Aaron Polsky, Founder of LiveWire Cocktail Company
The best cocktails have long been conceived out of necessity and creative spirits behind the bar, whether due to prohibition or a lack of material. Now, with one of the worst hits in the industry’s history in the rear-view mirror, bartending is evolving. Canned cocktails are the latest craze, bringing signature drinks from famous bartenders across the country right to your living room and helping bartenders gain recognition on a new national scale.
This is the goal for Aaron Polsky, founder of LiveWire Cocktail Company, bartender and student of rock'n'roll. LiveWire puts bartenders “front and center,” offering drinks from famed mixologists across the country, including Erin Hayes, Joey Bernardo and Polsky himself.
“I try to hire people who are really good people,” Polsky says. “They're also definitely people who we want to work with, who maybe aren't as well known outside of their city. We'd love to develop them into international household names.”
So far, six drinks are in production: Heartbreaker and Golden God by Polsky, Honeydew Collins by Joey Bernardo, Rocket Queen by Erin Hayes, Chris Patino's bottled cocktail called Alley Cat Old Fashioned, and the latest bottled cocktail by Shannon Mustipher, Holy Tyger.
All the signature drinks have their own story. Polsky’s Heartbreaker, for example, was a concoction originally made for Coachella. He sold about 3,000 servings during the festival’s three days, and the Heartbreaker became his go-to drink; one that could be sold more than just in a bar.
In this way, the drinks don’t just represent signature flavors. They serve as a way to honor bartenders outside of their local neighborhoods. Take Patino’s Alley Cat Old Fashioned. The LA bartender has been “behind the scenes” of the industry for years, spearheading and bolstering the efforts of other bartenders and helping to sell the labels of other brands, including those of celebrities. Now, instead of just being a name on the bar window and in articles, Patino gains the chance to sell one of his favorite cocktails and make money in the process.
Polsky and LiveWire consider themselves more like “talent managers” than just a cocktail company. Each bartender is hand-selected by Polsky and his team, creating their own scene in the process.
“It's more of an art than a science,” Polsky says. “Obviously, the drinks have to be really good, but also, it's people who encapsulate the LiveWire brand; badass, ‘I don't care about what you think’ rock-and-roll types, who also are self-marketing, who very much drive their own hustle. If some 21-year-old is looking at this box and looking at their photo on the box, I want them to [think] ‘I want to be like that;’ to be sort of aspirational to their fans.”
Aiming to catch fans’ eyes is certainly an objective. Each can features a unique design created by a chosen artist. Similar to how an album cover can represent a musician’s intention and personal image, LiveWire cans represent the bartender’s signature; an autograph for the alcohol.
Polsky’s drinks feature designs by famed tattooist Henry Lewis, who Polsky chose after getting a days-long piece from Lewis on his arm.
“It’s a fully creative expression,” Polsky says. “[Lewis] understands that same rock and roll that fuels me on a day-to-day basis and feels—I don't want to say the image of the brand, because the brand is really driven by each bartender. There’s quite a bit of versatility, but for me, I knew I could talk to Henry and be like, ‘I want to have a [Black] Sabbath Volume Four vibe,' and he gets it."
A focus on the bartenders has been always present for Polsky’s career. He barbacked at White Star and hosted at Milk & Honey in New York City while studying music business at New York University. Both were owned by Sasha Petraske during what he calls “the modern American cocktail movement,” the experience gave him an understanding of balance in life; an understanding that he tries to carry over to every drink he serves, canned or not.
“That forms the foundation of my cocktail knowledge and cocktail-making skills,” Polsky says. “It’s very much a North Star. You can go as crazy as you want with the flavors, but you really need to be focused on making sure that, at its core, the components of the cocktail are balanced.”
Polsky’s mixing skills first started garnered press attention in 2012, but he noticed that articles didn’t do much beyond an initial wow-factor. With no one outside of New York City able to enjoy his work, and without an ability to make money off his accomplishments, Polsky knew there had to be a better way.
“This goes back to being able to reach people with your drinks,” he says. “We're interested in building a stable financial base for yourself. It goes back to my music business major… In music, art and movies, you can scale your creative work, and in cocktails you couldn't.”
He had the idea since 2012, but Polsky had trouble finding a backer. The companies he met with were more interested in other projects. It wasn’t until 2019 when he fully committed to the plan, pushing for a full production run with support from family and friends.
The first batch was completed on March 3, 2020. He sent the cans to market, and while the pandemic did not impact LiveWire as hard as live bartending, the impact the cans will hopefully have on bartenders is not lost on him.
“I think that you can be a great bartender and not bartend four nights a week,” Polsky says. “Erin Hayes, who just released the Rocket Queen; she's an amazing bartender, but she's also a partner with Westward Whiskey, and that's her full-time job. Even though she doesn't get out there that much, the people get to enjoy her drink, and she gains revenue off of it. That, to me, is really important. Or Joey [Bernardo] who made the Honeydew Collins that was served at Harvard and Stone, he doesn't work there anymore. Now, people can still enjoy that drink without him working in that one bar.”
Emphasis on bartenders became increasingly important during the pandemic, during which Polsky thinks restaurant and bar owners should have taken more responsibility to help their workers. Earning minimum wage and losing both time and tips to social distancing requirements, bartenders—who were already in an incredibly unstable position—lost any ground they might have acquired during years in the service.
“Look at 2020; all of the world's bartenders were unemployed,” Polsky says. “It didn't matter if they had a wall that was inundated with awards, or if they were a bartender in a local bar … This is an industry that has zero stability and has no royalty-residuals type of structure.
“I want to build this platform where, in theory, the sky's the limit,” he continues. “You can take promotion and sales of your own products into your own hands with our help. We're the company that's pushing it, but you can also use all of your channels... to really push it, drive awareness, and build a product that people love and can access from wherever they live.”
Polsky has been named a “One to Watch” by Food & Wine Magazine as a tastemaker to revolutionize the drinks industry, and LiveWire has become a top draw for canned connoisseurs everywhere. There’s still much work to be done however.
“Being a small startup, we have not attained profitability yet, so that's our first goal,” Polsky says. “An equal goal is to also make sure to take care of our bartenders… We pay them in excess of 10 percent of the net of that cocktail, so it's quite a bit. I feel good about that … I think that it's a responsibility of everyone who's a ‘name’ in the industry: to show younger generations what’s possible, to pave the way to improvement.”
Ready to taste the spotlight? Try LiveWire cocktails for yourself via the brand's website.
Photography by: Doron Gild; Courtesy LiveWire Drinks