Recognizing Oregon’s Free Spirits: An Interview with the Ladies of Freeland Spirits

Freeland Spirits - Jill Kuehner, Molly Troupe
The hardworking ladies behind Portland’s Freeland Spirits – Jill Kuehler and Molly Troupe.

The bottles of Freeland Spirits are as distinct as the taste and tale behind their creation. Inspired by the familiar downpour of Oregon rain, the drop-shaped vessels hold an alcoholic pour full of botanicals based in farms and family. A nod to the gardens of a beloved grandmother, the small-batch distillery produces fragrant imbiberies that recall the lush rows of agriculture of the Pacific Northwest.

Now two years into production, Freeland Spirits continues to expand in its market share and local outreach. On the heels of an Amsterdam excursion earlier this year, the ladies of Freeland – CEO Jill Kuehler and distiller Molly Troupe – will release a new genever in early May, with canned gin & tonics quickly following in June.

Their impact extends outside the alcohol arena as well, launching the Freeland Free Spirits campaign in March to spotlight the brave, bold, ambitious women (and those who identify as women) who are making a difference in their own Oregon communities. “History makers and trail-blazers in their own right,” the inaugural nomination committee includes a transgender athlete and activist, an artist and author, a former Nike innovator, and the executive director of Period. As an ongoing program, the distillery plans to recognize one “Freeland Free Spirit” each month.

“Such a big part of our brand is elevating women,” explained Kuehler. “It’s been shown that diversity really lifts all industries, and we want to highlight women doing things out there.”

Announced just this week, Dr. Shweta Moorthy, who has worked with the Coalition for Communities of Color since 2016 to dismantle institutional racism, eliminate socioeconomic disparities, and redress inequity of services experienced by communities of color in Oregon, is the first to be recognized by the program.

Blues and bottles at Freeland Spirits. []
Blues and bottles at Freeland Spirits. []

Blazing the Gin Trail

Q: Did you work for any previous distillers before you started Freeland Spirits?

Jill: Zero. So I knew I wasn’t going to be the distiller. I don’t think women can get away with the whole “We were playing around with this in our basement” thing. You know, the story of every brewery everywhere. I feel like we’re held to a higher level of scrutiny. I knew I needed the pro. And there are so few women in ranching, that to be able to elevate Cory’s story as well. I thought, What a solid women team. It wasn’t my intent from the beginning, but it really became that with having [friend and farmer Cory Carman] on board.

I thought, There must only be a few female distillers in the world, and I had heard of this mythical creature out in Bend. I went to meet Molly and slowly started to wooing her here. I showed her where we were going with the bottle design, and she was like, “Okay, I’m in.” It was such a leap for her – this place wasn’t even built yet! You know, Who is this woman who thinks she can start a distillery? So I threw her over my shoulder and brought her to Portland and we started working on the gin recipe right away. Her heart is in whiskey, but we can make gin faster so the gin was first. We released our first batch in December 2017.

We were on a walk through Forest Park that neither one of us will forget, trying to think of the concept of the gin. The distillery is named after my Grandma Freeland, inspired by walks through her garden, so we were thinking, What would that type of gin taste like? Fresh ingredients, but those would die in the distillery process. With this walk in Forest Park, Molly was like, “Have you ever heard of the rotovap?” And I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained that it was a process through vacuum distillation where you can utilize fresh ingredients because it’s not heat distillation. Through that, we’re able to keep those flavors intact. As far as I know, we’re the only distillery that uses that process. Only about 5% of what’s in the bottle comes from the rotovap, but you can really pick up on it.

Cucumber, rosemary, thyme – they all come through in the gin – grown by a group of women out on Sauvie Island at Vibrant Valley.

Q: Do you only work with one farm?

Jill: For the fresh ingredients, yes. If we’re trying to get things out of season, we will work with others, but we’re trying to get to the point where we’re only doing the rotovap part when everything is in season and just do a lot of it since it doesn’t go bad. Eventually we’ll get there.

Q: How did the whiskey come about?

Jill: When I started, I thought, Oh, it’s going to take me forever to get to the whiskey, because we were still in the early phases. It’s going to take me four years until I had the distillery and another four years to age the whiskey. So I worked with a partner distillery three and a half years ago to get bourbon into barrels, so that’s what our bourbon is now. It’s a blend of three-year bourbon plus three-year bourbon that’s been finished in Elk Cove pinot noir barrels. Elk Cove is an investor of ours and a great partner. We’ll blend in a bit of 12-year whiskey that I bought as well. Our main baby will be rye whiskey, which is what is distilling now.

