women in whiskey
Meet the women shaping the whiskey industry
Freeland Spirits “She Flies with Her Own Wings”
Oregon’s state motto “Alis volat propriis” translates to “She Flies with Her Own Wings”.
For the team of Freeland Spirits in Portland, Oregon, it’s an apt slogan for what is one of the few distilleries in history to be woman founded, owned, and operated. (Less than 1% of the world’s distilleries are owned by women. Source: Forbes)
For this month’s Women in Whiskey, we chat with:
Founder and CEO, Jill Kuehler, and her female inspiration behind Freeland
Master Distiller, Molly Troupe, a Portland native who trained in Scotland
Hospitality Manager, Brooke McKinnon, a hospitality veteran focused on the guest experience
Meet Jill Kuehler, Founder and CEO
As a young girl, while Jill remembers her father and brothers enjoying whiskey, she credits her “Meemaw” for both instilling her work ethic and inspiring her to start her own distillery.
[Geek fact: “Meemaw” is a term often used in Texas and other areas of the American South that is a riff on the French word mémère (granny) dating back to the 1700s from Louisiana Cajuns. Sources: Quora, Wikipedia]
Jill spent a lot of her time with her grandparents who lived east of Dallas. “Meemaw” or Grandma Freeland (for which the Distillery is named) was a Texan woman who took pride in her garden and work ethic. Long before the phrase “farm to table” became fashionable, Jill learned about the importance of fresh ingredients and grew to be passionate about agriculture and the people in it.
As a premed student at Texas A&M, Jill majored in Health Education because she believed in disease prevention vs. disease treatment and wanted to make a difference in developing countries. This led to her joining the Peace Corps and was assigned to Guatemala.
Wide eyed and fresh out of college, at the end of her two-year stint, she admits that it was actually she who ended up learning from the locals. One of her takeaways was the significance of subsistence farming; output is for survival with little or no surplus.
Every Great Story Starts with Whiskey
Armed with experience in small scale agriculture, Jill worked a season at a family farm in the rural Pacific Northwest. She then moved to Portland and ran Zenger Farms; it is a non-for-profit farm dedicated to “showing city kids where good food comes from” as part of its mission to teach people about sustainability.
Then, she met Cory Carman, a fourth-generation female rancher whose own grandmother inspired her to run the family business and shared Jill’s passion for sustainable agriculture. One night over Kentucky bourbon (whiskey was another shared passion), they geeked out about terroir in whiskey and the need for more females owning distilleries. Cory offered to help provide small scale grain production and Jill liked the idea of working in tandem with the crop rotation in conjunction with the grazing of Cory’s cows. When asked how they chose the rye varietal, Jill credits Tom Hunton of Camus Country Mill (located in nearby Eugene, Oregon) in helping them to choose the Gazelle Rye. (He also agreed to be an additional grain source.)
With a grain source in place, Jill went on to secure what she refers to as her “distilling unicorn”, Molly Troupe, an Oregon native with a Brewing & Distilling Master’s Degree from Heriot--Watt in Scotland.
Meet Molly Troupe, Master Distiller
A native of Troutdale, Oregon (not too far from Portland), Molly majored in Chemistry at Southern Oregon University in Ashland with an emphasis in Forensics. Although she considered a career in oncology, she knew that her passion was in flavors and sensory experiences; applying her chemistry knowledge in spirits seemed ideal.
Molly explored the Brewing program at UC Davis (California); there was a 2-year waitlist. A good old-fashioned Google search led Molly to the Master of Science (“MSc”) Program in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot--Watt, a 1-year program in Edinburgh, Scotland. The application period was still open and Molly was accepted.
Of the 40 people in her class, at least 25% women were women; they came from the United States, Canada, the UK, Thailand, and Japan. The curriculum of classroom and real-world experience covered everything from mashing and fermentation to milling, brewing, the aging process, packaging, and more; hands-on learning occurred at craft breweries, distilleries, and glass manufacturers. (She still keeps in touch with fellow alumni to see how they’ve used the experience in their careers.)
Molly’s family supported her pivot to spirits – her Dad is a huge fan of Scotch and her Mom and aunts came to visit during a 3-week break. They toured the Highlands and squeezed in an official “Outlander” tour, based on the historical Scottish drama series.
Returning home from Scotland, Molly worked at Hood River Distillers in Quality Control and discovered C.W. Irwin Oregon bourbon during a sensory tasting comprised of outside products. She reached out to the distiller, Oregon Spirit Distillers. and landed a distilling job. While there, she met Jill and they bonded over their shared love for rye whiskey. Freeland Spirits was still an idea at the time, but Jill had already told Molly she wanted her to help launch it; when the time came, Jill called her.
Molly launched their first product, -a small batch gin, implementing their own method of both traditional heat distillation and cold distillation (which uses a vacuum instead of atmospheric pressure) in order to achieve the garden bouquet that would be an homage to Jill’s Meemaw. In 2018, Forbes celebrated Molly in their 30 Under 30 List as the youngest female Master Distiller in the United States.
