Jill Kuehler is the Founder of Freeland Spirits – a female-founded, owned, and operated craft distillery in Portland, Oregon.
Prior to launching Freeland, Jill ran Zenger Farm for seven years, where 10,000 students learn where good food comes from each year.
Jill was named one of Portland’s 50 most influential people by Portland Monthly Magazine.
Today we talk to Jill about her transition from non-profit executive to starting her own spirits business, how the company has responded to COVID-19, her lowest moments since launching the business, what she does to unwind, her favorite cocktail, and more.
What was your first job?
I had a few memorable early jobs. I was a hostess at Bennigan’s and then a server at Cheddar’s – both restaurant chains in the South. I mowed lawns. Oh, and I was the beer cart delivery person on a golf course for summer too.
You went from working in the nonprofit world to starting a distillery, which kind of seems like a crazy leap. How did that happen?
I was working at Zenger Farm, an educational farm in East Portland where thousands of kids go each year to learn where good food comes from. A lot of my career up to that point had been in food and agriculture and that’s always been a big passion of mine.
I always knew I wanted to start a business and I knew I wanted it to be connected to agriculture. I also love spirits and I felt like there was a gap in the story – nobody ever talked about the terroir of spirits like you do with wine.
I have a friend, Corey Carman, who raises grass-fed beef in Eastern Oregon, and she and I always drink whiskey together whenever she comes to town. And it was a fateful whiskey night together and I said, I want to make spirits, and she said, I’ll grow the grain. And the rest is history. So it was that night that really provided the initial spark.What makes Freeland different? Why should people try your spirits?
Well, after that fateful night with Cory, I got really excited about highlighting women in industries where they aren’t normally seen, like ranching and distilling, and I got excited about the idea of being an all-woman team. So I began my search for a distiller and found Molly, who I had heard of – this mythical woman out in Bend who had a Master’s in Distilling from Scotland. And she is just a total pro. I kind of just threw her over my shoulder and dragged her back to Portland.
I really like highlighting women at every phase of our story, whether it’s the grower or the distiller or the saleswoman. I think every industry benefits from diversity, and that’s just very important to us.
And then there’s a science component to being women-owned and led that I find really interesting. For example, women have something like 50% more olfactory cells and taste buds. So it’s almost like there’s this palette that the world hasn’t tasted yet because women haven’t been producing the spirits.
Another thing that makes Freeland unique is that we actually highlight the grower and the land behind the grains that go into our spirits.
Jill (right) with head distiller Molly Troupe. Image is from a Travel Oregon video, which is worth watching.
That’s fascinating. I did not know that about the olfactory cells and the taste buds.
It’s actually really interesting science. There was one study where women were given different men’s dirty t-shirts. And the shirts they’re most drawn to are from the men that are most genetically different from them. So it’s like they’re drawn toward what’s going to create the healthiest offspring.What is the hardest part of running your own business?
I think it’s the all-encompassing nature of it. There’s no turn off point. It’s never like, “oh, five o’clock quittin’ time.” You’re always on, it’s always on your mind. I think some people are probably better at that than I am, but the business just becomes just a part of who you are. There’s no work-life balance. It’s all just one connected thing.
What is the best part of owning your own business?
I think just all of the creating we get to do. Like even though we’re in the midst of this horribly tragic pandemic, every day is new right now and we might be at our best creatively at the moment and that’s really cool.
Plus, just having a physical product is really fun. To see the birth of something that has lived in your head for years is very fulfilling.Tell me more about the COVID era for Freeland. How has it been for the business?
The hardest part was day one when I had to let go of more than half of our staff. Our tasting room was closing, and having to let those people go was really painful. After that, we were down to just a small team of five.
Distribution to bars and restaurants on the West Coast was our primary revenue source, so that was just gone immediately. And our tasting room – which is another 20% of our business – was gone. So it was like, wow, what’s going to happen?
But quickly, the OLCC [The Oregon Liquor Control Commission] allowed curbside pickup. And then door-to-door delivery was allowed about a month after that. We were also able to start producing hand sanitizer.
The support that our community gave us when we launched curbside pickup was incredible. It was actually more than the volume we were doing when the tasting room was open and has remained strong throughout the whole thing. It’s just a testament, I think, to Portland and how they really step up to support local business.
So even though, for example, California hasn’t placed an order since all this started, we’re making up the difference just based on what we’re able to sell curbside out of our own tasting room, which is pretty awesome.
And then we started doing the delivery program, which has been great, too. We’re just doing about 10 orders a day, which isn’t huge, but it’s still significant. And it’s representative of what’s happening with the distilling industry in general right now with the relaxing of regulations. It will be a game-changer if we can keep it this way.
It’s been a pretty broken system with ridiculous regulations since prohibition, and each state essentially is like its own country. If we can relax the rules, and do more direct-to-consumer, it’s going to be a game-changer. We’re about to just start shipping to customers within Oregon, which is something the OLCC just allowed for the first time in history, and if we can easily ship directly to other states, it’s gonna just change how the whole industry is done.
So it’s a really interesting time in history and it’s funny that it was a pandemic that brought us here. These trends were already happening a little bit, but this has expedited progress by years.
Can you talk a little bit about your experience being a female leader in a super male-dominated industry? I think something like 98% of distilleries are owned by men?
Yeah, and I think that of that 2%, many are husband-wife teams, which is awesome, but, you know, we don’t have any husbands here!
For the most part, I would say people are just incredibly supportive, including all of the other male-owned distilleries.
I think the real challenge is more hidden. Like if you’re a woman looking for real estate you realize that the majority of commercial real estate is owned by white men. Same with fundraising, Something like 97% of venture capitalists are men. And people invest in people who look like them, and they rent space to people who look like them. This happens whether they know they’re doing it or not – research after research has shown this so I think there’s just always this underlying grain that is going against you.
