With an eye for innovation and collaboration, Painted Stave Distillery takes center stage among Delaware’s handcrafted spirits.
Still maintaining its original movie house facade, the large building that houses Painted Stave Distilling is nestled among the historic buildings of Smyrna’s quiet main street. While others have since followed, Painted Stave is the first stand-alone small batch distillery to open in Delaware since Prohibition, paving the way for a growing local craft beverage industry in the state.
The large main building contains a welcoming tasting room, a gallery full of work from local artists, and the sprawling production room in what was once the theater – it even has the old colorful murals still looking down from its high ceilings and walls. The recently added outdoor cocktail garden is an inviting place for live music and food trucks, and the barrel house at the back provides space for aging and storing the spirits once complete. The facility itself is truly a special find for any craft business, and I was happy to learn more.
A Look Backstage
Painted Stave Distilling was founded by Mike and Ron in 2011, and opened its doors for the first time on November 8th, 2013. The town of Smyrna was chosen in part for its water quality, but the acquisition of the Old Smyrna Theater was an unexpected boon. The old single-screen movie house was built in 1948 by the Schwartz family and survived as a functioning theater until 1975. Ten years later it would become the home of a local plumbing company, until the owners retired in 2005.
In need of extensive renovations, the building sat empty until 2013, when an interested local investor not only suggested the property to Mike and Ron, but helped them acquire it. The repairs and renovations took ten months of hard labor to complete, leaving much of the original architecture of the building intact for posterity. You can still see the mid-century touches in the recessed lighting in the gallery and in the wooden stage that still stands at the back of the production room, right behind the beautiful copper pot still that now dominates the room.
In the Tasting Room
Painted Stave currently produces seven spirits as part of their standard line: a vodka, a scrapple-flavored vodka, a gin, and four types of whiskey. These staples are often supplemented with small batch releases and special collaborations with other craft producers, as well as non-alcoholic products, like their house-made tonic syrup (only available at the distillery) and barrel-aged honey.
Of these products, the Candy Manor Gin is one of my favorites. Named for a tidbit of town lore in which a candy shop once doubled as a secret brothel, the delicate gin has notes of lavender, citrus and spice. It pairs beautifully with the house-made tonic syrup, which I implore you to pick up if you get the chance. With cinchona bark, hibiscus, and lemon balm, it’s just as delicious plain in club soda as it is paired with gin.
The line of Diamond State Whiskeys carries on the heritage of distilling in Delaware, taking its name from the last whiskey distillery to produce in the state prior to the start of Prohibition. My favorites are the Straight Corn and Straight Rye Whiskeys (the first for its sweet smokiness, the second for its spice). I’m also very impressed with the Pot Still Whiskey, made from a traditional old Irish whisky recipe but with an American twist.
One of the oddest products Painted Stave Distilling offers is their Off the Hoof Scrapple Flavored Vodka. The idea started as a joke, but quickly became popular and is said to be fantastic in a bloody mary cocktail. With smoky maple notes, if might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it makes a great gift for the brunch-obsessed.
Like many craft distilleries, maintaining a close tie to the community is an important part of Painted Stave’s philosophy. Local raw materials are used whenever possible, with corn and botanicals from local growers and malts from the nearby town of Laurel. Painted Stave also forges relationships with craft beverage makers statewide, trading barrels for aging and co-branding products.
One of the unique aspects of the distillery is its art gallery space. Featuring rotating local art and artists, proceeds from purchases made in the gallery support a targeted program for STEM education for girls K-12 through the Delaware Aerospace Foundation. On my visit there were some incredibly interesting pieces inspired by classic science fiction, so you know I was a huge fan.
Visiting Painted Stave Distilling
Having toured many distilleries, I am particularly impressed with their distillery tour program. Offered on Saturdays and Sundays, the tour starts with cocktail and follows with a traditional walk-through of the production facility. The tasting, however, is something special. Rather than leaving you and your party to muddle through a tasting alone, guests are taught tricks and tips on how to use a Glencairn whiskey glass, recognize aromatics, and properly taste the subtle differences between spirits. Even as someone who has done a number of tastings myself, I really appreciate the care put into this, as I’ve had to explain tasting procedures to my share of friends when visiting a distillery. The whole tour is really an experience worth checking out.
Whether for a tour, a special event, or just a hand crafted drink in their taproom or cocktail garden, Painted Stave is a delightful place to visit any time of the year.
At A Glance:
Name: Painted Stave Distilling
Location: 106 W. Commerce Street, Smyrna, DE
Hours of Operation: Thursdays 6-9pm, Fridays 5-10pm, Saturdays 12-6pm, Sundays 1-5pm
Atmosphere: Industrial chic, casual
Food Availability: Food trucks are often onsite; see their Facebook page for details.
Must Try: Candy Manor Gin paired with the house-made tonic syrup.
Insider Info: Even if you’ve toured distilleries before, I highly recommend taking part in this one. The staff offers a full lesson on how to taste spirits that is perfect for novices and experts alike.
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