Steve Cox, B.A.’81

Accidental Entrepreneur

By Carol Olechowski

Steve Cox, B.A.'81

Pull up the website for Adirondack Distilling Company, and you’ll see what looks like the setup for a joke: “A doctor, a lawyer and a political consultant walk into a bar …” But it’s actually the story of how Adirondack Distilling got its start, says co-founder Steve Cox.

“I’m the lawyer,” acknowledges the Oneida County, N.Y., assistant district attorney. “I met Jordan Karp when he managed the 1996 Congressional campaign of my then-boss, Michael Arcuri, B.A.’81. One day, when Jordan was really fed up with D.C., he texted me, ‘Potato vodka – let’s make it.’”

Karp and Cox “visited distilleries around New York, watched YouTube videos and took a distilling course at Cornell University.” They drafted a business plan with assistance from the SUNY IT Small Business Development Center, which serves five Mohawk Valley counties, and recruited third partner Bruce Elwell, D.O., Cox’s longtime friend. 

The partners’ decision to hand-craft potables from local ingredients “made good economic sense and a much more compelling story to market the products” in the immediate area, observes Cox. “We found strong demand for artisan, local, quality products that aren’t about to knock Grey Goose off the shelf but have developed a growing, loyal following.”

Adirondack Distilling’s vodka; gin; and 1,000 Stills White Whisky, which débuted last February, are also gluten free. With gluten tolerance “a larger issue overall,” Cox notes, “it was a convenient by-product of our choice to use 100-percent corn as our mashing grain that it was gluten free. We now have what we believe to be the only gluten-free gin in New York; this year, we rolled out bourbon whisky that is also gluten free.”

Adirondack Distilling Co-founders
Bruce Elwell, D.O.; Steve Cox, B.A.’81; and Jordan Karp co-founded Adirondack Distilling in Utica, N.Y.

Currently marketed in California, Connecticut and New York, Adirondack Distilling products “should be in four to five more states very soon. We have already made inroads with distribution channels in Europe and in China. China is the easier market to break into; American craft whiskies are all the rage there,” explains Cox.

Since its founding in 2011, Adirondack Distilling has “won and placed well in several major competitions,” he adds. “The SIP Awards in Las Vegas are judged by actual consumers – a notoriously difficult group to win over – and our vodka won platinum, the top award available. We won double-gold in the New York State Fair Wine & Spirits Competition and took a bronze at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. Our bottle and packaging even won a gold in that same category.”

The distillery’s workforce includes the partners, their wives, a full-time employee and several part-time staff. There are plans for expansion; “our building was designed to house a second still, which would about double our capacity and will likely be added in 2015. We will add personnel as we go.”

As a political-science major at UAlbany, Cox minored in journalism, studying with “the great Bill Kennedy and Bill Rowley.” He applied for admission to the School of Business but “didn’t get in.” Still, Cox “greatly enjoyed” his University experience. “I was later a newspaper reporter for a while, and I continue to write every day,” says the 1996 University at Buffalo Law School graduate.  

A self-described “accidental entrepreneur,” Cox believes that “no idea is too far out there to become the foundation of a sound business plan. If you are not a business person already, there are plenty of resources to guide you.”