In 2012, Aaron Polsky had the first inklings for a new business model: a canned cocktail business named LiveWire, designed to showcase cocktails created by bartenders and compensate them accordingly. It would be followed, he hoped, by a full-on talent agency, also for bartenders. As months and then years passed, he moved from New York to L.A., built a prototype, met with investors, built a distribution plan and in February 2020 sent out a press release heralding the arrival of the project.
A Change of Plans
The first drinks were canned on March 3: a run of 8,000 containing Heartbreaker, Polsky’s own creation—a blend of vodka, grapefruit, kumquat, jasmine and ginger. And then on March 15, California governor Gavin Newsom announced a mandatory closure of all bars, nightclubs and other nonessential businesses to help protect against the spread of COVID-19. A near-full shutdown of the hospitality industry in California and elsewhere shortly followed.
Yet although the de facto closure of bars and restaurants in key U.S. markets surely wasn’t the ideal environment for launching a new business, Polsky has found ways to pivot. “The first day after I canned, I went out on a sales call: two stores, a movie theater, an on-premise [venue],” he says. “None are currently open.” However, when California relaxed regulations to allow bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to-go, “that was a bit of game-changer. I had a few friends pick it up for their bars,” including Liquor Fountain and Thunderbolt LA.
"Our aim is to close the gap between bartenders and their future fans worldwide," says Polsky, previously the bar manager at Harvard & Stone (he left at the end of July). He also takes issue with the fact that liquor companies and bar owners benefit from "splashing bartenders' faces on social media and press releases," while bartenders are not compensated accordingly. "LiveWire will ensure that bartenders are getting compensated fairly for their hard work and intellectual property," he says.
Cocktails for the Current Era
The first part of his strategy entails launching a series of canned cocktails, each tied to a well-known bartender. In addition to his Heartbreaker can, he also plans to launch a new can each month. Next up is one from fellow Harvard & Stone bartender Joey Bernardo, to be followed by cocktails from a total of 15 participating bartenders, including Yael Vengroff of The Spare Room, Chris Amirault of Otium, Christine Wiseman of Broken Shaker and Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo. The cocktails in each can will run about 7.5% ABV and will retail for $5.50 a can, with a royalty paid to each bartender.
In addition to California, selected businesses in New York, New Jersey and Florida are expected to start carrying LiveWire cans “in a few weeks,” says Polsky, delayed from the April 1 rollout that had been previously planned. A nationwide rollout is expected to follow before the end of the year.
Despite the setback due to COVID-19, a canned cocktail business seems like a smart idea for the moment, given strong sales of White Claw and other canned hard seltzers, alongside strong sales for RTD cocktails over the past year or so. Most of those RTDs have been released by distilleries and a handful of consumer brands, but there’s clearly a gap in the market for bartender-led canned cocktails. (That said, there have been some bartenders selling premixed and RTD drinks, such as Wandering Bartender, but they have been primarily in bottled format, not canned.)
Turning Bartenders into Rock Stars
Polsky draws parallels between the bar industry and music industry, viewing each canned cocktail as the latest release from the artist. The can serves the function of an album cover, he says, displaying the name and likeness of the bartender.
“LiveWire is the first company that’s treating bartenders’ creative work like it’s creative work, not just like the [drinks] are variations on a commodity. It’s not just ‘a Spicy Margarita by so-and-so’; this is stuff that’s coming off of people’s menus.”
Ultimately, he says, “my goal is that someone goes to the store not for the next LiveWire drink but for the next drink by Jillian Vose,” just as consumers rush to scoop up the latest song by their favorite performing artists.
Where some entrepreneurs might be deterred by the current tumultuous environment, Polsky says he’s more convinced than ever that there’s a need for LiveWire and a business model that elevates bartenders beyond commodity status. “Whoever your list of the world’s best bartenders is, half of them are now collecting unemployment,” he says. “If LiveWire can diversify their revenue streams away from something that’s heavily tied to a brick-and-mortar business to something that’s scalable, they have a lot more financial security.”
“I’m not trying to solve the problem of restaurants’ revenue models,” says Polsky. “But I’m trying to find a way for bartenders to find financial security so that the next time a bar closes—or they all close—we’re not in the same situation we’re in right now.”