Even before James Yoakum opened his distillery in a former garage in downtown Camden, he knew he wanted to offer tastings and sell cocktails. It just took some time for his product line to catch up with his vision.
"For the longest time, we only had rum drinks," he said.
But after the rum - and spiced rum - came rye, and whiskey produced in small batches as Yoakum and his colleagues at Cooper River Distillers experimented with flavors and recipes.
Two years after Yoakum first opened his doors in the converted Fourth Street garage, he has hired three employees and the company has established itself as a favorite happy-hour spot for Camden's daytime workers. This month, Yoakum unveiled his Cooper River rye whiskey, a new spirit that will allow him to offer more cocktails.
"We're different from Victor's, and we're different from Hank's," Yoakum said, citing the city's other downtown bars. "If you've been working in Camden for years, I think you appreciate having another option."
Yoakum started hosting Friday happy hours in the converted Fourth Street garage almost from the beginning. When enough people kept coming, he added Saturdays. On April 16, he will host a party from 1 to 8 p.m. to celebrate the launch of the whiskey, with a food truck and live music.
Yoakum, a Kentucky native who lives in South Philadelphia, went to the University of Pennsylvania and worked in real estate before starting the business. He decided to put his distillery in Camden because New Jersey's laws were friendlier to his kind of business. Camden is also easily accessible to the other side of the river, and its history as an industrial city appealed to him.
"Camden has a story to tell," he said. "And I think of this as an industrial business. We manufacture a product here."
Cooper River Distillers benefited from a 2013 bill sponsored by then-State Sen. Donald Norcross, which introduced craft distillery licenses that cost a fraction of the annual fee required for mass-produced liquor. The law also legalized in-house liquor sales, which allows Yoakum to sell directly to bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. He can also give away samples and sell cocktails, provided they include his spirits.
Yoakum's products are carried in about 75 bars, restaurants, and stores in New Jersey, as well as a handful in Philadelphia. He said the sales generated by the weekly cocktail hours now make up more than half of the company's revenue.
Cooper River Distillers produces about 200 bottles per week, but much of that goes straight into barrels to be aged for a year or more. The first batch of rye whiskey, 87 bottles released last week, is already half gone.
"Defining ourselves was a bit of a problem at first - people weren't sure if we were a bar or a factory," he said. "But now, people who walk by want to come in and have a drink."