Melbourne startup founder David Vitale is winning awards and international market share by turning whiskey from a “dad’s drink” into something more like a common table wine.
However, it was a tough sell early on as he struggled to get his Port Melbourne distillery off the ground.
Mr. Vital tried to convince a “big-wealth” family friend in 2009 of the “re-emergence of whiskey”.
Melbourne whiskey maker David Vitale risked it all when he set out to set up his own distillery in 2007.
“I just don’t understand why anyone would buy your whiskey instead of just buying Johnny Walker,” said the friend to Mr. Vitaly.
Six years later, Mr. Vital signed a deal with Diageo, the company that makes Johnnie Walker, to invest in his Starward whiskey brand and help launch it internationally.
“Not only did the drinkers think they wanted to buy us, but Johnnie Walker thought they should buy us too,” Vitaly says with apparent satisfaction.
The father of three moved with his family to the United States in 2019 “to lead the Australian whiskey movement in the United States”.
“Maybe in a couple of years we will sell more in the US than we sell in Australia,” Vital told Daily Mail Australia.
David’s Starward whiskey brand conquers the world and bagged a bag full of awards, including ‘Distiller of the Year’ at the Oscars in San Francisco
Once that happens, get out of the way, hopefully a steam train.
It’s an unlikely story for a 48-year-old who grew up as part of a large Italian family in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, where wine flowed freely but whiskey only brewed once a year.
“We gave whiskey to our accountant at Christmas in a box,” Mr. Vitale said.
“That was the extent of buying whiskey in our house.”
By the late 1990s, Mr. Vital was running a financial e-learning company, but in his spare time he made handcrafted beer.
The unique selling point of Starward whiskey is that it is fermented and aged from start to finish in wine barrels
“On a whim” he made a fateful visit to Tasmania.
“I walked into a little whiskey bar called Lark Distillery, which is obviously more famous now,” said Mr. Vitale.
It was like a thunderbolt struck me. For me, what was really interesting was that all the things I loved about handcrafted beer were in single malt whiskey.
They talked about the source, the style, the place and there were a lot of them.
After selling his electronic business, he spent two years learning the craft of whiskey making in a distillery, where he used his background in finance and technology to expand operations.
Mr. Vitaly (pictured right) is seen making a whiskey cocktail, part of his quest to make the drink a more popular blender
However, he had a much greater vision for a unique Melbourne drink, which in June 2007 led to his “I’m going to do this” moment.
The idea was to use wine barrels from surrounding wineries to reduce the age of the whiskey from start to finish, an unusual practice.
“We weren’t sure it would work but like most innovations, you just think about what could go wrong, try to mitigate that and push the boundaries to see what happens,” he said.
I thought ‘I’ll put all the chips on the black and aged them in these wine barrels and see what happens.’
What happened was a distinct flavor.
Starward is Melbourne’s signature whiskey brand that takes and beats the best in the rest of the world
David Vitale’s Five Tips for Success
Melbourne whiskey maker David Vitale is turning his Starward whiskey brand into a global success. Here are five tips on building a business from scratch
* You have focus and clarity
David resisted the route many distilleries took to make gin as the whiskey progressed. The guide’s advice helped: “He told me that if you try to catch a few rabbits in a coop, you are not likely to catch any.”
“We’ve only focused on one thing, and that’s the lonely rabbit and that’s modern Australian whiskey aged in red wine casks, something really tasty, affordable and always available,” David said.
* Get everyone who is part of your orbit to share your unique vision
“If you don’t have that kind of clarity, the first adverse event that will happen will completely derail you,” David said.
Patience and perseverance come from having a clear vision and focus
“You have to have patient investors and you have to be patient and impatient with what you are trying to do,” David said.
“We just kept digging into it day in and day out, which gave people optimism that there is something we just need to be patient.”
* Have a point of sale to contact you
“I didn’t want to extract someone else’s bones and call them my own,” David says.
Scotch whiskey often focused on tradition and knew that “you can’t outgrow Scotch on these terms.”
“I wanted to say this is a distinct product from where it was made,” David said.
“Understand what your main advantages are to the incumbents, to the organization and to work with it and build on that from there.”
*Disadvantages can be advantages with some “agile” thinking
“Our secret weapon in Melbourne is our climate,” David says.
You can see it as a barrier – you know what we’ll only be able to release a little whiskey because if we leave it in the barrel for too long, it won’t be balanced, it won’t taste great.
Isn’t this an advantage? I can actually bring products to market in a third of the time that others do.
“We had something we could build a trench around like our own, which cannot be imitated,” Mr. Vitale said.
Starward is more Australian than Scotch is Scottish because its barrels come from elsewhere – Spain, Portugal, America and often barley does as well.
The famous whiskey takes years to ferment and mature, although the optimal period in the Melbourne climate is three to four years, so the first batch of Mr. Vitale was not ready until December 20, 2012.
Mr. Vital admitted that whiskey was out of fashion when he started his business.
In 2007, people weren’t drinking a lot of whiskey – vodka was the thing at that time. Whiskey is what your parents drank – it might be your dad, truth be told.
“It wasn’t really a great product.”
Then came the challenge of putting Starward, rather than Johnnie Walker or any other established brand, into whiskey drinkers’ mugs.
Melbourne’s climate means whiskey ages faster in barrels and can’t be left in barrels for much longer
“It was a fistfight for those first three years,” Mr. Vitale said.
When we launched the project, I was 60 days away from bankruptcy for the better part of two years. Just hanging.
It’s almost like you have to earn your place on the shelf, and then once you’ve been around for that long people will say ‘okay I’ll give it a try’ and they will always be pleasantly surprised, which is always funny to me.
It really came as a surprise to them that Australia could make such an amazingly delicious whiskey.
Mr. Vitaly says he was on the verge of bankruptcy for two years after launching his whiskey
Americans are moving to cotton, with Starward now available in 40 US states.
Vital likened this feat to entering 40 different European countries, where each country has its own alcoholic beverage laws.
The only thing uniformly better is the lower taxes Americans levy on lives.
“The strong liquor tax system in the United States is not at all intrusive,” Vitale said.
“Literally I could buy a bottle of Starward in L.A., FedEx to a Melbourne distillery and it would be cheaper (with US taxes only) than it would cost over the counter in Australia.”
Vital predicts that in a few years he will sell more Starward in the US than in Australia
The Starward quickly became a favorite with judges, too, with the brand taking home a staggering 15 awards at the San Francisco Spirits Awards in April.
It was the brainchild of Mr Vitaly the first Australian to take home the main prize, Distillery of the Year, rising above a group of nearly 4,000 global competitors to claim the highly coveted prize.
While the awards are great, Mr. Vital said the reason he makes whiskey is to make a signature drink somewhere.
He also wants whiskey to be a popular and common refreshment anytime, especially in cocktails, so it’s not just kept in the back of a wine cabinet for special occasions.
With Starward’s victory over the US, gaining widespread presence in Europe and the UK as well as a growing presence in Southeast Asia, Vitaly’s vision is well shaped.
Even Johnnie Walker would drink that.
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