Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
When your family has been distilling since 1691, and you’re heir to one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the Netherlands, you would, perhaps, expect to take it easy. Not so Bob Nolet, one half of the eleventh generation of Nolets to run the Nolet Distillery, and master distiller of Ketel One Vodka.
When he was building Ketel One Vodka in London in the late 90s, with a little help from our own Simon Difford, Bob used to lug a TV and video tape player from bar to bar on the Tube. “We had a video that highlighted the distillation and gave a tour of the distillery,” he recalls, over the phone from the little city of Schiedam. “There were no laptops then, no mobiles – there was only one bar that actually had a set-up with a TV that we could use.”
In fact, although Bob’s father, Carolus Nolet, created a lot of success today, the business was far from a sure-fire option when Bob was growing up. “The 70s was a very difficult time for the spirits industry in our country,” he says. “Many other distilleries here in the town of Schiedam, many family businesses like we were, went out of business one after another, and we had to find a new future.”
Carolus worked pretty much seven days a week at the distillery, looking for a solution to futureproof a business that had survived wars, famine and Prohibition, and tending the Nolets’ 50-odd products. Bob and his slightly older brother Carl Jr would come into the distillery on weekends and race through the corridors, a childhood scented with botanicals and raw spirits.
Despite the family history, it was far from guaranteed that either Carl or Bob would go into the business. After all, distilleries that had stood for centuries were closing their doors and families who had been in the town’s elite for generations were going bust. “My father never asked or pushed my brother and myself to work in the family business,” Bob says. “There wasn’t such a clear future of the company, so we had to try to make one.”
One of Carolus' first innovations was to put the distillery's old pot still, #1, back into action and craft a premium jenever, the Dutch gin-style spirit that had formed the backbone of Schiedam’s distilling industry for centuries. As with Ketel One Vodka, he used the distillery’s coal-fired #1 pot still, and called the spirit “Ketel 1”.
Then he came across an imported vodka, which had entered the US market in the late late seventies with spectacular success. Carolus tasted this and other vodkas which had entered the US market. Underwhelmed, he decided he could do better and found a new future for the family. After all, if a Swedish vodka could take the US market by storm, why not a Dutch vodka? After extensive research into US cocktail and bar culture, he launched Ketel One Vodka in 1983: it was the first pot still vodka America had seen, with a fresh flavour and long finish that was tailored to martinis.
By 1992, after a stint in the US, work at a wholesaler, education and a period in the clothing industry, Bob was ready to join the family concern. There was no question, he says, over who should do what. “It all came naturally. My brother is more on the sales side, and the interest I have is more on developing the products and distilling and marketing,” he says.
Over the next 15 years, they built the brand systematically, bar by bar. In London, Bob insisted on meeting and personally training the staff in every single bar that stocked Ketel One. “We were kicked out of a lot of bars trying to tell our family heritage,” he says. “Or we’d make an appointment for a tasting and they’d say there would be 12 people, and you’d show up, and there’d only be the cleaner.”
But his persistence worked. “When I could find the time, I’d go back to London, and see if the people I’d trained were still there,” he recalls. “Most of the time they’d moved somewhere else, and when they went to work somewhere else, all of a sudden we got sales in another bar. So that’s how we built it, one bar at a time, one bar at a time.” When Zeta Bar launched at the London Hilton in 1999 to huge acclaim, Ketel One Vodka was the only vodka on the menu.
Long before most of us had the internet, let alone decent search engines to make it navigable, Bob was foregrounding education, training and product knowledge. Like the winning combination of family heritage, craft and flavour behind Ketel One Vodka itself, it’s a template that seems standard now, but was groundbreaking back then.
“The vision is that we’re different, different from anybody else,” says Bob. “If there’s a product out there, or any category that behaves a certain way, we wouldn’t produce a product that’s similar.” (Nolet’s Gin, which the family launched in 2010, was one of the first gins to include contemporary botanicals, such as raspberry.)
By 2007, Diageo was sniffing around the company. Ketel One Vodka wouldn’t just give them a credible luxury brand but a foothold in the top end of the US bar trade. “All of the family was extremely involved in the deal, because this is our business, a business that hopefully our children will inherit,” says Bob. “They basically asked us to work together in the joint venture, instead of coming here and saying, ‘You have success, let us buy your brand.’”
In 2008, the Nolet family reached an agreement with Diageo forming a new company to sell, market and distribute Ketel One Vodka. With global distribution, the vodka became a global brand, and all of a sudden Bob was travelling the world: Singapore, Japan, Mexico, Brasil, Australia, Hong Kong...
Remarkably, over Bob’s lifetime, Carolus had transformed the family business from a legacy company at risk of failure to a billion-dollar concern. But the money changed little. “That’s the strange part,” Bob says. “We are not driven by money or earning more money. The only drives that my brother, I and my father have is to bring the business to the next level and to look to the future for our children – so you need money to pay the bills, but that’s not the driver.”
Bob drives a nice car and has a nice house, he says, but his spending doesn’t extend beyond that. In fact he’s quite the embodiment of the Dutch work ethic by which the Dutch are famous. “We’re not driven by making more money: it’s the opposite,” he says. “It’s doing the right thing: the right thing for the children, the right thing for the company, that’s how we’re driven.”
As Bob gets older, he immerses more and more in the history of the company. He’s recently learned that an ancestor dealt with Founding Father and future US president John Adams when he was in Holland in 1782, to talk about buying jenever for the American army. “You get to understand more and more of the history of the family and of the city of Schiedam,” he says. “We’ve been part of it now for 326 years.”
Working so closely with his father and his brother – their mother also works for the business, in a role to ensure that the distillery and offices are immaculate and a feast for the eyes – could be a recipe for tension. But apparently not. When Bob visits the US he stays at Carl’s house; Carl and his seven children recently spent four weeks at Bob’s in Holland. How do they separate business and family? Bob laughs. “We don’t.”
When he’s not travelling the world doing tastings and presenting to bartenders, Bob works at the distillery in Schiedam, while Carl looks after the US end of the business. “My main focus is the quality of our spirits so in the morning that means tasting different liquids to sign off for the family,” he says. “Most of the time my father signs off, and if he’s not around then I do that. That’s an extremely important part of what we do. We focus on distilling the highest quality possible and then every day that’s the goal to do that again.”
With a twelfth generation waiting in the wings, the three Nolets have developed a succession plan. “We have a very successful distillery, we have a beautiful history and an amazing future,” Bob says. “So if somebody wants to work here, they have to go through a plan to see if they can work in the company. Just because you have the family name it does not mean you get the job.”
As yet, it’s still unclear who that will be. “My brother’s oldest son is already working internships – he’s worked in wholesalers in New York and LA, so he definitely takes an interest,” says Bob. His own sons, aged just 10 and 12, are already scrutinising for fun back bars to look for Nolet products, and checking shelves in the off-trade to see that brands are in the right position, so he thinks at least one will end up in the business.
Between the World Class competition and his work introducing the brand to new markets, Bob has been working with the top of the global bar trade for rising 20 years. And, he says, it’s bartenders that he values most about his job. “Every day I get up in the morning to make a success of this business and what I enjoy the most is when I see bartenders with passion and love for the brand and they use it to make great drinks,” he says. It’s good to see that the days of carrying televisions around have paid off.