Editor’s Note: This whisky was provided to us as a review sample by Starward. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
Melbourne’s Starward Distillery turned heads at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, shedding the label of up-and-comer on the world whisky scene that has followed it since its debut in 2016 and firmly establishing the brand as a distillery to pay attention to.
Starward is quick to point out to an international audience the many advantages that their location in Melbourne has to offer: ingredients, availability of wine casks, and climate. This last one may raise a few Australian eyebrows as Melbourne’s weather is well-known for what could be diplomatically phrased as its “changeability.” But it is exactly the potential for “four-seasons-in-a-day” weather that Starward’s leadership values for the unique effects that climate has on aging whisky.
The cultural climate is likewise well-suited to a boutique distillery as Melbourne is a top-tier culinary destination, and this can be clearly felt in the style and presentation of Starward’s offerings. Founder David Vitale’s longstanding interest in producing a whiskey that would work well in food pairings stems from his engagement with beer and wine, and makes Starward’s collaboration with one of Australia’s most historic winemakers such a natural fit.
All of Starward’s core offerings are aged in barrels sourced from wineries surrounding Melbourne. Octave Barrels is aged in 100 liter casks that formerly housed Yalumba’s Octavius Shiraz. These smaller volume barrels result in more interaction than usual between the aging whiskey and surface area of the cask, resulting in a more pronounced impact on the end product.
Tasting Notess: Starward Octave Barrels
Vital Stats: 3 years aged, 48% ABV, bottles priced at roughly $80
Appearance: Shades of copper with a lightish body and streaky legs.
Nose: Round, juicy aromas of ripe stone fruits and dark cherries accompanied by a hint of toasted oak.
Palate: The major notes from the aroma are present but in the reverse order. Wood takes its time opening up into fresh dark cherries and dried fruit. The sweetness of the fruit flavors builds up into a saltwater taffy finish that is unexpectedly well complemented by lingering oak notes.
The range between $50-100 is fraught with peril. Bottles at this price point generally incorporate some process wrinkle or craftsperson’s touch that differentiates them from more widely available options. Idiosyncrasy is always a risk, however; it will appeal to some palates and tastes more than others, and the higher production costs combined with limited runs will drive up the price. When you drop two to three times the cost of your trusty well bottle on an unknown quantity, there’s some natural anxiety that it won’t live up to the promise, or that it will be recognizably good but not quite to your taste. If the tasting notes pique your curiosity and you can comfortably gamble $80 on the experience, Starward’s Octave Barrel expression might be worth the risk.
I found everything I’m looking for in a superior glass of whiskey here, even if these aren’t all notes that I would generally gravitate towards. Succinctly put, it offers a unique assortment of several clearly defined, well integrated flavors that provide a pleasant, minor challenge to my palate. The wine casks put a strong stamp on a well-made whiskey and adds something unique, especially when combined with the added interest of the bottle coming from across the ocean.