When you meet Jeff Cooper, it’s hard to fit him neatly into one category. He’s an artist with a mind for science. A history buff who worked in real estate appraisal. He’s a crafter of fine whiskey, but he self-proclaims he’s not much of a drinker. So how did this multi-faceted man end up creating a world-class whiskey in High Point that people come from all over the nation to taste?
To answer this question, you have to head out to Founding Fathers Distillery. The distillery is housed within a barn on the beautiful 100 acres of property at the Old Parsons Farm.
Inside the distillery, you’ll find two founding fathers – or at least two stills named after them. Ben Franklin, a 53-gallon still, and George Washington, a 135-gallon still, stand inside. It takes them around 12 hours to distill the whiskey Jeff has spent nearly four years getting down to a perfected science.
Want to try world-class whiskey?
Saturday (December 11) from 2pm to 5pm, you can tour Founding Fathers Distillery, enjoy their tasting room, and pick up your own bottle of Cooper’s Cut at their open house! More info here.
Located at 6116 Hickory Creek Road, High Point, NC 27263
The idea of distilling was presented to Jeff back in 1978, but it took 30 more years before all of the variables aligned for Jeff to pursue the interest. While he had a name for the company, an interest, and a plan, it wasn’t until Jeff met Marta Price that Founding Fathers Distillery found its home.
Marta met Jeff when he came out to appraise her property: the Old Parsons Farm. Her father had purchased the property back in 1960, and they learned the farm was originally owned by George Parsons, who was a regulator (a group of North Carolina colonists who opposed the taxation and fee system during the early stages of the Revolutionary War).
The farm, obtained through a land grant back in 1747, held as much as history as Jeff’s own family when it came the Revolution. Jeff and Marta eventually made the connection that Jeff’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Captain Thomas, was also a regulator who most likely knew George Parsons.
Almost as if it was the way history was meant to unfold – Founding Fathers Distillery got a home connected to the history it was named for, and Jeff and Marta fell in love, finding a home in one another.
Today, the two operate the Founding Fathers Distillery with all of the creativity and dedication of “mad scientists.” They have spent many days around the bar at Founding Fathers Distillery, test tasting small sips of whiskey, tweaking it until they perfected the magic process. Although as Jeff and Marta know, the magic is really in the math.
When it comes to whiskey distillation, the amount of chemical reactions, biological changes, and engineering taking place can be overwhelming. But Jeff, who loves science and math, and Marta, who was a psychotherapist and taught science in school, were motivated by the challenge to calculate their craft.
“We wanted to make a fine whiskey,” Marta explains, “not just any kind of moonshine you put in a jar.” To do that, Jeff and Marta had to start first and foremost with the water. After digging a deep well, and testing the water for months, they finally had their first ingredient for distillation.
Next comes the yeast, the key part of the fermentation process for the whiskey. The yeast, a live culture – similar to the sourdough starters many have in their kitchens – has to be stored and nurtured at the perfect conditions to remain useable.
“Sourdough yeast isn’t typically kept in a mountain vault in Switzerland,” Jeff jokes, explaining their yeast comes from a global supplier, who guards the yeast night and day. This might seem extreme, but it is the only way to guarantee consistency. And crafting the world’s finest whiskey only happens with consistency.
“We’re not in a hurry,” Jeff explains, “because when you get in a hurry, you tend to inconsistently and poorly distill all that work and expense.”
He mentions how the stills and the yeast have to be watched constantly, both to guarantee safety and to avoid stressing the yeast. Too much “stress” on the yeast can actually alter the flavor and makeup of the whiskey.
“The yeast is kind of a character,” Jeff teases. “You got to watch them. You want happy yeast. They are one little cell, but they have feelings too!”
That’s why it’s taken nearly four years for Jeff to craft the product Founding Fathers Distillery labels and sells today.
“It’s not pancakes in the morning,” Jeff laughs, saying it’s not a process you follow once, enjoy the fruits from, clean up, and move on. It’s something that requires years of dedicated study, precision, and calculation.
“We read all the books that could possibly help us... And actually had conversations with the authors,” Jeff says. He refers to books like the Whiskey Bible and another less popular book, Separation Sciences.
“It’s just all formulas,” Marta jokes about Separation Sciences. “It’s horrible.”
“No one likes to read it, but I think it's amazing,” Jeff admits.
