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Bob Nolet is classic Dutch: tall, good-looking and easy to get along with. So is Ketel One, the vodka his spirit-making family produces, packaged in a long-necked bottle designed for bartenders to handle more easily.
I found the product to be smooth, crisp and clean. It’s also exquisitely made, which is the way of the Nolet clan. Founded by Joannes Nolet in the fishing village of Schiedam, Holland in 1691, the Nolet Distillery has produced high-quality spirits for more than three centuries.
The distillery gives regular tours, and we started ours with Bob Nolet in the replica windmill built in 2005 at the distillery, which is located about an hour away from Amsterdam. At the top of the windmill are great views of industrial Schiedam. At the bottom is a state-of-the-art theater where you can watch “Generations,” a film festival-winning documentary about the Nolet family.
Ketel One Vodka uses high quality wheat from Holland and France to create an ultra wheat spirit via a four-column distillation process over a 15-hour period, the way many types of vodka are made. What sets Ketel One apart, Nolet said, is that part of the ultra wheat spirit is then re-distilled in small batches using traditional copper pot stills — including the original coal-fired 19th century Distilleerketl No. 1, which gives the vodka its name.
A member of the Nolet family personally tastes the final product. If something isn’t perfect, the batch will not be distributed. But given the high-tech adaptation of the age-old process, bad batches are virtually nonexistent.
For generations, the Nolet family specialized in producing jenever, a Dutch spirit that was the inspiration for gin. But when Carolus Nolet took over, he decided to draw on the family’s expertise to create a new product — vodka.
It took seven years, and the produce was called Nolet Spirit. It was crisply fresh but missing a good finish, so the family incorporated the copper pot still into the process, which changed the flavor and gave it a brighter finish.
“Dad went west in 1983,” said Bob Nolet, whose brother, Carolus Nolet Jr., is the company’s executive vice president of American distribution. “He said all Europe was going east, so let’s try the other side. There were very limited imports to the U.S. at the time. Now it’s huge.”
Huge to the tune of the 2.5 million cases of Ketel One that the distillery ships every year to the U.S., its biggest market.
If you can’t think of any catchy Ketel One ads you’ve seen, that is very much by design.
“We don’t advertise much,” Bob Nolet said with a small smile, as we sat at a tasting table, testing the product. “This is how we advertise: We taste.”
According to Bob Nolet, his father taught him much about the family business, including a powerful work ethic combining personal and business life.
He also learned the value of patience — of putting your all into a product slowly to make it the best it can be.
“He taught me the value of going step by step by step,” Bob Nolet said. “We’ve been around a long, long time, so I guess it works.”