Women-Inspired, Women-Owned, Women-Centric
By: Becky Garrison
Upon stepping into Freeland Spirits’ northwest Portland distillery, I feel like I’m walking in a spring meadow even during these gray Portland days. I’ve entered into a space that has a different feel than your typical distillery. Freeland’s medium blue exterior and eggshell interior lift my spirits and give me a serene vibe, as though I’m in a yoga studio. Their signature teardrop glass bottles contribute to this warm and relaxing feel. The comforts extended to the restrooms, which are stocked with feminine hygiene products and offer changing tables, items seldom found in the distilleries I’ve frequented.
As Freeland Spirits founder Jill Kuehler reflected, these design aesthetics symbolize the women-centric nature of this distillery. “We worked with a team of female designers to take the aesthetic of our model and the values we represent and turn it into physical spaces. I feel like every com-ponent really matches who we are.”
Take, for example, that teardrop bottle design. Obviously, Kuehler cannot be present in a liquor store to explain the distillery’s unique attributes whenever a customer peruses bottles of spirits. Hence, she wanted to design a bottle that could tell the distillery’s story for them. Kuehler worked with a designer in Brooklyn to create the design she feels pays homage to Oregon agriculture, born from months of Pacific Northwest raindrops. She also wanted to recognize the Teardrop Lounge in northwest Portland because the owner was very helpful when they first started out.
Prior to founding Freeland, Kuehler ran Zenger Farm, an educational farm in east Portland that teaches approximately 10,000 kids annually where good food comes from. From this experience, she dreamt of launching a distillery with a focus on producing spirits using the best Oregonian products while also celebrating the women pioneers who make this region unique. While drink-ing Kentucky Bourbon with her friend Cory Carmen, owner of eastern Oregon-based Carmen Ranch, Carmen expressed an interest in incorporating small scale grain production at her ranch along with beef and chickens. She offered to grow the rye if Kuehler made Bourbon from it.
Thus, Freeland Spirits was born in 2017. Kuehler chose the name Freeland because it’s her mother’s and grandmother Meemaw’s last name. She grew up in Meemaw’s garden and observed how, as the family’s primary breadwinner, Meemaw broke through many boundaries. A “good Christian woman,” Meemaw never touched alcohol. So, when asked how Meemaw would respond to having a distillery named after her, Kuehler laughed. “I think she’d roll over in her grave, but she would secretly be proud.”
From its inception, the distillery highlighted women producers and distillers. For example, Kuehler brought on board women like Molly Troupe, who has the distinction of being the youngest master distiller in the United States. According to Kuehler, “Molly’s Master’s in distilling from Scotland is worth noting. At the end of the day, it was her credentials, creativity and desire to create the very best spirits, not just her gender, that drew me to her. She was the very best person for the job.”
All other key staffers are women, though they occasionally hire men. “Our founding story is launched by women, but we’re for everyone,” Kuehler said.
Launching a women-owned and operated distillery proved to be brutal in terms of securing financing. Only 2% of venture capital funding gets invested in women-owned businesses. Also, the commercial real estate market remains dominated by men.
“You’ve got a lot stacked against you, particularly when trying to do something so capital intensive,” Kuehler said.
Initially, Kuehler set up shop in space offered by Aria Gin. Since Ryan Csanky distilled his ini-tial batches of gin in space provided by Bull Run Distillery, he delighted in helping another local distillery by doing likewise. Since opening Freeland Spirits in 2018, Kuehler continues this tradition by helping other distillers launch their own small-batch craft spirits.
While waiting for its first batch of Bourbon to mature, Freeland Spirits distilled and marketed Freeland Gin, which is crafted by hand in small batches. Kuehler found herself drawn to gin due to the infinite number of botanicals one can play with to develop a unique spin on a classic spirit. She sourced fresh botanicals from local farmers’ markets and area farms, such as Vibrant Valley Farms, based in nearby Sauvie Island.
“For us, it was creating a gin that reflects what Meemaw’s garden gin would taste like,” she said.
Freeland Gin uses 19 botanicals distilled using two different techniques. Fourteen botanicals are traditionally distilled using a copper pot column still, nicknamed Hell Bitch, while the remaining botanicals are cold distilled. This difference allows for the preservation of delicate fresh ingredi-ents like cucumber, rosemary, mint and thyme. These fresh ingredients are still macerated in high proof alcohol before being distilled in small batches using a Roto Vap.
In November 2018, the distillery launched Freeland Bourbon, a spirit that pays homage to the South, and Meemaw, in particular. Charred American oak barrels produce notes of caramel, va-nilla and spice. Then, the Bourbon is finished for five months in Elk Cove Pinot Noir barrels, which adds an element of the Pacific Northwest terroir to the whiskey.
Next, Kuehler added Freeland’s Geneva to the lineup, a spirit inspired by genever, gin’s Dutch grandmother. The geneva showcases Oregon rye with an array of savory botanicals and hints of Willamette Valley hazelnuts, along with citrus-forward products designed to bring out some of the rye flavors.
Freeland’s newest offering is Freeland Dry Gin, a navy-strength London Dry gin, which Kuehler made for “those strong gals who desire an equally strong gin.” Its concentrated and bold taste leads with juniper followed by a hint of citrus and notes of green olive, Pacific Northwest pine forest and mulled spices.
The distillery recently joined the canned cocktail craze with its Gin & Tonic canned cocktail. Freeland Gin is paired with Portland Syrups Rose Tonic for a bright citrus sensation along with fresh herbs like juniper and roses. This cocktail was developed in collaboration with Freeland’s bar manager and bartending team and became a local favorite, receiving high marks from The Portland Mercury and other outlets. In 2020, another canned cocktail became available – a French 75 made using Freeland’s flagship gin and Chehalem Chardonnay wine.
As Freeland expanded, it continued with a womencentric focus. In 2019, Lee Hedgmon came on board. Hedgmon is a native Oregonian and woman of color who began brewing in 2004 with a focus on fermented beverages such as beer, mead, wine and cider. She also founded The Barreled Bee, a fermented honey, which is sold in the Freeland Spirits bottle shop.
The distillery also launched Freeland Free Spirits, a celebration of female-identified Oregonians who are breaking the glass ceiling. Each month, they choose a person who works with Freeland’s tasting room manager to design a specialty cocktail for that month. All proceeds from the cock-tail go towards the person’s charity of choice. Currently, portions of this program have been put on hold due to Covid-19.
Another women-centric collaboration is the bestselling cocktail kit Queen RBG (rose, bergamot, ginger), a tribute to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which benefits Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon. Other local collaborations include partnerships with Kate’s Ice Cream, Portland Bloody Mary, Portland Soda Works and Pie Spot.
For whiskey connoisseurs, Freeland Spirits launched a private barrel program where someone can pay for a barrel, and when it’s is ready, they get the first 24 bottles that come off that barrel. Other offerings have included whiskey making and cocktail classes.
While the physical distillery remains closed to the public due to the global pandemic, Freeland Spirits continues to offer curbside pickup of spirits and cocktail kits in Portland, along with ship-ping throughout Oregon. Freeland Spirits can also be found in select stores in Washington State, California, New York and Illinois.
For more information, go to their website…http://www.freelandspirits.com