And so far, Jeff’s dedication to the formulas of everything from pressure to temperature is paying off. After sending samples of enzymes (as well as a few finished product samples) to the global yeast company, Jeff found out from the experts, “Nobody gets clean ferments like this.”
Meaning oftentimes, whiskey distillers leave trace amounts of covertable sugars behind, resulting in less yield or poorer quality. While the whiskey industry operates at an average of 75% efficiency when it comes to distillation, Founding Fathers Distillery is consistently over 95% efficient.
Jeff admits after years of taste testing, tweaking, and trial and error – there was a moment when he knew their whiskey had crossed over from just noteworthy to exceptional.
“We turned up with something extraordinary,” he says. Cooper's Cut whiskey was born.
“The process is highly repeatable,” he continues. “You can do it over and over again. You repeat a process on the front end. You repeat the process in the middle, which is distillation. And then you repeat the process of the art, and the art is in the oak."
Once Jeff had cornered a process that was yielding the best possible whiskey, he was ready to move on to his second passion tied to the whiskey process: art.
What does he mean, “the art is in the oak?” To explain that Marta and Jeff turn to the Virgin American Oak barrels they store their distilled product within.
“Inside the barrel a lot of wonderful things go on,” he says. The wood of the barrel, once it’s been toasted and charred, can extract flavors ranging from vanilla to cherry, to butterscotch, to chocolate, to brown sugar, and more. Depending on the length of time and the type of char, different flavors come out more prominently. The art is in designing the whiskey and the wood for certain flavors – another piece of the whiskey magic Jeff adores.
As a photographer and writer, Jeff relishes in the art that goes into making near-perfection whiskey, and he loves the challenge of marrying science and art.
“Jeff is really an amazing scientist and artist,” Marta says with pride. “When I first met Jeff, I thought, ‘He's left and right-brained!’”
Jeff teases Marta that, as a psychotherapist, she’s still working on him.
"Marta is such a wonderful partner and component of the entire thought process,” he also says. “We are sort of like a Venn diagram."
Marta, who surprisingly has never liked whiskey, was the perfect taste tester for Jeff over the years. Her simple and honest, “It’s not ready,” would tell Jeff everything he needed to know to keep going back to the drawing board.
Not to mention, Marta, who loves art and history herself, has envisioned the Founding Fathers Distillery as a holistic experience – a place where history buffs can learn about our state’s contributions to the Revolution, and a farm where city-dwellers can unplug and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of our city’s natural world.
As one of only two farm-based distilleries in the state, Founding Fathers Distillery is drawing visitors from all over the nation to High Point. They are a stop on the Distillery Trail, a comprehensive list of farm and craft distilleries in the state. As their visitors to the distillery have grown, so has their confidence in the exceptional nature of their product.
“From three different sources, we had people say this whiskey is better than Papillon, a whiskey that costs $2,600 a bottle,” Marta says. “This whiskey is definitely a sleeper... Jeff has developed a process nobody else is using.”
“We’ve gotten the comments, ‘This is the best whiskey I’ve ever had,’” Jeff also says with pride.
“I tell people here, this whiskey will haunt you,” he jokes, comparing his artisan whiskey to beautiful images in art that haunt us forever.
“This whiskey is going to make history."
With long family histories in North Carolina, Jeff and Marta are happy their distillery ended up in High Point. The support they have received from Business High Point and individuals in the community has made them feel confident in their choice to locate the distillery here.
“The sincerity, the interest, and the quality of the people we’ve met in the city is amazing,” Jeff says. “Everything about High Point is growing.”
And as the city grows, Jeff and Marta hope Founding Fathers Distillery leaves its own mark on High Point’s legacy – just like their ancestors and predecessors, Captain Tom and George Parsons. After all, history is made by those who are willing to stay consistent, stay dedicated, and stay thirsty.
Like Marta says, “This whiskey is going to make history.”
This Saturday (December 11) from 2pm to 5pm, you can tour Founding Fathers Distillery, enjoy their tasting room, and pick up your own bottle of Cooper’s Cut at their open house! More info here. Located at 6116 Hickory Creek Road, High Point, NC 27263
To purchase a bottle of Cooper’s Cut or Deep River Rum, you can visit their website or tour Founding Fathers Distillery. Just call (336) 434-0149 to make an appointment.
Discover our High Points,
The HPD Team