New Distillery Makes a Mark in State College Market
State College's coolest new gathering place for a drink with friends after work isn't in State College.
It's in Bellefonte and the 10 minute drive to get there is definitely worth the effort.
My husband and one of my legal-age daughters and I decided to try out the new Big Spring Spirits which opened in Bellefonte last month. A tour of the facility, some chat with the owners and an amazing chocolate martini for me, sangria for my daughter, and vodka on the rocks for my husband sold all of us on this exciting new venture.
It's a great story of local people wanting to bring a new product and service to our area and the slammed doors and open arms that greeted them along the way.
I've known co-owner Kevin Lloyd for years. He used to live in our neighborhood. Kevin was one of the morning crew of neighbors out with dogs or for an early walk or run. Originally from Indiana County, PA, Kevin had incredible business and professional success in first the development and then sale of his pharmaceutical company Exygen. As an early retiree, Kevin had some time on his hands and was looking for new opportunities.
"It was one of those conversations that aren't planned that leads to a new path" Kevin shared with us on our tour Friday night. It started when he was seated next to a friend at a wedding whose brother had experience with liquor law. Kevin contacted the brother who said "With the passing of Act 113, you should look at opening a distillery."
Despite what are generally considered to be Draconian liquor laws in Pennsylvania, the guidelines and expectations for microbreweries, wineries and distilleries are a bit more user friendly. In 2011, Governor Corbett signed Act 113 which looks at liquor distribution through a different lens for businesses that make liquor on-site.
Kevin and the team at Big Spring make all of their products and are permitted to distribute them directly to other places like restaurants and bars, and sell directly to the customer (as well as offer tastings on site) without the same oversight of places that just sell liquor. With the first official batches up and out, Big Spring Vodka has been featured recently at local restaurants like Local Whiskey on Beaver Avenue and Gigi's on Cato Avenue. New spirits and places that stock Big Spring Spirits will be added over the next few months.
Did I mention the chocolate martini? Delicious.
With degrees from Penn State in Micro-Biology, Kevin began the research and analysis into what it would take to bring a distillery to our area with the same effort and attention to detail that had led him to be successful in the pharmaceutical business. He attended classes at Michigan State – a program with a reputation for training people in making spirits not unlike Penn State's reputation for teaching people how to make ice cream. He found a mentor in Walter Catton, III, owner-operator of the Coppercraft distillery in Holland, Michigan. He partnered with local interior designer Paula Cipar.
Originally from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Cipar says, "I knew Kevin in his previous life." Cipar shared a family favorite from her childhood called Boilo, a moonshine-based hot whiskey, citrus and spice drink served up in shot glasses. "I was almost out of the last bottle I brought back from home and I told Kevin that we need to make this stuff," she says. White Whiskey aka "Moonshine" is next on the list of Big Spring products that will be available in the next few weeks.
Their partnership is evident in the environment at the Big Springs tasting room. The state-of-the-art distillery equipment and machinery can be seen through the big windows behind the bar. The tasting room is eclectically decorated with mismatched stools and smaller, intimate table groupings; the brick interior walls and the 36 foot natural shape, hand-rubbed bar that was cut from a tree in Williamsport give the place a very comfortable feel.
The whole focus is decidedly local. The water to make the spirits comes from Bellefonte's Big Spring. The grains – corn, rye and wheat- used to make the spirits come from local farmers and the leftover grain that results from the distilling process (called the draff) is given back to local farmers for cattle feed. The light menu focuses on local too. Local cheeses. Meats from Hog Heaven. Tait Farms raspberry shrub for mixing with drinks. Herlocher's mustard included on the charcuterie plates.
I asked Kevin "Why Bellefonte?" It turns out that it was a question of barriers. As Kevin researched sites for his distillery and tasting room, he found several options in State College which were zoned for what he wanted to do. However, in the initial stages he received the message that a liquor focused business was not appealing to the planners, zone enforcement and other decision makers in State College.
At one point, it was even suggested that "we'll probably have to approve this business but we won't make it easy." Conversely, Bellefonte Borough Manager, Ralph Stewart and representatives from those same approval offices in Bellefonte worked enthusiastically and collaboratively with Kevin and Paula to bring this new business to town.
The business is housed in the old Match Factory, a building with historical importance in Bellefonte. According to Kevin, Ken Martin, Executive Director of the American Philatelic Society, which owns the Match Factory, was excited to welcome Big Springs Spirits as a tenant.
Kevin shared how the original space had a gravel floor and wood framed walls when they started renovations. The tasting room overlooks the train tracks and trains go by several times each day. There is outside space for events and small gatherings. They plan to have guest bartender and guest chef evenings, let outside groups hold special events there and welcome groups and clubs for tours and tastings.
Big Springs Spirits was green-focused in their building and design and may be the only distillery in the country that is LEED certified.
Big Springs Spirits will have its grand opening Saturday, Aug. 9 from 2-7 p.m. There will be bands playing outside, off the outdoor patio, including Pure Cane Sugar, Feats of Strength and Cliff Turner and the Afterburners. There will be cocktails and snacks available for purchase, tours of the distillery and an opportunity to share some good times with friends and neighbors.
I highly recommend the chocolate martinis.