What makes something “craft”? Is it small-scale production? Organic, locally sourced ingredients? Is it technique?
“The word craft,” says Bob Nolet, 11th generation distiller at the Nolet Distillery, “can be confusing for the consumer. We consider it to be [about] craftsmanship, and when we talk about craftsmanship we talk about doing something really, really well.”
The Nolet family, which operates the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Netherlands, has been distilling spirits for 325 years. It’s best known for Ketel One Vodka, which the distillery produce millions of cases of annually.
Vodka, Nolet tells Broadsheet, is required by law to be neutral. “It’s what makes vodka so great”, he says. “It’s so mixable. You can make beautiful cocktails with it, you can make mixers. It’s a bartender’s dream.”
That’s not to say there aren’t subtle differences between brands – there are. But because the flavour of vodka is more delicate, the distiller’s individual sensibilities aren’t as obvious as they are with other spirits. This means vodka can be more easily produced on a larger-scale, so there’s no benefit in or need for small-scale production.
To make vodka the vegetables or grains (European wheat in the case of Ketel One) undergo a process that turns starches into sugar. Yeasts are added to convert the sugars into alcohol. The mixture is then distilled to heighten the alcohol content, filtered, and blended with water to cut the spirit back to each country’s legal minimum strength.
The marks of a good vodka is its purity, mouthfeel and length (the amount of time the flavour and mouthfeel persist after swallowing). At the Nolet Distillery, part of the ultra-wheat spirit is re-distilled in small batches using ten traditional copper pot stills – the oldest of which is from the 19th century, and is fired by coal. This process gives Ketel One its long, silky finish.
“What makes a cocktail better if you make it with Ketel One is that mouthfeel, that long finish. The ingredients you mix it with go for a long ride,” says Nolet.
For this reason, Ketel One is made for the Martini. “We call it the Ultimate Martini. The length of the vodka carries the vermouth,” says Nolet. “Although it’s also good on the rocks, with maybe a lemon twist, or however you like it.”
“A lot of craft vodka is just good marketing, but not good craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is what we are about. It’s the attention to detail that only comes when you’ve been doing something for a very long time.”
“It's rare to see a family so committed to their craft of distilling for 325 years and continue to strive and push to be the very best they can,” adds World Class USA winner 2012 Ricky Gomez.
This article is presented in partnership with World Class. Drink responsibly.