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Starward’s cult whisky, Ginger Beer Cask, with David Vitale: S13E3

Starward Australian Whisky Ginger Beer Cask #7

Starward Australian Whisky founder David Vitale rejoins us on the Drinks Adventures podcast to discuss the launch of Ginger Beer Cask #7, along with the distillery’s recent medal haul in San Francisco.

Starward’s popular Ginger Beer Cask series began almost by accident, when the distilling team took a bit of whisky and filled it into a barrel that had previously contained their house made ginger beer.
 
Just 85 bottles were released in 2014 of the first ever Ginger Beer Cask, and the following few editions weren’t much easier to get hold of.

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It’s only now, with the release of Ginger Beer Cask #7, that Starward has been able to make this whisky in substantial enough quantities that it will be more widely available, including in the American market, where Starward founder David Vitale is now based.
 
This is a special episode of Drinks Adventures, produced with the support of Starward Australian Whisky.

Listen as David Vitale shares with you the story of Ginger Beer Cask and what you can expect from the new edition.


We’ll also get a long overdue update on what’s been happening at Starward since David was last on the show, which is nearly four years ago.
 
Starward’s entry level blend, Two Fold, didn’t even exist at that stage, so there’s plenty to talk about.
 
Not least Starward’s incredible haul of 12 Double Golds and 3 Gold Medals at the recent San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including Double Gold for last year’s edition of the whisky we’ll be discussing at length today, Ginger Beer Cask.

Scroll down for a full transcript of the interview with David Vitale.

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JAMES ATKINSON: David Vitale, thanks so much for joining us on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

DAVID VITALE: Thanks so much James. It’s good to see you again.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, and I was just thinking it’s nearly four years since you previously joined me back in Season One. Which makes me feel pretty old and certainly makes me feel like I’ve got some runs on the board with the show. So, welcome back

DAVID VITALE: Yeah well, it’s one of the very few drinks podcasts that I regularly keep up with and it’s gone from strength to strength.

Starward Two Fold Australian Whisky

JAMES ATKINSON: Oh thanks, it’s nice to know you’re tuning in. When we caught up last time I was kind of talking about the state of the Australian whisky industry and how there was sort of pressure on some of the smaller players to be competitive from a price standpoint. And that was before Two Fold had even arrived, your blended whisky. A game changer really for Australian whisky generally and I would assume Starward. How has Two Fold gone over those last three or four years?

DAVID VITALE: It’s gone amazingly well. It’s now our number one whisky and Australia’s number one Australian whisky. And I know it’s a small pool, given the scale of the industry. But like we’ve gone from strength to strength off the back of people’s interest in two-fold and I think that idea of something you can have in the sharing cabinet and proudly say hey, this is an Australian alternative to what you might be drinking… it’s been well received. It’s been overwhelmingly well received and like it’s something that as a founder you kind of put an idea out there. You don’t know if it’s going to work. You blindly kind of believe it will, but you don’t know. And so to kind of have the support of Australian drinkers and trade for that matter behind Two Fold’s been fantastic.

JAMES ATKINSON: And you were just about to set off to the US almost at that stage as well. How have the last few years in America been? There’s a COVID factor there, which is not being the time you would have expected it would have been over there.

DAVID VITALE: No but you know, in a weird kind of way you go into like these sorts of new adventures understanding that whatever you’ve got on the page is not likely to occur, you know. You have to anticipate you know, that the only truth of a plan is it’s incorrect. You know what I mean? It’s the reality of a plan and I think that having spent well, what was it? By the time we left, six years building the brand in Australia, that I’d kind of… I felt like I’d seen everything during that period of time. I didn’t quite anticipate a pandemic coming down our way. But look the great thing is we have a resilient business. Before I left we were almost doubling every year and continuing to do so since then. So, it’s tapering off now, off the back of a bumper year last year. But I think that in a weird way, the pandemic at home was a good thing for us in terms of providing people the opportunity to discover more locally produced products. And that gave us some… we could make wiser decisions when it came to the United States for the longer term because we had that foundation in Australia. So yeah, it’s a really long-winded way of saying… I thought I’d seen everything, but no one kind of anticipated a pandemic. And we had to act quickly, like everybody did, to focus our business on areas where we weren’t as sensitive to on premise shutdowns and restaurants closing down. Even today, we get a bit of an update every quarter. And the last one that came through in January for the end of December sort of indicated that 30% of New York restaurants and bars were closed and probably won’t open again. In March of 2022 about 55% of our business was on premise restaurants and bars. So to have that switched off overnight and then sort of figure out what we’re going to do next is you know, there was some fast thinking that needed to happen. And I think by the end of 2020 we’d hosted 6,000 people in masterclasses over those 50 weeks. So that’s about 300 a week. So it was pretty intense going all round. And what we’d do is send out 50mL bottle samples of our core range – Two Fold, Nova and Solera, and get people really excited about the storytelling aspect, but also the liquid itself.

