For anyone who pays attention to the adult beverage market, brands come and go; spirits fall in and out of style; new techniques outdate the old; overall, it can be an exceedingly tough business. This is why the 325-year distillation tradition of the Nolet family, owners of Ketel One Vodka, is world famous.
The family began distilling jenever, a predecessor to gin, in Schidem, Holland in 1691. Their work quickly gained recognition, transforming the town into a “capital of spirits,” and eventually led them to open operations in Baltimore, Maryland in 1902. Unfortunately the dark age, also known as Prohibition, came shortly after, forcing the Nolets to close their distillery.
It wasn’t until 1979, when Carl Sr. took over, that he performed deep research into U.S. cocktails and identified vodka as a cornerstone in that culture. By the mid-eighties, the Nolets’ perfect vodka recipe had been created and they set out to immerse their product in the American market.
If you’ve ever ordered an adult beverage at a respectable bar, you likely know Ketel One’s brand (and perhaps it’s admirable history), as it’s one of the classier options in an otherwise party-centric vodka market. While most vodka brands try to wrangle customers through million dollar commercials filled with unrealistic scenes of VIP rooms and scantily clad women, the Nolet family (Carl Jr., his father Carl Sr. and his brother Bob) employed a different strategy that was quite brilliant.
When they brought the brand to the United States, the Nolets didn’t try to sway cocktail-crazy consumers. Instead, they pitched their products to those pouring the drinks – the bars. By forging partnerships with high-quality establishments and educating bartenders on their product, the Nolets successfully differentiated Ketel One, helping it to become the astoundingly successful brand drinkers around the world know today.
It was this success that brought me to Ketel One’s anniversary tour, which stopped at Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place in Georgetown to celebrate 325 years of making history. Despite his busy schedule of meeting guests, taking photos and signing bottles, Carl Nolet, Jr. kindly sat down with me to discuss family tradition in an ever changing spirits market.
CR: It’s such an honor to sit down with you – your name is to the spirits market as Kennedy is to American politics. Which is quite fitting, since you’re in Washington! Your family has been distilling for an impressive amount of time. How do you stay true to tradition while also innovating to drive products forward?
CN: When you’ve been in the business as long as us, you learn to think not in quarters, but in generations. While we do think about what is needed to survive and thrive today, we’re also safeguarding the past and thinking far into the future.
CR: So, it’s a big-picture mindset that helps a business span centuries. At what age did you become involved and learn to carry on this family tradition?
CN: I started as a young child and was being groomed for the business without realizing it. At age seven my mother would drop me off at the distillery and I would pretend to give tours. I grew up watching my family work seven days a week, even around our dining room table. Watching their passion and work ethic for the business instilled it in me. I have seven children, from ages 21 to seven, and I’m trying to do the same with them.
CR: It’s clear this passion has resulted in your family’s vast vodka knowledge. What makes an excellent vodka?
CN: Good vodka is all about sourcing. At Ketel One we go to the ends of the Earth to find the best ingredients, to make a product we’re proud of. Our process is painstaking and requires high attention to detail. It’s also about collaboration, as we rely on many recipes and the expertise of various individuals. That’s why we have no walls in our offices. We blend the generations, the people, to make our products the best.
CR: Clearly vodka is a family favorite, but as a Kentucky girl and Urban Bourbon columnist, do you have second favorite spirit?
CN: I know all about you Kentucky girls and your bourbon – I married a Kentucky girl! Vodka is certainly my favorite, but if I’m ordering bourbon I always order Bulleit. Tom Bulleit is a dear friend of mine.
CR: Fabulous choice! Glad to hear your thoughts on bourbon. What are your thoughts on the Washington bar scene in general? What is happening here that makes our drinking culture unique?
CN: There has been incredible investment in Washington – it’s so much bigger than it used to be. And in five to ten years, it will be even bigger, primarily because of the flood of young people. Their presence is affecting the gravity of food and drinks in this city. Young people are so savvy with technology today that no establishment can get away with bad quality. Everything here has been elevated, is on the rise, and this will continue.
Although our conversation was brief, I’m still impressed by Mr. Nolet’s level of enthusiasm and engagement, which undoubtedly transfers into his work. If the rest of the Nolet family is just as passionate as him, it’s no wonder their distilling tradition has successfully transcended time, surviving the French Revolution, two World Wars and now, a rapidly changing marketplace. As a brand with a rich past, successful present and bright future, we’ll likely see Ketel One on the shelves for generations to come.