What the hell are you going to do with your life now, son?
It was Sebastián Gómez's thirty-ninth birthday celebration in Buenos Aires in 2013 when his dad jokingly posed the question. Seb considers that light-hearted provocation as the trigger that cemented his destiny.
"I'm going to do what I want, where I want. I'm going to Patagonia, and I'm going to open a distillery," he replied.
And that's what he did.
Years later, 50 top bartenders in the Americas are permanently attached to the brand he created — tattooed with its logo, such is their passion for the product. Not a bad endorsement from a notoriously hard-to-impress audience.
But where did Seb start, and what were the key elements of his success?
Seb's early career included stints at General Electric (GE) and Diageo before he moved on to work with his father in the family business (mergers & acquisitions). Since a young age, Seb had shown an entrepreneurial spirit — creating "Ghostbusters" stickers to sell at school. His father's success in the family business further fuelled Seb's dreams of "doing my own thing." But when his dad announced plans to sell the firm, Seb was left at a career crossroads.
The inspiration for Träkál came from a personal passion: Patagonia, the furthest outcrop of South America. With no firm career plan, he decided now was the time to pursue his dream of putting this region on the map.
The seeds of a proudly Patagonian product had been sown in 2010 when Seb recalls being outraged in a Miami supermarket. Several brands presented themselves as being from the cellars at the ends of the earth and asserting their Patagonian heritage. He knew they had no such provenance.
A passionate South American, Seb was aware of Patagonia's incredible flora and fauna and its extraordinarily pure water. With a background in the drinks industry and family members in the brewing trade, he also knew the principles of alcohol innovation. From that day in the Miami supermarket onwards, Seb had the recurring dream of creating a genuinely Patagonian spirit.
The journey begins
Once Seb mentally committed to the project on his thirty-ninth birthday in 2013, he relentlessly pursued his goal. He sold his Miami apartment to fund the first stage of product development. From there, he traveled to Patagonia and spent as much time in the region as possible. He worked on samples, learning about the best ingredients and devising how to make "the best liquid with what was down there." Without a residential visa, he'd spend 90 days in Patagonia, return home to Argentina for further product development for 2 weeks, then head back to Chile for another 3 months.
It was an inspirational period and a time of incredible, intense learning. The trip was fascinating, despite being a real challenge to traverse the vast, rugged terrain by public transport. And the product names were tied to the local communities, which simultaneously made learning the words for various herbs and berries — in several indigenous languages — a real challenge.
"I travelled between the northern Los Rios region all the way down to the Magallanes region in Southern Chile — backpacking and on boats and buses. It was so eye opening. I could really understand why this land had never really been conquered by European colonisers."
A taste of Patagonia
Seb worked hard to source everything needed for a Patagonian spirit from this special area. He settled on local apples, crab apples, and pears as the best source of base alcohol. On his walkabout, he discovered native berries such as maqui, murta, and sauco — all best added in the second distillation.
Seb recalls needing to be resilient as he hit barriers along the way. For example, the local herbs were incredible. Still, many were only available seasonally, which would never work for the scale of year-round manufacturing needed. With inspiration from his Mum, he worked out that he could make essential oils from each wild herb to capture its essence. A proprietary blend of oils, including tepa, laurel, mint, paramela, and canelo is vapour infused on the third distillation. Every ingredient used is sourced within 100 square kilometres of Träkál's local water source.
As Seb perfected the liquid, he worked diligently to get 100% flavour consistency. He also settled on the perfect serve, and created some extraordinary cocktails in the process. The finished 42% ABV spirit is sweet and herby, closer to gin than vodka or brandy — a category in its own right.
The birth of a brand
With liquid development complete, Seb needed a name for his product. He settled on Träkál derived using two words from the local Huilliche language.
TRÄ = courage
KÁL = action
When combined, the word means the first warrior into battle, perfectly capturing the essence of this new category of spirit from Chilean Patagonia.
