The Beverage Industry’s Latest “Bad Boys” Are in the Business of … Water?

Get to know Liquid Death, the Los Angeles brand that wants to murder your thirst

January 31, 2022 8:55 am
The Beverage Industry’s Latest “Bad Boys” Are in the Business of … Water?
Liquid Death

Over Memorial Day weekend of last year I ran from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in less than two days with a coterie of rebel influencers.

There was a freelance copywriter who leads yoga retreats in Wyoming; a former model who’s been on the cover of Elle; the son of rock legend Alex Van Halen. And so on. It was a group of cool people who are used to doing cool things, we can leave it at that, and none of them were particularly surprised to find themselves suddenly relay-racing through Death Valley. You can read the full caper here.

That said, I was a little surprised when one of them opened a beer early in the caravan. We’d barely made it to Pasadena. He downed it in three gulps. What? I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. But another runner had one too. It looked like a tall boy of Modelo, the sort you’d pick up before getting on the train. Eventually, I managed to inspect the cans, which led me back to the source — a 12-pack of something called Liquid Death. It wasn’t a lager. It was water.

The label featured gothic font, a melting skull (or a skull being devoured by worms, it was unclear) and a tagline: MURDER YOUR THIRST. The color scheme was cream, black and gold. The water itself was billed as “100% Mountain Water from the Austrian Alps.”

I lost track of how many cans of Liquid Death I drank that weekend. Maybe 15 to 20. The route took us through Death Valley, so the vans were stocked with as much water as we could possibly need. While I was confused at first by the choice of a canned water brand I’d never heard of, it quickly made complete sense. This team was a walking photoshoot. They were never going to drink Deer Park.

Liquid Death was founded in 2017 by former Netflix creative director Mike Cessario, his business partner J.R. Riggins, a bartender named Pat Cook, and an artist named Will Carsola. Cessario’s vision for the company, as outlined in an interview with Eater last year, takes its cues from the world’s most popular energy drink. He explained: “Red Bull is a gimmick. All it is is soda. It’s the same thing that’s been around forever, but they created this brand around action sports. What does riding a dirt bike have to do with an energy drink?”

And what, indeed, does water have to do with tattoo parlors, or skate shops, or a unsanctioned road race? Not much, necessarily — but when packaged as Liquid Death, everything. This water is punk. It doesn’t give a shit. You can shotgun it if you like. The brand makes animated videos where a Liquid Death-headed monster goes around killing people with an axe. It sells hoodies. Entry to the “Liquid Death Country Club” involves the simple act of selling your soul. The contract is binding for all eternity.

When the brand was first founded, and the internet shat all over the concept, Liquid Death dutifully catalogued all of the most creative burns. They then released them as lyrics a rock album called the Greatest Hates, which you stream on Spotify or buy on vinyl. The brand also sells a vending machine called the “Death Dispenser” for $5,800. Oh, and at one point, Liquid Death sold red-painted skateboard decks infused with Tony Hawk’s blood.

In the About section on Liquid Death’s website, they sum up all the shenanigans with a succinct manifesto: “We’re just a funny water company who hates corporate marketing as much as you do.” That mission has been wildly successful thus far — Liquid Death has inspired a cult of drinkers eager to be in the band, and made a pretty penny along the way. The company officially launched in 2019, and is already valued at $525 million. It reported $45 million in revenue last year, and just closed with $75 million in Series C funding this month.

After a modest start, targeting grocers and offbeat venues in the Southern California region, Liquid Death is now available at every single 7-Eleven in the United States and Canada, plus a lion’s share of Whole Foods, and has leveraged a collaboration with Live Nation to become the official water of Governors Ball and Austin City Limits.

It’s been quite the come-up, and it came quickly. But is cheeky marketing really all it takes to create a half-billion-dollar water brand? Lop off a few cartoon heads here, make a few tweens at Coachella feel like they’re drinking beer, and all of a sudden you’re tops in a market that Shark Tank investors have been calling notorious for the last 15 years?

There’s more to it. In its campaign to be seen as a brand that doesn’t play by the rules, Liquid Death appears to take pains to never break them. Those cans aren’t just for the look, or the feel — though as someone who’s a fan of both and thinks water tastes genuinely colder in Liquid Death cans — they’re succeeding on both fronts. These cans are a sustainable replacement for plastic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “aluminum cans have about 68 percent recycled content.” Plastic bottles stand at an unconscionable 3 percent.

We’ve already been over about how important it is that you kick your plastic bottle habit, assuming it still exists. Plastic ends up in landfills and drains. It gets into rivers and oceans. Some of it is purposely put on freight ships and brought to the world’s poorest nations, where locals sort scrap for a pittance. Over time, many report respiratory complications from exposure to plastic’s toxic fumes, which, The Guardian notes: “[results] from the burning of plastics or plastic processing.”

Liquid Death doesn’t just want to “murder your thirst,” apparently. The brand’s official motto is actually “death to plastic.” The site notes that “Of all the aluminum produced since 1888, over 75 percent of it is still in current use.” This is actually true. While getting aluminum in the first place takes some doing — you need heavy machinery to mine it from the ground, and restoring land afterwards isn’t easy — it is infinitely recyclable, like glass.

When you think about how much trouble climate experts have in educating the masses, let alone convincing them to make minor changes in their everyday behavior, perhaps it was time for a sustainably distributed water that inspires cultish brand loyalty. After all, for every beach cleanup Liquid Death hosts, it also brings its members together for some batshit pop-up that has nothing to do with water or sustainability. For every can or T-shirt of a grim reaper it sells, it also donates 10 percent to nonprofits working to build freshwater wells and encourage ocean stewardship.

Beyond the marketing and cans brainwave, Liquid Death has also arrived during a bit of a water boom. Brands like Essentia (“ionized water,” we’re skeptical), Recess (sparkling hemp water), Aura Bora (infused with fruit and flowers), and HOP WTR (filled with nootropics and adaptogens) have sold hydration-obsessed younger generations on the idea of better water — water as a fun fix-all, as something you don’t have to remind yourself to drink.

Liquid Death has taken a bit of a different approach, though. The water’s good; it comes from a spring in Austria, which the founders found out about on Google. I like it, a self-professed water snob at Eater likes it, a bunch of sweaty runners in high desert California certainly seemed to like it. But it’s nothing special. Only recently has Liquid Death released flavors on top of still and sparkling.

It’s the names of these flavors, though (Mango Chainsaw, Severed Lime, Berry It Alive), that get to the mutilated heart of this wacky, weirdly successful brand. The beverage industry needed some bad boys. That fact that they are actually good people, or at least, people who do good things, is even better.

So. What can you expect to pay for a 12-pack of Liquid Death? $15. Considering the going rate in our brains for a bottle of water is $1 (unless you’re at the movie theater, of course, in which case it’s $8), that isn’t bad. If you jump fully down the rabbit hole, you can schedule auto-delivery through the brand — don’t do Amazon! — and start regularly crushing cans. You could also just put it in your cart at Whole Foods.

It’s surprising to feel oddly positive about a brand that’s made hundreds of millions of dollars repurposing water. When I first read about the brand in that sandy van I rolled my eyes. But I’m convinced now. Next time you’re throwing a party, pick up a couple racks. Put them out and let chaos ensue. Just how Liquid Death likes it.

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