San Francisco World Spirts competition

JAMES ATKINSON: Hopefully your job has been made a bit more easy as a result of the incredible results at the San Francisco spirts competition in recent weeks. Has any other distillery ever picked up that many double golds and gold medals in one go? And maybe you can inform my listeners as to what the achievement was.

DAVID VITALE: Yeah, so we won 12 double gold medals and three gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirts competition. Which is effectively the Olympics of spirits. And so not only do you have the territory categories, but different spirit categories as well. So we cleaned up in whisky, but we also cleaned up as a distillery winning the most amount of double gold medals. And the distinction of double gold basically means that each of the judging panel members have awarded the spirit in front of them a gold medal. And usually there’s at least six or seven panel members. We don’t exactly know but it’s a deep bench. And to my knowledge, no one’s picked up as many awards in one seasons, as one year at Starward has this year. So it’s a pretty big deal. We find out whether we’re distillery of the year in June. So I’m kind of holding my breath for that. But I’ve been around too long James to know not to kind of count those chickens before they’ve hatched. And so notwithstanding we won the most amount of awards, we don’t know the… I think that’s only part of the assessment process. So we’ll see what happens, but we’re in good shape to pick up distillery of the year, which is amazing.

JAMES ATKINSON: Has that already has any impact on enquiries from new accounts and the like?

DAVID VITALE: Yeah, we’ve had a big bump in sales this month that’s just passed and I think it’s going to continue. And new enquiries from different markets as well. On the ground we’re present in 15 different markets in the United States, but we can ship to 40 different markets and my sense is the gap between where we can ship and where we’ll have feet on the street is going to narrow very quickly off the back of these awards.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now what do you attribute this incredible result to? Is this just long overdue recognition or is it the case of there’s been some kind of fine tuning going on with the whiskies over time?

Starward Whisky Port Melbourne

DAVID VITALE: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both. And I should point out the whisky that we’re drinking now is all from our Port Melbourne site, which we just commissioned last time we spoke. And at that point in time, we were going from three runs a day producing roughly 400 litres of spirit, to three runs a day, producing roughly 2,000 litres of spirits. So it was a big step up. We were able to achieve these results with new kit that I wouldn’t say has improved the spirit. But just maintaining the quality we had beforehand is an amazing feet. It’s not just a matter of saying okay, we’ll just add more barley, more water, more yeast to the fermenters and she’ll be right. Or just get a bigger still and it’ll be the same spirit. And importantly, finding the same grade of barrels that we were using to age the whisky – all of those things that you can’t take for granted. Right from the starting point. You know, malted barley we’re very small… we’re probably the biggest, actually more recently we’re probably the biggest micro-brewery in Victoria that doesn’t sell beer. Just in terms of shear volume of whisky wash that we make – the beer that we then distil. But we’re still insignificant in the scale of malted barley production in Australia. So that was a relatively straight forward scale up. But everything else, we kind of needed to be very mindful of. And then through that scale up we’ve also grown up as a brand and understand what works and what doesn’t work. So a lot of our quality processes, which barrels we say yes to… as well as the ones we say no to, all that sort of stuff adds depth to the inventory that means when we win awards like this, we can keep shipping the same product month in and month out. Which is pretty exciting. So it’s a little bit of long overdue recognition and a little bit of like just that you know, rolling stone of remaining curious about how we can continually improve the product.

JAMES ATKINSON: So it’s not sort of like there’s some aged stocks that are kind of coming through and influencing the end product?

DAVID VITALE: Still three Melbourne years. Anywhere between three and four. But beyond four frankly, I think personally they get a little long in the tooth.

JAMES ATKINSON: Unless you were using refill casks or whatever it was, which was not something you tend to do?

DAVID VITALE: We’re doing a little bit of refill but they’re mostly for single barrels and like at the margins of just providing some more depth and complexion for the blenders, to be in the pocket. So, but it’s not older inventory that’s kind of delivering this result. It’s just the same old Starward. I mean, we won a double gold for nova in 2015. And the formulations and the spirit – all of that sort of stuff – if fundamentally the same. We’re not about putting an age statement on our whisky. We’re not about trying to deliberately go down a path of scarcity or finding the most prized barrels to put into limited stock. All of the whisky that we make is… they’re all my kids mate, so I love them equally.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask

JAMES ATKINSON: Now, I believe one of the whisky’s that picked up a double gold was ginger beer cask? Potentially a whole panel of judges are not going to love something like that. It’s very pleasing to see that get that sort of approval as well.

