Starward’s David Vitale, On Why Bourbon Cask #2 Is A Drop Of Alternate History

Starward’s David Vitale, On Why Bourbon Cask #2 Is A Drop Of Alternate History

Randy Lai
Randy Lai


To grasp the significance of ‘Bourbon Cask #2’ – what it means for Starward and to the brand’s fanbase at large – there really is no substitute for a mano a mano yarn with David Vitale.

Following five years in the USA, the Starward founder (who sardonically calls himself the company’s “Chief Bottle Rinser”) has returned to homeground – just in time for what could well be the most hotly anticipated ’Projects’ release in half a decade. 

Reverse engineering the history of malt & grain spirits in both Scotland and the New World, Vitale realised, early on in Starward’s inception, that to make a uniquely Aussie whisky of exceptional quality, he’d have to “flip the script” – ageing new make spirit in red wine barrels. 

RELATED: Starward’s Latest ‘Projects’ Release Makes Rare Work Out Of The Classic Bourbon Barrel

Vitale himself characterises this as a fork-in-the-road moment. And though the acclaimed Melbourne distillery won’t be surrendering its mantle for lightly bodied whisky – fruit-forward and immediately delicious – any time soon, Bourbon Cask #2 is a rare opportunity to pursue “unexamined ideas” in parallel. 

Ahead of the release of Bourbon Cask #2, we hightailed it to Vitale’s doorstep (i.e. Starward Distillery in Port Melbourne) to learn more about this special release – straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were – over a couple of whisky sours. 

Randy Lai: With this particular release, there seems to be a strong thematic undertone of ‘alternate history’. In what way does Starward’s recent work with bourbon casks signify “what could have been”?

David Vitale: Well, as I’m sure most BH readers know, in the world of craft whisky, ex-bourbon barrels are available, perversely enough, in abundance.

So, for me, the ‘what if’ element of this latest Projects bottling is twofold. Firstly, what would it look like if we’d gone the traditional route when we were an up-and-coming distillery?

And secondly, how would our new make spirits – which get a lot of their flavour from fermentation and distillation – have evolved, in tandem with a more neutral, less extractive style of wood cask? 

RL: Were there any interesting developments in the Starward universe (or for that matter, in Melbourne more widely) that had an impact on how these whiskies were made. As I understand it, most of the casks were filled in early 2018? 

DV: It’s interesting you bring that up. We’d moved into the new distillery – from our original home in Essendon Fields – less than two years prior, and the impact of that relocation can be seen in Bourbon Cask #2. 

All of the new make spirit used is from Port Melbourne, and we also aged the whisky from start to finish in the one location. That immediately separates it from the inaugural Bourbon Cask release.

Talking distillation, I also like to think that the spirit that’s made in Port Melbourne is the most dialled in of all three generations of production we’ve had at Starward. At scale, we’ve been able to iron out the batch-to-batch variability that tends to occur when you’re a smaller distiller.

Starward Bourbon Cask


RL: Tell our readers a little more about this concept of “Melbourne years”. You’ve deliberately drawn a connection between the city and total maturation time (i.e. five years). So how exactly does a year in Melbourne differ from, say, a year in Kentucky?

DV: We came up with that phrase (which you’ll find on the back of every bottle of Bourbon Cask  #2) as a kind of provocation.

The long and short of it is obviously about Melbourne’s reputation for notoriously fickle weather (‘Four Seasons, One Day’), and how this unfolds in a way that’s so different to anywhere else in the world. 

Actually, today’s a great example of this phenomenon in action. The weather this morning was actually quite warm and mild – creating breezy temperatures in the mid-twenty-degree range.

But, taken to extremes, the winds coming in from the outback can be extremely hot and dry; while, shifting to the south, they are cold and humid – courtesy of yet another desert known as Antarctica.

Because of Melbourne’s location, our weather is influenced by these two highly opposed land masses – changing dramatically, potentially every day of the year. 

RL: So, you’re saying whisky maturation is unique in Melbourne over the course of the year?

DV: Right. In Kentucky, as an example, the really drastic diurnal shifts occur four or five times per year. In Melbourne, that number is as high as four or five teams weekly.

The other thing to say is that frequent diurnal shifts mean Melbourne’s climate isn’t predisposed one way or the other. It’s a pretty universal observation that humidity causes a higher percentage of alcohol to evaporate; whereas in hot, arid conditions the proof actually goes up. 

At Starward, our distinctive ageing environment means that the alcohol by volume (“ABV”) of our barrels barely moves. Most of the time we’re going into casks at 55% ABV and bottling occurs 2–3% above that. Similarly, if we’re ‘losing’ liquid, it’s usually in a range of 3–5% per annum. 

In any case, I’m of the firm belief that Starward whisky couldn’t be made anywhere else in the world – from a providential perspective and process point of view. 

RL: Last question – do you have any idea what’s behind the longevity of the ‘Bourbon Cask’ series? After all, this is only the second time that a Starward Bourbon release has been released, but people are absolutely clamouring for it. 

DV: Well, I think there’s a couple different moving parts, right?

The first is this perverse aspect of rarity: out of the tens of thousands of barrels we’re working with at any given time, the number of bourbon casks is literally in the tens. 

Then, there’s the fact that there such an abundance of well-crafted whisky in Australia right now (never mind the rest of the world). That motivated us to put our best foot forward: by creating a limited release which really expresses the spirit of Starward and allows us to take our whisky for a walk in the park – hopefully with long-time fans and newcomers alike.

This article is sponsored by Starward Whisky. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Boss Hunting.

Randy Lai
Following 6 years in the trenches covering consumer luxury across East Asia, Randy joins Boss Hunting as the team's Commercial Editor. His work has been featured in A Collected Man, M.J. Bale, Soho Home, and the BurdaLuxury portfolio of lifestyle media titles. An ardent watch enthusiast, boozehound and sometimes-menswear dork, drop Randy a line at [email protected].



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