Come February, 2019, Australians will be able to enjoy a whisky that has literally travelled the world to find them, when an ambitious whisky collaboration between Australian distiller, Starward, and luxury cruise company, Cunard, is unveiled: The Seafarer.
An award-winning Australian whisky, aged in Australian wine barrels; a 225-litre barrel of Starward single malt whisky has been loaded onto the Cunard cruise liner, Queen Elizabeth – where it has sailed to a variety of countries along with thousands of guests and criss-crossing the equator close to a half-dozen times – forming part of the ship's 2019 Australia and New Zealand experience.
Out to sea
"That's how the idea of putting a barrel on the aft deck came about," said David Vitale, founder of Starward Distillery.
"How do we influence the experience [of travelling] even more than just having Australian content?"
Forging partnerships with local purveyors of fine goods is a trait of the Cunard brand, which offers cruise guests the chance to experience local fresh produce, products and even entertainment.
"The idea was to partner with Australian-based companies to celebrate our Australian season," explains Katrina McAlpine, Senior Manager, Cunard.
"I think the story of Starward is an amazing journey; it's very genuine and we felt that the product, as well as it's location, in Melbourne, aligned perfectly with us. We've also partnered with RM Williams to redesign our Bellboy uniforms for the Australian season, as well as the Australian Dance Company, who are doing the first event cruise for Australia and New Zealand guests, which is really exciting."
Extremely limited, very special
Many distillers may balk at the idea of maturing whisky in an unpredictable climate. In order to produce a consistent product, and one a consumer will learn to appreciate for its hallmark flavours, a distiller would normally store barrels of whisky in an environment that remains relatively constant throughout the year; allowing the oak to slowly endow the spirit inside with the flavour characteristics of the wood and the alcohol it previously contained.
However, on the upper deck of a cruise liner, we're now talking fluctuating humidity, continuous expansion and contraction of the wood, and excesses of temperature up to 40 degrees C.
Over the course of its 12 months at sea – while the guests on board have been taking fencing lessons, enjoying a black tie ball or a brisk, early-morning walk around the ship's walking track – the barrel of Starward whisky will be undertaking one of the most unconventional maturations a whisky has ever gone through.
Testing the waters
For Vitale – whose name, appropriately, means 'of life', in Latin – and his team, the experience of distilling in Melbourne, using barrels from local wineries, has been the perfect preparation.
"We have a huge, diverse range of whisky barrels, in terms of the style of barrel used – either American or French oak, there's also some European oak in there. But the way that the winemaker who previously used it has selected that barrel has a huge impact on what the whisky tastes like, once we've matured it.
"We think we test the boundaries of maturation already, with Melbourne's four seasons in a day, so, the opportunity to mature a whisky and expose it to the extremes of humidity and temperature was something we thought was a worthy experiment, if nothing else."
It's also likely that this experiment – a first of its kind for Cunard – will prove a blueprint for future cruises to our shores.
"We got very excited about how unique and rare this whisky is," said McAlpine. "You could put this barrel on the ship at the same time and on the same itinerary next year, but the weather's going to be different, the seas are going to be different, so you're never going to have the same whisky."
Prime your palate
Following a closed-room tasting of a bottle of Seafarer tapped from the barrel after eight months on deck, the excitement is evident in Vitales' voice. The experiment is paying off.
"We're getting more oak influence in the whisky," said Vitale. "Those fruity flavours of Starward, the jammy characteristics, are coming through quite tannic, and the dessert cooking spices, like vanillin, are quite prevalent."
"Even though we've pushed the elements to the extreme, the amazing thing is that it's still Starward. As much as I never tell people how to drink their whisky, this is such a special and rare whisky, it would be best neat or with a dash of water, just to appreciate the nuances of favour."
For landlubbers, Starward will be taking delivery of roughly 50 litres of the whisky once it reaches journey's end. If you're just lucky enough, you may get to sample this unique whisky and get a small taste of its life at sea.