There are a lot of different ways to differentiate a batch of malt whisky using specific types of barrel finishes. Barrels that formerly held fortified wine styles such as sherry, port and Madeira are of course popular, imparting both fruit notes and the nutty, oxidized character of those wines. Finishing malt whisky in “fresh” wine barrels, though, isn’t exactly so common. And aging a whisky for its entire lifespan in standard, non-charred red wine barrels? I can’t say I’ve heard of that before, until now.
Starward is an Australian distillery/spirits brand that has seized upon one of the country’s natural assets—a preponderance of red wine barrels from the Australian wine industry. Their flagship product, Nova, is a single malt whisky aged for two years (the distillery rather confusingly refers to this as “three Melbourne years” because of the city’s variable climate), exclusively in those red wine casks and bottled at 82 proof (41% ABV). At an MSRP in the U.S. of $55, it represents a fairly costly bottle of very young single malt, but its unusual origins seek to make a case for what could be the emergence of a new style of Australian whisky.
On the nose, my first surprise is that the results Starward has achieved from non-charred wine barrels are really not markedly different from many single malt whiskies aged in much more common (and charred) second-use bourbon barrels. It suggests that the use of first-fill wine barrels are able to contribute some of the same characteristics, even if they’re merely toasted rather than charred. In this case, Nova presents with a biscuity, honey sweet and slightly nutty nose, with a quality that is slightly reminiscent of sherried scotch. You might expect it to be redolent of dark fruit/red fruit, but this is present in a more subtle way than expected. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find hints of raspberry and strawberry that grow easier to place over time, but in no way is this liquid dominated by the wine barrel. Rather, this is a single malt that has been subtly influenced by a wine barrel.
On the palate, I get more of that biscuity, slightly doughy malt character, dark honey sweetness (moderate in residual sweetness) and what also seems like a hint of brininess or salinity. Strawberry jam emerges on the midpalate, and I quite enjoy the lingering raspberry note in the finish, but once again the dark/red fruit notes are not quite as assertive as you might expect, especially given the marketing copy.
All in all, these aren’t necessarily bad things. If you handed me a glass of Starward Nova and told me that it was a fruity, sherried Speyside single malt, I would have believed you, and I would have said it was pretty pleasant. Certainly, it shows no shortage of character for its young age, nor is the alcohol heat too expressive or harsh. Would there be some buyers left wanting more of an impression from the wine barrels? Probably, though I imagine the oenophiles in the audience would find the subtle workings of the wine barrels here to be interesting as well.
At $55, this is certainly a bit steep in terms of MSRP for such a young single malt, but it does just enough to set itself apart in terms of profile that a certain segment of wine and scotch lovers will want to seek it out.
Distillery: Starward Whisky
City: Melbourne, Australia
Style: Single malt whisky
ABV: 41% (82 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $55 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.