That same year, they released a bourbon. Like other young craft distilleries, Freeland’s first whiskey project would involve blending sourced whiskey as their own product was distilled and aged; they ensured to be extremely transparent about it, and Molly enjoyed the collaboration with a local winery to add a finish.
Freeland Spirits Bourbon
Official Production Specs and Tasting Notes
Mashbill: 70% corn, 20% rye,10% malted barley; blend of 3-year-old and 12-year-old bourbons; finished in Oregon’s Elk Cove Pinot Noir barrels; 46% ABV (92 Proof)
Color: Rich mahogany
Aroma: Toffee, marmalade, smoked pecan & clove
Taste: Rounded and smooth, soft caramel and baked berries layered with vanilla bean, cocoa and spice.
Finish: Long and velvety
Speaking of their own whiskey product (which she mentions is heavy on the rye but also includes barley), Molly is regimented about the sampling – they tap annually. The first year, she was happy with its viscosity and initial tasting note of pistachio ice cream; it’s less of a dry rye and more of a banana bread spice. She estimates that they’ll dump the barrels next year and debut their Carman Ranch Rye based whiskey next year.
Like many accomplished women in different industries, there were times when Molly couldn’t believe all that she had accomplished. When asked to share one of her “I’ve made it!” moments, Molly responded that when the legendary Dr. Rachel Barrie friend requested her on Facebook, her first thought was “Oh my gosh, she knows who I am?!”
And as the rest of the world discovers Molly (and Freeland Spirits), their Hospitality Manager, Brooke McKinnon ensures that people enjoy the experience.
Meet Brooke McKinnon, Hospitality Manager
As a teenager in Portland, Brooke worked at diners and pizza joints then moved to fine dining while she studied International Business and Economics (with a minor in Spanish) at the University of Oregon. She spent breaks in Mexico working with her friend’s mom, who was a private chef; post graduation, she ended up as a Manager at Flora’s Field Kitchen, a farm to table restaurant in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Since it was located in a touristy area, they looked to mirror the US fine dining experience; however, Brooke took note that the bussers, servers, and bartenders were male, whereas the hostesses, cashiers, and staff management tended to be female.
When she returned home to Oregon, she worked at King Estate Winery for 3 years, starting as a concierge and moving into wine education where she learned about the production side. One of Brooke’s favorite things about the Oregon hospitality scene is the wide range of environments --- from white table cloth environments to a super casual environment, so transitioning to Freeland, she was excited to be part of the growing local spirits scene.
Pre--Covid, Brooke collaborated with a Bar Manager to create a full cocktail program to complement a robust menu (as per Oregon regulations) that featured items such as Liqueurs and Amari. During Covid, they partnered with Providence Health to provide hand sanitizer. Post--Covid, they’ve scaled to bar snacks with a focus on their own distilled spirits, and to preserve the cocktail program, Brooke came up with the idea of creating fresh cocktail mixers to use and they now offer them to the public as their own product line.
In fact, it was Brooke’s idea to create the cocktail mixer, and she pointed to this as an example of one of the reasons she loves working at Freeland – Jill’s commitment to creating a work environment that fosters creativity.
The Allure of Alcohol vs. the Reality of the Role
The creation of this environment was a fundamental part of Jill’s mission to create a professional workplace that empowers women to innovate and succeed as opposed to a world where “women are judged on performance and men on potential”.
Both Molly and Brooke agree that Freeland Spirits’ commitment to this is part of the reason why they work there. Jill has also been part of non-profit organizations focused on empowerment, such as the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, Adelante Mujeres, Girls, Inc., and App Camp for Girls.
When asked what advice she’d give for someone else looking to get in the spirits industry, or specifically to start a distillery, Jill stated that the allure of alcohol may draw people in, but that they need to be aware of the reality of the role; craft distilling involves high regulations and is capital intensive. She says that while “the still might sound sexy, ask yourself how do you want your life to look every day?” Part of that is also keeping in mind to allow your employees to be innovative.
Jill and her team have also pointed out that they’ve had people from the community volunteering with bottling and delivery driving, which provides the ability for someone to get a behind the scenes peek at a day--to--day distillery workplace.
And, if you’re good with simply enjoying their product neat or are looking for a cocktail, they recommend the following:
2 oz Freeland Bourbon
½ oz Cranberry Cordial (recommended brand: Som)
¾ oz mint simple syrup
¾ oz lemon juice
Bushel of mint
Muddle 5-7 mint leaves in a shaker tin. Add ingredients and shake for 8-10 seconds. Double strain into a rocks glass. Top with ice and fresh mint leaves for garnish and enjoy!
We hope you enjoyed this month’s edition of Women in Whiskey; join us next month as we chat with Lexie Phillips of Jack Daniel’s!