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Enlighten Me: Iconic American whiskey lands at Painted Stave

When most people hear the word ‘bourbon’ they think of the rolling green fields of Kentucky – the state most closely associated with the sweet, mostly corn-based whiskey.

But soon, those in Delaware won’t have to trek far to get their hands on locally produced bourbon.

In this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson reports one distillery has just uncorked a few barrels of the iconic liquor right in the heart of the First State.

Sounds of bottles clinking and being pumped full of all kinds of original spirits have been reverberating within the Old Smyrna Theater for the past few years – since Ron Gomes and Mike Rasmussen opened Painted Stave Distilling, the state’s first stand-alone craft distillery in November 2013.

But the latest liquid getting a new glass home is a deep, caramel amber color that likely hasn’t ever been legally distilled in Delaware’s history.

Gomes and Rasmussen laid down about 30 gallons of Diamond State Bourbon Whiskey last year.  The end product coming out now is very even-keeled for a young bourbon.

Rasmussen, a bourbon aficionado, has wanted to distil the spirit since he and Gomes first made plans to open the business in 2011.

He says opening up something you haven’t seen in a year is one of his favorite parts of the process.

“It’s like a little time capsule, I mean, getting to tap open the first three kegs of this and sample them and really think about the different flavor components and how those different barrels had matured over the course of the year…so you get to really see something has changed and I think it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

The whiskey packs a punch but it’s not overwhelming. Notes of cinnamon, oak and spices temper the slight bite, making it pleasantly warm when served neat.

Part of that spiciness is due to the high amount of rye grain they use, making up 26 percent of the blend. 65 percent of the bourbon is made from local corn, with the rest of it malted barley.

“We want some of the spicy flavors to come through from the rye. Corn adds a nice sweetness. And then knowing what we knew about the barrels and how we were integrating, what we hoped to see were some of the vanilla and toffee characteristics come out, as well as some of the baker spices – cinnamon and nutmeg and those types of flavors – that can really be extracted from the wood,” Rasmussen said.

To legally be considered bourbon in the United States, you have to use at least 51 percent corn in the distilling process, meet certain proofing benchmarks and store it in new charred American oak barrels.

You’ve also got to reveal the whiskey’s age on the bottle if it’s less than four years old. Eventually, Painted Stave will release older vintages, but that means more time in the barrel.

With that, the formerly clear alcohol takes on characteristics from the barrels they’re aged in, as well as the surrounding environment.

Gomes is also trying out honeycombed barrels that increase the surface area coming into contact with the bourbon and shaping the flavor in a new way.

“So [to] really increase opportunities to drive molecular interactions that you’re interested in to produce the flavor compounds you want, the smoothing effects, the barrel notes that you want.”

He says that can drop the amount of time a spirit needs to age to achieve the desired characteristics.

Craft distilling in Delaware is still relatively new. Legislation allowing the businesses to open wasn’t passed until 2013 after Painted Stave and others lobbied the General Assembly.

In this fresh market, Rasmussen says they’ve been able to reshape people’s views on how spirits should taste beyond other mass-produced incarnations.

“We see people who walk through who [say], ‘Oh, I don’t like this spirit because I’ve only ever tried it once and it was not good, so I don’t drink gin at all,’ and they’re leaving with bottles of gin and they’re standing at the bar telling people, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe how much I love this.’”

And bourbon gets an especially clean start in the First State – something that appealed to Gomes.

“It’s a blank slate for us. There’s no regional, local story to tie to this other than it hasn’t been done before – not legally. We get to invent that story," said Gomes. "I mean, as much as we have invented the product, we get to invent the brand and invent the story behind the brand and that’s pretty cool, pretty special.”

Education plays a large role at Painted Stave – both men hold doctorate degrees. Gomes was a professor of orthopedics at Penn State College of Medicine, while Rasmussen worked for the Rodel Foundation and The Vision Network in Delaware in his past life.

It’s something that’s immediately apparent – especially in how the company runs their bottling line.

They put out notices on social media calling for volunteers who help fill, label, number and package the latest spirit slated for release or a batch of one of their core products.

Some even helped pick and sort hundreds of pounds of cranberries recently for Painted Stave’s seasonal cranberry vodka.

The company turns two years old this month and in that brief span, Rasmussen says he’s seen their approach take hold, giving people a deeper connection with what they drink.

He says expect that to carry over into the bourbon.

“We want people to leave with a better understanding of what the product is. We obviously want them to be excited and enjoy consuming the product. And then, as with anything here in Delaware, we love Delaware products and we love Delaware things. My guess is we’re going to get a lot of people who are very excited about this simply because it’s the first time it’s been done here in Delaware,” Rasmussen said.

You can only pick up one of the 160 bottles at their distillery in Smyrna when it goes on sale for $40 Saturday, Nov. 14th at noon.

That night, the company will also host its two-year anniversary party, which is free and open to the public.

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