DAVID VITALE: It sure is. And look I think one of the things that we always pride ourselves on is flavour first. That’s always kind of at the back of our mind in terms of when we turn up. And one of the proud things that we share as Australian whisky distillers, particularly is that innovation’s kind of baked into our legislation. The definition of whisky is so broad, you can shoot a cannon through it. Like it’s just one of those things where it’s easy to kind of craft something and still call it a whisky. But equally be innovative. And one of the things that we got really excited by I guess is the fact that people loved Starward’s curious nature. The idea of like what happens when? Or what if we did this? And nothing kind of exemplified that more than the ginger beer cask whisky, which every year just gets better and better. I sound like a salesman when I say that but it’s the truth, right. I’m really looking forward to the next one that’s coming out. I was fortunate enough to have a sample of it when I was last in Melbourne and it’s not going to disappoint, that’s for sure.

JAMES ATKINSON: Has it been difficult not being able to be as close to production over the last few years? Are you getting tasting samples sent over to you on the reg?

DAVID VITALE: The short answer to the last question’s no I don’t. Because I trust the team implicitly and if 12 double gold medals and three gold medals don’t give you any indication of why, then nothing will. They are the best in the game.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now that you’ve gotten out of their hair!

DAVID VITALE: Yeah! It’s probably why we won is I’m not there. Look the only thing that I do better than them is mop the floors cleaner. That’s my personal view. But in every other way – I’ve done all of their jobs – but in every other way, they’re infinitely better than I am. And you know, how lucky am I to have that ability of sleeping well at night, thousands of miles away. Knowing that the whisky that’s got my name on it is being made to a level that anyone in the world would be proud to call their own. So it’s pretty… I’m pretty lucky from that perspective, James. And I think the other point coming back to have I missed it? I didn’t quite appreciate how much I missed it until I went back. So I was away for 800 days and then came back in February of this year to renew my visa to work in the United States. And being there, just the aromas and just being in amongst my people was amazing. Obviously catching up with friends and family of course. But just being in the distillery was a really poignant moment. And having all of those amazing people… you know, we’ve grown. We’ve doubled the size of the team in that time as well, through those three years that I’ve been away. So having the ability to kind of come back and meet people for the first time face to face, and embrace old friends and team members that have been there for a very, very long time, since the old Essendon Fields days, was pretty special.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask: The origins

JAMES ATKINSON: Well let’s talk more about the ginger beer cask, because that’s the release that we’re on the eve of right now. Take us back to the beginning for people who don’t know the story of the ginger beer cask. How did it come about originally?

DAVID VITALE: I mean, we launched in 2013. So that’s when the original Starward was launched and by 2014 we were starting to think about aging whisky in red wine barrels. That was kind of the first tinker. Looking at ginger beer, it was really just this idea of what would it take for us to make a ginger beer that would be perfectly paired to Starward? Because this was before the mixer craze. It was before any of that more premium sort of mixer like Fever-Tree or Capi was in the marketplace, in a mainstream way. And so if you ask a brewer to make a beer, guess what? It’s going to be alcoholic. So they made an alcoholic ginger beer. And we fermented that ginger beer and seasoned it in one of our old Apera barrels. A 50 litre Apera barrel. Just to see what would happen. And of course it was alcoholic to start off with, but then once you’ve kind of put it into a barrel it’s going to extract all of that extra whisky that’s inside the barrel. So we ended up with like a ginger beer that was like 11.5% ABV. I’ll give you a tip – one of those in the afternoon and you’d need a nap before going home. And so, we had this ginger beer but then it was like what are we going to do with the barrel now that we’ve seasoned it with all of this ginger beer and fermented it in that barrel? And Hugh Holds, who was one of the original distillers at the distillery sort of said well why don’t we get some of the solera batch and put some of the whisky back in there, and see what happens? And that’s exactly what we did. It’s purely an experiment. And in a 50 litre cask, I think we maybe got 60, or could have been 80 odd bottles out of that first release. That was how that whisky began. And it was really with our friends at whisky ailment and other great on-premise accounts in Sydney, like Baxter Inn and working with the Baranows and the Oak Barrel, that everybody was like this is amazing. When are you making it again? And it’s like boy that was a lot of work. Because to make the ginger beer we started from scratch. We’re talking raw ginger from LaManna, our huge Bunnings sized Italian supermarket next to the distillery in Essendon Fields. So we got a box of ginger and basically macerated it all from scratch. So the team kind of then started to evolve and scale up the production. And I think up until last year, statistically you had more chance of getting into Harvard than getting one of those barrels, based on the ballot. We had so many people kind of apply and so few bottles available. But we’ve been able to kind of step things up quite substantially as we’ve got more space and more inventory, more barrels to actually season the ginger in. So that’s kind of pretty exciting. So this year it’s going to be an exciting release because we can step things up.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask: How it’s evolved

JAMES ATKINSON: The recipe’s kind of evolved over time. Has it been the quest for ginger beer cask perfection, or is it just having some fun with it each year and just make it subtly different?

