Spirit Of The Week: Starward Vitalis Single Malt Whisky

On the Australian distillery’s 15th anniversary, founder David Vitale describes the unique Melbourne terroir that helped make the celebratory Vitalis expression.


Australia’s most popular whiskey sold in America, Starward, last year celebrated its 15th year in existence. To mark the occasion the Melbourne distillery is releasing its most rare and premium single malt expression yet: Vitalis. A nominal ode to Starward founder, David Vitale. 

What instantly separated Starward from the herd was its insistence on incorporating another of Australia’s superb exports into its process: wine. Being the first whiskymaker in Australia to age their spirit exclusively in red wine barrels, Starward quickly carved out a place in the market—and now drives roughly half the growth of the Australian whisky category in its homeland with its trifecta core portfolio of Two-Fold, Nova and Solera expressions. 

Unsurprisingly Starward has cleaned up some impressive awards, including recognition as Most Awarded Distillery of The Year at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as well as the Best-In-Show top honor of Taste Master at the 2022 World Whisky Masters. 

To mark this Crystal Anniversary the Starward crew handpicked “parcels” from a half-dozen different casks to blend into what is now Vitalis, including Tawny, Rum, Bourbon and Apera. All the various juices—the oldest barrels filled in 2011 to the youngest poured in 2018—were chosen to create the most “multifaceted yet perfectly balanced, fruit-forward spirit.” 

Tasting notes for Vitalis start with the rich fruity notes that are signature for Starward whisky, and then adds flavors of oak, more dried fruit, red currants and lightly roasted coffee. Expect aromas of chewy toffee, raisins and chocolate-coated pineapples. 

We had a chance to ask Starward founder David Vitale a couple questions about the inspiration for launching Starward, what makes Melbourne a unique whisky-making terroir, and the specifics behind his 15-year-celebrating Vitalis expression. Here’s what he had to say. 

Did you first envision becoming a whisky-maker, then later the idea came to age in red wine barrels? Or was the original idea born simultaneously of ‘whisky aged in red wine barrels’? 

That’s an interesting question. What first arrived was the idea of a distinctively Australian whisky. So it wasn’t whisky aged in wine barrels per se, but I knew deep down if I didn’t believe I could have a new conversation about whisky, I wasn’t going to commit my life to this project. Wine barrels then fell out of the search for something distinctively Australian. 


Is there a particular vintner or region you source your barrels from? 

So we are really blessed with amazing wine makers that are within a day’s drives of the distillery. This allows us to have the barrels emptied in the afternoon, and transported to the distillery overnight and filled with whisky—still saturated with wine. Wine goes out, whisky goes in. 

What do you think is special about the Melbourne climate and how it affects whisky making?

Well I think we have the hardest working barrels in the world. Everyone thinks of the Outback as a big influence on our climate, and this is absolutely the case, but we have another desert to our south called Antarctica, so if there’s a southerly wind it’s freezing cold. This shift—which can happen within 20 minutes—creates a huge range of temperatures that contribute to the rich, fruity and balanced whisky we call Starward. 

How did you come up with the barrel combo for Vitalis? Are you happy with the results? 

This release is really a wonderful walk-through the bond-store at some of the pivotal whiskies that have contributed to making Starward what it is today.

Obviously the backbone of the release is whisky aged in red wine barrels, but we also have some Apera barrels, which are the original wine barrel format we used to launch Starward to market 10 years ago; some Tawny barrels—an amazing fortified wine that Australian winemakers use for after-dinner wine and that are the mainstay of the local craft Australian whisky industry; bourbon barrels, which highlight so much of what makes Starward so delicious; the new-make spirit; and local Australian rum barrels which gave me a why not whisky moment given how popular and long-standing that distillery was in the Australian spirits scene. 


Fifteen years is a great success story in the competitive world of global whisky, never mind how influential Starward has become in growing the Australian whisky category. What does this success mean to you?

I am so proud of our achievements and it is never lost on me the opportunity that I have to showcase the amazing quality and flavor that Australian whisky can deliver in such a distinctive and different way. In the marrow of my bones I believe Americans now have a fourth option to put on their whisky cart at home alongside a bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey. Starward talks to the place it’s made just as compellingly as those legacy whiskies do and—I might be biased but—our whiskies do that in such an approachable and delicious way. I’m so excited about the next 15 years—the best is yet to come. $145

Follow Contributing Spirits Editor Nicolas Stecher at @nickstecher and @boozeoftheday.