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Now pouring: Premium whiskies from Australia

Drams from Down Under are set to claim a spot in the upmarket spirits industry

Australia's whisky producers are getting innovative in a bid to offer a better drinking experience,(Photo: Ambitious Creative Co. - Rick Barrett, Unsplash)

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Starward whisky is marking its 15th birthday with the release of Vitalis. The sophisticated single malt combines stock from six different types of seasoned casks. Rich in mouthfeel and brimming with passionfruit and pineapple, it’s the sort of stuff that comfortably commands triple-digit price tags in the scotch section of your local liquor shop—except this whisky is from Australia.

For the Melbourne-based distillery, the $150 expression (on sale Nov. 4) stands apart as its most premium offering to date, double and triple its standard range. Which isn’t to say this price hasn’t been matched or exceeded by Australian producers before, but since Starward is the country’s largest exporter, it’s a sure sign that Down Under whisky is heading upmarket on a wider scale. 

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In 1992, Bill Lark kickstarted the country’s modern craft whisky movement by challenging longstanding regulations that required massive industrial equipment for distillation. This opened the door for small-scale production, and Tasmania—home of Lark’s eponymous operation and a Scotland-like climate—became its early geographic epicenter. Two years later, Sullivans Cove joined Lark on Tassie, also blossoming into a boutique darling. 

“A critical moment for the category finally came in 2009,” according to Kristy Lark-Booth, daughter of Bill and former distiller at Lark. “A single cask, single malt—called barrel KD100—that I had distilled at my parents’ distillery won Best Other Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards in the UK. This was the first major international award that an Australian whisky won, and it was when people started to take notice of Australia and the whisky being produced here.” 

At the same awards show in 2014, Sullivans Cove amplified the message even louder. Its French Oak took home top prize: world’s best single malt whisky. By then Lark had already sold to outside investors. And Lark-Booth, who literally grew up inside the stillhouse, soon splintered off to start Killara Distillery, where, according to her, “I’m able to continue on the family traditions, grow the legacy and put my own spin on it.”

Nevertheless, throughout the early 2010s, Australian whisky still existed as nothing more than a curiosity outside its home country for those well-connected collectors willing to spend $300 or more on a bottle. It’s only very recently found an auspicious footing in the international arena. Globally, the category’s volume swelled by almost 91% in 2021 to 400,000 liters, with a 60% increase in compound annual growth rate between 2016 and 2021, according to data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. It’s forecasted to grow to almost 1.2 million liters per annum by 2026. 

Starward has enjoyed an outsize role in promoting the growth, accounting for 50% of the segment’s total sales over the past year. Founder David Vitale is leveraging experimentation to arrive at these results. “For the longest time, there just hasn’t been sufficient inventory to serve a global market,” he says, but as more and more distillers lay down substantial volumes to age, Australian whisky is “becoming a bit of a sleeping giant.”

Vitale credits Australia’s broad definition of whisky as the category’s key competitive advantage: The country permits the use of any grain, without specifying distilling method or the type of wood needed for aging, only that it be a minimum of two years. 

“We are seeing real innovation, and I think our distilleries are at their best when they embrace that,” he continues. “I’m really proud to be leading the charge here in the US with our distinct take on whisky, aged in ‘Big Aussie’ red wine barrels.” This tends to be a hallmark of the category; producers lean in to the country’s viticultural bona fides, using wine-seasoned casks to mature and finish their whiskies. 

And in an era when consumers are increasingly concerned with originality, Starward releases slake that thirst, playing from strength (the wine-forward Nova) to strength (the 60% wheat Two Fold). The distillery’s Solera single malt was named one of Bloomberg’s best spirits of 2020.

Vitalis serves as a kind of greatest hits amalgam, marrying the myriad maturation vessels it’s been working with since Day 1. Most notably, this includes parcels of Australian red wine casks, of several styles, as well as barrels formerly used to age native rum and Apera, a domestic spin on Spanish sherry. Casks once used for aging bourbon and tawny port also earn a part in the mix. 

“The eldest of these barrels were filled in 2011 and the youngest in 2018,” says Vitale of the 104-proof Vitalis. “It enjoys the benefit of Melbourne’s highly reactive climate”—hot summers and crisp, windy winters, much like Kentucky bourbon country—“which essentially condenses aging into fewer years. In four ‘Melbourne years,’ we’ve consistently delivered a rich, complex and award-winning portfolio of whiskies.”

To his last point, Starward was the most-awarded distillery at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition in May 2022. In July its Tawny #2 bested the field at the World Whisky Masters. And if you were wondering just how influential these accolades can be in categorical kingmaking, look no further than the 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask. After being crowned world’s best in the 2014 edition of the Whisky Bible, it ushered Japanese whisky into the upper orbits of premium-priced spirits. 

As for its Australian counterparts, Lark-Booth points to several factors impeding wider proliferation. “I’d love to see changes to the Australian excise tax system,” she says of the local market; a standard bottle of liquor there includes roughly $23 in duty. “It’s currently one of the highest in the world.” She also calls for “big money investment both internationally and locally” to scale up the industry enough to sate large markets such as America.

In other words: Domestic supply might not be able to keep pace with increased international demand. And this Japan 2.0 scenario—far more than provenance or barrel type—is the surest recipe for high-priced whisky. At $150, the top Australian single malt suddenly seems like a bargain.

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