Crafted with care

Four years ago, while enjoying a glass of whiskey with her friend and rancher Cory Carman, something pivotal happened for Jill Kuehler (’06). Although Kuehler had a career in agriculture and food education, she raised her glass in wonder. “I don’t know anything about this grain or the farmer who produced it,” Kuehler recalls telling Carman. “I told Cory I’d like to make it. She got excited and said she’d grow the grain for me. It had been a dream to start my own business in the food and agriculture space. After that conversation, the whiskey idea came to life.”

She convinced a female distiller in Bend to join the effort, and Freeland Spirits craft distillery took root. “It was years in the making, and it’s such a nice extension of food and agricultural work I’ve done,” Kuehler says.

Sprouts of change

As a youth in Texas, Kuehler spent summers in the garden alongside her grandma “Meemaw” Freeland, who taught her that good things come from scratch. In the Peace Corps, she worked with elementary students in rural Guatemala, which planted the seeds for her future in agriculture and education. Kuehler earned her Master in Education at PSU and two years later took the helm as Executive Director for the Portland nonprofit Zenger Farm.

She grew Zenger Farm in staff size and service capacity (which now reaches 10,000 community youth annually), and helped create its new Urban Grange. “I spent years raising money for the Urban Grange, but I knew I didn’t want to move into that facility,” she recalls. “It was time for a new director to take the farm to the next iteration.”

Kuehler’s own next iteration became Freeland Spirits, named after Meemaw. In 2015, she partnered with an existing distillery to put away barrels of Freeland Bourbon. When Carman’s rye was ready, they created whiskey. “The obvious challenge with whiskey is aging, and we’ll be sitting on that for years until it’s ready to release,” Kuehler explains. “Whiskey is my first love, and gin is my second, so we decided to launch with gin.”

Made in a 500-gallon copper pot still from Germany, Freeland Gin – infused with botanicals inspired by Meemaw’s love of garden-fresh ingredients – made its appearance in December of 2017.

Female representation

Freeland Spirits ranks among a mere handful of women-owned-and-operated distilleries in the world. “It’s a story we’re really proud of. We’re highlighting women in industries where they hardly exist like ranching and distilling,” Kuehler says. ”Women have more olfactory cells and taste buds than men, so if women aren’t making the booze, a whole range of flavors aren’t being addressed.”

Kuehler raised capital through crowd funding, a local small business loan, and a group of women investors. Her dream blossomed when she opened Freeland Spirits’ tasting room in 2018. “I want to show my eight-year-old daughter that I’m not the person who always talks about something – I want to show her that I do it.”