One of the more frequent questions James Yoakum, founder of Cooper River Distillers, encounters is why he would start a distillery in Camden, New Jersey. There’s really no getting around the question, and people’s disbelief isn’t unfounded. It was named the most dangerous city in the country in 2004, and the roots of the city’s decline can be found in the post-war urban exodus as well as political corruption. And that’s about where people’s knowledge of the city ends.
But that’s not entirely fair to the people living in and working to restore the city. The relationship between the city’s citizens and their police force has improved exponentially, reducing crime rates across the board, with a drastic reduction in violent crime. They’ve been so successful, President Obama made a special visit to the city in 2014 to praise the improving relations between the people and the police. There’s been such a marked improvement in living in the city that some are finally proposing that Camden is ripe for a revival. And this brings us back to James Yoakum and Cooper River Distillers.
The distillery operates out of a moderately sized garage just off Camden’s Main Street. Just inside to the right of the door are stacks of boxes of molasses for Petty’s Island Rum and on the left, liquid left to ferment in giant tubs. The still and the bar face each other in the middle of the space. Behind them, office and sitting space for the staff and bottles of alcohol available for purchase. Along the back of the garage are stacks of aging spirits, including an as yet unreleased bourbon the Kentucky born and raised Yoakum is particularly excited about. It’s a small operation, with only four employees, including Yoakum. It’s certainly not the kind of thing you expect to see in a garage in Camden, New Jersey, but the city and the state are all the better for having it.
The Road to Camden
Camden wasn’t Yoakum’s first choice when he was first looking to open his own distillery. He lives in Philadelphia, so his initial research focused on opening in Pennsylvania. What he found was unfriendly regulation and restriction in Pennsylvania liquor laws, making it prohibitively difficult to start an operation that he would have enjoyed.
He looked to other states and was encouraged by what he found in the New Jersey books. Put simply, New Jersey hadn’t updated its laws concerning distilleries since the end of Prohibition. The biggest hurdle the state had was a higher fee for a liquor license, but after that, Yoakum found exactly the freedom he wanted.
The other attraction to New Jersey was self-distribution. Cooper River, while dedicated to sales, doesn’t have a dedicated sales staff. Most of the time it’s Yoakum himself who makes sales calls, goes looking for new customers, makes deliveries, and does tastings. Having the option for self-distribution, while more time consuming, is better for a small distillery, since they won’t have the initial financial drain of needing a full-time marketing staff. Plus, Yoakum gets to put a face to the Cooper River name, and consumers today are far more willing to give money to an owner they can shake hands with than a faceless corporation.
Yoakum had two things that led him to Camden specifically. One was his desire that his distillery have an urban setting. If this was going to happen, Camden was the only real urban choice. The second factor was his wife. She was a teacher in Camden, so their familiarity with the city went beyond seeing it across the river. They knew the neighborhoods and the people, and were in touch with the more encouraging trends in Camden, alleviating whatever fear other people might have felt coming to the city.
Let’s be clear though. Moving to Camden wasn’t as simple as deciding. The work still left to do extended beyond what might normally be expected of a new business and a lot of that work was going to fall to Yoakum.
Setting Up Shop
Because Cooper River Distillers was a business unlike any other trying to open in Camden, and because there was no (legal) distilling in New Jersey up until a few short years ago, Yoakum and the municipal government had to work together to get the distillery working. The main difficulty they had to overcome wasn’t political resistance or legal red tape, it was the simple-in-theory, complicated-in-practice hurdle of having no precedence.
Having no precedence meant that Yoakum had to work with the city inspectors to figure out exactly what up-to-code meant in a distillery’s case. So the process of opening Cooper River took longer than it would have elsewhere not because people didn’t want it opened, but because the city didn’t know what “open” safely meant.
For example, part of the distilling process would have seen Cooper River needing to dispose of spent grain and unpalatable alcohol. Where other cities might have guidelines for what’s safe to put down a sewage drain or what can be taken by waste services, Camden had no previous ordinance or law for governing distilleries.
Another example, this one having to do with the building itself. Cooper River uses an open flame still, which means under their nostalgic but utilitarian copper still, contained by four brick walls, there’s an open flame. The city of Camden has never encountered anyone with that setup, meaning new documentation was needed to say whether or not this was something Cooper River could do and not burn down a city block.
