It’s okay to make wine or brew beer in your basement. But as the co-owner of Painted Stave Distilling told our tour group, if you set up a still and make vodka or other hard liquor, you could be looking at jail time.
So I found it amazing that a political scientist and medical researcher could get together and turn out bright, flavorful gin and vodka without ever trying it first in their basements. That’s usually the story you hear from a new vintner or brewer. They tried it in the basement and it was so good their friends said, Hey Joe, you should go into business making this stuff. These guys never got to do that.
Yet here they are, Ron and Mike. They’ve set up shop in the old Smyrna movie theatre — next door to a church — in Smyrna, Delaware. That’s the still down the “aisle” where the screen once was. The elaborate painted scrolls on the ceiling, the Art Deco wall sconces were preserved. The tasting room fills the space of the ticket counter.
Painted Stave, Delaware’s first stand-alone distillery since Prohibition, opened in November, 2013, after nearly ayear of renovations — and two years of planning. Everything about it has a story…how they met, the name of the distillery, the names of their wares for that matter.
I won’t go into all of it. That gives you something to talk about when you get there to taste their gin and vodka and whatever else they’ve produced since my visit. Clear corn whiskey was stewing in a big fermenter during my visit. The corn came from local farms.
Using local products is one of the distillery’s goals. The corn for their whiskey is local. And so is the lavender, coriander, lemon balm, orris root and angelica root that give the gin its botanical kick. Juniper, gin’s main flavoring, has to be imported. It doesn’t grow in Delaware.
Creating these fine spirits isn’t always easy. Co-owner Mike recalled a corn mash mixture that didn’t quite work. It became, well, polenta — which he tried himself before before turning over the rest to a nearby farmer who fed it to his cows. BTW, it wasn’t yet fermented. Sorry, cows.
Still, some of their experiments are tasty ones. We had a sip of espresso vodka made with the beans of a local coffee roaster. Black, rich with coffee flavor and a tad sweet, it’s a success. They plan to bottle it in the coming months.
The distillery is open for tours and tastings Friday-Sunday. A visit starts with a tasting-room sized cocktail. Don’t get comfortable (there aren’t any bar stools anyway — this is not a bar). In the adjacent gallery, local artists hang their work. During my visit, painted staves, appropriately enough, were the featured exhibit. (I didn’t know until my visit that a stave is one slat of a barrel. As for the “painted stave,” it’s a Prohibition-era term speakeasies used. Ask about it when you get there.)
Tours last about a half-hour and include all the steps that turn simple agricultural products into aromatic spirits. The tour ends with tastings of their staples, gin and vodka, along with samples of whatever experimental concoction they’ve got going.
Besides corn whiskey, there are plans for barrel aged bourbon. They’ve experimented with grappa made with the grape skins from a local vineyards, too, and are considering making brandy from Delaware’s peaches and apples.
Bottles are hand-filled, corked and signed by the lucky volunteer who bottled it. The distillery can bottle 650 bottles in one night. When it’s time, they post a call for volunteers — and end up turning lots of people away.
Painted Stave’s products were available only at the tasting room when I visited but distribution to local liquor stores, bars and restaurants is expected to start April 1.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be looking for it.
BTW–Painted Stave is part of the Good Libations Tour, a spirits-filled promotion of Kent County’s tourism office. You can start here or at one of the two wineries or two breweries. (More on the tour in a future post.)
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman