Camden, N.J. has a new craft distillery, possibly the first legal distillery the city has ever had. Cooper River Distillers opened its garage doors to the public for the first time last Thursday night, and I was there for a taste of Petty’s Island Rum and a chat with owner and chief distiller James Yoakum about his choice of locations and his commitment to local ingredients.

If you’re not from the region, your image of Camden is probably one of poverty and crime. That’s understandable. It is now one of the poorest cities in the country with a high crime rate. It wasn’t always that way, though. Camden has a rich history before industry started moving out of the city post World War 2. I’ve lived just a handful of miles from Camden most of my life, and like everyone else of my generation who grew up in this region, we all have family ties to Camden.

For me, it’s my great-grandmother on my father’s side. I remember visiting her row home in Camden as a very young child. She was the last of my family to live in the city. As I spoke with others at the opening, I heard a similar story over and over. Everyone had a relative who lived in Camden a generation or two ago, and each person said they were excited to see a business like the distillery choose Camden as its home. It seemed to fill people with optimism for the city’s future.

When I asked Yoakum (pictured at left with a signed bottle of his rum) why he chose Camden for the distillery, he told me New Jersey’s laws are beneficial for the type of business he wants to run and Camden has a history that he can tune into.

His first product, Petty’s Island Rum, honors Camden’s history with its name. Petty’s Island is a 300-acre island in the Delaware River in between Camden and Philadelphia. It’s now a nature preserve, but the island is famous in the region for its legends of days gone by, including the story that Blackbeard docked his pirate ship there. 

Yoakum plans to name most of the products that come from Cooper River Distillers to tie in with the history of Camden. Un-aged rum is the first spirit to come from distillery, but aged rum, rye, bourbon, and perhaps fruit brandy are all in the plans for what comes next.

The ingredients for Cooper River Distillers will be local whenever possible. The molasses for the rum isn’t something that can be found in the region, but the corn and rye for the first bottles have come from local, individual farmers, and he plans to continue to work with local farmers to source those ingredients. And, if he ever gets around to the fruit brandy he spoke about, he’ll use upon local producers for the fruit.

For opening night, Yoakum had “60-ish bottles” of Petty’s Island Rum ready for tasting and sales. He had a bigger than expected turn out for the event and sold out of the first batch that was made for the public. In the future (when he has more rum to sell), he’ll be selling to bars and liquor stores, as well as opening up the distillery again to the public during Camden’s 3rd Thursday Art Crawl.

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