Paula Cipar is at home in the cavernous Big Spring Spirits tasting room in historic red brick building 10 at the Pennsylvania Match Company complex in Bellefonte. She should be. Co-owner of Big Spring Spirits with Kevin Lloyd, Cipar designed the interior, and it’s as eclectic and elegant as she is. The brick walls are graced with trophies — a sailfish, a moose and a bear — that were acquired decades ago by members of Lloyd’s family and now seem to have found a final resting place suitably noble and worthy of their lofty spirits.
Big things are happening at Big Spring Spirits, and it is no surprise when you think of the power of what is coursing beneath the building. With a daily flow of 15 million gallons, the Big Spring that is the water source of Bellefonte and surrounding communities is a powerhouse of energy that never ceases.
“We believe that the main reason that our products are so good is because we start with high quality water,” Cipar said. “When we first decided to start the business we looked for a property in State College, but found this instead. And this is where we needed to be.”
In season, an edible landscape garden maintained by the Bellefonte Garden Club provides eye candy as well as botanicals that are used in the preparation of some of the signature cocktails that won them a gold medal in the 2016 State College Magazine competition for “Best Mixed Drink.”
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Cipar acknowledges the honor, giving all the glory to lead bartender Brandon Wagner. But she is prouder of the award that the business recently won as the first certified Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design distillery in the country. And she seemed proudest of all of her new label designed for their first aged whiskey that features her horse, Zephyr, with a white mark on his flank, rearing up on a knock off patterned after the Pennsylvania state seal.
The team at the distillery includes production manager Lloyd, head distiller Phil Jensen and Lucy Rogers, the tasting room manager. Bartenders, sporting clever T-shirt with chemical equations, are encouraged to be inspired and come up with new drinks all the time. On a trip a few weeks ago, the Thyme-for-a-Beetin’ martini paired very well with the Gouda fondue with caraway seeds vegetables.
The best way to taste the gamut of Big Spring Spirits cocktail art is to go to the Chef’s Tasting Menu on a Sunday evening. Mark Johnson is the independent chef contractor who creates quite a bit of culinary magic in his mini-kitchen adjacent to the bar. Owner operator of MJ Craft Cooking, Johnson has worked in many kitchens in the area — as the first chef at Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks, also at Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar — and maintains his farm-to-table focus at Big Spring.
The dinners are by reservation only, and one week’s notice is required for Johnson to source his local, seasonal items for the special menu. The bar team, in particular Tracy Lynn Vandergriff, needs time to design a suitable cocktail to match with the food, and that must be why the entire team during the week is always looking happy and well-fed.
The Nov. 20 Chef’s Tasting Menu started off with a warm tea-based drink served in a punch cup. The Duke of Earl included Earl Grey tea, gin, honey and orange zest. The dainty cup took the chill off and warmed the palate for the courses to follow.
The Aging Imperialist led the charge, a tasty blend of aged gin, cinnamon-infused corn whiskey, lime, orgeat, star anise cordial, ginger cordial and cardamom bitters. Beer Cheese Toast, with a thick layer of aged Stone Meadow cheddar smoothed into a paste with Guinness and spread onto a slice of Gemelli’s Big Seedy bread, was topped with pickled shiitakes, carrots and watermelon radish.
Sc’orned — with a nod toward the creative juices of legendary local mixologist Sc’Eric Horner — was a rose infused margarita-style cocktail with white rye whiskey, white wheat whiskey, lime, rose syrup, orange syrup and house made falernum, a spicy syrup with almonds, ginger, cloves, lime and allspice. Rimmed with cracked black pepper and Himalayan pink salt, the glass contains not a drop of tequila — since Big Spring doesn’t make any. The Rump Steak Tartare with an aged whiskey remoulade needed something to kick its butt and Sc’orned did the trick. If you are not a fan of raw beef, Johnson will swap you out some vegetables, but don’t miss the delicious microgreens that master hunter-gatherer Jim Rhoa finds for Johnson in Sunbury at Spring Valley Garden.
A bright green Dill Collins was a sparkling match for the next course, Pan-Roasted Walleye served over Fasta Pasta ricotta gnocchi with a dill-butter wine sauce. The walleye, from the Seafood Shack in Centre Hall, was perfectly cooked and the flakes curled around the creamy gnocchi.
A viscous Spiced Pear cocktail preceded the next course, pear puree with gin, spiced rum, lemon and spiced syrup, which paired perfectly with Roasted Pork Belly from Bill Callahan’s Cow-a-Hen Farm served on top of roasted root vegetables with heirloom calypso beans from Patchwork Farm.
Winding down, a Cranberry Almond cordial, made with Tait Farm cranberry shrub and Big Springs’ own almond cordial, accompanied a slice of Current-Cranberry Bread Pudding served with a hot rum sauce based on duck fat rather than butter. The counterpoint of flavors worked and the plates were scraped clean.
If the thought of six different cocktails over a span of three hours is daunting, keep in mind that the drink servings are small, less than three ounces each, served in tiny beakers. The food portions are modest as well, and scaled to not have you burst any seams. And you don’t have to finish your plate; mom’s not there.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
Chef’s Tasting Menu
When: 6 p.m. Sundays, except for Dec. 25, Jan. 1 and Jan. 8
Where: Big Spring Spirits, 198 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte
Info: $60 per person; reservations required one week in advance