Still having fun: Creative, contemporary cocktails at the Painted Stave

Craft distillery and cocktail bar in Smyrna is a hit

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Born from a renovated brick theater, the Painted Stave Distilling wants people sit and truly enjoy the moment. As a craft distillery and cocktail bar, “it’s the place to come and talk to the person you came with, not through their phone,” said co-owner Ron Gomes. “We would like folks to step back and engage each other over the premium cocktails and spirits that we make.”

That starts with the cosmopolitan, yet comfortable atmosphere: warm lighting, art gallery walls and an “easygoing vibe,” from the interior bar to the bright outdoor patio, lit with Edison bulbs.

“Typically, when people walk in here, they are so surprised by the general vibe. We are not a speakeasy, not a sports bar, but we kind of have this modern industrial thing going on. Our building first opened in 1948 as a single-screen movie house, so we have these wonderful bones,” Gomes said. Visitors tell him “We had no idea there was such an amazing place in Smyrna.”

The fun part of craft distilling is “taking the things you love and making them your own,” said co-owner Mike Rasmussen. As a “maker,” he gets to create products based on flavors he or others find interesting. “A lot of what we end up doing is education, talking to people about the product: how do you make it, what are the ingredients, how does that set it apart from products you’re used to? … Let me tell you about why my [blend] is different, how we crafted it to be something unique on the market, maybe reach a different set of consumers.”

Their current lineup includes classics like whiskey (bourbon, rye, pot still and corn), plus unique highlights like barrel-aged gin, scrapple-flavored vodka (“the most Quintessential Delaware product we could make”) and a not-legally-whiskey-because-it-was-distilled-with-hops from Fordham and Dominion Brewing.

However most visitors prefer drinking cocktails, not straight spirits, so “we’ve ended up creating more of an experience around cocktails than we originally intended,” Gomes said. Cocktails range from cool and classic (the Bourbon Luxardo Smash is bourbon and Luxardo cherry syrup) to warm and wintry (the Hot Buttered Bourbon uses bourbon, brown butter, brown sugar & butterscotch liqueur).

Every drink is special, since each is blended fresh for the individual customer. And the experience can continue at home, with carry-out cocktails, food pairing kits and more (at-living room date night? Can’t find a designated driver? Delivery for a friend?)

Meanwhile, their Taco Jardin food trailer is typically open during operating hours (with a second truck ready to travel this summer). Tacos and tasty grub pair well with an afternoon of sampling spirits.

Local artists add to the ambiance. Delightful metal sculptures fill one hall (carnivorous Venus flytrap anyone?), and large-scale spin art adds flair to the whole lounge area (these paintings were — no lie — designed by an eight-year-old with an astonishing eye for color). Instead of taking a seller’s commission, the Painted Stave donates 20 percent of each sale to a local aerospace STEM program for girls that is important to them — both men are fathers.

From the mash to the twist

Their week-long production process starts with cooking grains for a few hours, breaking them down into starch and sugar components. During several days of fermentation, yeast is added to the sweet mash, consuming the sugars produce carbon dioxide and ethanol. (That’s actually the initial process for brewing beer). But then the staff turn to the massive, custom, Kentucky-made stills. They boil the mixture in distilling bins, where ethanol boils at a lower temperature than water. The alcoholic vapor rises out into a condenser to become liquid again.

Now, the vodka is pretty much done. Gin is distilled through a filter basket which contains the botanical ingredients, like juniper or citrus.

But bourbons and whiskeys must, by law, be aged in barrels. The color and flavor will therefore develop over about four to six years. Understandably, Painted Stave only sold gin and vodka in the early years, and the whiskeys were added later on.

Bottles are hand-filled and labeled, often by volunteers (some groups even do it as a business outing or team-building exercise).

Hand sanitizer was Painted Stave’s sole production for about three months when the COVID-19 shutdowns began in March of 2020. The distilling process is practically identical, so the company produced sanitizer by the barrel for first responders and others (at a reasonable price). It kept employees working and helped protect the community during extremely uncertain times.

“What truly is unique about this place, compared to the big places … is it’s highly unlikely that you’re ever going to run into the owner or distiller [in massive factories],” said Gomes. “I think that’s one of the things that our supporters love. One of us is always here to talk.” (In-depth tours will resume soon, and the owners love talking about the science and flavors.)

‘A great place’

Painted Stave’s two entrepreneurs met through a mutual friend while pursuing high-level degrees at University of Delaware, and they first met for drinks on Delaware’s 2011 earthquake day.

Meanwhile, Smyrna officials sought a fresh business that would embrace the Old Smyrna Theater, which had closed in 1975 and housed a family’s plumbing supply store for about 25 years. The huge old building needed a lot of work, “but the response from the town made us feel very welcome.” Gomes and Rasmussen have, in turn, become leaders and mentors in the community (town, tourism, craft liquor industry).

“Smyrna is a great place for people to live or spend a weekend … or drive in and have some cocktails,” Rasmussen said.

Painted Stave Distilling is located at 106 W. Commerce Street, Smyrna, Del. Learn more at paintedstave.com and (302) 653-6834. Guests must be age 21 or older to drink, although “well-behaved older children, ages 13-plus” may accompany adults.

Please check out the entire Bay to the Beach publication here.

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