April 19, 2014 In The News

Something new brewing for Cooper River Distillers

The wait is over — mostly — for Cooper River Distillers.

The business got its final approval earlier this week to open and begin making liquor. But it still will be a month to six weeks before you can make a mojito with rum crafted in Camden; 6,000 pounds of thick brown molasses starts cooking down to clear rum Monday.

The final distillate, Petty’s Island Rum, is the first spirit produced under a new state law meant to spur small-scale craft distilling businesses in New Jersey.

When James Yoakum sells his first bottle, the liquor will be the first legally produced in Camden since Prohibition.

The craft license, which allows for production of up to 20,000 gallons annually, costs almost $1,000 a year, far cheaper than the license for mass-produced liquor that can cost more than $12,000 a year.

State Sen. Donald Norcross, a resident of Camden, introduced the new law and got it through the Legislature after learning of Yoakum’s plan to open a distillery in the city.

“Cooper River (Distillers) is the first success story of modernizing our outdated liquor laws,” Norcross said Friday. “Here you have a local business utilizing local resources to build an industry.”

“James Yoakum is the trailblazer who will open the door to new jobs, new production and yet another reason to visit New Jersey.”

While Yoakum, a South Philadelphia resident and Wharton graduate, was happy for the help, the rest of the approval process was filled with bumps.

“When Camden says something will take a week, who knows?” said the 29-year-old of slow-moving reviews by the city’s building and fire departments.

Yoakum filed paperwork to open his business on North 4th Street in downtown Camden in August 2012.

City offices were closed in observance of Good Friday; a message left for a municipal spokesman was not immediately returned.

Despite the delays, Yoakum is looking ahead. So is David Foster, president of Cooper’s Ferry, a nonprofit development agency that works with the city.

“He understood this was a better place to be,” said Foster, referring to Pennsylvania’s Byzantine state-run liquor distribution system.

In New Jersey, Yoakum will be allowed to sell directly to licensed bars, restaurants and liquor stores. He’s permitted to sell by the drink or give away samples, but that’s not his intent for the near future.

Foster said Yoakum also intends to “brand himself” by being part of the revitalization of Camden, which needs to attract small-business owners.

“We’re excited to try it and a lot of people are interested,” Foster added.

Yoakum has made test runs of various liquors. Thursday he experimented with a 90-gallon malt whiskey batch.

Monday’s rum production will be the first attempt to make a return on the $60,000 investment Cooper River Distillers has made in supplies, from a forklift to a copper still hand-fashioned in Turkey.

Along with the molasses, Yoakum will add water and yeast to produce fermentation. The batch gets heated, then cooled, condensing the alcohol vapors into rum. Next will come a clear rye, followed by a dark, aged rum.