On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Aaron Polsky, founder of LiveWire, a canned cocktail company. Polsky, who sees the brand as a “record label of some of the world’s best bartenders,” explains what inspired him to create the business and how he puts bartenders at its forefront.
Teeter and Polsky explore the ins and outs of the business, with a focus on how LiveWire collaborates with bartenders and artists to bring each cocktail to life. Plus, Polsky looks to the future as he talks about how LiveWire has grown and where he hopes to see it go in the years to come.
Tune in and visit https://livewiredrinks.com/ to learn more about LiveWire.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to give you a better idea of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m talking with Aaron Polsky, the founder of LiveWire Cocktail Co. Aaron, thanks so much for joining me.
Aaron Polsky: Hey, thanks, Adam. Thanks for having me.
A: Before we get into your background, history, etc. I’d love for you to just start us off from the beginning. What is LiveWire?
P: LiveWire is a canned and bottled cocktail company. We make cocktails by bartenders who are well-known around the globe. The raison d’etre of our company is to provide a new source of income for bartenders, because as we learned during Covid, but many of us knew before that, our career is highly unstable. We pay royalties to the bartenders in perpetuity on every cocktail sold.
A: Oh, wow, that’s awesome. How did you have the idea for LiveWire?
P: Around 2012, I started getting my first cocktail press. It was cool to see my name in print, but at the same time, I realized quickly thereafter that it doesn’t really do the reader, the cocktail enthusiast, any good if they’re not in the same city as me. Plus, it doesn’t do me any good, because I can’t really monetize it. So it’s like, I’ve got this article out, but I can’t share my cocktails with the readers. There was this disconnect that needed to be bridged. I started working on LiveWire, which was not named that, around 2012. I made progress here and there. Every time I would start it very optimistically and think, we can do this, we can get this up and running in two months, and pitch some liquor companies to be partners, co-backers, or investors. That was pretty early for the RTD space in America. I never really got it off the ground until I was leaving Harvard & Stone in 2019. I decided that was going to be the time that I actually got this project off the ground. I started raising money. I raised a small friends and family round just to get our first 440 cases made.
P: We produced our first cans on March 3, 2020.
A: Wow. So this was not a Covid business, but it turned out to be a Covid business.
P: Yeah. Wow. It was funny. I was bartending at the time, too. Again, I was very optimistic. I read this article on Medium that talked about how they raised $2 million dollars in seven days. I thought, well, if they could do it, I could do it. It turns out I couldn’t. I realized, “oh, I have no money.” I started working in a restaurant a couple nights each week. I was working there up until March 15. In early March, once I had the product made and everything was scheduled, I thought, cool. I figured I could probably start paying myself and quit in April, but I ended up working full time on it as soon as Covid hit.
A: Yeah. Tell me, where did you get the idea? There have been so many canned cocktail brands. All of a sudden, they’re everywhere. There are some bartender canned cocktail brands. Obviously, you have some of the OGs that existed and people weren’t aware of them, but they were there. You have new ones out. What caused you to say, I want this to be not just my cocktails? I want it to be other people’s cocktails, too. I think that’s a really interesting model that no one else has done.
P: Yeah. This was around September 2019. I had this light bulb moment to change it over. Initially, it was going to be my cocktails. It would have been the same as Charles Joly, Tom Macy, and Julie Reiner. I don’t think those were out yet. Charles’ was. Crafthouse was out.
A: Yeah. Charles’ has been for a while.
P: Yeah. You know, I was thinking about his brand. With all due respect to Charles, I look up to him greatly, but I thought about the amount of time and effort it would take a consumer who’s looking at a bottle of Crafthouse or looking at a bottle of my brand to do the work in a store. I thought about the work it would take to figure out who the people are behind the cocktail, why they’re trustworthy, where their street cred is and all of these things. You really don’t have that time. A lot of consumers are passing Charles’s brand, I’m sure, in the store not knowing that somebody who is named the best bartender in America was behind this brand.
P: They didn’t know that his brand is better than a lot of the other things. I had this moment where I thought, if the brand’s not just about me, but used as a platform to shine a light on a lot of bartenders and bring them and their work to the masses, we then become this roster. We become this record label of some of the world’s best bartenders. Then, we can communicate that to the consumers in our advertising and marketing without it just sounding like some blowhard, saying, “hey, I’m the best.” Obviously, saying anything is the best is subjective to an extent, but it’s pretty easily backed up when you look at the careers of the people that are involved with us. I wanted to have that strength behind the brand. That’s how that difference came about.
A: Interesting. How many different bartenders are you working with right now?
P: We have seven. We have six cocktails out. We have a seventh produced about to be launched as well. Then, we have about six to eight more bartenders on deck.
A: Are these people that you’ve known throughout your career? Are you doing all of the curation? Or, since this has taken off, have there been any bartenders that actually approach you and ask if they can get in on this?