DAVID VITALE: I think early on we kind of had this false idea that we could perfect the ginger beer cask finished whisky. And the reality is that it’s almost impossible to do, because we’re dealing with different barrels. We’ve taken all sorts of different types of ginger, in terms of a powdered ginger. Working with a brewery for their ginger beer, you know. Making our own macerated. All the things. So really I think it’s just an exploration of what we can do with ginger beer and I think almost by accident the odd numbers have been quite intense and poke you in the eyes. And the evens have been a little bit more moderate. And it’s almost like we kind of overshoot and then go lets bring it back a little. But every time we bring it back, we want a little bit more the next time around. So this one’s going to be pretty exciting and you can probably guess, being number seven, which way it’s going.

JAMES ATKINSON: Do you find the ginger character in the whisky is stable over time? Are you able to kind of taste these years after the fact and see how they look in comparison?

DAVID VITALE: Yeah, look I mean this is the thing. When we’re talking about spirits in general, it’s a great way to suspend flavour. Have they evolved? Absolutely. More often than not because the bottles been opened, so there’s oxidation. They’re still true to form. Like it’s not like if you had a ginger beer cask number three now that you’d be going oh wow, this has really lost its impact relative to a ginger beer cask number two that was of the same age.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask #7: The recipe

JAMES ATKINSON: And what can you tell us about this year’s recipe?

DAVID VITALE: It’s all American oak red wine barrels, which is a different sort of approach. Last year’s was the first mixture of red wine into the formulation. And before that it was almost exclusively Apera casks. So this year’s all American oak red wine barrels. Australian red wine sell it in American oak barrels are the most generous barrels you’ll ever get, in terms of the generosity in terms of flavour. Our French oak barrels and delicious, and I have a bias towards them just from a pallet perspective. But they’re far more nuanced and grains tied up. And you get a lot of those baking spices coming through. But with the American oak, it does what the box says in terms of delivering all of that vanilla and caramel characteristic. Particularly when we’re using our charred barrels. So if you think about that in the context of ginger, it’s just a perfect foil for it. And then the addition of that… the swing towards red wine casks, as opposed to Apera casks, has added a new dimension I think to the whole release. Because all of our Apera casks have been shaved, toasted and re-charred before we fill them. So all of a sudden we’re accessing that toasted oak character, as opposed to that charred oak character. Which is almost exclusively the domain of Apera, which we use to make our solera vat. I think that dimensions been really a lot of fun to explore, and gives us another six versions of ginger beer to really take for a walk over the years. And that is I think my instruction to the team coming back. Is like now we’re starting to think about number eight, because it does take some time to season the barrels and then finish the whisky in those seasoned barrels. Let’s continue to kind of really push the boundaries of what this whisky can be.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask popularity

JAMES ATKINSON: And tell me about the appetite for ginger beer casks? It’s been massively popular in Australia and I gather that you continue to make more of it each year?

DAVID VITALE: Yeah so we want to kind of continue to really connect with that curious whisky drinker, that is sort of open minded about whisky generally, right. Spelt both ways. And I think it’s fair to say that for as long as the times, that’s been our loyal Starward fans that have kind of come from that single malt background. But more recently I think people are just getting really excited by this crazy idea of a whisky infused with ginger beer. And as much as it’s familiar to me, we’ve been doing this for seven years. And to our loyal Starward fans. There’s thousands upon thousands of even two-fold drinkers, let alone people that have never heard of Starward before, that we really want to introduce this whisky to and get them excited by it. And notwithstanding that there are others out there starting to do this as well, the wonderful thing that we have on our side is the scale and depth of inventory now. And confidence I guess, because we’ve been doing it for a while. To really go full tilt and start making some substantial quantities of the ginger beer to have available to anybody that’s curious about it. In fact it’s coming over here as well, to the US, which is pretty exciting. The land of Fireball and honey whisky kind of taking on an Aussie take with it. And I’ll give you a tip, neither of those have got double gold medals on them. So it’s going to be pretty exciting to elbow out some space in that section of the whisky aisle, and sort of put an Aussie whisky there and show some Americans how to put some great flavoured whisky.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask USA reception

JAMES ATKINSON: I kind of think of Australia as being a nation of ginger beer lovers and I’m not sure if that’s my own bias coming into play, because I’ve always enjoyed a Bundaberg ginger beer. Is ginger beer something that has currency over in the states?

