Interview with Bob Nolet from Ketel One

Thanks to my very fine friends at Splendid Comms, I was able to slide a few questions in front of the latest member of the Nolet family to control the vodka behemoth that is Ketel One. It was a written response so some of the answers aren’t exactly what I was after, but as Bob is Dutch, things could have been a lot worse. I hope you find his answers enlightening.

Why is a Dutch vodka company investing in the Australian market, and specifically why Melbourne?

Australia has a dynamic cocktail culture to rival any of the international capitals, so it’s the perfect market to appreciate Ketel One vodka. I discovered that Melbourne is one of my favourite cities after I visited in November last year and was really impressed with the vibrant bar scene and the knowledge and passion of the bartenders. Melbourne has a European feel and a population who have sophisticated taste and appreciate quality experiences – so it’s perfect for Ketel One vodka.

What have you got planned for the Ketel One House down there?

Ketel One House was our way of re-creating the brand home of the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, in another city. It was a space celebrating Melbourne craftsmanship. Located in one of the city’s laneways, it demonstrated the work of some of Melbourne’s most talented designers and mixologists. Essentially what was a bar in a gallery; it combined the expert crafts of design, lighting, bespoke furniture, illustrations, installations and beautiful cocktails to bring Ketel One to life in a unique way. The space was open for a series of events for three weeks only from mid June 2010 to early July 2010.

Vodka has had a rough time with bartenders (Audrey from Pegu Club, in particular) reserving a special type of dislike for the class of spirits, sometimes even leaving them off the list. Is that changing?

In the very early days of vodka production in Eastern Europe, dating back some 1000 years, vodka was characterised by a vastly diverse drink profile, with many variations in taste and flavour profile, due to ingenious ways of distilling all kinds of ingredients. During the 19th century, with Mr. Lowitz’s invention of charcoal filtration, Mr. Stein and Mr. Coffey with the continuous still and Mr. Mendeleev with the alcohol percentage and purity ratings, there signalled a distinct change in the way vodka was produced. Vodka became about scientific benchmarking and ‘pure’ purity. This period is known as the ‘Hundred Year Standard’, from the early 1890’s to the 1980’s, redefined the category and the meaning of vodka. The best example of this style of course is Smirnoff, and today this brand is the clear global leader and definition of this style. Some bartenders hold a negative attitude towards this style of vodka due to the fact that it does not have a complex flavour profile, and acts as more of a blank canvas rather than lending itself as the primary note of a drink.

However, in the early 1980’s, some brands, such as Ketel One, beginning to revert back to the more artisan methods which stood for variety and diversity in the taste and flavour, as well as helping to re-introduce the culture of respect to the category. Copper pot-stills and small batches, which had been such a key part of the vodka world in the 16th Century, began to make a comeback. Vodka began to be less about origin, but about the culture it promoted.

It is this current direction of the category, championing and mastering both styles, resulting in either a ‘pure and classic style’ or a ‘copper, batch style’, which makes vodka today such an appealing spirit.

What sets Ketel One apart from the rest of the batch style vodkas is the silky soft mouth feel and the distinctive flavour profile – Ketel One vodka is good enough to drink neat. The old copper pot still from the Nolet Distillery, called the Distilleerketel #1, is still used to this day and imparts the vodka with a sophisticated, silky softness and rich mouth feel while the modern addition of an ultra wheat spirit, balances it out and gives it a lively crispness. It is marrying the subtle fragrance, flavour, feel and finish of a vodka to different ingredients that defines vodka mixology, whereas too often the ingredients can be first chosen and then married to a vodka. One of our signature serves for example is the Rickey; a twist on a classic, accentuating the fresh and citrus fragrance of Ketel One through the lime juice, playing with the silky mouthfeel with the sugar syrup, the crispness on the palate is accompanied by the soda water and the overall impression is both a respect for Ketel One and the enjoyment of the consumer.

Do you think Ketel One in particular is at an advantage with its distinct licorice taste profile?

Ketel One definitely holds an advantage due to its unique flavour profile. However, I think it is important to look at the complete flavour and taste profile of Ketel One to really appreciate its attraction. The nose is fresh with hints of citrus, followed by a crispness on the palate, with a touch of sweet liquorice, accompanied by an impressive silky soft mouth feel with a gentle lively tingle as an aftertaste. Liquorice on its own, can only express itself if accompanied by the other elements of the tasting. Personally, I feel the silky softness on the palate is the secret touch which helps Ketel One stand out and brings something extra special to a cocktail.

How has gaining access to the Diageo network changed things for a historic family run distillery?

At a product level, there has been no change. The Nolet family is still very much involved in the day to day running of the Ketel One distillery and business. The partnership has just brought together the best of both worlds, with the Nolet family personally approving each final production of Ketel One and Diageo providing its marketing and distribution expertise. Diageo has become an extension of the Ketel One family. We now have a larger family, caring for and nurturing Ketel One and we both have a shared ambition to grow Ketel One globally.

What are the big trends in cocktails for the coming year?

We are seeing resurgence in the popularity of classic cocktails, and classics with a twist. Ketel One was created to make the ultimate vodka martini with its balanced fragrance and flavour, so we’re in a great place to make the most of this trend. However we also enjoy a Rickey or a Grapefruit Julep with Ketel One, rather than with gin or bourbon respectively. There is also a trend towards premium vodkas, such as Ketel One Citroen, being enjoyed neat or ‘on the rock’. The generous and fresh taste profile of a spirit such as Ketel One or Ketel One Citroen means it requires little else.

How are those filtering down to the way people consume at home?

We are definitely witnessing a trend of people wanting to learn more about cocktail making at home. It’s nice to see the rise in enthusiasm amongst consumers to educate themselves in how to prepare a great cocktail at home, whether that be through understanding the flavour profile of the spirit or techniques used to mix the best accompanying ingredients.

Where are you off to next?

I am in Greece the week of July 12th for World Class – Diageo’s global competition for the World’s best bartender.