A lot of the work for getting permission to open the business fell to Yoakum. The city wasn’t unwilling to open a distillery, they just didn’t know how, so getting the proper documentation and permissions wasn’t one of their priorities. It was up to Yoakum to stay on top of the city and push to make progress for the distillery.
We should also mention though, opening the first legal distillery in Camden was a double-edged sword. Yoakum’s endeavor was certainly historic, but that historicity also meant opening took much longer than he originally planned for. We’re talking a couple months morphing into two years. But it’s Yoakum’s hope that now that it’s happened and Cooper River is producing regularly, other distilleries can use his example to streamline the process.
Benefits of Camden
Yoakum is well aware of what Camden’s reputation has done for his business. Their location has generated attention, something that’s extraordinarily difficult for an upstart distillery. What we’ll say though, defying our more cynical expectations for the press, is most media attention has been positive. That’s a feat, considering last time Rolling Stone was in Camden, they didn’t even use the city’s real name in their headline.
We’ll say it again here; it’s significant that the greatest municipal difficulty for Yoakum wasn’t convincing politicians to let him found a distillery. Yoakum was happy with how supportive the city was, even if he was a little frustrated with how long it took to get his doors open. People were surprised he wanted the location, but no one tried to talk him out of it.
The community’s been supportive as well. The Friday and Saturday happy hours Cooper River hosts are always well populated by local workers and college students. The distillery regularly hosts parties to celebrate the release of new spirits as well as open mics. Their distillery tours are popular as well, both with people who are have a general interest in distilling and those who are a little more business minded. They’ve even hosted workshops in an effort to expand education on distilling, since Yoakum cited the shortage of good information and training as something he had to overcome when he first set out to start the distillery.
Cooper River also represents a return to the city’s foundation. Camden rose to prominence thanks to its manufacturing and fell into disrepair because the factories and shipbuilding either closed or moved and the people in charge were too greedy to put the citizens before the profits. It’s not a surprise that Camden had such a rapid and drastic decline, since coupling political corruption and blue-collar emigration has never worked out for a city. But Cooper River is a significant return to form for the city. In a city where they used to make things, Cooper River is bringing back some production.
The Future of Cooper River
For Yoakum, the plan was always to make whiskey, specifically bourbon. It’s what he’s most interested in and passionate about and it’s why he opened a distillery in the first place. Don’t misunderstand, he’s proud of their rums and rye and his favorite thing they’ve distilled so far was a whiskey that was part of their Single Run Series. His favorite is the Tuckahoe Porter Whiskey, which is delicious and interesting and running out quickly. But he got into this game to make bourbon, and it’s what he’s been patiently waiting to bottle. The good news is, he won’t have to wait much longer, as the bourbon’s due for a February release.
If the bourbon’s something you want to get in on, we recommend you act fast (we’re big fans of the style in general, so we’ll be keeping our eyes open). Cooper River has a history of quickly selling out of whatever new spirit they’re releasing. Their first rum bottling sold quicker than they could keep it on the shelves. From there, they used the profits to expand production until they could keep a consistent supply. Their first Single Run Whiskey Series came out last year and each iteration always sells quickly. And it shouldn’t be a surprise, since rye’s enjoying a moment in the sun, that their rye bottling earlier this year sold out seemingly instantaneously.
A good rule of thumb for finding Cooper River’s spirits is, the closer you get to Camden, New Jersey, the more likely you’ll be able to find their product. They’re slowly expanding, having just gotten in with a distributor that services Maryland and D.C., but your surest bet is New Jersey. The hands down best way is to come to the distillery. They host happy hours and the occasional public event, with their next one being the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They’re open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and there will be live music, rotating cocktail specials, and giveaways, plus you’ll be able to buy their spirits direct from the source. This is an opportunity we suggest you take advantage of. We’ve already seen how quickly their bottles sell out.
But every time their spirits sell out, it’s only good news for Cooper River. When their first rum sold out, Yoakum used the profits to expand production so he could keep Petty’s Island Rum on shelves consistently. The Single Run Whiskeys keep money in the distillery and the rye whiskey sales mean Yoakum has cash to boost rye whiskey production. And it’s into production that Yoakum puts most of his energy. He’s happy for the revenue and reputation the distillery’s bar has afforded him, but ultimately he views his facility as a factory, so that’s where most of the effort’s going to go when it’s time to expand. And when it is time to expand, Yoakum doesn’t plan on leaving Camden.