New release: Starward Fortis – can this ‘bold’ new whisky win over the critics?

featured image

Melbourne’s New World Whisky Distillery have today released their latest core range bottling, Starward Fortis. The release has flown somewhat under the radar (Melbourne has bigger things to think about at the moment), but the whisky itself, matured solely in American oak ex-red wine barrels from the Barossa, is certainly a conversation starter.

For one, it’s a whisky that has a lot to say – I mean, with a name like Fortis (Latin for ‘strong’), you’d hope so.

In many ways, it’s a shot across Bass Strait. It’s Starward playing in Tasmanian waters, something it’s never bothered with previously, preferring, for the most part, to bottle consistent, affordable and widely available whisky.

Clearly, Fortis is a response to the perception that Starward whisky is just light and fruity and not much else (a perception I’ve never agreed with). A lot of Strayan whisky enthusiasts seem to only go nuts for whiskies that smack you in the mouth with wood and booze and come out of a back shed. This is Starward’s offering to them.

The Penfolds effect is the other curious talking point here. Lark Distilling Co have repeatedly announced their intention to become the Penfolds of Australian whisky (I’ve always thought Sullivans Cove were already there?). Starward, on the other hand, have gone a step further, and made the most Penfolds-esque Australian whisky you could think of.

Two of the definitive hallmarks of Penfolds Grange are maturation in new American oak hogsheads and booming fruit from South Australian shiraz. Both of those hallmarks have been injected into the Fortis via maturation in barrels that previously housed big Barossa reds. And as Starward pushes deeper into the U.S., Britain, Europe and eventually Asia – one of the only Australian whiskies that’s consistently available in those markets – they clearly intend for this nod to Australia’s most iconic wine to work as shorthand for quality and distinctiveness.

The other notable point here is price. The Fortis is $129 RRP for a 700ml bottle at 50% ABV. It’s unavoidably a challenge to the high price of some Australian whiskies, particularly Tasmanian, and can’t simply be explained away by the input of Starward’s backers (Distill Ventures).

It’s also putting 500ml bottles on notice. When you’re asking $200-250+ for a 500ml bottle, nearly 30% less whisky at a similar ABV to the Fortis, well, the discrepancy is becoming stark. Fair enough if smaller bottles are used to give more people the opportunity to taste and own limited whisky releases. But surely the price needs to reflect the lesser volume, and that’s rarely happening.

How the Fortis goes down with the whisky cognoscenti is another matter. One of the hilarious side effects of Starward’s success and ubiquity has been the bizarre opinions people have formed about the brand, as if Diageo is pulling the strings like some diabolical puppeteer. The antithesis of Australian ‘craft’ whisky, I’ve had people tell me, whatever the heck that means.

It’s puzzling, because David Vitale, Starward’s founder, is the most open and transparent whisky founder you’ll come across. Get him talking about whisky and what they do at Starward, from the triumphs right through to the mistakes, and it’s hard to get him to stop. The dozens of frank, honest, in-depth interviews he’s conducted (probably well over a hundred, Google them) with everyone from whisky bloggers to New York Times’ journalists bears testament to that.

But will this ‘strong’ new whisky be bold enough to win over the sceptics? Hey, if the sceptics are game, at least they can actually try this and decide for themselves.

  • Starward Single Malt Whisky Fortis (Batch 1)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 50%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at New World Whisky Distillery and matured in American oak ex-red wine barrels sourced from the Barossa Valley which previously held shiraz and cabernet. Batch 1 (we're told to expect variation batch to batch).
    • Location: Melbourne, VIC
    • Score: 88
    Berries and marzipan, and a hint of red wine funk. Definitely get the toasty vanilla from the oak, quite floral, too - pears, red apples and a hint of fried bananas. Fresh and spry.
    Gooey caramel and toffee, but not the syrupy character you often find in Australian tawny matured malts - it's drier, mustier, cinnamon and Sauternes. Slight shiraz funk again, oak tannins and blackcurrants.
    Doesn't have the doggedly persistent finish of other Aussie malts, but carries nicely. Probably the place where it's lacking, if the aim here is 'big and strong!'
    I tasted this next to a couple of flagship Australian tawny matured malts, and in the Australian context, I'm not sure it quite stands up to its 'strong' moniker (different story internationally, though). Personally, I like it more because of that: Australian whisky doesn't have to be massive to be high quality. I think there's just enough wine and grip here, but it never turns to overt winey/woodiness - really well blended. In fact, it's more Scottish than a lot of other Australian malts in that sense: a more fruit and spirit-forward 'strong' whisky, which, I assume, is the idea. Also dangerously quaffable for 50% ABV - shows you I've probably been drinking too much Australian whisky lately.
Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. An independent writer, author and drinks columnist, Luke's written about whisky and spirits for numerous Australian and international publications and is a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.