In this week’s Meet the Makers we talk to Jill Kuehler, Founder and CEO of Freeland Spirits in Portland started in 2017. Freeland Spirits is dedicated to hiring diverse employees and understands the strength and resilience that builds into any company. We talked with Jill about how Freeland started, how she got there from the Peace Corp, and running an agriculture and educational non-profit.
BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
JK: My background is more on the agricultural side of things. I fell in love with food and gardening through my grandma which Freeland is named after. Then went on to the Peace Corps in Guatemala. And I really was inspired by subsistence agriculture and learning how to grow food for yourself. Then I moved up to the Pacific Northwest, and was eventually running a nonprofit organization called Zenger farm, where about 10,000 kids go every year to learn where good food comes from. Not the most obvious segue into making booze. But while I was there, I got to know my good friend, Cory Carman, who raises grass-fed beef in Eastern Oregon. We became whiskey-drinking buddies. On a fateful whiskey-drinking night and thinking this is delicious. There’s some delicious Kentucky bourbon we love. But ee wish we knew more of the terroir story of it. We don’t know as much about our whiskey like we think of wine. In wine, we think of who grew those grapes? What direction are those vineyards facing? What are the soil conditions like? And we’re thought, why don’t we think of whiskey in the same way?
She said, “I’ve always wanted to incorporate grain production on the ranch. I’ll grow it if you make the whiskey.” That night was really the birth of Freeland and also when I got really excited about highlighting women in these fields where you don’t see very much of us, like distilling and ranching as well.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days starting Freeland Spirits?
JK: I think I actually realized pretty quick how similar starting a business is to running a nonprofit. I had been in the nonprofit world for a decade. You learn how to be super scrappy, and there’s no such thing as a job description. Everybody’s doing everything and helping each other out and mopping the floor, etc. I learned how to be super scrappy and creative. And the same rules apply to starting a business, not just in this industry, but in any industry. You have to learn how to do as much as you can with very little and I get a lot of joy over that kind of creative problem-solving. It really came into play well with booze,
BW: What do you think is different for Freeland Spirits being woman-owned and -operated? What unexpected benefits have you discovered?
JK: It’s a crowded industry and you have to stand out somehow and be distinct. I think a lot of people make the mistake of just thinking, “If I make whiskey, I’ll sell it because it’s whiskey.” But I think it’s important to know what makes you stand out. Our process and how we make it makes us different simply by being women run and women-led. Being women we place a huge emphasis on diversity in general. All industries benefit from diversity. This one is very sorely lacking in it. It’s an opportunity to make your business distinctive, and also to just stand up for something that’s important to everyone that works at Freeland. I like that way of framing it. You know, we get the question all the time, “what’s hard about being a woman in the industry?” And I want to reframe it as – “What’s great about being a woman in this industry?”
I think when we’re raising funds do you look at the landscape of capital, and it’s a very capital-intensive endeavor, and then you’ve got less than 5% of loans going to women, and less than 2% of venture capital money to go into women. It’s a major uphill battle. But that goes back to the opportunity. . . If you can pull through that, you’ve got the guts and willpower to go much further. I think we have to work much harder, and in so many ways that it just makes us tougher.
BW: What about women as tasters?
JK: I love listening to women taste. “Oh my God, you picked up on star anise in the gin?” So few people can do that. I love that sensory aspect and the science of it. There’s this cool study that was done and women were given a bunch of like, men’s dirty tee shirts, and told to smell them all. And through the study they found that the women were more attracted to the ones that were most genetically different than the individual. Molly, our distiller has this palette that doesn’t exist in the world because women haven’t been in production [for much of the history of whiskey production]. So it’s creating diversity from a flavor perspective as well.
I think just women, not to over-generalize, have more of a community approach that happens at the team of women that was really inspiring. It’s not that we won’t hire men back, we’re often looking for men. We need diversity here, too. A large part, too, is the mentorship piece of it. And really, showing women and people of color, so that you can learn from people who look like you,
We were talking about fundraising for capital earlier, and I think, people invest and hire people who look like themselves. You have to work really hard not to do that. And, you know, when it’s white men that are writing the checks, they’re going to invest in other white men. I think that’s the same with mentoring. I went to, to a whiskey training very early on, me and 60 men, and I was fine with that. Because I had been in those kinds of rooms before, but I could certainly see why a lot of people would feel very uncomfortable by that. So if we can offer space to come and learn from us with a distilling team of a new mom, a woman in her 50s, a trans woman, a black woman, it’s really cool.
BW: Tell us a little more about why diversity and inclusion is so important for you and Freeland?
JK: I grew up in Texas, in college surrounded by women that were there to look for their husbands, not necessarily to get a degree. It was such a turn-off to me; I really wanted to see women advancing.
I would say it’s very much a mission of inclusion. I would say spirits, the spirits industry in general needs that. Not just makers, but also in the bar and restaurant space. We’ve had a pregnant woman behind our bar – how rare is it to see a mom or a pregnant woman working behind the bar? How do we support her, that’s important to us. Anyone who walks into our tasting room is met with the same amount of respect. You look through the window, and there are people in production right behind the window, working in the space and the people at the bar know how to answer any question of what’s happening behind the window. You can ask to have your whiskey served, however, the hell you want, and that’s okay.
The word we always come back to has been celebration. Even when you have to squint to be able to see how to celebrate, there’s always something there’s always something to celebrate. That’s been a big kind of ethos. It’s a celebration of inclusion, a celebration of creativity and community is what we are all about.
BW: What’s the most unexpected thing that has happened on your distillery and business journey?
JK: The open arms that I was greeted with, particularly in Portland. Portland is pretty known for being a welcoming place, but I did kind of think there would be a little bit, “Who the hell are you? And what do you think you’re doing?” And I had plenty of that, don’t get me wrong, particularly when I was raising money. I’m not from the industry so I can understand there’s the question of how do I know what I’m doing. But the distilling community was really quite welcoming. That was a surprise. In the industry at wide, sexism is alive and well and rampant. But we’re doing really well. In fact, there’s a distillery down the street that makes gin and they let us use their space to make our first couple of batches. Who does that like the next competing gin? It’s awesome. They’re still supportive. I feel like I can call any one of the other Portland distilleries with a question and I’ll have a response within an hour. That’s been really lovely because this is hard, but we realize we’re all in this together. The craft industry is just slowly taking more and more share of the bigger market. So if we can all support each other, we all win.
BW: Any advice for women or female-identifying folks wanting to step into the distilling industry?
JK: Obviously, Bourbon women is a great resource to check out for as far as looking for places to get involved. Or, apply for a job with us! Molly and Lee are so skilled that we don’t necessarily need to hire really skilled people; come and learn on the job from the pros. What we want to see is that people have an experience of working hard, working as a team, and being really open-minded and willing to learn are the fundamentals. Not how many years you’ve spent on a distilling floor. But go out and get experience, however you can. That can be challenging, but find other female distillers, other females in production and, and reach out to them because they’ve been through it. They tend to be willing to help the next generation.
BW: What’s your idea of the perfect whiskey weekend in Portland?
JK: It would be to some of the great bars in Portland, like Scotch Lodge and Paydirt. There’s a new bar, the Green Room; I would love to just go have a drink. I love sitting at a bar by myself – just the calmness of it and maybe chat with the bartender or just sit and watch them do their craft. I love just the quiet of sitting alone. So I would have a few drinks around Portland. And then invite people over, make a fire and pass a bottle around. That is the spirit of celebration – really having that the camaraderie of sipping whiskey with people.