Eat and Drink Spring 2018
“Do you know what percent of small business loans go to women?”
Jill Kuehler is yelling to me over the clamor of construction at the old Athletes Lounge space on Northwest Vaughn. The building is being turned into a home for Freeland Spirits, the distillery Kuehler started with help from Cory Carman of Carman Ranch and Molly Troupe, an Oregon-born, Scotland-educated distiller.
I’ve read this statistic, but all I remember is that it’s impossibly low, like 10 percent.
“Five!” She yells before I can answer. “Five percent!”
Kuehler is improbably upbeat in the face of this statistic. Not many people could start a business against those odds, and maintain the notoriously difficult fight to permit a distillery, and still be this bright-eyed. Much less standing in heels in a construction zone without sunglasses, after a night spent at the Alibi with a crew from various local distilleries. (“Those Townshends kids...” she says of the young staff of the Portland tea and liquor operation. “They know how to party.”)
Kuehler looks at you hard in conversation, her eyes shining like a racing signal saying GO GO GO. It’s a disarming characteristic, a wink without winking. It’s the kind of honest enthusiasm, without ego or cynicism, which you might expect to be stomped out of someone after years in the nonprofit world. But here it is in Kuehler, who has spent her career with community agriculture operation Zenger Farm and providing nonprofit consulting for various women’s and girls’ advocacy organizations.
Of course, you have to know how to party if you want to start a distillery.
“When Cory and I would get together, she’d come to Portland and we’d drink whiskey,” Keuhler says of her pre-business relationship with Carman. The decision to use Carman’s land to grow grains for liquor was a no-brainer. But they’d also need a chemist, and Kuehler had a particular type in mind.
“We basically said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if everything from the crops to the production was done by women?” Kuehler recalls. “But we figured there were probably three female distillers in the world.”
Luckily for Freeland, that number doesn’t seem to be quite as low as they’d feared. One of those female distillers was not only living and working in Oregon—she was born and raised here. Molly Troupe had studied distilling in Scotland and honed her craft at Hood River Distillers and Oregon Spirit Distillers.
Kuehler described one of her first meetings with Troupe: “We were walking through this park, and Molly leaned in and said, ‘Have you heard of the rotovap?’”
It’s a nerdy thing to be excited about: a vacuum still that allows distillation at low temperatures, extracting a fuller flavor. It also allows for (or forces) small distillations, so you can distill botanicals separately and blend them into a finely tuned gin.
For now, the Freeland gin currently on shelves is being distilled at Aria’s distillery, just a few blocks away on Northwest Savier.
“When Aria started, Bull Run let them use their equipment,” Kuehler explains, citing yet another distillery in a five-block radius. “So they’re letting us use theirs.”
Sold in a drop-dead gorgeous blue teardrop bottle, the gin is floral and vegetal, inspired by Kuehler’s Meemaw (meaning grandma—Kuehler’s from Texas) and her garden. It’s heavily aromatic, floral and herbaceous, led by mint and thyme, and soft as corn silk. But on first sip, it snaps like a sugar-pea pod.
It’s not surprising that one of the first bars to feature the gin on a cocktail menu is the Solo Club, just a few blocks away on Northwest Raleigh. Praising it as “floral without getting perfumey,” Mike Harding, bar manager at Solo Club, uses Freeland in the Trampled Rose— a savory sipper that lets yellow Chartreuse and gentiane-bitter Bonal punch-up the gin’s herbaceous side, and stirred with Ramazzotti for some weight and sweetness. With a sprig of rosemary adorably tiny-clothespinned to the glass, it’s not as sad as the Tom Waits song it’s named for.
The glint in Jill Kuehler’s eyes doesn’t fade as she points out where an even bigger vacuum and a custom German copper pot (currently on its transatlantic voyage) will one day live. She gestures to a large garage door: “We’ll have a patio, and there’s already a food cart out there.” OMG (Oregon Made Grub) is the cart currently serving the Montgomery Park crowd. The grand opening is scheduled for July 14, with live music from Chanti Darling.
Soon the first Freeland whiskey will be released, though it was distilled elsewhere and only aged by Freeland—and we’re still a few years away from seeing the all-women farm-to-bottle whiskey dream come true.
Carman Ranch is planting rye specifically for the first batch of Freeland’s whiskey to be distilled in-house. Cory Carman is building it into her new crop rotation—what Kuehler calls the “all-American diet—beef, pork, whiskey.”
“We’ll have access to whatever we want—rye, barley, triticale,” she says. “I’m really excited about triticale.”
Terroir is one thing—whiskey from well-raised rye will doubtless taste delicious—but while it’s clearly not the defining quality of the product, it is meaningful that Freeland is owned and run by women. If taste is at least partially psychological, there may be a cultural terroir that young Oregon distillers are taking advantage of: it’s possible for a gin to taste better because it’s made down the street from you, or recalls a nostalgia for a grandparent’s garden, or because it’s one more step toward closing the gender gap in the liquor industry.
What makes Freeland gin so good goes beyond the palates and expertise of Kuehler, Carman, and Troupe. That expressive, unique arrangement of flavors is clearly part Meemaw—and part progress.