Today the Nolet family, is known internationally as the maker of the enormously popular Ketel One vodka. But Ketel One is just the tip of the iceberg for this family business, which for 11 generations has been distilling fine spirits in the Dutch town of Schiedam, adjacent to the port city of Rotterdam. Founded in 1230, Schiedam was already a major spirits center (known mainly for Jenever or “Holland gin”) when Joanness Nolet established his distillery there in 1691. The family has spent more than three centuries building the business, turning it into a leading player in the global spirits market, with distribution in more than 90 countries. “The very definition of ‘craft’ is something we have been doing for hundreds of years,” says Carl Jr., “though, at 325 [years old], we are a relative newcomer in Schiedam.”
The Dutch are a resilient people who have created a thriving culture and economy on land reclaimed from the sea. The Nolet family embodies this unwavering spirit, as they have faced countless challenges over the years. The political instability that gripped Europe at the end of the 18th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, tested the business. In the mid-19th century, the development of the column still (then a new, more efficient way of distilling) allowed for increased production of purer neutral spirits, leading to a price war that wiped out many of the distilleries in Schiedam.
The Nolet Distillery not only survived, but the family employed the technology to create more-refined spirits than ever before. During the Nazi invasion, the distillery was all but shut down, and Carl Sr.’s father, Paulus, turned the property into a safe haven for Jews escaping to England (the office used by Carl Sr. today proudly displays a mural painted by a Jewish artist during his refuge there). Nolet was one of a handful of Schiedam distilleries that were able to survive in a postwar Europe left in physical and economic tatters. In the early ’80s, after a “cocktail tour” of the US, Carl Sr. made the strategic decision to expand into the premium vodka market that was booming with American consumers. “I knew that I would have to spend 100 percent of my efforts to save the family business,” he remembers.
After several years of experimenting with his great-grandfather’s recipe for wheat-based vodka, Carl Sr. realized that the cleanest, crispest taste possible resulted from combining the heavier-tasting spirits from Distilleer Ketel 1, the distillery’s oldest coal-fired copper pot still, with the lighter product from the column still—and Ketel One was born. In 1983, Carl Sr. brought the vodka to the US. His plan was to introduce it to America through the best establishments and most-noted bartenders, building interest by word of mouth. Carl Jr. and Bob joined in helping expand Ketel One’s presence, armed with their father’s mantra, “Don’t oversell; find people who want to try it.” This strategy helped Ketel One achieve stratospheric growth, selling 1 million cases a year by 2002. Other milestones followed, including the launch of Ketel One Citroen in 2000 and Ketel One Oranje in 2010; a partnership with global distributor Diageo in 2008 to take the company’s expansion to the next level; and, most recently, drinks International’s recognition of Ketel One as the best-selling vodka and most trending vodka in 2015.
As the Nolets prepare to celebrate the 325th anniversary of their distillery with the release of a limited-edition Ketel One vodka bottle, incorporating key elements of the brand’s history and inspirations into its design, Carl Sr. and his sons take pride in their continued stewardship of the family enterprise. “It is our duty,” says Bob, “to leave both the business and the town of Schiedam healthy, and to build their future.”