DAVID VITALE: It sure does and in fact Bundaberg’s over here as well. So they’re really starting to make great strides into the US market. But beyond that, ginger beer is quite in abundance. So the idea of a ginger beer cask finished whisky is instantly something people are curious. And there’s this notion of I want to try that, that sounds amazing. So given the idea sounds amazing and now we can put this lovely gold medal on the bottle, like to kind of give it that sort of credibility for something that is new and unheard of, is a huge opportunity.

Starward Ginger Beer Cask: How it’s made

JAMES ATKINSON: How have you managed to scale that product up over time? Because you talked about how challenging it was when you started, there must have had to be a lot of production fine tuning that’s happened since then?

DAVID VITALE: I think they’d say nightmares James. A bunch of nightmares is probably how they relay it. For me, there’s no point creating a product where we have literally tens of thousands of people entering a ballot, for 4-500 bottles, only to make those tens of thousands of people disappointed. So, there came an inflection point where okay, we need to do something about this. Either we’re going to keep it as a distillery only, get it if you come as a reward to the distillery. Which didn’t feel right to me. Or we’re going to scale this up to a level which we can make it work. And very quickly we moved from Breville blenders and wooden spoons, to doing this at scale in a way that meant that the production team weren’t spending literally months just on ginger beer casks, when there were other things they were curious to explore as well. So alongside that migration from Essendon Fields to Port Melbourne, we gave the team a little bit more latitude and space physically and mentally to kind of explore these innovative tracks a little bit more. And invested in the infrastructure to support that. And so things like ginger beer casks, our bottle cocktails are all a result of that space given to the production team to play.

Starward Whisky expansion plans

JAMES ATKINSON: Is the Port Melbourne site able to accommodate all of your ambitions that you have in the coming years?

DAVID VITALE: The challenge is not actually production, as much as they’ll kind of fall over their chairs when they hear that. Of course it’s a challenge. But you know, I think we’ve kind of managed… we understand what it takes to scale up the production environment. And actually, the footprint that we need to do that can fit well within the one acre of site we’ve got under roof in Port Melbourne. It’s quite a big space. The challenge is not there. The challenge is in the three other acres of whisky under bond that we have. The more you scale, the more space you need from that perspective. So by the end of I think it’s this year, we’ll have four acres of whisky… about three and a half acres if you take out the production space and hospitality space, of whisky maturing under bond. Six or seven levels high of whisky. So it’s pretty exciting. But that’s the challenge, is then sort of scaling that bit up.

JAMES ATKINSON: Is there maybe an off-site bond store in your future?

DAVID VITALE: We’ve got a few already and we’ll get some more, yeah.

Australian whisky industry update

JAMES ATKINSON: Now before I let you go, there’s been some incredible news around in the last 12-months, just with some of the new players that are entering the market in Australia. Obviously we’ve seen the likes of Casella come in with Morris; Coopers in recent weeks announcing that they’re getting into whisky. Ostra Distillers from Victoria buying West End Brew House. And there’s several others I can mention. And I certainly haven’t seen in the last decade or so that I’ve been watching the Australian whisky space, this many new bigger players coming in. What do you think this means for Australian whisky? Is this a positive thing to see?

DAVID VITALE: It’s wholeheartedly positive. Like, I am the biggest proponent of getting more investment in the industry. I mean, Top Shelf with Ned Whisky is another example. And it’s so exciting to see investment at substantial scale from day one. As opposed to the nickling and diming that we’ve all had to do, and had to do pretty much I guess until… let’s face it, until probably Casella coming along with Morris. They started with a very clear intention in mind. But everybody before that has started with a still that looks remarkably like the still that Bill Lark started off with years ago, or something of that sort of scale. So you know, it’s exciting for me to sort of see this happen. I’m on the record and I’ll say it again. I’d take the keys to any Australian whisky distillery, such is the quality that’s being made. The only challenge is scale. And I think that’s going to become very, very quickly redundant. Which is pretty exciting, because it gives us the ability to have an Australian section. Not just in a local retail network in Australia – the likes of a Dan Murphy’s or Vintage Cellars or First Choice and BWS. But have an Australian section around the world, and how wonderful would that be?

JAMES ATKINSON: David, thanks so much for joining us on the Drinks Adventures podcast and congratulations again on those recent accolades.

DAVID VITALE: Thanks mate. And let’s keep it shorter between drinks.

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