As Women’s History Month commences, Park Street University is putting a spotlight on some of the women trailblazing through the beverage alcohol industry like Jill Kuehler, founder of Freeland Spirits. Jill named Freeland after her grandmother, a teetotaler whose gardens inspired Jill to pursue work in small scale agriculture.

Jill, along with her friend Cory Carman and master distiller Molly Troupe, have turned Freeland Spirits into a distillery that proudly represents Oregon’s landscape and highlights the role of women throughout the supply chain. We sat down with Jill to learn more about her journey of growing a successful spirits brand.

Our Interview with Jill Kuehler

Tell us a bit about Freeland Spirits.

Freeland is named after my grandma Freeland. I grew up in her garden with her. She never touched a drop of booze in her life, but I’m making up for all her lost time. I really fell in love with food and agriculture in her garden and went on to have a career in it. I was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala for two years and really fell in love with small scale agriculture and moved up to the Northwest.

I was running a nonprofit that teaches kids where good food comes from and while I was there, I got to know my good friend Cory. She’s a rancher in Eastern Oregon and when she comes to Portland, we drink whiskey together. On one of those fateful whiskey-drinking nights, we were drinking some very delicious bourbon and thinking that we wished we knew more about the terroir. Who grew the grain? What kind of grain? More of the ag story.

A couple more whiskeys go by and she said, “I’ll grow it if you make it.” And that was the birth of Freeland. And what I got really excited about was highlighting women all the way from who’s growing the grain and who’s growing the botanicals in the gin to who’s actually distilling it. There are so few women in the distilling industry, so few female ranchers. I thought it would be amazing to highlight that side of it.  

I found Molly, our master distiller. She had a background in chemistry before she got her masters in distilling in Scotland and she was running production at a small distillery out in Bend, Oregon, when I just went out there and threw her over my shoulder and dragged her to Portland. We started making our Freeland gin, and here we are seven years later. 

How were you able to get Freeland up and running from there?

After that fateful night with Cory, I knew it was gonna take a really long time to get things going.

I had to find a bunch of money, I had to get equipment, and I had to find space. So I began just going all over the country and touring distilleries and meeting with distillers and distillery owners and getting to understand the industry. That was important. Talking with bartenders about what they wanted and then finding Molly and really thinking of how we wanted to be different.

We wanted our gin to really highlight fresh ingredients. And a challenge with that is, if you were to put cucumber into “Hell Bitch,” which is our 500-gallon copper pot still, we didn’t want to have this taste of cooked cucumbers from the heat of the still. Molly with her chemistry background knew of a rotovap which is a tool for vacuum distillation. There are some gals just up the road from the distillery who grow cucumber, mint, rosemary, and thyme (and we also include local honey) and that’s all done on this vacuum still, while 14 other Botanicals are done on the “Hell Bitch.” And we’re one of the only distilleries in the world that utilize those two distillation processes to make our gin.

What was the first lesson you learned about being a businessperson in the beverage alcohol industry?

I don’t know that it’s necessarily specific to the industry, but women and people of color have so many more challenges, particularly in raising money. This is an industry that’s very capital-intensive when you look at all the equipment and space needed if you’re going to be producing your own product so when you look at a landscape where women get less than 5% of small business loans and less than 3% of venture capital money, it’s just incredibly challenging. 

So having a real team around you that can support you and having a community that has your back when things are tough is a crucial lesson. Being really willing to ask for help was really important, along with learning how to plan and forecast. 

Did you have a mentor within the industry?

Perhaps my favorite mentor in the industry is Karen Hoskin of Montanya Distillers. She recently sold her distillery to her employees, which is super cool, and she was around for 15 years before that and was really a pioneer among women and all distillers in the craft distilling movement.

She went through all of the challenges that all of us do in the startup phase and beyond and she always maintained such a sense of compassion and was always willing to help others and continues to do so. That was really inspiring to me as I grew up in the industry and have learned to help others and pay it forward. 

What other challenges did you have to overcome as a woman in the beverage alcohol industry?

I actually think being a woman in this industry is an asset. I think diversity brings creativity. When you’re looking at more women entering the space, more people of color, it’s really positive since it’s just going to bring more perspectives, more creativity, and more unique ways of solving problems.

But there certainly have been challenges. I know Molly, as a distiller, has countless examples of people coming on a tour, looking around her, and asking, “Where’s the master distiller?” It’s challenging, but I think we also just kind of thrive in it a little bit.

That’s why we do what we do and we like to play with that expectation and just reduce it by what a pro she is and how we’ve really grown and continue to grow in this space in spite of all the challenges.  

What do you feel has been your greatest advantage as a woman-led business in the beverage alcohol industry?

Women were the original distillers way, way back. It was a form of medicine and an essential part of running a household. And then with the Industrial Revolution men took over.  Something I find very interesting is that women have more olfactory cells and more taste buds but they’ve been left out of the industry for so long and there’s this palette that’s been missing because women haven’t been involved. So as they’re coming back onto the production floors, I think it’s super interesting that all of these senses are coming back into our products.

Molly is pregnant right now and her palate even changes a little bit through that in ways. So it’s just really interesting from a science perspective of the asset that women bring to the industry.

What is your best tip for networking/establishing a network within the beverage alcohol industry?

In Portland, we have such a great community of distillers who are all super willing to help each other. Rarely a week goes by that I’m not calling up friends, so networking is critical. You just have to pick up the phone, find friends, and go to the conferences if you can afford it when you’re starting out. If you can’t, look for any webinars to hop on. 

I think people are afraid that people don’t want to share their time, but I’ve found people to be incredibly generous. They know how hard it is and what a steep curve it is to get into the industry. 

How do you feel the beverage alcohol industry has improved regarding the inclusion of women over the last several years? Where do you feel there is room for improvement?

The industry is super open arms to it though there are certainly barriers. For example, people invest in people who look like them and until more women are making investment funding decisions, there will be barriers. 

So anybody who’s in the conference arena or training should be super intentional about who’s on their panel. People can see a path forward if they see somebody who looks like them in that space. We’ve done internships and our own training here largely for that purpose. We want other women to see examples and see this as a career path.  

Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership you recommend?

A couple come to mind! I’m reading 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership right now that covers all topics of how to be a compassionate and direct leader. There’s also a book I’ve enjoyed called, “Small Giants” about the critical role that small to midsize businesses play.

Those are the first that come to mind, though I try to read fewer and fewer business books and just try and chill out and read fiction at this point. Remember to relax and rejuvenate is critical if you’re in it for the long haul.

What is your best advice for women looking to break into the beverage alcohol space?

Try it out! Find an internship depending on what aspect of the business you want to go into. If you want to be a distiller, look for an internship or an entry-level job and get the experience.  Even before jumping into a graduate program, actually, understand if you like the day-to-day work of it. Same with owning or starting a distillery. Maybe shadow a distillery owner for a while.

Sometimes the allure of making alcohol is cool, but there’s the day-to-day of dealing with all the regulations. And that’s where people like Park Street come in. There are a lot of boring, mundane parts to it.

It’s really an expensive industry to enter, it’s incredibly stressful. So just make sure you understand all those aspects before taking the full plunge.

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