In 2017, his local producers were incredibly proud to finally launch Träkál. But Seb needed further funding quickly to expand production for the 'proof of concept' stage. He secured just over $2M through his network of industry contacts and began introducing the product to Chilean bars. Träkál also launched via 13 distributors in the more outdoorsy states of the US, such as Colorado.
The COVID pandemic created a hiatus in his product testing plans. Seb had to have very frank, honest conversations with staff and shareholders — being straight with them about the changes needed to keep the project alive while reassuring staff that no jobs would be lost. Team Träkál used this window to get clear on their goals and also to generate more ideas.
"At first, I got a little down with the pandemic, but I insisted to my team that we should see it as a window to come out stronger, hungrier, and better prepared."
He believes the team's resilience during the pandemic was critical to their subsequent expansion and growth. They thought laterally about new opportunities, started contract distilling, and used the downtime to develop new products to add to the portfolio.
Bartenders and brand awareness
Seb is proud to be making the first spirit from this unspoilt region. Building awareness of his brand with the trade, he's wholly committed. He jokes that his marketing campaign has been fuelled by "shoe leather," recounting getting out to as many bars as possible, leading from the front in selling the brand. Getting 'liquid on lips' is his most successful growth driver.
"I said no to nothing and yes to everything. I literally went to any place at any time!"
He believes this personal approach of genuinely engaging with bartenders was also vital to Träkál's early growth. At times, they (bartenders) stayed on his couch. And they even worked in the distillery, helping Seb build solid and lasting relationships with Träkál's early adopters.
His passion and belief in what he's doing are truly extraordinary. The epitome of a brand ambassador, Seb embodies his business's values: courage, boldness, and authenticity. His drive to "conquer" Patagonia and work out how to deliver his dream product has been tested numerous times over the last 5 years. Still, he sticks true to his goal, showing phenomenal resilience.
The future of Träkál
Having hit all the targets set for the initial proof of concept stage and seeing the brand grow rapidly, Seb is looking to build a larger production facility (in Patagonia) and expand into global markets.
In running his business, Seb combines ruthless focus, flexibility when needed, and a "whatever it takes" mentality. When it comes to bartenders, he'll go anywhere, meet anyone, and is genuinely open to their ideas and opinions. But on the product side, Seb is an uncompromising perfectionist, focused on delivering the perfect liquid. He accepts nothing other than 100% in every batch. It's also important to note that he took his time to prove his concept and scaled production methodically before expanding. This gave investors absolute confidence in Seb and his team.
Currently working to raise $3.8M, Seb's hoping to expand Träkál's production capacity and, importantly, fuel more large-scale sales and marketing activities in larger markets (when his shoe leather finally wears out!). In the next few years, Seb aims to expand into at least 10 more markets, including Texas, California, Florida, and the UK. And it comes as no surprise future marketing plans stay true to the spirit of Patagonia.
"Our goal is to create a brand experience that showcases Patagonia through Träkál. We want to take the message of this amazing natural product everywhere we go and invite everyone to visit our region."
The mission is to engage more influencers, distributors, and wholesalers with the brand and further build Träkál's passionate following.
Creating a community
The trade response to the product has been incredible. Bartenders are queuing up to join Seb and his team on their "Träkál tribe" programme where key distributors, customers, and bartenders spend 4 days in Chile fully immersed in the wonders and wilds of Patagonia.
"We make these guys believe they can go further in life than they ever thought they could… They leave appreciating that there are still places on earth with fish in the rivers, berries you can pick and eat, and water you can drink straight from the source. They sleep under the stars and start to realise that to survive and thrive in nature, you need a tribe. And they become our tribe."
Seb's bartending tribe is so inspired by the region and by seeing Seb's team in action that, to date, around a third of them leave with a Träkál brand tattoo!
The body art may not be for everyone, but this Patagonian spirit will make an indelible mark on the drinks industry and put the produce of this unique region firmly on the global map.