By Eric Peterson | Mar 23, 2021
In the late 1800s, a series of distillery fires ravaged Truckee. While bootleggers favored the Lake Tahoe area during Prohibition, the 20th century otherwise came and went without legitimate spirits production in the town.
That's changed in the 21st century. Old Trestle's story begins with a pair of married engineers ascending the Sierra Nevada to start 5050 Brewing Co. in 2006.
"My wife [Alicia] and I were both engineers at Hewlett-Packard in the Central Valley of California," says Barr. "At the time, HP was a 150,000-person company. We made the decision that we wanted to work for ourselves instead of some giant company. We identified Truckee-Lake Tahoe as where we wanted to be, so we quit everything, sold our house, moved up here, and opened the brewery."
Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout became a staple at 5050, and that kickstarted the idea for a sister business. "We'd always been fans of craft spirits and craft cocktails," says Barr. "The tie between beer and whiskey -- well, spirits in general but whiskey in particular -- is really tight."
That passion translated into the launch of Old Trestle in 2012 under the umbrella of Truckee Craft Ventures. "Leaning on some of the brewery sources and a bunch of friends, we started the first distillery in Truckee in over 100 years," says Barr. "It felt like a hobby to begin with."
Since 2018, however, that's shifted to a business-driven approach, as the distillery upped its production and narrowed the catalog. "In the last three years, we really put the pedal to the metal and took some of the business stuff more seriously."
"It meant really hashing out our product road map instead of just making stuff that we loved and was for fun but didn't really have a go-to market intent to it," says Barr. "We have a much tighter focus right now on what the appropriate products for our distributors are."
Eschewing some experimental brown spirits, Old Trestle's catalog now includes Sierra Vodka, Sierra Bourbon, and several varieties of Theory Gin.
Aged for three years in two new barrels at 5,982 feet above sea level, Sierra Bourbon debuted in spring 2020. Next up: an American single-malt whiskey slated for a spring 2021 release that leverages a synergy with 5050. "We can produce the wash much more efficiently at the brewery -- and it's 20 feet away," explains Barr.
The Theory line of gins emphasizes "local terroir" with some ingredients foraged from the Truckee area, he adds. The offerings include "traditional, London dry-style" Theory 001 with locally foraged rosehips and juniper; experimental Theory 002 with black tea and Chinese spices; and Theory 004 with ginger and turmeric, aged in Chardonnay barrels.
Barr says he's prone to pour himself a Theory 003, a barrel-aged gin with honey. "I consider it a sipping gin," he notes. "It's out of the norm for the way gin is normally consumed."
Old Trestle will continue to release different gins under the Theory brand. "Some will keep, some may never come back," says Barr. "We'll have a pretty broad offering at our tasting room."
After launching distribution in May 2020, Old Trestle currently sells in California as well as Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Florida, and Texas. "We're on track -- with seven states and things picking up -- for a good year, and then we'll grow aggressively in 2022 and on," says Kobert.
Challenges: COVID-19 aside, balancing production and sales as barrels age, says Barr. "It's a challenge all brown spirits distilleries face. It's particularly acute for smaller ones and startups, because if you're going to sell a five-year-old bourbon, you have to spend that money and put that to rest now."
"All states have challenging liquor license laws, but California's up there at the top," says Kobert. "You can sell direct out of a tasting room. To sell direct through online ordering, that's really an up-in-the-air, temporary rule set associated with COVD. There really isn't a self-distribution model or a direct sale model that's long-term in place for California."
Winning customers in an increasingly crowded market is also front and center. "How do you make quality product and stand out in the market?"
Opportunities: "We're working on what we like to think is going to be a world-class tasting room here on the river," says Barr. "That's a big part of our focus." The project will transform a former cabinet shop into a showcase for Old Trestle's spirits, with a planned grand opening in summer 2021. "It's really embracing the best part of benign in the mountains: It's a really large patio on the Truckee River, nice views, outdoor space."
Adds Kobert: "Truckee as a town doesn't embrace the river a ton. We have this gorgeous river that runs right through the middle of town, and there's honestly one [food and beverage] place that engages the river."
Upcoming brown spirits releases are a parallel opportunity. "We do have multiple products that are aging -- a new product every quarter or so," says Barr.
Needs: A second try at a brand relaunch, as COVID-19 impacted the release of the bourbon in 2020 ."We were ready to make a splash," says Kobert. "We had our products ready and distributors ready, so we're pent-up and ready to go once the green light is given for a little bit of social interaction."
Adds Barr: "Anyone that doesn't say they need employees and capital is lying, although we're not in desperate straits. What we really need is a little bit of time. We need bars and restaurants to open up."