Starward's David Vitale rides Australia's craft whisky wave

David Vitale is only 42, but he's already a whisky grandpa. Like all grandpas, he cannot make head nor tail of the strange and unrecognisable industry that whisky has become. 

Unfortunately, and also like all grandpas, he needs to take some responsibility. The industry is, after all, sort of his baby.

"If I had to pick a time in the entire history of whisky to set up a distillery, we timed it pretty damn well – and that was just luck, right," the founder of Melbourne's Starward Whisky says.

Single malt origins

Vitale was working for Bill Lark – undeniably the great-grandfather of modern Australian whisky – down in Tasmania 10 years ago, almost to the day, when he decided to bite the bullet and go off on his own.

The company he founded has ridden an extraordinary resurgence in craft whisky, out of the cradle in Tasmania and across the mainland, and Vitale has (presumably) made his whisky fortune. Consumption of Australian whisky doubled in Australia in the last five years, per ISWR figures.

A brand-spanking-new 3500-square-meter distillery (which will allow him to double production) that recently opened in Port Melbourne is testimony to the fact he's caught a comet by the tail.

Appeal to the youth

The founding of Starward coincided with a new, younger and more gender-diverse group taking an interest in whisky.

Much as with the craft-beer revolution, these new kids on the block wanted something different. They wanted flavour.

"Fundamentally the Australian whisky drinker used to be someone 45-plus, high disposable income, and really drinking it for discernment or status. 'Look at me I'm drinking single malt'."


Starward's secret

Now, the kids at Starward's regular whiskey tastings "are here for anything but a buzz – they are here to learn".

Starward was uniquely well situated to take advantage of that new hunger for flavour.

Vitale decided to finish it in Australian wine barrels, some still moist from the claret they had recently contained, lending hints of berry and spice.

Peak whisky

But how long can this boom go on? With new Australian whiskeys seemingly coming on the market every week, when do we reach saturation point? When do we hit peak whisky?

Well, if zero was no industry and 100 was peak, Vitale says, we're probably at about... 10.

"I'd suggest we're at where craft beer was at in 1994. I get excited about the growing scene, as do most of the distillers that I talk to. Honestly, there is so much opportunity in terms of the scope of volume that we're able to move."

Have you been caught up in the Australian craft whisky movement? Share your thoughts – and favourites – in the comments section below.