P: A lot of people approach. So far, all of the people who are out and committed are people that I’ve known throughout my career. Once we’ve gotten those out, which I assume will take the majority of 2022, we’ll start considering new people for it. It’s both a time resource and a financially intensive procedure to make every single cocktail. It’s quite an undertaking.
A: So, I’m really curious about this. I’m sure there’s like a lot of proprietary stuff you figured out, but like, so many canned cocktails suck.
A: Yours are the best I’ve had. I’m dead serious. They really are. What is the process, and how are you doing it? What is it that you’re doing so well, and what are others doing so wrong? Are you at a small batch facility that’s packaging these? Are some people trying to go too large format? It just doesn’t make sense. The Old Fashioned you have out, I would pay $16 for this at a cocktail bar, and I wouldn’t blink an eye.
A: I’m really curious how you’ve been able to do that. A lot of others that I’ve had, I’m willing to pay $8 for, but if you charge me $12, I’d be pissed. I’m really curious what that process is and how you figured that out.
P: Yeah. The Old Fashioned is actually our easiest drink. It’s just MGP rye, apple brandy that Ventura makes, cherry bark vanilla bitters, and sugar. That’s it.
P: This one’s the easiest to get through and then we can go beyond that. I think a lot of people think that the consumer is dumb. That’s what we don’t do. We don’t think the consumer is dumb. We don’t predilute because nobody predilutes when they make it at a bar. If you make an Old Fashioned at a bar, you take 40 to 45 ABV whiskey. You take a sugar cube, bitters, combine it, add ice, simple syrup, an orange twist, and you call it a day. So, I did the same thing. I made an Old Fashioned. I did math, and I put it in a bottle. All of our products are premium, and we didn’t dilute them. Again, it’s the math. You see these Old Fashioneds that are 32 percent or 35 percent and think, how are you getting down to 32 percent ABV? It’s possible they’re trying to save money on federal excise tax, because that’s done by ABV.
P: That one’s the easiest. Bittercube makes some of the best bitters on the market. Between them, Angostura, and everything Sazerac produces, including Bittermens, are the top players in the game. Plus, they’re businesses. I love Ira from Bittermens. He’s great, and he has a very craft approach. Plus, when I tell him I need five gallons by Tuesday, he sends me five gallons by Tuesday. When I need the documentation to submit to the federal government, he has that. They’re built to scale, and I know that we can grow with them. With the cans, and this is very counterintuitive, we don’t use juice. That’s why they taste fresh. This is another thing where you think the consumer is dumb. You see these companies write that there’s fresh juice on the can. It’s like, yeah, sure, maybe by some extent or some regulation allowance, you’re able to put fresh juice on the label. Even if you take a lemon and squeeze it right into the can, add in all your other ingredients and canned it up, by the time it reaches the consumer, it’s not fresh.
P: We write that right on our website: we don’t use juice, we love fresh juice, support your local bar and go there. We use a combination of organic acids. We don’t cheap out on our acids. We don’t just use citric. When you use only citric, you get a very sharp attack and a very sharp decay of acidity. That’s not how you want it. We use acids because juices degrade. What juices have in them are things like pectin, solid matters, and these little things that hold it together and make it a little bit smoother. When you don’t have that, you need to be very smart with how you use your ingredients so that you don’t end up making your drink taste thinned out and metallic. We use a combination of acids that’s proprietary to us in order to lengthen that finish. They’re all organic acids. Then, we use high quality flavors and extracts. We go to a flavor house that’s one of the best in the business. I tell them our flavors have to be whole foods compliant, and they have to taste like what they’re called. For example, when I ask for honeydew, they send us around seven honeydew samples. We’ll test them and either they nail it or they don’t. If they don’t, I give them feedback like, number six and number eight were the closest. I liked that eight was juicy, I like the top notes on six, but it also needs more of this. Three to four weeks later, another magical flavor appears at our door, and hopefully they nail it then. By utilizing the expertise of a flavor house while also maintaining that it needs to be natural and whole foods compliant, we’re allowed to stay within our integrity as bartenders and be proud of what’s in the product. We’re also able to put out a consistent, high-quality product. That also is built to scale.
P: When we grow, we want our product to stay the same, which is also why we work with the flavor company.
A: Yep. That makes a lot of sense.
P: Yeah. That’s why they taste good. Ultimately, the last reason is that, I think every one of our employees is or has been a bartender. The culture starts at the top as well. I’m a bartender. That’s what I put my name on, so I want to put out products that I would be proud of in the bar. You look at some other companies where the founder is a money guy or a former packaging creator. You don’t have that final say of quality control that we do here. I think that it’s really important that we’re bartender owned.
