Interview: Jill Kuehler / Founder of Freeland Spirits

Sometime in early 2019, a very unique bottle of bourbon caught my eye on the shelf of a local spirits shop. With its droplet shape and the striking mahogany color of the bourbon inside, it looked unlike anything else around it. Up near the cork was a small collar of a label: “Freeland Spirits Bourbon Whiskey, Portland, OR.” If I’m recalling correctly now, the batch number written by hand atop the cork was #3.

That the label was so small and relegated to the top of the bottle put an emphasis on the bourbon itself. Looking at the liquid through the dew-drop-shaped bottle more closely, I noticed the Freeland Spirits logo of a woman holding a branch aloft was etched into the glass, further signaling this was something other than the typical bourbon. It was a blend of sourced bourbons aged 3 and 12 years, finished for 5 months in Elk Cove pinot noir barrels—specs not unusual for new craft distilleries. But the blending at work was intriguing, and its presentation indicated a distillery driven by consciousness, creativity, and ideas.

I bought the bottle, took it home and gave it a go. Right away the nose grabbed my attention. Looking back at my notes, “Wow” was the first thing I wrote. After that came vanilla taffy, fudge, red berries, cherry, and lovely red wine notes. Tasting it, those deep red wine notes flowed alongside dark caramel taffy, with dark plum and prune in the mix. The finish was similar, with a lingering soft pepperiness. It was an Insta-plus for me, and offered at such a good price for the experience. Freeland Spirits was barely a year old then, and already putting out a product of distinction.

Now Freeland Spirits is just into its fourth year and still going strong, despite even a pandemic’s best efforts. In addition to their sourced bourbon blend, they also distill their own gin, dry gin, a rye-based gin called Geneva, and a pair of canned cocktails: Gin & Rose Tonic and French 75.

Freeland is very active in using spirits as a gathering tool not only for social reasons but socio-political reasons as well—particularly with regard to women, the LGBTQ+ community, and its location, Portland, OR. For example, their Free Spirits program celebrates female-identifying, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people in Oregon who, as their website says:

are busting through the glass ceilings and soaring. These are people who think and act in an uninhibited way without worrying about so-called rules or norms. We might call them non-conformists, rule-benders, iconoclasts, mavericks, or bohemians. We might say they march to their own beat, to their own muse. We appreciate them for their abilities to help their community, to create beauty, to be original, to blaze trails, and to celebrate unabashedly.

True to their community-oriented nature, Freeland Spirits staff don’t simply themselves select people to honor, but also invite the public to make nominations via a special page on their website. Past nominated Free Spirits have included nurses, roller derby organizers, climate change and health-access activists, teachers, artists, social justice advocates, other spirits professionals, and more. Proceeds from a specially selected Freeland product are then donated in support of the honored person’s own organization or cause.

Of all Freeland Spirits’ endeavors, the Free Spirits Program perhaps most overtly embodies the ethics and values that drive the distillery, namely that spirits are more than mere liquor, but a means toward celebrating the potential in every human being to defy norms and soar freely.

For all the above reasons, it was with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to meet with Jill Kuehler, who founded Freeland Spirits alongside master distiller Molly Troupe. Prior to founding Freeland, Kuehler ran Zenger Farm, a Portland organization that promotes education in urban farming, sustainable food practices, healthy eating, and equitable food access, helping people to recognize the many connections between climate, health, social justice, and education concerns. For her work with Zenger, Kuehler was named one of Portland’s 50 most influential people by Portland Monthly Magazine.

MARK J – What got you going on your whiskey journey?

JILL – Drinking! I’ve loved whiskey for a long time. But my interest is more from the agricultural perspective. My career has been in agriculture. I was drinking whiskey with my friend, Corrie Carmen. She raises grass fed beef in eastern Oregon. We wanted more of the terroir story, with all spirits in general. People think of it as just spirits. When you think about wine, you think about the vineyard and the grapes. Not many of us actually do that with our whiskey or gin. We don’t envision where the botanicals come from or who grew them.

