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Interview - David Vitale, Victoria Valley Distillery

By Dominic Roskrow

Please tell me how the distillery came about?

I was working in the e-learning space in the late 90s and early 2000s in my own business and was burnt out. I moved to Tasmania with my fiance. I was looking at a new business opportunity with export potential and initially thought of developing an organic micro-brewed beer but quickly realised that beers don't travel well. Meanwhile, Bill & Lyn Lark were referred to me to assist with an export development grant (I was consulting to the Tasmanian State Govt) and I created a job for myself at Lark Distillery, focussing on Business Development. We very quickly identified there was scope for a larger distillery in Melbourne to capitalise on the growth in premium whiskies, and with their blessing and support I started Victoria Valley Distillery. 

The whisky's bold - but so is making whisky in Melbourne!

I was committed from the beginning to take the best of the traditions from both the Scottish and American processes, but ultimately to create something distinctly Australian.

Who's involved?

We raised capital through a network of high net worth individuals and investors. There are no 'professional investors' or corporate investors in the distillery. I am the major shareholder and chief executive officer. We have five employees who have a brewing background and have been really fortunate to have a board with a diverse range of experience.

What's the region you're distilling in like? Does it have a food and drink heritage?

Melbourne is the food capital of Australia.  It has a great cultural diversity which has of course influenced the food and drink scene. We have the most restaurants per capita in Australia, and while nowhere near the proliferation of microbreweries in the United States, we also have a burgeoning craft brewing scene which is a great source of quality talent to recruit from.

You were aiming for late 2012 to bottle. Has everything gone to plan?

Yes – all things being equal October 2012 we'll have our product available in Australia. The Whisky is called Starward: a name that reflects our aspirations for the business.

What are the maturation conditions like?

We have a huge temperature range, low humidity environment. Melbourne particularly is known for its 'four seasons in one day' weather. We think this has had a beneficial impact on the whisky – not only in terms of extraction of character from our very old sherry barrels but also in blowing off the volatile characters. 

What sort of whisky are you making and how are you making it? 

Our focus is on single malt whisky for now. Traditionally distilled, we're crafting a spirit that can mellow quickly. Clean, fruity characters (tropical & stone fruit) with nutty tones. Most of the heavy lifting though is done in the barrel. A unique aspect of our product is the very old - 50 to 70 year old sherry casks that we have sourced from Australian sherry producers. It's produced a rich and creamy product which has a different intensity to the sherry casks used by Scotch whisky distillers.

As we grow, I think this will be a continuing theme of the distillery – to focus on wood policy to differentiate our offering. A well trodden path in terms of cask finishing but not so much in the context of Australian fortified and wine barrels being used for the entire maturation period. We have a lot to leverage off – Australian wines are world renowned. Perhaps we can look at being the equivalent of a new world  Cabernet Sauvignon  to a French Burgundy. Not an imitation, but an expression of the product - representative of the place it's made.

I have a 63% sample of new make - very delicious, very fruity, and with liquorice notes - does this give us any idea of what to expect?

Yes – tropical fruit, bananas, almond, dried fruits (I get dates from the empty glass) extractive wood characters, smooth and creamy. Still youthful & bright. We are not fearful of the youth. It's bold…but so is making a whisky in Melbourne!

Are you using any special casks - quarter casks etc?

Yes – a portfolio of 50 lire, 100 litre, and 200 litre casks, all sherry. We are focussing on consistency between releases. Our first release is the marriage of 12 casks of varying sizes to provide depth and complexity of characters.

A lot has been made of Tasmania. does this help or hinder Australian whisky on the mainland?

I don't think it hurts. Lark Distillery, Sullivan's Cove and the others are making great whisky. But I am not too sure how much "Tasmania" adds to their product proposition beyond the Tasmanian peated whiskies which have a unique and distinctive character. Raw materials – barley, water & yeast are pretty consistent between states. We have great Whisky coming from most states of Australia now.

I know when Bill started making whisky and up until the early 2000s the barley used was grown on the island. But Cascade as a brewery has grown its off-island sales beyond the ability of Tasmania to produce and malt all of the barley on-island - that is, they import barley from the mainland from the same suppliers Mainland brewers and distillers use.) I think the personalities of the whiskies reflect as much the distillers as they do the place they are made. Are Tasmanians different to Mainlanders?…I think we'd all agree the answer is yes…but they have very different reasons why!

How is the Australian whisky industry in general? Are you getting taken seriously at home?

Ultimately any product speaks for itself. Our meetings with distributors and retailers have been nothing but encouraging and most people we talk to have an open mind about the product and its provenance. We entered our pre-release prototype in the Malt Whisky Society of Australia annual awards and scored a Silver Medal and beat some quality Scotch whisky in the score rankings. But I knew we could make great whisky – it's the selling that’s going to be the hard part. It will be a slow process introducing the brand, but I think we've timed our market entry well given the changing dynamics of the whisky audience in Australia. Our drinker is not the tweed jacket wearing pipe-smoking Scotsman, its a younger, discerning drinker who has an open mind about whiskies and enjoys discovering new products.

What are your aims and aspirations for Victoria Valley? Are we going to see it up this way one day?

We want to offer the world a distinctly Australian whisky. We have a desire to export the product, but will focus our attentions on getting our home market right first. Then, take what we've learnt to overseas markets and do them well. From the outset I have set our sights on the United States market. Not only is it a significant market in terms of size, it also happens to be where half my family lives. 

How do you think the next year will go and what are your hopes?

I've been staring at the mirror every morning for the last five years telling myself I just have to get to market. Now that we are here – I know it's going to be hard work but can't wait for the opportunity to share what we've achieved as a team with the world.

Thank you!