By Travis Johnson
Kevin Lloyd steps behind the bar of Big Spring Spirits’ tasting room to ring up a few last-minute holiday alcohol purchases.
“Hey, want to try one of our cherries?” he asks, leaning down toward a fridge under the bar where he slides out a box of chocolate covered cherries. These morsels come with a twist. They’re filled with a gooey, Big Spring Spirits rum center.
He hands it across the bar where the customer pops it into his mouth and is hit with a burst of rum as soon as he bites through the chocolate layer.
“Stick with it,” Lloyd tells the man, not nearly as fond of rums as he is whiskeys, like the Big Spring Spirits American Blended Whiskey, he’s buying.
But he’s learning something new as the taste unfolds. Lloyd watches intently as the man begins to bob his head up and down. The warmth of the rum is being cut by the melting chocolate. The big hunk of cherry is joining the party nicely, too.
“You want another?” Lloyd asks.
The man doesn’t hesitate — “Yes!” — and leaves with his purchase, a rum-chocolate-cherry fusion warming his insides as he steps into a frigid Bellefonte afternoon December air.
This is what Lloyd signed up for when he and Paula Cipar founded the local distillery that makes use of the historic red brick Building 10 of the original Pennsylvania Match Company complex just over two and a half years ago.
“My old business was a service business,” Lloyd says. “We did chemical testing, primarily for the pharmaceutical industry. And at the end of the day, our product was maybe a paper report or maybe it was an electronic file that we just sent. So every day you’d come in and it was the same. Here, we’re actually making something. I’m not a chef. I don’t cook anything. But I think I get that same feeling where we’re creating something that we like, and we’re trying to make it the best that we can. And we’re trying to anticipate need or what other people like and in the end, we hope that they do. We’re making something and there’s a lot of satisfaction I think in making something and then seeing that people like it.”
Over the last few months, locals and plenty of others from outside the region, have made their way through the back door of the old red brick building and into an elaborately designed tasting room. The industrial shell of the building gives way to a welcome — and interesting — interior. There’s always something to look at and it feels like you’re seeing something for the first time on even your third or fourth visit inside. There’s a giant swordfish on the far wall, no two chairs appear to be the same and tables are of various shapes and sizes. Complete with a bar that stretches nearly the length of the room and is lined with orb lamps with marble bases, the tasting room is packed on most nights as patrons watch, usually dazzled, as bartenders whip up cocktail after cocktail.
The drinks, all powered with the distillery’s custom spirits, are infused with locally sourced products in an environmentally friendly environment. Big Spring Spirits is one of just two distilleries in the country with LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification.
And while the water from the Big Spring, voted the Best Tasting Water at the Pennsylvania Rural Water Association Conference, goes a long way in making the perfect cocktail, ingredients are worthless without the right bartender.
“I have a really good staff,” Lloyd says. “We have a really good tasting room manager, our bartenders are fantastic. And I trust them and people like them. They come here just because of our bartenders. We’ve been voted two years in a row now best mixed drink in State College. We’re really proud of that. And part of that is the drinks that we make but the other part of it is the people that make them. Making a drink is a really interactive thing. You’re performing. And I can’t do it at all. I can’t make anything but I appreciate people who can.”
But Lloyd is selling himself short a bit. A former analytical chemist, he’s teamed with Head Distiller Philip Jensen to create a handful of tasty products that have an exclusive air about them. Big Spring Spirits recently released its American Whiskey, the first, Lloyd says, of what will be a constant whiskey product after the company’s first few small batches sold out it waited on the aging process for this batch.
In the meantime, Big Spring Spirits created a handful of clear spirits, rums, gins and vodkas, and is ready to turn the corner on 2017 with an arsenal of additions in the whiskey category. Lloyd is particularly excited to see how the American does.
He notions at the 107.7 proof, handwritten on the bottle’s simply designed but classy label and recommends a bit of water to cut it. But even before doing so, the golden brew offers an invitingly sweet smell with a bit of spice once the cork is popped and it replicates itself on the palate.
“It’s a bourbon-style whiskey, 65 percent corn, 34 percent wheat and one percent rye, so we’re pretty excited about that,” Lloyd says. “It’s been selling well. We will release next year sometime, we’ll have a 100 percent rye and 100 percent wheat whiskey and some other blends too. So this is just the first of our whiskeys."
Big Spring Spirits also recently completed the first of its special group batches, a neat program for Penn State’s 2016 MBA class. Students who’d graduate this past spring reached out to Lloyd with an idea for a class gift. They’d work with Big Spring Spirits to fill their own barrel that they got to sign and then take home after a special party to bottle the aged whiskey and mark their graduation.
Lloyd says he’d like to do more of those type of events and urges anyone interested to contact him.
He’s not tough to find. Just a few minutes walk from downtown, Lloyd can be found at the old Match Factory Complex building in the mornings and early afternoons. That is, when he’s not making his own deliveries where he focuses on selling his finely crafted spirits but also sparking and maintaining relationships.
A Boalsburg resident, Lloyd can now sees Bellefonte as his home away from home.
“It’s the people that live here and they’ve really embraced us and made this their own place and hopefully it’s something that they’re proud of, that they talk about and play up.”
After all, it’s one of the reasons he wanted to pursue distilling in the first place, for the fun, social dynamic the distillery has captured inside the tasting room. Lloyd points to a shirt that hangs, for sale, near the door.
“It says Life Distilled,” He says. “What is that? It’s kind of a play on words. We have a distillery, that’s what we do. What does a distillery do? It concentrates things. It concentrates alcohol. So to me, that’s what this is about. It’s about sitting down, having a drink. Kind of forgetting about all the extraneous things and just distilling or bringing it down to what’s important in your life. And what is important in your life? In my opinion, it’s family, friends, conversations, personal interaction. So that’s what this is about I think. It’s about forgetting about other things. We all get bogged down in details sometimes. This isn’t about that. It’s about having a drink with friends, sharing some stories, the good old times, making plans for the future, that’s what I think it’s about.”
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