Cooper River Distillers Mixes it up at Young Professionals Night
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Level up your evening’s entertainment with five ways to upgrade your art auction experience at Benefit 2016, February 5 – 6 at Crane Arts.
The first – Young Professional’s Night on February 5 – is your key to meeting, mingling, and networking with the city’s chic crowd of emerging entrepreneurs.
After mixing with the crowds, mix with local spirits through tastings by vendors like Cooper River Distillers. Just a ferry ride across the Delaware, this Camden manufacturer of malted merriment overtakes a former auto garage on Fourth Street. An understated white door leads inside to pirate cabin comfort, where the small staff turns out rum, rye whiskey, and bourbon. We spoke with Assistant Distiller Ben Donia about the distiller’s recent history and the process behind making their product line.
Ben: This is Cooper River Distillers’ world headquarters. Right now we’re working on a bourbon mash. First thing we do is we boil water, and then we add our grain to that water. Let them gelatinize for about an hour, and we’re trying to cool them down to about 160 degrees so that we can add malted barley. And malted barley has an enzyme which will convert all the starches into sugars. So essentially what we’re doing is providing sugar for the yeast to eat, and the yeast will turn those sugars into ethanol. We’ll distill the ethanol out and create spirits. It’s sort of like real basic chem, which is awesome.
Erica: With really excellent results.
Ben: Yes, super excellent results. So we’re making a whiskey today, but we’re also making rum. [Alcohol] comes off in three different stages, the first is called heads, second stage is called hearts, and the third stage is called tails. What we’re after is the hearts – it’s actually a trade term. Some of it will get put into a barrel, some of it will get bottled as our spice rum. We let it sit on apple, ginger, cloves, vanilla beans, coffee. And all the whiskey hearts will go into barrels, and then when they’re finished aging we’ll bottle those and that’ll be finished whiskey. We’re also doing some neat co-op things where we’re getting some finished wine from breweries, distilling that into brandy, and we’re getting craft beer from craft breweries. We’ll distill those and it’s technically a malt whiskey, but a lot of those craft beer flavors come through. We’ve done an IPA and a porter and a California steam beer. And the next one we’re gonna do is an Oktoberfest.
Erica: You said you’re doing a rye whiskey and a bourbon. Is that the first time you’ll be tackling those?
Ben: We’ve been making it all along. So the barrel that we’re going to pull in March we filled last February. It’s just a little bit slower and we want to make sure we’re taking the time to get the recipe right and we’re able to replicate what we were doing. Rum we figured out really quickly and knew we could produce it over and over again. And we knew we had to produce something in the meantime while everything’s aging so you can keep the lights on and have some cash flow.
Erica: Is that the whole process?
Ben: Yep, everything is done here with three distillers, so we bottle it here, we label it here, the black seals over the corks are done one at a time by hand. We self-distribute and we go out and we all do the sales. It’s really all done in house by the three of us.
Erica: It’s pretty hands-on it seems.
Ben: It’s very hands-on. It’s nice because we get to be distillers and chemists and tour guides and salesmen and plumbers and carpenters, electricians, engineers. If there’s a problem we have to solve it.
Erica: Very cool. I can see why this work is so rewarding. You get to have every skill that you can possibly tackle in life. Now how many years have you been around?
Ben: We got licensed in April 2014. So a year and a half or so.
Erica: Super new. It looks like you guys have been entrenched in this building for a while. I’m impressed.
Ben: It’s an old auto building, so it’s got a lot of character and love to it. It’s a small space, so you see right now production’s happening in the middle of the floor. We’ll turn it into a cocktail bar. Today’s Friday so the chairs are out here and we were open last night too. So we use every inch of the space. The only way to go is up.
Erica: Why did you choose Camden?
Ben: Our owner James [Yoakum] was in PA and he went to college here and decided he wanted to do this, and the laws in PA are pretty tight. In New Jersey we’re allowed to go and do personal sales and be involved in the process and do self-distribution. Where in PA we sell to the PLCB and it owns all the liquor. Specifically Camden, James’ wife was working in the area. And it has a name for itself already whether it be good or bad. When you tell somebody that you’ve opened up a distillery in Camden there’s always a follow up question. It’s never, ‘Oh, well of course you did.’ Also Camden has this history of industry, things happen here, things are made here. And that’s sort of 90% of what we’re doing. At the end of the day, we’re only open to the public four hours a week. So on Monday morning I’m in here and I’m manufacturing. Which is cool.
Erica: Kind’ve like the Oscar Wilde quote: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Having a reputation is important no matter what it is.
Ben: You’re not going to decrease the reputation. If it gets better, it gets better. If it stays the same, then you brought something better to the environment. You should see it on a Friday night when the bar is full of 100 people and they’re all in here, and they’re young people and old people, and they’re sharing stories and sharing drinks in an old auto garage. In a completely foreign environment. It’s very meta.
Erica: Do you get crowded on a Friday night?
Ben: We do. We have a very nice vibe. We have some regulars. We also have some adventurous people who come out because they think Camden’s a little bit scary. So they show up and are all very friendly. There’s a whole group of people who live here who have been waiting for 35 years to see it turn around and get back to the glory. And it’s really just everyone from all walks of life and they come and share a drink.
Erica: Now going back to what you said about the fact that you can act as sales conduits for the distillery. Do you find that having that personal connection makes you stay closer to the art form that’s involved in making this product?
