Nolet Distillery



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Visitor policy:
Not generally accessible

+31 10 246 2929

14 Hoofdstraat,
P/O Box 38,
3100 AA

The Nolet Distillery, where Ketel One Vodka is made can legitimately claim a family distilling heritage that stretches back more than 300 years. Today Brothers Bob and Carl Nolet work under the direction of their father Carolus Sr, who represents the 10th generation of one of the world's oldest distilling dynasties. The Nolet family has been distilling spirits since 1691 when Joannes Nolet started his distillation business in Schiedam (pronounced 'Skee-dam'), Holland.

Joannes Nolet was one of the first of many distillers to establish themselves in Schiedam, then a small fishing village. They were attracted to the area due to the town's proximity to the mouth of the great river Maas and its North Sea shipping port which, in turn, helped create one of Holland's largest grain auctions. Thus raw materials were readily available, as was an easy means of distribution for the finished product.

Over the generations the Nolet Distillery grew, surviving challenges such as the French Revolution and the ensuing political instability. During the mid-19th century, Joannes Nolet VI, representing the sixth generation of the distilling dynasty, moved operations. His choice of location, beside a canal connecting the river Schie and the old centre of Schiedam with the River de Nieuwe Maas, and most importantly, just a few hundred metres from the shipping port that continues to benefit the business today.

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His son, representing the seventh generation, bought steam power to the distillery and installed the coal-fired alembic copper pot still, 'Distilleerketel #1', that's used to make Ketel One to this day, and from which the brand takes its name.

Schiedam emerged as the centre for Dutch distilling, and by 1882 the Nolet distillery was one of 394 distilleries operating there. Jenever, then known as 'Holland's gin', was a popular and respected spirit across Europe and beyond. The Nolets and most of the other 'jenever distillers' of Schiedam specialised in the production of jenever, much of it being shipped to the USA.

Dutch Jenever was (and still is) made in two phases - malt-wine was triple distilled by what became known as 'malt distillers', before being sent to jenever distillers, who distilled the spirit a fourth time with the addition of juniper and other flavouring ingredients.

However, the arrival of the 'Coffey' still, patented by Aeneas Coffey in 1831, had a dramatic effect on the malt wine distillers of Schiedam. After continuous distillation was introduced in the early 1900s the number of distillers quickly began to decline as the economies of scale of continuous distillation resulted in fewer distillers.

The cheaper, cleaner spirit produced by the new stills also led to the creation of a new style of gin known as London Dry, named after the city which had muscled in on Schiedam to dominate the world's gin supply. After World War II there remained only a handful of malt-wine distillers in Schiedam supplying less than 40 jenever distillers. Today there are only four.

Recipes found in Joannes Nolet's journals, dating back to when he first established the business in 1691, are all based around small-batch pot still distillation. These, and subsequent journals passed down the generations, helped inspire the company's current chairman, Carolus Nolet Sr, when creating the recipe and production process for Ketel One vodka.

While travelling in America, Carolus witnessed the impact 'premium' vodkas such as Absolut and Stolichnaya were having in America and the number of people who were enjoying them in Martinis. He was convinced it could make a 'softer, silky smooth' vodka, particularly suited to being drunk neat in a Martini.

Carolus used the antique coal-fired alembic copper pot still, 'Distilleerketel #1', to make a pot still vodka. However, pot stills produce very heavy-tasting vodkas which was not the character he was searching for, so he blended this with column still vodka. His blend, Ketel One vodka, has a crispness from the column still and the rounded sophistication from the pot still. I have been lucky enough to sample both spirits next to each other prior to blending and, while both would make a fabulous vodka in their own right, such a tasting reveals that the sum is greater than the parts. After many years of experimentation, Carolus perfected the methods and the blending is still used today to make Ketel One.

The Nolets launched their new vodka in the United States in 1983. Back in 1902, Carolus's grandfather had opened a distillery in Baltimore. Prohibition forced the Nolets to concentrate their efforts in Europe and elsewhere, but the family had historical connections in America and Carolus was determined to resurrect the American market, convinced his new Ketel One vodka was exactly the product to do so with.

In fact, the family was so convinced of the future success of Ketel One vodka that Carolus's oldest son, Carolus Junior, (Carl Jr.), moved to America to personally handle its sales and marketing. The family took the decision to launch Ketel One without any advertising - just conversation. Carl Jr. and his brother Bob literally went from bar to bar with a bottle of Ketel One and a video tape explaining how their vodka was made and generally educating bar owners and managers about vodka and vodka production.

The brothers insisted that local wholesalers could not supply a bar with Ketel One until one of them had called on that bar to educate the staff and they had to personally approve the opening of a new account. They wanted to ensure the bartenders and wait staff really knew and understood Ketel One. They also limited each order to just three bottles at a time - no case sales. This meant accounts had to re-order at least once a week, giving the impression that it was selling like crazy. The Nolets did not want cases of their vodka piled high in store rooms.

It was an unconventional approach to drinks marketing, but it proved highly successful and Ketel One quickly established itself as one of the leading brands in the American super premium vodka market. Thus when Ketel One was launched in the UK in 1998, exactly the same philosophy was followed, with Bob Nolet personally calling on every bar before it could be supplied with Ketel One. An extra complication proved to be the lack of video players in London bars, so incredibly a small television with built-in video was lugged from bar to bar in order to show the all-important production video.

By 2001 Ketel One vodka had grown to become a million case brand in America, which led the family to complement their 'conversational' marketing approach with the 'Dear Ketel One Drinker' advertising campaign. This heralded a new era for the brand.

In the following years it became clear that to realise its full international potential the family would benefit from partnering with a larger distributor. Thus in 2008, the Nolet Group created a 50/50 joint venture company with Diageo, called Ketel One Worldwide B.V., to market and distribute Ketel One vodka. While still acting as ambassadors for their brand, this allowed the Nolets to concentrate their efforts on continuing to produce consistently high quality vodka, while also increasing production to satisfy the rapidly growing demand.

Fortunately their ancestor, Joannes Nolet VI, had chosen to site the family distillery in an area where adjacent land was available for its expansion, and over the years Carolus Nolet purchased more land not only alongside the old distillery but also on the opposite side of the canal. This enabled the distillery to grow both on the historical location and to expand.

Part of the ambitious plan to expand the distillery's capacity involved tunnelling under the canal. Today all the distilling activity still takes place in the old distillery, including the original coal-fired No.1 pot still, after which the brand is named, while warehousing and distribution lies on the other side of the canal, with supplies and bottles travelling back and forth by conveyor through the tunnel.

The old distillery now sits amongst a complex of modern buildings. The original distilling hall remains the hub of operations, with the main office, housing the desk and antique safe used by generations of Nolets and the old offices preserved as something of a museum. This office is also decorated with painted murals dating back to the Second World War.

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