When it comes to vodka, chances are most SCI Members are familiar with the well-known, 100 percent winter wheat-based brand from Holland, Ketel One, named after the distillery’s original coal-fired pot still, Pot Still Number 1, or as it is more locally known, “Distilleerketel No. 1.” Since its introduction in 1993, Ketel One has become one of the best-selling vodkas in America.
However, those who have visited the Netherlands have no doubt seen their most famous local product, Ketel I Jenever – the forerunner of gin, and what started out as a juniper-based medicinal elixir that formed the basis for “Dutch courage” in the seventeenth century for British soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. In the 1870s, gin became the inspiration for the original martini, long before James Bond started shaking these straight-up cocktails with vodka.
And then there is Nolet’s Reserve, as I covered in SAFARI’s November-December International Living column. Quite simply, at $700, it is the world’s most expensive gin, and is only produced in very small batches of 494 bottles a year. To be sure, you won’t find it everywhere and, when you do, it is a guaranteed conversation starter, whether as a $125 drink at an upscale cocktail lounge or as chilled shots that you reverently pour for your guests as you tell them about the Cape buffalo that required both barrels to bring down.
Slightly more accessible is Nolet’s Silver at $50 a bottle and notable by its powerful floral bouquet, the result of being distilled with botanicals rarely – if ever – combined in gin, including white peach, Turkish rose and raspberries, and then bottled at a heavier-than-usual 95.2 proof.
All of these innovative libations are the products of just one Dutch family – the Nolets – who, as one of the world’s oldest distillers, are celebrating the 325th anniversary of the Nolet Distillery this year. In fact, it was in 1691 in Schiedam, Holland, where Joanness Nolet founded his distillery, strategically locating it near the shipping port of Rotterdam. At one time, there were more than 400 distilleries in the area. Today, after surviving the French Revolution, Prohibition and two World Wars, the Nolet distillery is the only fully operating distillery left.
But one of the real secrets to the Nolet’s longevity began in 1979, when Carlolus H.J. Nolet, the family’s tenth generation, assumed the presidency of the company. Carlolus decided to focus entirely on the distillery’s core product, their historical jenever. As a result, it became the best selling jenever in the Netherlands. Then, in 1983, noticing market trends, he turned his attention to America and decided to produce – not a gin, but a vodka – distilled specifically to appeal to the U.S. penchant for quality.
“The history of our distillery in Holland is more or less the history of jenever through the ages, for more than 300 years,” noted Nolet. “For instance, 250 years ago we were mainly distilling jenever, especially the gin type of it, with a specific gin taste and flavor. When my father came in charge of the company after the second World War, he continued to concentrate on jenever, because that’s what the Dutch like to drink. But seeing the success of vodka worldwide 35 years ago, I realized that I had to start with vodka first, to create – if possible – a worldwide brand. So I put all my efforts into what became Ketel One.”
To insure the success of his vodka, in 1991 he sent the older of his two sons, Carl Nolet Jr., to America to establish and become Executive Vice President of Nolet Spirits USA. Starting in San Francisco rather than New York, Carl Jr. personally visited nightclubs and restaurants in this cocktail-savvy city, pouring samples for bartenders and describing how Ketel One vodka was made in their family-owned distillery in Holland. The brand grew and in 2003, the company launched its first advertising campaign. By 2008, Ketel One was selling two million cases a year.
Meanwhile, back in Holland, Carl, Jr.’s younger brother, Bob, was now in charge of the distillery and European sales, while “Senior,” as their father is called by the family, continues to guide overall Nolet operations, including their historic return to distilling gin.
“I wanted to make something different,” says Nolet, Sr., referring to their Reserve and the Silver, “to create a new way for gin to be enjoyed, not just now, but for decades to come. And after the incredible success of Ketel One, this gin-type of drink came back in my mind. It had actually been in my mind for over 40 years. But now I thought, ‘This is the time to create another – if possible – top quality worldwide brand.’ So I studied and worked on it over ten years. It’s so nice to have this great success we have enjoyed with vodka, and to also be able to start, with my sons Carl and his brother Bob, to develop this incredible flavor that I had in my mind that has resulted in a new way for gin to be enjoyed, (and to) give a new dimension to creating cocktails.”
Not surprisingly, Nolet, Sr. or one of his two sons taste and personally approve every batch of Ketel One vodka and gin that their distillery produces before it is bottled. Indeed, this is an innovated family-owned company that, in 2005 built the first new working windmill in Holland in more than 100 years (which supplies 40% of the power for their distillery), and also decided to connect the distillery to their bottling plant by digging a tunnel under one of Holland’s canals (a project that took four years). Thus, one wonders what they have planned for their 325th anniversary. After all, there aren’t many distillers who fall into that rarified category.
For one thing, to kick off a celebration that will culminate in Schiedam in May 2016, the Nolets have produced a promotional film entitled “Our Life’s Work” on KetelOne.com, along with other social media venues. And as a physical memento, they have introduced a special 325th Anniversary Ketel One one-liter commemorative bottle, priced at $32.49. Inspired by a traditional Dutch design and dressed in copper matte plating to replicate the copper pot and column stills used by their distillery, coins representing the Nolet’s first ten generations decorate the sides, while “Senior’s” signature is on the front, and the signatures of Carl, Jr. and Bob Nolet appear on the back label.
Asked if a special vodka was created for this limited edition, Carl Jr. matter-of-factly replied, “Of course not. The bottle contains Ketel One, because that’s the best vodka we know how to make.”–Richard Carleton Hacker