But at the same time, when you’re just that much more used to dealing with the added challenge, I think that has made women business owners a lot stronger during this time because it’s like, yeah, we’re used to this. We’re used to having to pivot all the time and having to get creative and come up with new ideas. It’s what we have always done in order to survive. So I think I’ve observed women being more adaptive during this time.
The Freeland journey began in 2015. What has been your lowest or hardest point along the way?
That’s a good question. There are a couple.
One was those early years when I was all alone. I had no partners yet. Molly wasn’t on board yet. At any point, I could just walk away. And so I’d wake and I’d start the day off and then I would feel this kind of decline. Now I tell people, don’t start a business unless you just can’t help yourself. And that was how I knew I had to keep going. I’d go to bed having convinced myself to walk away, but then I would wake up in the morning and think I have to do this. But that was definitely a low point of just being alone in something that was hard, and having a relatively easy out, so there was always the question of do I continue this or not.
Probably the other low point was fundraising. It just took so much time and I come from fundraising in the nonprofit world and I was thinking wow, here’s an opportunity for people to get their money back – this is gonna be easy!
But, it wasn’t. At one point we were almost all the way through the construction of the distillery and tasting room and I had no idea how I was going to pay the contractors the last bills. We were so close to being ready to open and I was not sure if I was even going to be able to open the doors after all this time. The still was in place and the tasting room was beautiful, and yet I owed so much money. But we pulled it off and here we are. So I think those moments of just complete unknown were the biggest struggle and remain the biggest struggle.
I feel like raising money is a really big mystery to people who don’t come from that world and have never started a business. How do you do it?
I think it’s truth-telling. I feel like a lot of pitches are just overblown, like, investors are told they’re going to get this massive return but it’s not based on reality.
All that you know for sure is that things are not going to go according to plan. And I think just being honest is key. Like actually saying, “I actually have no idea what’s going to happen, but I know I’m going to work my ass off, I can prove that I’ve worked my ass off before, and I’m not going to spend your money unwisely.”
And then I think it’s super important who you’re taking money from. And I say this now, but at certain points, I was just so desperate for any money that it wouldn’t matter. But I do think if you have the choice, it helps to be choosy. We got lucky, and all of our investors are super behind Freeland and the mission of Freeland and they’ll show up and help bottle. It feels like a community. So I think that’s another big piece of fundraising well: Yes, the people you take money from want a return on their money, but if possible, it really helps if they are also aligned with the ethos of the company.
What is something you’re working on right now as a leader?
This is something I’m thinking a lot about.
Before COVID, I was traveling so much and I was about to have to do trips to Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, and New York and I was so exhausted. I’d already been to LA, Seattle, and San Francisco this year. I’m a single mom and I was so tired and then this pandemic hit and there was a sense of relief.
You’re not supposed to feel relief when a pandemic hits but for me it was a moment of like, “wait, I shouldn’t have gotten here. I shouldn’t be this exhausted. I shouldn’t feel so good about getting to cancel all these trips.”
So, now I am thinking about how do I just listen more closely to my body? I don’t have to go this hard. I can go smarter. So that’s something that’s stuck with me. I can’t burn out. That’s not an option. This is my company and I need to keep steering it.
It’s almost like this weird pause in time when you’re a company that’s growing so fast to suddenly just get to reorganize everything, and pause, and not do things that weren’t working, and really take this time to reassess.
So going forward, I want to look at our small team and when we ramp back up again, I really want to take the time to look at our strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to grow in a way that creates a healthier workplace for all of us. Speaking of feeling burned out, what do you do when you want to relax and recharge?
I’ve been in the woods a ton lately – mostly runs in Forest Park. Also, I got a puppy, and there’s a beach nearby, and we’ll go up there at like six or seven in the morning when there’s nobody else there and it’s just a mile of beachfront where he can run off-leash. So that’s been really lovely.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
My favorite standard go-to cocktail is a negroni.
If I go to the Freeland tasting room once it reopens, what should I order?
I would order a gimlet. As much as negronis are my go-to cocktail, I feel like Campari in general is kind of like the white man of the spirits world because it’s just very overpowering and in your face.
One thing that brings Freeland to life is more citrus. So the lime in a gimlet just makes Freeland sing and it’s a beautiful way of tasting the bourbon.
There’s also a great drink called The Love Below. It’s with our partners at Portland Syrups. They make a mango habanero sauce and we add some pepper and lemon and it’s just a beautiful, spicy, fun summertime drink.
What are you listening to right now?
KEXP – it’s a community music radio station out of Seattle. I’ve also discovered a band called The Preachers that I’m crazy about. And Janelle Monae.
What does your daily news diet look like?
I start every day with the New York Times update. Then for work, there’s a guy Mark Brown who puts out like an industry report every day that I read. I listen to The Daily when I have time.
Do you have a book on your nightstand right now?
The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s really beautiful.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?
I’ve been doing this boot camp class with this woman Becca who has changed my life over the last couple of years. She’s a ray of sunshine who gives the very best hugs and her workouts are amazing. Her morning boot camp is like my church and so when everything shut down, it was pretty heartbreaking, but luckily she’s been doing it all online.
How can people support Freeland? How can they buy your products and follow along on your journey?
There are four ways:
- Order spirits for pick up at our Booze Through – you can also get cocktail kits and hand sanitizer.
- Use our delivery program and we can deliver right to your door if you live in Portland.
- Buy our product online. If you live in Oregon, we can ship to you. And if you live somewhere else, we can ship most other places through our partners. So go to our website, see the different partners and get Freeland delivered to just about anywhere
- Follow us on Instagram.