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How Delaware's Spirits Are Improving

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Ron Gomes stands behind the bar at Painted Stave, the distillery he opened two years ago with business partner Mike Rasmussen, and pours a shot of Time Warp espresso vodka in a fancy nosing glass. I take a whiff, swirl some of the amber liquid around my mouth, gingerly breathe in a gulp of air across it and swallow.

I may never drink regular espresso again.

Housed in a converted movie theater on West Commerce Street in downtown Smyrna, Painted Stave is one of three Delaware craft distilleries that have bars or tasting rooms to entertain customers. The others are Dogfish Head Distilling in Milton and Beach Time Distilling in Lewes. Before Painted Stave opened, Gomes and Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione joined forces to help change Delaware’s laws to permit small distilleries to join with wineries and craft breweries in having tasting bars.

“We are the first freestanding distillery in Delaware,” Gomes says as he re-holsters the vodka under the bar.

Painted Stave is following the path that other craft distilleries across the country have trod: First, produce white spirits such as vodka and gin that need no aging, then gradually bring online the brown spirits, such as bourbon and rye, that are aged in wooden barrels. Unlike distilleries that use their company’s name as the brand name, each of Painted Stave’s spirits has its own brand: Time Warp vodka, Candy Manor gin, and Diamond State whiskey and rye.

Gomes’ and Rasmussen’s paths to becoming distillers first involved abrupt career changes. Gomes—actually Dr. Gomes—was a medical researcher. Rasmussen was an executive for the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. They separately had fallen in love with craft spirits from visiting small distilleries in other states, and both had decided to become distillers by the time a mutual friend introduced them. They quickly joined forces, learning distilling on the fly with classes and seminars. Now Rasmussen leads production, and Gomes handles marketing. “After, we bought one commercial still, and I built a second one with the help of a local welder,” Rasmussen says.

“We were going to locate somewhere in an industrial park,” Gomes says, “but Smyrna was very helpful in helping us locate downtown.” The locals welcomed them, and the Presbyterian Church next door even offered its lot for overflow parking.  

Being part of the community—Rasmussen walks to work—is important to Painted Stave. Some of its grain is grown by local farmers, and a program is underway to increase this farm-to-still production. “Even the coffee in the vodka is roasted locally,” Gomes says as he looks at my empty glass and reaches back under the bar. 

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