Right now Aaron Polsky is looking at his future like Robert Plant circa 1975: standing on a balcony over Sunset Boulevard, arms outstretched, fists upturned, wearing a “fuck yeah” smile. Not to say he has an insufferable Golden God complex, but he does want to take over the world.
“I want people across the world to have one of my cocktails,” he says from behind the bar of Harvard & Stone on Hollywood Boulevard. “The next frontier for cocktails is reaching the masses.” This sounds like a lot, but bear with the guy.
Polsky — who radiates a rock star aura with a fierce mane of hair, a propensity for navel-skimming necklines, and a down-to-earth confidence — no doubt has both the drive and pedigree to pull this off. In 2005, when he was an 18-year-old New Jersey college student with zero food experience and an obsession with TV show Iron Chef and New York restaurants, he applied at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. He didn’t land Per Se, but they did give him a job as a food runner at the then newly opened Bouchon Bakery. Polsky’s interest in the hospitality industry dovetailed into New York’s growing cocktail scene. He even acquired a fake ID just so he could get into the hot spots that ended up becoming the pioneers of the cocktail renaissance.
Despite not yet being of legal drinking age, Polsky quickly befriended key people in the bar industry and landed a hosting gig at Milk & Honey. When he turned 21, he got his big break from legendary barman Sasha Petraske, who asked Polsky to barback for him at his new Lower East Side bar White Star. That first night after only a few hours of training Polsky on how to jigger, Petraske left him alone to cover the bar while he went across town to grab a burger. “He was gone for two hours!” says Polsky. But everything worked out and he stayed on at White Star, and continued to train under Petraske.
The barman, who originally wanted to open up his own fine-dining restaurant, eventually moved exclusively into the bar side of hospitality. He’s worked everywhere from the “world’s best restaurant,” Eleven Madison Park to all-bitters bar Amor y Amargo to luxe Meatpacking lounge Boom Boom Room.
Then in 2015, he moved to Los Angeles to open high-concept bar Shadowbox in the newly renovated Clifton’s Cafeteria. When its opening was indefinitely delayed, however, Polsky happily accepted the bar manager position at an LA bar he had long been a fan of, Harvard & Stone. He’s since managed it for just over a year, trying, he says, to learn from his staff and be a better manager for them. One way he found to help his team was to work with his barbacks to translate training materials into Spanish, “in order to provide our industry with resources to train our ESL staff and remove some obstacles to education.”
Now, whether Polsky’s plan to bring his cocktails to the world is through cocktail consulting, a new liquor product, or a new book, he’s not saying just yet. But a possible guess of what he’s up to is a patented cocktail draft system. For the 2017 Coachella, Polsky served 10,000 festival-goers each weekend using the annual music festival’s existing draft system in Houston Hospitality’s pop-up cocktail cabin. But being the perfectionist that he is, he took the usual festival draft cocktail to the next level, adopting technologies only used before in top cocktail bars and definitely never at a large-scale music festival. That’s what he meant by masses.
Since citrus juices tend to settle at the bottom of the keg, making for an unstable product, he instead used custom-made citrus distillates and citric acid in the place of lemon, and malic and succinic for lime, which exhibit the qualities of the juices. The result? Complex, consistent, and, most importantly, super-fast cocktails like a coconut dark and story tormy and apricot rickey. “[At Coachella] people were enjoying truly top quality cocktails at a clip of four or five drinks getting put out a minute,” he says.
He’s already employed this technique at volume bar Harvard & Stone. “I’m far from the first person to do draft cocktails but I think we do them the best.” That’s not to say “malic acid” is included on the menu’s cocktail description. Polsky and his bar team’s focus is about making the experience better for the guest. All that innovation, technique, and technology happens behind the scenes; they don’t make a show of it. What the guests experience is simply a $5 happy hour tequila grapefruit mule that they love.
It’s part of what Polsky believes makes Harvard & Stone the best bar out there. It’s the quick but well-crafted cocktails that are key to making guests happy. “And they make a shift better for the bartenders because they’re able to give people something very good, very quickly,” he says.
In the future, Polsky hopes he’ll do for cocktails what Led Zeppelin did for arena-size concerts. “The draw, the appeal, and the technical developments that [Zeppelin] put in place allowed other bands to do that,” he explains. “I want that to be my legacy to other bartenders. I want to expand the reach of individual bartenders’ craft cocktails to such an extent that other bartenders are like, ‘I want to do this as well.’”