Next up is genever. We just went to Amsterdam to get our recipe blessed by the Dutch. And they were just dumbfounded thinking, Who is this group of women making genever? We didn’t even get to half the places we wanted to because we would just get stuck for hours talking to people about it. It was amazing. When we’re making the rye whiskey, rather than putting it into barrels, we’ll add botanicals to that, and get it into pretty pink bottles. We’re planning for a release on Mother’s Day.

So the genever will be in May, the canned gin & tonic will be in June, and then the rye whiskey will be released a minimum of two years from now.

Q: What kind of research did you do before you began?

Jill: I knew I wanted a pro to do the part. Every bit about the recipe and production is Molly, and I just give her free rein. I knew I needed to focus more on the business side, and that’s what the distillers I spoke to told me from the beginning. Worry less about the product and focus more on the business aspect. I went to a 3-day training in Chicago and just started bugging people in Portland. I kept going back and forth on it, whether to start a business or not, and finally Ted Pappas at Big Bottom said, “Are you going to do this or are you just going to keep talking about it?”

Freeland Spirits []
Freeland Spirits []
Q: Is Freeland Spirits entirely women-owned?

Jill: We needed more investors along the way, so the last time I did the math, we’re still about 88% women-owned. When you look at the landscape of venture capital, there are hardly any women. It’s just appalling. So just in getting small business loans, less than 5% go to women. Venture capital is somewhere less than 2%. Investors tend to invest with people who look like them, so until there are more women investors, it will still be a struggle for women-owned businesses. Many of our investors are even here within the neighborhood. There was one woman who was so excited about it, she was really the rallying cry and wrangled a number of the other neighbors together to invest.

Q: How did you get into distilling?

Molly: It wasn’t something I was always interested in. I grew up with whiskey in the house, but my first experience with really good whiskey was Laphroaig. My Dad and brother were drinking it, and I remember coming away from the experience thinking it smelled like a fetal pig.

I was going to school for chemistry, and I originally had an interest in forensics and ultimately found that I didn’t like that part of chemistry. I really loved making things in the lab, so I went with that passion and tried to figure out what kind of options I had. I had a friend who was doing the University of California-Davis brewing program, and it was a two-year waitlist, and I knew that I was so done with school that if I had to wait two more years, I’d never go back. I happened to find a program in Scotland that was a Masters in Brewing and Distilling so I took a chance to learn there and live there. I got really lucky.

Q: Were there other female distillers who were your inspiration through the start of Freeland Spirits? 

Molly: Oh yeah. I have a list of people of inspiring people who are in the industry, which is great because we don’t have to worry about being the first. I’ve always loved Rachel Barrie, a master blender in Scotland. She has thirty years of experience and is amazing. Now, we have a lot of friends who are doing it, and that’s pretty fun. It’s no longer just idols. It’s real life people and you get to know their struggle, too.

Jill: When I was getting started, there was a distillery in DC called Republic Restoratives, and they have an anchor all-women team. Two gals who grew up together. They were a big influence to me.

Q: When you were in Scotland, were there more women distillers in the area?

Molly: No, not at all. In my program, there were 25% of us who were women, and about half of those actually went into distilling. There was usually one or two women in every distilling class. But the percentage is growing. When you see more people doing it, it makes you feel like you can do it too.

Jill: Well, and now you’re one of the women doing it, inspiring others. Forbes thinks you’re an inspiration. I’m sure people are really looking to you now.

Molly: I have been really conscious of the fact that one of the things I would’ve liked when I was starting was a mentor who looked like me. I have women who reach out to me who are looking to get into distilling and looking for mentoring. There’s a woman in North Carolina who I’m mentoring, and we stay in touch and talk once a month, more if she has questions. I try to keep that consciousness of paying it forward.

Jill: And we have a potential intern coming in this week!

Molly: I think it takes time to work at it. We’ve had those experiences where fellow women owners and distillers haven’t wanted to be open with us, even to have a drink, and we’ve been really conscious of that. We want to have an open community, and if people want to talk with us, we’re always willing to have conversations.

Jill: We’d like to do more partnering with other women, other distillers. Even brewing and distilling workshops.

The bottles of Freeland Spirits []
The bottles of Freeland Spirits []

~Jennifer Matthewson

*Photo credit: Molly/Jill – Freeland Spirits; Additional images – Jennifer Matthewson / Daily Blender

0 replies on “Recognizing Oregon’s Free Spirits: An Interview with the Ladies of Freeland Spirits”