Meet the Distiller Bringing Kentucky Bourbon to Camden, NJ

| © Cooper River Distillers
Kate Morgan

When James Yoakum first had his big idea, more than a handful of people thought he was crazy. Downtown Camden, after all, seemed an unlikely place to build a whiskey distillery. But Yoakum knew the city was ready for a new idea, and his risk paid off. Yoakum started Cooper River Distillers, the first legal distillery in Camden (and the second in the state) since Prohibition.

Yoakum, a Kentucky native, didn’t know much about bourbon, ironically, until after he moved to Philadelphia. “Everyone assumed I knew all about bourbon,” he says. “So at some part I started trying to learn about [it], started really enjoying the drink and its history. Then I started getting more interested in spirits in general—the history, the people, the laws—and I realized I wanted a job where I made something with my hands. It all came together from there.”

Yoakum looked for a location in Camden for two main reasons. First, NJ’s laws are friendlier to distillers than the laws in Pennsylvania, where he was living at the time. Second, he knew that everyone in South Jersey has ties to Camden. “Most other towns are cookie-cutter suburbs,” he says. “Camden is not. ‘Made in Camden’ carries some weight because everyone in the area has some kind of Camden connection.”

Cooper River Distillers does things the old-fashioned way, with a copper alembic pot still made in Spain, direct flame heat, and locally sourced molasses, corn, rye, and barley. They started with rum—one of the quickest spirits to make from still to bottle—and named it “Petty’s Island Rum,” after an island in the Delaware with a reputation as a one-time layover location for passing pirates.
“As we ‘grew up’ and more of our aged products [such as aged rum and bourbon] matured and came out in bottles, the community of local drinkers and bars and liquor stores have embraced the idea of local spirits,” Yoakum says. “We’ve made it easy by making really delicious products.”
The most popular of those products, when it’s available, is the bourbon. Yoakum’s favorite is the Rye Oak Reserve Rum, aged in rye whiskey barrels.

“It’s totally different from anything else out there,” Yoakum says. “Good and unique are hard to get right together, but it’s always what we’re shooting for.”

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