As vodka drinkers, we live in a glorious era. Not all that long ago, most vodkas available in the U.S. and elsewhere were mediocre workhorses. Designed more as alcohol delivery systems than proper spirits in their own right. This began changing in the 1980s as new premium brands appeared on store shelves — emphasizing quality and character. And to this day the category of vodka continues to evolve.
One of the primary drivers in this modern generation of high-quality vodka is Ketel One. Though their U.S. launch did not occur until 1983, the Netherlands-based family behind the brand, the Nolets, boast 330 continuous years of distilling heritage (save for a forced pause during WWII), and put eleven generations of expertise in every bottle.
In 1691, Joannes Nolet decided to plant a distillery on the outskirts of Rotterdam in the city of Schiedam located in the Netherlands,. The spirit of choice for the Dutch at the time was genever — the chewy malt-and-juniper driven spirit that was a precursor to British gin. Surviving European revolutions, American Prohibition and World War II, the company continued to thrive for centuries, growing under each new generation of Nolet leadership.
Even early on, the Nolet family brought many twists to the distilling industry. They built a distillery that was attractive and part of the community, long before the epic visitor centers we see today. Jacobus — the fifth generation of Nolet distillers and owners — constructed a massive windmill, one of the tallest of its kind at the time, and harnessed wind power to mill the grains used to make the spirits. Today, a new wind turbine provides about 20 percent of the distillery’s electricity. The next Joannes, of the eighth generation, opened a “branch office” distillery in Baltimore in 1902, trying to capitalize on diversifying American palates. But unfortunately Prohibition ended that experiment.
Vodka, of course, predates the Nolets by several hundred years. About 1,300 years ago, Arabic physicians and others around the world found that heating, evaporating, and condensing fermented beer or wine created a more focused, higher-proof spirit. This new invention was generally employed in medicine and spiritual rituals, or to purify drinking water, well before being enjoyed as a recreational beverage. By the late 14th century “vodka” appeared, particularly in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. It was a populist spirit, produced from whatever raw materials one had at hand (potatoes or wheat of course, but really any fruit, starch or grain can be converted into the clear, high-proof spirit).
As a result, even as vodka moved into the 20th century and was embraced in the 1950s and ‘60s by advertising professionals and cocktail hour fashionistas, the spirit itself was rarely elevated beyond “drinkable in a cocktail.” A British distiller once told me “no one ever sips gin or vodka, the way they do whisky.” But times have changed, and a quality vodka can taste good enough on its own to savor and appreciate.
Enter Carolus (Carl Sr.) Nolet, the 10th generation of Nolets to hold the keys to the distillery. In the early 1980s, he looked (again) to America and realized the market was thirsty for vodka. But he wasn’t content with simply juist distilling grain and bottling it. He was certain drinkers would appreciate a better-made product. With almost 300 years of family experience behind him and many trials and tests, he set out to make a high-quality spirit worthy of a family that lives by the motto “don’t make mistakes.” In 1983, Ketel One was launched. Almost 20 years later, Nolet and his team (including the next generation, brothers Bob and Carl Junior) debuted Ketel One Citroen and Oranje, both using real citrus oils and essences slowly infused into the vodka. More recently, the brand launched Ketel One Botanicals and while not classified as vodkas, due to a lower proof, the range features the same careful distillation process of grain spirits and natural fruit infusions.
But what makes it so special? Well, there are a number of factors. As with any premium spirit, first is employing quality ingredients, including 100% European wheat. And more significantly is the distillation process. Today’s premium vodkas pride themselves on the number of distillation runs made through modern computer-controlled column stills, and Ketel One starts with this high-tech formula as well, crafting what the brand calls an “ultra wheat spirit” or UWS. Straight off the column, even before it’s been lowered to 80 proof or sent through its final distillation phase, you’ll taste the bright, lively grain notes and citrus highlights which characterize the finished product.
Then the UWS is taken on a special journey. A part of each run is redistilled in ten squat, coal-fired copper pot stills, including Distilleerketel #1 (hence the name), the company’s original copper still dating back to the 1800s. The stills, more commonly used for “richer” brown spirits like Scotch and Cognac, produce a full-bodied, flavorful new make spirit and add a smooth, round characteristic to the finished product. This distillation step is incredibly labor intensive as well. The fires are hand stoked and monitored constantly. Closures are sealed shut with a wheat paste each time, and the product is monitored closely, with heads and tails cut at just the right moments. Watching this process, either in person or virtually, is like stepping back in time.
The ten pot still batches are filtered and blended to create a Master Pot Still Batch, which is then carefully blended into the remaining column still distillate following Nolet’s recipe, and brought to proof with water. And after that it’s then ready for bottling and drinking!
The third element is clarity and authenticity. Carl Jr. (generation eleven) likes to say, “we wanted to make a vodka that was Google-proof.” In other words, whatever you read on the label and the website, or learn from family members (who often show up at bars and events across Europe and the U.S.) will stand up under investigation and scrutiny. The label itself is a font of information, including a brief rundown of everything you’ve just read here, and a detailed family tree of the eleven generations of Nolets. “Even the dual coins on the label represent all the generations before us,” Carl Jr. notes. Though spirits giant Diageo bought a 50% stake in the brand in 2008, the Nolets hold onto ownership of the brand rights, distillery and recipes, So “Family Made,” as it says on the label, is also legit.
The end result is a clean crisp vodka with a long, complex finish, perfect for upgrading even the most basic mixed drink. It’s possible you’ve never taken the time to really reflect on your vodka. Take that moment now. Pour a little bit into a glass and nose it and swirl it like a fine wine. On the nose, rather than simply straight alcohol, you’ll find grain and bread notes, hints of lemon, almond and perhaps a hint of candied orange. On the palate, it’s round and medium-bodied (uncommon for a vodka), with just the softest hints of baked spice and lemon peel, leading to a long pleasing citrus finish and only a touch of the menthol note that comes off so many clear spirits. Now imagine how it’s going to taste in your cocktail.
People often think of vodka cocktails as standard, uncomplicated bar fare: Martinis, Greyhounds, Vodka Tonics. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, Ketel One is also a fantastic summer spirit, a time which thirsty revelers often turn to tequila. Consider creating a poolside punch with vodka, watermelon chunks, strawberries, watermelon juice, a hint of lemon juice and simple syrup to taste. Or slice fresh lemons and cucumbers and infuse them into the vodka for a few hours. Pour an ounce-and-a-half into a Collins glass with ice, and top each glass with sparkling water or sparkling wine for an even brighter sipper. For added richness and complexity, rinse your cocktail glass with a smoky Scotch or mezcal before building a Martini. No matter the choice, this is one vodka that definitely stands up to any of its neighbors in the glass.
This article is sponsored by Ketel One.