Well this is a surprise, finding myself a front a keyboard again and spewing out longwinded sentences about whisky. World Whisky Wednesday has been sporadic recently, mostly because I was feeling the lockdown blues. For those who don’t know I live in Melbourne and oh boy, did we have ourselves some lockdowns. It was only recent that our latest lockdown ended, so I was sociable, saw my family, saw my friends, but that’s done so here we are again.
Of course with lockdown lifting that means I can go see not just bars, but I can go see distilleries. When in the whisky aisle of Dan Murphy’s I was pondering who to see, and something fell into my vision, helping me to realise ‘of course I should go to that distillery, but before I do let’s try that bottle and talk about it’. Today we’re talking about the Starward Unexpeated Whisky.
If you want to read about Starward I’ve covered them in a few reviews on this site, I would also heavily recommend you go watch an ‘interview’ I made with David Vitale almost a year and multiple countries ago. This is all going to focus on one thing and one thing only, the whisky.
Peated whiskies are a love of mine, the rich, smoky, dulcet tones roll over the palate and envelope the body and soul in this quivering smoke that rarely fails to please. Think if you could taste The Fugees Killing Me Softly With His Song, that’s what peated whisky is to me, damn amazing. Of course the question people always ask is ‘where does the flavour come from’, and as much as I want to imagine Lauryn Hill singing to casks of maturing whisky that’s not what it is. Let’s talk peat and peating.
Peat is what happens when vegetation degenerates over many thousands of year in certain environments (a quick aside here, I’m not talking about the ramifications of peat harvesting in this review as I am nowhere near qualified, but Woodforwhisky wrote a fantastic article you should read), think of it as fossilizing vegetation. When gathered and introduced to a kiln the peat smolders and burns, the smoke being released and absorbed into the barley that is being malted. Once this is done the malted barley retains that flavour, and when distilled and matured the smoky, peaty goodness will carry over into the whisky.
Starward have not done that. The reasons why they did not could include cost, availability of peat to them, ecological impact, their ability to peat barley, it’s a list that goes on. What they have done is instead partially mature their whisky in a cask that previously contained peated whisky. Let’s dive into what that means.
When you are maturing spirit within a cask you have two things happening, the removal and addition of flavours. Removal is in the case of angels share, the slow evaporation of whisky through the oak staves, chemical reactions occurring within the whisky itself (more of a conversion than a removal) such as aldehydes converting to acetyls and the interaction of a charred layer removing sulphur notes from the whisky.
The addition covers compounds in the wood itself moving into the spirit for flavours such as vanilla, coconut, caramel etc, as well as the previous contents of the cask coming into the new spirit and adding both colour and flavour. This is what we are primarily concerned with with the Starward Unexpeated. See when you mature anything in a cask the liquid moves in and out of the wood as it breathes, bringing the flavours with it, however a small portion of that liquid is retained within the wood itself. This wood retention means that anything that is placed into a cask long enough to seep into the wood will work its way into the next liquid matured in that cask. Sherry and wine cask whiskies tastes the way they do due to the small portions of sherry and wine that were retained within the wood and moved into the whisky, blending with it as it matured.
What Starward have done is distill a single malt, mature it in casks previously containing Australian red wine, and then transfer the aged whisky to barrels from Islay that previously contained peated whisky. That peated whisky, locked in the staves, wormed its way out of the wood and into the Starward whisky, adding smoky tones and wisps of ash.
If we’re looking for age we don’t have an exact timeline. The bottle states ‘Filled 2017 Bottled 2021’ so roughly four years old, however it also states it is only a finish in Islay whisky barrels. A finish could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, generally less than a year, so we’re not seeing an immense amount of time in those barrels. Outside of that we know everything we can, 100% malted barley, Starward distillation, Australian red wine casks, it’s all looking to be a good mix of flavours. The most important thing then is to take the flavour test and see just what this whisky is packing.
It starts with sugar glazed raspberry and smoky chili dark chocolate, dark treacle and caramel. After a touch some malty, cereal tones express themselves, a raspberry muesli bar with almond flakes, then into heavy, boozy red fruits and hot Cottee’s Strawberry Topping. Next up is burnt gum tree’s and eucalyptus, flakes of corrugated iron and strawberry creams. The sweetness is more confectionary than it is fruity with a smoky backing, not so much earthy peat but more woody smoke.
It’s the palate where the peat hits and become apparent, nice and mossy melted chocolate, cocoa powder and surprisingly minerally with salty hints, iron, flint and a touch of chalk. While it’s big with peat at the start it then rises into fruity tones, mango and nectarines before dipping again into dry dirt, until finally a finish with a minty base, goji berries, oak, ripe grapes and hot cherries.
Did I like this whisky? Well a slight confession there, the second reason this took me so long to write was because the first bottle I bought mysteriously evaporated in the night (I was so furious in the morning I had a headache) so I had to search out another one. This is a pretty damn good whisky. I wouldn’t say better than the Two-Fold, not at all, but I would place it above the Nova in my books of a mad peat lover.
A thought did occur to me when drinking this however, is this Australian whisky? Produced, distilled and matured in Australia of course, but if that wood retained whisky came from Scotland and managed to worm it’s way into the Australian whisky…. what does that mean? Is this a world blend? A blended malt? Could it be considered to be the sole province of any one country should another countries whisky directly impact it, as it has done in this case? These are, of course, purely thought provoking question. Right now there’s barely anything in any countries regulations to say what that would mean, the maturation in ex-peated barrels to intentionally gain those peat notes is a relatively new phenomenon and experimental for the most part, an experiment that I hope Starward continues.
Perhaps in the end the best way to discuss that would be in a bar we can go back to finally, with a few friends drinking some fantastic whisky. And if I had to pick a song to listen to while drinking this, it would be like the whisky itself, young, exciting, and blasting through the speakers.
Cheers Starward, this is a damn fine dram.
This review is not sponsored or endorsed by any distillery, Starward or otherwise, and is entirely the words of the author Somewhiskybloke.
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