So, it all started with a night of drinking whiskey. Corrie said she’d always wanted to incorporate small scale grain production on her ranch, so, she’d grow it if I made spirits out of it. That was the birth of the Freeland idea. I really come at it from the standpoint of supporting our Oregon farmers and ranchers.

Also, the political piece of it is that I really got excited about highlighting women. There are so few female ranchers, and I’d always thought, How do I get Corrie’s story out into the world more? Also, how many female distillers are there in the world? So few. I knew I wasn’t going to be the maker. I honestly feel that women can’t get away with that story: Oh I was screwing around making beer in my basement. So I decided to sell it. I think we’re already so far behind, I had to have a pro to make it a legit brand. And Molly Troupe’s background is in chemistry, and she has a masters in distilling from Scotland. She was running production in Bend, Oregon, and I dragged her to Portland.

Did you already know each other?

No. Not at all. I was just starting to put the word out that I wanted to do this. We had a mutual friend who said, “I know this mythical creature out in Bend.” Lucky for me Molly said yes.

Molly Troupe on the job

Is it whiskey specifically that you’ve always been drawn to, or is it spirits in general?

Whiskey originally was the big draw. All alcohol really. But whiskey, yes. You know, I think I was intrigued by it from a gender perspective. I was kind of like, F*ck this, how it was just for the dudes in smoking jackets in the backroom. I wanted that too. And then I fell in love with the flavor of it and started getting to know it a little bit more.

Thinking about your move from Zenger Farm to Freeland Spirits, what prompted the shift from working with food in a socially conscious way to working specifically with spirits, also in a socially conscious way?

I knew I wanted to start my own business. I’ve run non-profits most of my career. I’ve been surprised that there’s really no difference between running a non-profit and running a small business. At the end of the day there should be a mission. If you’re going to work and you’re doing a thing all day, shouldn’t it be mission driven? I was working on a massive project at Zenger Farm. I’d been working there seven years and it was finally coming to a close, and so I knew it was the right time to move.

And at the same time, you know, I always tell people: Whatever you do, don’t start your own business! Unless you convince yourself by the time you go to bed not to do it, and then you wake up in the morning and still can’t help yourself. That’s the only time to do it. That’s how this idea was playing out when I was leaving Zenger Farm. I knew I had to make the leap. I love starting things. I love innovation. I love new. And that’s true whether it was Zenger Farm or this. I think a lot of people wonder how the one moved into the other. But it makes a lot of sense in my mind, because ultimately it’s still about supporting farmers and ranchers, and the social lynchpin.

And the social lynchpin, at least in the casual beginnings of it, you said, was that whiskey is a traditionally masculine thing and you wanted to disrupt that?

That’s some of it. And there’s more to it. Women have way more olfactory cells. So there’s a scientific reason for diversity in whiskey that’s really cool. And now Molly is pregnant! How many pregnant distillers are there?  The way your tastes change when you’re pregnant, there’s this whole palate that’s never existed in the world because women haven’t been on the production floor. So, that’s really intriguing to me.

And then, just as the owner, and in terms of access to capital, you’re starting something insanely capital intensive. And when you look at how less than 5% of business loans go to women, and less than 3% of venture capital money goes to women; People invest in people who look like them, which tends to be White men. And so, looking at all aspects of this, we’re trying to push it in all ways, from where we’re buying our botanicals—which is Vibrant Valley, a group of women farmers on Sauvie Island—to how we’re selling it. It’s really embedded in who we are. I think that means something different to everyone who works here.

My partner, Beth, who isn’t even much into whiskey, has the best tasting notes, so I often ask her what she gets from a whiskey when I’m doing my own notes. She never goes straight to the words everyone always uses, like caramel or vanilla or oaky. She’s more likely to mention a place or a concept, or an event, like “This whiskey tastes like a bonfire on the shoreline.”

I love listening to women taste, because there’s a lot less pomp around it. So many men have this I’m such a pro about whiskey to them. So to listen to someone who is genuinely curious is so lovely.

When you think about what Freeland Spirits is, what its relevance and role is—with regard to the local Portland community, also the national spirits community—what comes first to mind?

