As it celebrates 325 years as a distiller of fine spirits, including Ketel One Vodka, the Nolet family is staying grounded in tradition while looking squarely into the future.
Today the Nolet family is best known as the maker of the enormously popular vodka Ketel One. But for 11 generations the Nolets have been distilling fine spirits in the Dutch town of Schiedam, close to Rotterdam. Schiedam was already a major spirits center (noted mainly for Jenever or “Holland gin”) when Joanness Nolet founded his distillery there in 1691. In the three centuries since, the family has built the business into a force to be reckoned with in the global spirits market, with distribution in over 90 countries. “The very definition of craft is something we have been doing for hundreds of years,” says Carl Nolet Jr. “Though, at 325 years old, we are a relative newcomer in Schiedam.”
The Nolet family has faced countless challenges over the years. In the 19th century, the development of the column still 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 it employed the technology to create better, purer-tasting spirits than ever before. During the Nazi invasion, the distillery was all but shut down, so Carl Jr.’s grandfather Paulus turned the property into a safe haven for Jews, hiding them in a secret nook over his office. Nolet was one of a handful of Schiedam distilleries able to survive in a postwar Europe left in physical and economic tatters. In the early ’80s, 10th-generation distiller Carolus Nolet, known in the family as Carl Sr., made the strategic decision to expand into the burgeoning premium vodka market in the US. “I knew I would have to spend 100 percent of my efforts on saving the family business,” he recalls.
After several years of experimenting with his greatgrandfather’s recipe for wheat-based vodka, Carl Sr. realized that the cleanest, crispest taste resulted from combining the heavier spirits from Distilleer Ketel 1, the distillery’s oldest coal-fired copper still, with the lighter product from the column still—and Ketel One was born. In 1983, Carl Sr. brought the vodka to the US, partnering with the best establishments and most noted bartenders to build interest by word of mouth. His sons, Carl Jr. and Bob, joined him to 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, in 2002 reaching 1 million cases sold in a year. Other milestones followed: the introduction of Ketel One Citroen in 2000 and Ketel One Oranje in 2010; the formation of a partnership in 2008 with the global distributor Diageo; and 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, 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 the future.”