Part of the European Bartender Education is to bring the bartending industry closer to you, our EBS students. Regardless of what destination you choose to go to with EBS, when opportunity knocks, we will always answer.
On that note, there is a huge tradition of distilling Jenever and other spirits in the Netherlands, and Ketel One is one of the older and more prestigious ones in the country. Being invited by this company for a grand tour is one thing, partaking in a blind vodka tasting workshop, followed by a bar workshop is a solid bartender experience that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Tradition, always tradition
Ketel One is part of The Nolet Distillery, a traditional distiller of Jenever and until very recently, a family-owned company for more than ten generations. Recently DIAGEO bought a stake in the company, and when publicly noted companies try to buy their way in, it’s usually a sign that a brand is doing something extremely well.
The complex houses an enormous windmill that, although looking ancient, actually houses an exhibition on the company, a small cinema, a power generator and a space to welcome its visitors. From the moment we entered the premises, right until the end where we said goodbye, the experience felt like a visit to Willy Wonka’s spirits factory, as The Nolet went painstakingly far to preserve the small-time image of the distillery, even though they have tripled their output over the last couple of decennia.
To build on the earlier Willy Wonka metaphor, the old building is connected to an ultramodern warehouse by an underground tunnel, which crosses the adjacent canal – underneath the water! This particular feature of the facility won a Schreudersprize, a Dutch architectural award emphasising underground architecture for the preservation of traditional public spaces. I was also told by our guide that it is the only river-crossing tunnel in the entire country in private hands.
And although currently the tunnel runs a singly supply line to the warehouse, the width of that same tunnel would make you believe the builders anticipated significant growth in the next couple of years; setting up a second supply line would easily fit next to the existing one.
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures in the ultramodern part of the facility, but try to remember the opening scene from Avatar; Sully wakes up from cryogenic sleep in an enormous room populated with computerised loading trolleys shooting up and down the walls to prepare pallets full of premium vodka ready for shipping. Our guide casually tells us that this area is normally pitch-dark, since the robotic setup doesn’t need to see where its going – robots “just know”. A very impressive sight, and such an immense contrast with the traditional craftsmanship showed in the distilling part of the complex.
The tasting session
Our guide tells us that a distillery visit wouldn’t be complete without a tasting session, and so we are guided to the tasting room. All tables are set up with a variety of glasses, unnamed and kept at room temperature.
Glass by glass, we are asked to taste its contents, after which we discuss our tasting experience. It’s only after tasting each glass and discussion that we learn what brand was inside.
I won’t go into detail, but let me assure you that you’ll walk out with a profound appreciation of Ketel One Vodka, and an adjusted opinion on some of your other big brands out there.
Along with its traditional tasting session, the Nolet complex also houses several meeting rooms, with the top floor decked out like a sophisticated bar, along with angled mirrors on the ceiling, so customers can see exactly what the bartenders are creating behind their counter. It is this bar where we meet two highly trained bartenders who will coach us through the different drinks that bring out the best in Ketel One products.
Inspired by small batch craftsmanship
With new vodka brands popping up almost every month, and a wide variety of them putting their money on celebrity endorsement (you know who you are), it is very refreshing to see a family-owned company capitalising on their distilling expertise. The Nolet carefully navigates a thin line where traditional craftsmanship is the basis, paired with a state-of-the art distribution system. Having been around since 1691, this family knows a little something about their product. Allowing us to visit The Nolet facility and taking some of there very best product home was an experience to remember.