This article is a part of our inaugural Next Wave Awards. For the full list of 2021 winners, check out the whole series here.
It should come as no surprise to hear Aaron Polsky describe his RTD cocktail brand, LiveWire Drinks, using a musical analogy. If you caught Polsky walking out of an L.A. bar in the small hours of the morning — all 6 feet-plus of him, hirsute and decked in band-logo tank top, skinny jeans, and pointed boots — it would be impossible to tell whether he’d just waltzed off stage or clocked out of a bar shift.
But beyond being a good fit for his character, Polsky’s description gives a succinct look at what sets his canned- and bottled-cocktail brand apart, and why his is such a non-traditional approach in the RTD space — if such a nascent category can be thought of as having traditions.
LiveWire Drinks, in Polsky’s telling, is like a record label, with each release representing a different album from the various acts signed to it. In this simile, the artists happen to be the brightest names in American bartending. Where drinkers had previously only been able to appreciate their talent live, now they don’t even need to be in the same city. “LiveWire is the CD or LP of cocktails,” Polsky told VinePair, shortly after the brand’s debut.
Though it wasn’t without its complications, LiveWire’s March 2020 launch seems almost serendipitous in hindsight. This was a moment when the lights went out and the curtains closed for bars; here was a newly launched product offering bartender-developed and bartender-quality cocktails in portable form. Even more importantly, LiveWire Drinks offered the first meaningful and, in theory, scaleable avenue for bartenders to receive a cut of the profits from their intellectual property beyond cash tips.
For each release, Polsky works with a different collaborator to put out a cocktail using a recipe creation process he developed when batching cocktails for service at music festivals. His own release — the grapefruit-and-kumquat-flavored Moscow Mule riff “Heartbreaker” — marked LiveWire’s debut. “I am both an arbiter of talent and the talent — one of many — on the label,” he says.
For now, that pool of bartending stars includes Shannon Mustipher, Joey Bernardo, Yael Vengroff, Chris Patino, and Erin Hayes. Initial releases have seen remixes of drinks like the Old Fashioned, Mojito, and Gin Collins.
To craft those drinks, Polsky steers clear of fresh citrus — proudly so — and isn’t shy about admitting to using natural flavors, albeit of the highest quality. While this would be a faux pas behind the bar, it absolutely works for drinks designed to be packaged.
On that packaging: Bright, striking, and designed by an artist of the cocktail creator’s choosing, it sets a high bar for the liquid inside. But the cocktails overwhelmingly deliver, and that’s among the most important points to note because the only way this, or any business model, can succeed is if the product is up to scratch.
LiveWire’s cocktails straddle the almost unfathomable: big on flavor but sessionable-ish in ABV, and 100 percent shelf stable. The fruity riffs will be familiar and more than pleasing to those who know a Mai Tai from a Margarita. For those who don’t, there’s no intimidatingly complex or esoteric flavor profile to conquer.
With LiveWire Drinks, Polsky has started a brand and provided a blueprint that genuinely serves all parties. Yet there is one flaw in his musical analogy: Where artists have seen album sales run dry in the streaming era, and now rely largely on live shows, LiveWire’s band of bartenders can cash in on both fronts, which makes all the difference. “For the bartenders that so choose, this could replace their primary means of income,” Polsky says.