Thursday Barlogue: Cooper River Distillers, Camden, NJ
As you know from my other barlogues, the “feel” of a bar or restaurant is very important to me because I honestly believe that it makes or breaks the experience. When I visited Cooper River Distillers last week to talk with distillery manager Ben Donia, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew that they had opened 3 years ago on 4th Street in Camden not far from Rutgers University, Cooper Hospital, and the Hall of Justice, and that their building was a former auto garage that installed car stereos many years ago. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I walked through the door into a very inviting space. Cooper River Distillers has a large, comfortable bar as well as seating that includes high tops, long tables, and couches and chairs. All the steps of distillation take place right in that room, with the 80 gallon copper pot alimbic still from Spain being situated right in the center of everything. This made me feel as if I was connected in some way to the entire process. There’s also a good-sized retail area that carries their spirits, glasses, clothing, and books.
Once I was situated at the bar I had an opportunity to take a look at the cocktail menu which is fairly impressive. There are 15 drinks on the list (a combination of classic and modern), in addition to 4 rum and cokes, flights and spirits on the rocks. The distillers law here in New Jersey mandates that Cooper River only sell what they make, which means that no additional spirits other than those distilled on the premises can be served. According to Donia, this means that bartenders need to be more creative when making drinks, and guests need to be more open minded when ordering them. This encourages lots of dialogue across the bar to figure out which of Cooper River’s cocktails will approximate something a guest is accustomed to drinking. The creativity comes in the form of simple syrups, fresh juices, infusions, and bitters, all of which play a major role in building the drinks on the menu. I sampled 2 drinks while I was there that day; the first was a Dark & Stormy made with Driftwood Spiced Rum, and the second was a Honey in a Sidecar with honey infused Copper & Vine brandy, lemon, and a sugar rim. Both were excellent, but I’ve been thinking about that sidecar since last week.
It quickly became evident through my conversation with Donia, that everyone at Cooper River Distillers takes a great deal of pride in the products they create. One of the reasons that the Camden location appealed to them was because they loved the idea of bringing the science and chemistry of distilling a truly hand-made product to an empty garage in the middle of the city. They’ve been very well received by their guests, who on Friday evenings include people who work nearby at the prosecutors’ office, the university, or the medical center and school. Saturdays bring a different crowd who are more the type that enjoy visiting local breweries and distilleries to see what they have to offer. Many guests are the same people who are buying Cooper River’s products in stores, most of which are local, but steadily pushing towards towards Atlantic City and Jersey City. Visit Cooper River’s website for a full list of their products, many of which use locally sourced ingredients such as rye and corn from Jersey farmers, molasses from Lancaster PA, wine (for their brandy) from Unionville Vineyards, and local craft beers that are used as a substitute for the mash that begins the distillation process in their Single Run Series whiskies. I had the opportunity to taste 2 of these, one of which was made from October Fish beer, barrel aged for 7 months, and the other from a local IPA. I loved both, but I was particularly drawn to the hoppy, floral flavors in the one distilled from the IPA. The next Single Run Series will be made from a Tuckahoe Stout; the release party is scheduled for March 18th, and includes tastings, bands, and a food truck.
In terms of food, NJ laws prohibit distillers from selling it on site, but guests are more than welcome to bring their own or order from local restaurants. NJ laws also require guests to take a tour in order to be able to drink, but that’s fairly easy to accomplish with everything being located right there in the same room. Tours times for Fridays and Saturdays are also available online. When I was there last week it happened to be an unseasonably warm day for February. The bay doors were open, at least a dozen guests had stopped by while I was sitting there, drinks were flowing, and the atmosphere was warm, relaxed, and very comfortable. Donia and Andrew, who was behind the bar, both did a fantastic job of interacting with customers, many of whom seemed to be regulars. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative experience, and I hope to return very soon with family and friends. Cooper River Distillers is a short and easy walk from the Patco stop, making it very accessible as a destination of its own, or as a stop before dinner for drinks on your way into Philadelphia.
Cooper River Distillers 34 North 4th Street Camden NJ 856-295-1273