By Caryn Anderson
Big Spring Spirits location offers stunning views of Talleyrand Park and nearby access to the Big Spring. Photo Courtesy: Big Spring Spirits
Happy Valley’s Big Spring Spirits just started construction on an exciting new endeavor: a 55,000-square-foot project at the former Joseph C. Finch Distillery in Pittsburgh that’s projected to open in July 2023. The existing building, which once held 50,000 barrels that were shipped up and down the rivers during the distillery’s operation from the late 1800s until it closed during prohibition, will be revitalized with this community-centered craft distillery’s expansion to the South Shore.
“We’re going to take that building and add onto it,” explained Big Spring Spirits founder Kevin Lloyd. “It will have a distillery at the anchor, and then it will also have a farmers market-type concept with a butcher and a bakery and artisans, in addition to a tasting room and a food hall concept, where we’ll have seven or eight vendors that will rotate annually.”
“Happy Valley has been the base of our business – and a strong one at that. People come to the region to visit for various reasons and it helps bring them to Big Spring Spirits, too,”
The Pittsburgh facility will also offer 10,000 square feet of event space, a private and public cigar club and a sixth-floor rooftop bar looking out over the city.
“It’s a pretty ambitious project,” Lloyd described the expansion. We spoke with this spirited Happy Valley entrepreneur to find out more about the expansion, the history of Big Spring Spirits and a glimpse into what the future might hold.
Here’s what he told us.
“Happy Valley has been the base of our business – and a strong one at that. People come to the region to visit for various reasons and it helps bring them to Big Spring Spirits, too,” said Lloyd.
So why Pittsburgh? The distillery has been part of the Steel City’s market since it opened and the brand has continued to grow in the region.
“I had a distributor that I worked with in Pittsburgh and the people of Pittsburgh really embrace local, craft products,” Lloyd explained. “We’ve had good luck in the wholesale market there, selling to restaurants and bars, and retail to individuals.”
In addition to sampling the spirits, you can also get food at the tasting room Tuesdays through Sundays. Photo: Big Spring Spirits
Not only does Big Spring currently have three salespeople right in the Pittsburgh area today, it’s also already getting good brand recognition. It is the sole spirits provider to Duquesne University, which recently opened a new sports arena.
Lloyd explained, “Our logo is all over the arena’s indoor space. We’ve had great exposure in Pittsburgh, which made this the next natural step for us. It was time for us to add manufacturing capability and the best place to do that for right now is Pittsburgh.”
Big Spring Spirits opened in July 2014 after overcoming a few early challenges. Lloyd noted, “Finding the right location, setting and building was one of our biggest challenges because we wanted to create a unique experience for people to come here.”
He added, “I originally looked for a place in State College, because that’s where I lived during most of my time here in Centre County, but I couldn’t find the right spot so I happened to expand my search and found this beautiful building. The local government has been tremendous to work with and the community has really embraced us.”
The distillery is located in the historic Match Factory building, which was once the home of the Pennsylvania Match Company during the mid to late-1800s. The distillery rents its 5,500-square-foot facility from The American Philatelic Society, which owns the property. One third of the facility is devoted to an indoor tasting room, with the remainder taken up by the production facility. There’s also additional outside seating.
“When we opened, we were the first LEED-certified distillery in Pennsylvania, second in the United States and third in the world. For people who aren’t familiar, that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and it speaks to our environmental stewardship.”
Lloyd recalled, “When we opened, we were the first LEED-certified distillery in Pennsylvania, second in the United States and third in the world. For people who aren’t familiar, that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and it speaks to our environmental stewardship.”
The company scored well because it refurbished a historic building and made use of an existing parking lot. But its environmental stewardship goes beyond that. Big Spring Spirits sources all of its grains locally, within a 20-mile radius of the distillery.
“We get corn, wheat and rye and we partner with a local dairy farmer who gets the grains for us, mills them and brings them to us. When we’re done with them, he takes the spent grains back to his farm and feeds that to his cows,” said Lloyd.
Big Spring Spirits sells its spirits online and in select PLCB stores. Photo: Big Spring Spirits
The facility also produces distillation byproducts that are high in alcohol, but not great in taste or smell. The farmer takes those back and burns them in an alcohol furnace in his milking parlor, to keep his workers and his cows warm in the winter.
Additionally, Big Spring has an energy recovery system that allows it to capture about half of the heat put into the system.
“We have a natural gas-fired boiler that heats our still and heats our cooker. Basically, all day long we heat and cool things. We’re able to capture the heat when we’re cooling with our condenser and put it back into our environmental controls in our building and into the heating of the tasting room and the production area itself. This allows us to save about 50% on our natural gas usage because of this system,” said Lloyd.
The environmental sustainability of Big Spring Spirits was important from the beginning. Remaining environmentally-conscious in everything from the site chosen as its home to how it operates in its production area has always been a priority. “Finding such a beautiful community here was a bonus,” said Lloyd. “I’m proud of our relationship with the community. People have embraced us as their local distillery and we’ve built a very loyal base of people who come in and they’re like family.”
“Finding such a beautiful community here was a bonus.”
During the pandemic, the business pivoted to making hand sanitizer. “We donated a lot of that to the Centre County Emergency Management Agency and they distributed it to first responders,” recalled Lloyd. “We had a program called Helping Hands, during which we sold hand sanitizer and donated a significant amount of money from that to the local YMCA anti-hunger program.”
As a result, Big Spring Spirits didn’t lose any employees during the pandemic. Instead, it shifted to running nearly 24-7 in an effort to give back to the community it loves.
“I’m happy and proud that we were able to support our community and our employees. I’m also proud of the partnership we’ve formed with our farmer, who provides a critical function for me. I’m happy that he helps our business, but I’m proud that we can help him too. We pay him for his services and that really makes a difference for his farm and his family,” Lloyd said.
Located about 100 yards from the Big Spring, which produces 11 million gallons of water daily, Big Spring Spirits is also passionate about its water.
“For us, the water is the perfect chemistry for the spirits that we make. It also imparts a unique flavor on our spirits. In wine making, there’s this concept of terroir – the flavors that the soil brings to the wines. All our spirits are at least 50% water and the Big Spring has a large and favorable impact on the spirits that we make,” said Llloyd.
Lloyd has a background in chemistry. After graduating from Penn State, he had another business that conducted FDA-regulated pharmaceutical research for human and animal health. After selling the business, he was searching for his next venture when the idea behind Big Spring Spirits struck. “There’s a lot of chemistry that goes into the distillery business and I thought that this could be a fun and different way to apply chemistry,” he explained.
The future for applying that chemistry looks bright. In addition to executing its new distillery in Pittsburgh, Lloyd eventually hopes to expand eastward. In addition to bringing new sales professionals onto the team in the eastern/central region of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Big Spring is considering a third distillery, several years down the road, in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia.
“For us, the water is the perfect chemistry for the spirits that we make. It also imparts a unique flavor on our spirits."
“In Pennsylvania we have the unique opportunity to sell as a manufacturer directly to individuals, restaurants and bars. Once we build out the Philadelphia area, we’ll look to expand distribution regionally and nationally. The most profitable geography for us right now is Pennsylvania and we’re going to saturate that as much as we can before growing regionally and nationally,” Lloyd said.
If you’re in Happy Valley, a visit to Big Spring Spirits is a must! Additionally, all the products are available online and ship for free in Pennsylvania by UPS. The distillery has products in approximately 50 Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores, where shoppers can also get a bottle for themselves.
To learn more about Big Spring Spirits, visit https://www.bigspringspirits.com/