You can’t catch a flick anymore at the theater in downtown Smyrna, Delaware, but that’s OK—you can catch up over a cocktail, instead.

Smyrna’s Painted Stave Distilling has got to have one of the nation’s most unique tasting rooms: an old theater brought back to life for the purpose of making great whiskey. This grain-to-glass distillery is the first standalone legal distillery in Delaware since Prohibition, and it’s showing the world that distilleries can play a critical role in community development and revitalization.

When co-owners Michael Rasmussen and Ron Gomes were first introduced in 2011, each had already been scheming about opening a distillery. They recognized each other as kindred souls and figured that joining forces would give them their best chance of success. Together, they developed a plan for a craft distillery in Delaware dedicated to making great whiskey and creating a place where friends, family, and neighbors could meet over a glass.

Distinctive Location

First, Michael and Ron set about finding a location. As luck would have it, they stumbled across an abandoned 1940s movie theater in the heart of downtown Smyrna that had been vacant for years. “The town really wanted something to happen with the building,” says Michael, “So they recruited us.”

“The movie theater presented some challenges as well as some neat opportunities,” says Michael. “It helped us create a destination distillery, versus the industrial park location where a lot of folks end up getting started.” Restoration and build out took almost a year, but in November 2013, Painted Stave Distilling opened its doors for the very first time.

The building preserves the look and feel of the historic theater while repurposing its spaces in a really fun way. Instead of soda and candy bars, the concessions stand now sells local spirits, cocktails, beer, and wine. The theater itself was converted into a production floor, aging space, and art gallery and event space that hosts local events and shows. They’re even in the process of putting in a 6,000 square foot outdoor cocktail garden.

“The community has been really supportive,” says Michael, “which has been absolutely wonderful. We’ve gotten to play a role that was unexpected, in that we’ve helped to kick off some of the downtown redevelopment effort. We’re an anchor tenant downtown, which has encouraged other businesses to take that opportunity and invest in the community.”  

Great Spirits

Painted Stave Bottles

Painted Stave Distilling’s standout location is just one aspect of its success. Michael and Ron are also creating top-tier spirits, working from premium raw materials to create tipples with character and elegance.

From the beginning, whiskey was a major focus. “We did what a lot of folks do,” laughs Michael. “Which is to start drinking a lot to develop the concept. It turned out we were very attracted to high-rye bourbons, so we developed a recipe that has a little bit more of an aggressive, spicy character.”

Painted Stave Distilling’s Diamond State Straight Bourbon is made from 66% corn, 26% rye, and 8% malted barley. It’s double distilled on their 250-gallon hybrid Vendome still, which is equipped with a classic pot still as well as a separate column used for vodka distillation. Most major bourbons from big Kentucky distilleries are distilled on a continuous column still, so a pot-still bourbon like Diamond State Bourbon is pretty unique.

After distillation, it’s time for maturation. Painted Stave does a couple of distinctive things when it comes to aging. Instead of filling the whiskey into the barrels at 125 proof, the legal upper limit, they proof it down to about 120 proof. A lower barrel entry proof like this costs more, as it creates more volume that needs to be contained in more expensive barrels, but according to Michael, it’s the only way to achieve the flavor profile he and Ron are looking for.  

The other cool thing Painted Stave does is use unique custom barrels. Instead of 52-gallon barrels, Painted Stave Distilling uses 30-gallon barrels that are charred just a bit more heavily than the standard bourbon cask. This allows the whiskey to age just a little bit faster than normal without getting over-oaked.

The resulting bourbon is sweet, spicy, and bold without being unbalanced or overwhelming. Ordinarily, it’s bottled at 88 proof, but we were thrilled to work closely with Painted Stave Distilling to commission a 100-proof variant of Diamond State Straight Bourbon available exclusively to Taster’s Club members.

Collaboration and Partnership

While making great whiskey is its own reward, Michael says one of his favorite things about running a distillery is the chance to partner with other artisans. Painted Stave collaborates with local breweries and wineries to make unique, one-off products sold exclusively in their tasting room. One of those experiments, a whiskey distilled from a locally brewed double IPA, was so popular that it’s now part of the distillery’s standard lineup.  

And that focus on collaboration goes beyond product development. Painted Stave is a local gathering place, and part of that role is giving back to the community that sustains it. “We partner with the Delaware AeroSpace Education Foundation,” explains Michael. ”Any of the sales through our gallery or periodic fundraisers support a scholarship program for science and math programs for girls. We both have daughters, and we want to make sure girls have access to and stay interested in math and science as they grow older.”

It’s just one way Painted Stave makes sure the next generation will have the chance to follow their dreams, even (or especially) if their dreams involve applying chemistry, math, and engineering skills in the service of making great spirits.

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