Ben: It definitely makes you more proud of your product. Running the still is definitely an art form. There’s only one valve, you turn the heat up or down, so it’s a lot of sniffing and smelling and making intelligent choices on what product is coming out of the still. And when you get to sell that, it keeps you closer to the consumer, closer to the retailers. We know who’s selling it, we know who’s not selling it. Our retailers who do really well with it, we’re funneling them more booze and trying to keep them well stocked, and then the ones that we haven’t heard from in six months, we’ll go in and try to help them sell it. We’ll try to do a tasting, try to help them market the product. Which is nice because we can have a firsthand account of who’s got it, who doesn’t and we get a relationship with the retailers.
Erica: That’s gotta be one of the perks of working in a smaller business like that, just having a moment to moment connection.
Ben: You’re excited about it and you get to share that with other people. I’m telling you all this information that I’ve told other people, I’m just as excited to tell you about it as I am every other person that walks in the door.
Erica: I like hearing that. It’s very rare.
Ben: I come into work on Monday and I’m sitting in a room with a still. It’s not the worst thing. The job changes minute to minute so I’m always doing something different.
Erica: I read in your bio that you were originally doing political science and that you ended up here, so that must have been an interesting switch for you.
Ben: I started college in engineering, so I’m very familiar with the lab. And I decided that that wasn’t for me. I didn’t like coding and sitting in front of a computer all day. The ends you’re creating something, but the means you’re typing. I wasn’t very complacent and I didn’t like it so I started taking some history classes because I knew I liked that. And then I got into the political science school where we got to argue about history which was really cool.
Erica: I’m sure that helps you sell products down the road and learn to represent yourself.
Ben: The college experience just teaches you how to communicate. It was summer in my junior year of college, and I was looking for an internship, and I found out James was starting this up so I offered to come intern for free. And in the meantime he hired me and I’ve been working here ever since. Since July 2014.
Erica: So you’ve seen the grassroots beginning of it. What was it like just getting started here?
Ben: I know James was in here. Working through the politics of getting a small business open. Getting the permits, and the okay to just start. Took him a super long time, so he got started in April. My first day was in June. I came and helped out with an open house we were having…Which was fantastic because I got to start at the beginning. We were bottling and we only had one product. And now we’ve got six different rums, and we’ve got whiskey coming out. The rye whiskey is going to be bottled in February, I made that rye whiskey a year ago.
Erica: That’s crazy. It’s like having a constant time capsule you keep getting to open up.
Ben: The job teaches you to be very patient. You put in the leg work a year ago. When you use a 53 gallon barrel, the minimum’s three [years]. So we’ve got some stuff we won’t see for a few years. I’m only 22.
Erica: You get to age with the product that you make.
Ben: As the whiskey ages a year, maybe my beard will fill in.
Erica: Do you remember the first product you were making? Ben: It was our white rum. Completely unaged white spirit fermented from molasses. White rum isn’t the nicest to drink. Not everybody has a glass of it on the rocks and sips it. So it’s a little bit of a hard sell. People were saying this is nice but you need to make it spiced. And the entire time we were making the white rum we were putting it in barrels as well. And then after about eight or nine months of working we had some aged rum out.
Erica: Can you tell me a little bit about the stories behind some of the names, like Petty’s Island Rum?
Ben: The brand name on the rum is Petty’s Island Rum. Petty’s Island is a 300 acre island in the middle of the Delaware River. When you name a rum it has to sound a little tropical. When you get away from the Delaware Valley it sounds like a rum. But when you’re in the area, people know Petty’s Island. There’s a bridge that goes there, and a shipping terminal and there’s a wildlife sanctuary and there’s all these bird watchers who go out there. There’s the local contact, as well as when you get away from it it still resonates. The label shows both skylines. It’s got the Philadelphia skyline and the Camden skyline with some recognizable landmarks and Petty’s Island in the middle. The island was purchased from Native Americans by a Quaker woman for kegs of gun powder and rum. It has a rum connection.
Erica: I read something about Petty’s Island, that there were Fishtown fishermen that somehow got involved with trading off the island, and now you’re coming to our event in Fishtown, which has a nice trade off. You’re bringing Petty’s Island back to Fishtown.
Ben: It’s super cool. Right now they’re using it as an oil shipping terminal. The north side is an oil farm, and the south side is a wildlife reserve.
Erica: That’s an odd juxtaposition.
Ben: There used to be a bunch of islands in the Delaware there and they’ve all since eroded. They’ve helped maintain the structure of the island so it hasn’t eroded away. I’ve been on the southern side of the island on a nature tour, on the beach with the Delaware River at my feet, in between the two cities.
Erica: Do you have a rundown of your favorite bars you can guide people to find your products?
Ben: The website always has the most up to date information. We’re in a wide range, we’re budding into Philly. It’s more expensive for bars to buy in Philadelphia…In Jersey there’s a ton of different bars and liquor stores – about 70.
Erica: In a year and a half you guys have really spread out. Now you also participate in an art crawl on Third Thursdays in Camden.
Ben: There’s a couple of different art galleries that are open. We’re right near Rutgers University-Camden, so Rutgers is involved. We open up and do our cocktail bar. It’s an art, it’s a craft product.
Press Bid to Play at Benefit 2016, February 5 – 6 at Crane Arts.