A: Where are the designs for all the cans coming from? Are you using the same designer for each? There is definitely some cohesion there. You have different bartenders, but everything looks similar in a good way. I’m curious how you decided that this will be the look of the brand.
P: Every bartender can choose the artist that they want to work with.
A: Oh, wow.
P: Yeah. I view this as creative work from the juice to the package. I want the bartenders to be behind it and be proud of it. They find an artist. We talk to the artist. Mostly, it’s the bartender. They talk to the artist and give them their vision. Where I’m involved is, sorry, this is getting technical. I let them know that any mean element of the art has to be a separate layer in the file. It has to be isolatable. When we take the art and turn it into a label, we can move stuff around without covering the art. We can shrink or expand it as needed. The best art that comes to us is a bunch of different elements that we can move wherever. We have a design and marketing company called Jellybone that takes that art, turns it into a label, and adds the font, text and all of that stuff. The bartender is involved through all of it. Then, we create our label.
A: That’s awesome. Going back really quickly, because I was thinking about it as you were talking about the flavor house and things like that. Is each bartender working with you and the flavor house and going through that ,or are they saying, “I want honeydew,” and then you’re figuring out what the best honeydew flavor is and then giving it to them to play around with? How much is that? Is the whole time 100 percent collaborative?
P: Yeah, but I take the lead on the flavor house stuff. It’s a whole different set of tools and a whole different set of measurements. I pick the final contenders for the flavor. Once we’re at that point, I get the bartender involved, and we blend it together.
A: Very cool. As you look at what you’ve created so far, what are your goals for the brand over the next few years?
P: 50 state distribution, a couple of countries, getting into venues, getting into more chains.
A: What chains are you in now?
P: We’re in Total Wine, BevMo!. We’re close to a couple of other grocery store chains. We’re in a chain in northern California called Nugget Markets. We are also in one of the higher end stores, Raley’s, which is also a northern California chain. Getting into national chains is something that we want to do as well, along with airlines and all that. Because the bartender royalty is such an important component of the business, I don’t feel like we’ve succeeded unless they’ve got a pretty good amount of money in their pocket. It needs to grow to a pretty big level for me to be happy with it.
A: Right now, besides California, are the majority of people buying LiveWire online?
P: We have brick and mortar distribution in California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Louisiana.
A: OK, that’s a lot.
P: Yeah. We have a pretty good deal of business there. As for the rest of it, we do sell a lot online. I would say that most of the online sales are from those brick-and-mortar states. Two of our bartenders, Erin Hayes and Joey Bernardo, are both from Chicago, so they have a following there. We do get a lot of orders from places where they have a following.
A: That makes sense. Do you see this being a brand that could be picked up by a large restaurant chain, and all of a sudden, your Old Fashioned is their Old Fashioned?
P: That would be great. There is definitely an opportunity that I didn’t see at first. With this hiring difficulty that so many restaurants and bars are facing, it really makes their life easier to have high-quality canned and bottled cocktails.
A: It really does.
P: Katana Kitten picked us up. Death and Co. is about to pick us up. PDT picked us up, mostly to serve through Crif Dogs, but they serve it there as well. Having Normandy Club and those incredible bars on our account list really shows bars that we’re at that level. And Masa at Katana Kitten says, “when I have tickets from the printer to the floor, it’s awesome.” I’m sure that this staff shortage will continue for a bit. There’s definitely that value proposition to chain restaurants.
A: Very cool. Aaron, this has been really awesome talking to you. What you’re building is really awesome. Congratulations. The drinks are very delicious. You said you have a few new ones coming out, right?
P: We just released Shannon Mustipher’s cocktail on Tuesday. That one is a bottled Whiskey Sour type drink. It’s a little bit different than anything on the market. It’s exciting for that reason. It’s bourbon with coconut, Rockey’s Liqueur, lime, lemongrass, and Jamaican No. 1 bitters, also from Bittercube. That’s 375 mL, 33 percent ABV, and it drinks like a tropical drink or a Whiskey Sour, but it looks like you’re pouring whiskey. It defies expectations.
A: That’s really cool. I really want to try. It sounds delicious. I was curious about that too, actually. Eamon Rockey’s written for VinePair a good bit. I was curious, with Rockey’s, was Shannon familiar with the liquid and wanted to use it, or did you know the liquid? How do you choose those things when you also are naming the liquid that’s in the drink?
P: Eamon’s someone I’ve wanted to support for a long time and support his brands. I’ve been pretty vocal about him on social media, just as a friend. I think that friends should support friends in their endeavors. Those conversations all happened at the same time, so that all came together.
A: Oh, cool. Awesome. Well, Aaron, I love what you do and what you’re doing for the industry. Keep it up. This stuff is awesome. Hopefully, we can check in in a year or so and this thing is just huge.
P: Thanks. I hope you’re right.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
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