Locally, we have a beautiful distilling scene. It’s a real family, and I think that’s really unique in the country. Within the local distilling industry people have been arms wide open, super welcoming. There are a number of people I can call for help, and they can call me for help. So I would say a lot of the things many of us have faced, as far as being women in the industry, I haven’t experienced much in the local distilling community. And I would say that’s something unique we bring: a big community approach, whether it’s who we’re partnering with in the tasting room with packages or supporting other local businesses. We have the Free Spirits program that celebrates a different female identifying Oregonian every month, and we donate to whatever non-profit she chooses. We’re opening a second tasting room in Lake Oswego, and we’ll be partnering with several local businesses down there. So I think it’s about how we elevate other Oregon businesses, whether that’s our farmers or our non-profit partners or other businesses.

And do you see that as a local mission or do you want to draw national attention to those businesses and partners?

Good question. I think it’s more of a local mission. We are growing a lot now. We’re pretty focused on the west coast, but starting to look at broader distribution. And I think that’s another part of the story. A lot of women-owned businesses stay really small, and I want to show that, no, women can go big too. So I think that’s the bigger story we’re going for, the bigger market.

Beyond the need to pivot in how business is conducted, how has the pandemic impacted Freeland in terms of its local relevance and role, and activities related to Freeland’s social mission? And were there any surprises that were positive?

Hugely. We realized very quickly that people don’t know how to make cocktails at home. So we started making kits, and people can drive through our Booze Thru and we bring them out to their car. It’s fresh mixers and all you have to do is pour from from this and that bottle and you have a delicious cocktail. So that was the business pivot, in addition to making hand sanitizer.

Portland has really rallied around small business during the pandemic, and so we attracted so many new people to Freeland, which was awesome for us and really grew our local community. And just on a personal level I formed a new relationship to the business in a way. I think I’d been going for the, Okay this is how everybody has built their spirits business so I guess I have to follow all these steps—traveling all the time, going to a new market and going into ten different liquor stores and ten different bars and push push push push push. And realizing I don’t actually have to do it that way. Is that the best way to do business? So, really slowing down and considering what about this brings me joy. What brings everyone on the team joy? We’re down to this really happy team of six being super creative everyday. I want to maintain that sense of creativity and joy coming out of the pandemic. As we’re adding people and growing, despite growth how do we keep that internal culture that people are thriving on?

And what ways have you found to do that? What have you tried?

Really having intensive time with each person on the team, to find out what inspires them. What is that creativity and joy for each of them? How do we grow that? And as we add people, finding where their heart sings. If someone new says, “I want to do more events,” how do we help that person do that? That will be hard as we continue to grow and need people to just fill roles. But I’m really hopeful there is a way to do it, because I believe that who you work with day in and day out is just as important—if not more important—than the thing you’re producing.

On the theme of scale and size, what role do you see craft spirits playing within the national spirits industry? What can craft spirits do that’s unique?

I think there are going to be major challenges with the consolidation of distribution. There are fewer and fewer distributors. All the small distributors are getting bought up, so it’s becoming harder for a new craft distiller to even get distribution out of their own state. I think that’s going to be an ongoing challenge. However, e-commerce is really coming into play in a big way. A lot of laws started to change pretty fast during the pandemic, which I think sped up what was already coming. The pandemic made things happen sooner. So it won’t be long before we can ship out of state from our tasting rooms, which is going to be critical for the new emerging small distiller who just can’t get out-of-state distribution. If they have a way, like wineries already do, to have a club that allows them to say, “Join our club and no matter where you are we’ll ship it to you,” then they can do it.

Wineries in Oregon can do that now, but hard liquor cannot?

Correct. So, I think that’ll be really interesting. And flavor is what craft also brings. You make a bottle of Tito’s, and Tito’s is going to be Tito’s in perpetuity. You could say Tito’s started as craft, whatever your thoughts are on that. But the number of different gins just in Portland, and how unique they all are, is so exciting. In so many ways we have a lack of flavor in the world, so, I think craft plays a big role in that, craft beverages across the board.

My own primary work has always been theater. Something I’ve realized over time is that I really never did have “go big” aspirations. I like small theater. I like a local audience. I like making shows for people I know, whether I literally know them or they live in the same community I do.

