whisky. It seems obvious now, but looking at Starward's recent success and immense following, but back then it was a big gamble.'s friendship with the distillery goes back to early 2013, when David was kind enough to give up an hour during a flying visit to Sydney to sit down and talk me through the (then) "New World Whisky Distillery" over a coffee at Shirt Bar. David generously gave me a 200mL bottle of the whisky, and my tasting later that evening confirmed this was one to keep an eye on! 

Fast-forward a few months to late 2013, and David was again kind enough to give me an in-depth, private tour of the distillery (the old Essendon Fields-based distillery, before the move to Port Melbourne), tasting the various stages along the way - wash, new make, and maturing cask samples. 

For me this it was a fascinating insight into this new Aussie distillery, and a real eye opener as to the differences between UK and Aussie distilleries - which was never more apparent than when I asked about the "spirit safe". David showed me the open, sheet-metal fabricated box (below) where the spirit ran off the stills, and asked if I'd like to have a taste - by cupping my hands underneath and scooping some up! Something you could never get away with in Scotland!

It wasn't long after that that Steph and I moved to Hong Kong & expanded into Asia, and Hendy came on-board to continue the Aussie coverage. Moving to HK meant leaving behind 99% of our whisky collection and taking only 1 bottle each, but for me the choice was easy - Starward's very first "New World Projects" Single Cask Release #1. I figured this had to be the only bottle in HK (if not Asia), and I used it to spread the good word of Aussie whisky until the bottle was emptied. 

I stayed in touch with David, and the following year had the pleasure of arranging Starward's very first tasting outside Australia, with David taking a small group of HK whisky lovers through an eclectic mix of Starward whisky, new make and gin. By that point, the Starward range had grown to encompass two core bottlings (a red-wine matured whisky sitting alongside the original ex-Apera product), along with a few weird and wonderful "New World Projects" releases.

Funnily enough, 6 years on I still regularly have whisky catch-ups with some of the same people (often at the same venue) only now they're bringing Starwards to the tastings themselves (not an easy feat, considering Starward still isn't officially distributed in Asia)!

It's hard to believe that was 6 years ago, but since then it's seemed the distillery can do no wrong, with the move to brand new distillery right in the heart of Melbourne (the main reason for my 24hr trip to Melbourne in 2018), multiple new release whiskies (some limited, like the recent Unexpeated and the ever-popular "Ginger Beer Cask" series, some permanent, like the innovative Two-Fold blended "Double Grain", which Hendy had the pleasure of seeing launched at the Distillery in 2019), and even a bottled cocktail series, including 2019's delicious "Red Manhattan".

...which brings us to today. It's probably fair to say that as a young distillery, having your stock sought by independent bottlers is a clear sign of your popularity, and Starward has (in the last year alone) been bottled by no less than 3 well-respected "Indies": Berry Bros & Rudd, Adelphi and That Boutique-y Whisky Company (the latter tasted by Hendy back in May).

Now however, Starward can add another feather to their cap: being bottled not just by another independent bottler, but by the world's leading whisky club, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

SMWS 148.1 Starward "Apera for Everyone!" will be the first release, a 6yo single cask "dot one" distilled on 27 November 2013 and matured in a 1st Fill Apera barrique. Sitting in the "Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits" flavour profile, this is the oldest independently bottled Starward ever released, and was distilled at the original Essendon Fields distillery. Bottled at 58.3%, it will be accompanied by a special historical write-up and released in the October Outturn, launching via regular and ballot release on Friday 1st October at midday AEST. From an outturn of 210 bottles, 174 will be made available to Australian members (the remaining 36 will be heading to the UK).

SMWS 148.2 Starward "Kirsch Me Quick", from the "Spicy & Sweet" flavour profile will follow in early 2022. A 3yo single cask bottled from a 1st Fill red wine barrique, it was distilled on 27 April 2017, weighs in at 55.5% and will see 274 bottles released (238 for Australia, 36 for the UK). 

So enough do they taste!?

SMWS 148.1 Starward "Apera for Everyone!" (58.3% ABV, 6yo, Melbourne, Australia, Pricing TBC, Available from 1st October via
Colour: Golden-brown treacle.

Nose: At first, that big fruity Apera hit, but then a nuttiness emerges, along with a slightly leathery herbaceousness. After time, some berries and cherry notes With a few drops of water, more fruit, with pear and some peach showing through. 

Palate: Initially: wow. Big apricot and peach notes, then chewy milkbottle lollies, caramel chews, fresh toffee and Manuka honey. Water adds a little herbal smoke and vanilla cream. Incredibly complex and delicious.

Finish: Warming, soft, and lasting for days, with apricot and fruit compote.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 92/100. Super complex, AND super delicious. Starward casks set a high barrier as it is, but this goes well beyond. An absolutely unique and stellar dram.

SMWS 148.2 Starward "Kirsch Me Quick" (55.5% ABV, 3yo, Melbourne, Australia, Pricing TBC, Available early 2022 via
Colour: Reddish golden-amber.

Nose: Fresher than the .1, with more red fruits & some dried fruits. There's a slight herbal note and dehydrated orange wheels. Water doesn't change it much.

Palate: Spice, soy, herbs, cigar tobacco - it reminds me a lot of other ex-red wine Starward single casks I've tried. The complexity and balance is excellent for a 3yo. There's a slight BBQ meatiness too, and with water, a more tannic / drying note, with more spice and less fruit (IMO, it's better without water).

Finish: Salted chocolate, long and slightly drying with berry-like tannins.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100. Closer to the single casks Starward fans know and love than the "dot one". Very good, and instantly recognisable as a Starward.

It's been my immense pleasure to break the news of this pairing of my favourite whisky club and one of my favourite distilleries, and equally great to see Starward come so far over the years. Well done to all involved, and a big thanks to Matt Bailey and the SMWS for the opportunity to taste and talk about these whiskies.


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