Yes.

And I noticed that the theater unions, for example, and so many of the American regional theaters, are focused on a capitalist idea that assumes everyone wants to get bigger and larger. And this capitalist assumption sometimes comes into conflict with certain political values and ethics around making art that is small and focused and local. So I’m curious, is there a politic inherent to craft spirits? An ethics? Does the mere fact of “craft” carry meaning?

I don’t know that that would be a thing across the board. I think it’s pretty different based on geography. There’s kind of this rising tide, we’re all in this together, and if we can support each other then we can take more of the profit share from the big distilleries. So a lot of people have that ethos of shared education and supporting each other. But I don’t know that there’s some more political commonality.

There’s a local theater, Portland Playhouse. It’s one of my favorite organizations. They’ve renovated this old church. My kiddo just went to their summer camp. We’ve been to so many of their productions. It’s beautiful. They’re really working with the local community in such a lovely way.

I was quite surprised when I became interested in whiskey. But on reflection I realized how whiskey actually has a great deal in common with theater, that these two art forms share certain qualities and impacts. They’re a craft and an art. You have to be there live in person to enjoy them. They bring out stories in people.

Right. I love that.

I’m curious, for you, in the way that theater could be said to be the art of sharing stories, to better understand the human experience, what would you say spirits are the art of?

Spirits are an expression. Molly and Lee and Kira are the production team, and a part of who they are is presented to the world through the spirits they make. And the story of the farmers is being told. I think spirits are a vehicle for storytelling. That may be what the difference is between craft and huge producers. A huge producer may have a story too. But it seems a bit harder to be super authentic with mass production.

And in this regard what are your hopes for your customers, for people who drink your spirits?

I hope that it’s a moment of celebration. When people come to our tasting room I don’t want there to ever be a dumb question. It’s a place where everyone is accepted. You can ask anything. You can look through the window and see production happening right behind the bartenders. So I want people to come here to celebrate. And I want them to drink it at home, to have this beautiful bottle with this beautiful product inside of it and have a moment of celebration among the people they love. Who knows where our world is going, right? So to have something to celebrate with is more and more important.

Any new spirits in the works?

Our rye whiskey is what I’m most excited about, more than anything in the world.

When does that come out?

Probably next Winter. A year and a half maybe. It’s already really delicious. It’s all Oregon grown, all organic. Camas Country Mill, where we get everything milled, they’re growing a lot of the grain and sourcing from other Oregon farmers. It’s tasting beautiful. So it’s a real Oregon story, which I’m really excited about.

And the bourbon is three and twelve years, sourced, and blended.

Correct.

Are there plans to fold your own distillate into it, or are you happy with it as it is and will make a different product, or…?

I don’t think we’ll ever distill our own bourbon. There isn’t a ton of corn here, so I don’t see us doing that. I think we’re just going to focus on the rye. It’s more of an Oregon product. And I think we’re going to come out with a single malt eventually. Molly’s due date is in November, so, Lee and I are talking about what if she goes into labor and we’re making the very first batch of single malt? That first barrel is going to have to wait twenty-one years so the baby can have it!

That could give you the name of the single malt, depending on what Molly names the kid.

Baby’s going to be named Islay. It’s already been determined. She’s going to be a proper scotch baby.

Molly can christen her with some Islay scotch.

Yes, of course.

Last question. I always like to ask, a favorite spirits moment?

Well, of course, the moment that started Freeland—drinking with Corrie. But… So, my father died when I was twenty. And when I was at Zenger Farm I got to know this lovely gentleman, Dennis Gilliam. He was one of the top guys at Bob’s Red Mill. And Dennis was on my board at Zenger Farm, and he became like a father figure to me. I really wanted him on board when I was making this leap to Freeland. And I said, Dennis, I want to tell you about an idea I have. Let’s go to Multnomah Whiskey Library. Over two delicious old fashioned cocktails, I told Dennis about my whiskey dreams and he didn’t hesitate in his support. He just said, How can I support? As I went on to have countless other conversations about the idea, I got so much push back. But Dennis was unwavering. And told me my father would be proud.

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