When Bob Nolet was in New York a few years ago, he saw a pizza bakery removing and dumping tonnes of tomato skins and seeds before making sauce. It got the master distiller of the premium Ketel One vodka thinking about food waste, and he hit upon the idea of using the skin and seeds to blend tomato juice for Bloody Marys. Nolet got a neighbourhood bar to use the skin and seeds from the bakery. “The bakery doesn’t have disposal problems plus the bar makes higher margins on drinks. Simple ideas are all it takes, really, to aim for zero waste,” says Nolet, the 11th generation running the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam in The Netherlands, and has spent much of his career educating bartenders and consumers about vodka and responsible drinking. He’s now turned his focus to promoting sustainability, zero waste and recycling within the community.
In the 1980s, Nolet went go from bar to bar in the UK and Europe with a TV and a video player and show videos of the Ketel One distillation process and talk to people about the “mouthfeel”, texture and smoothness of the vodka, which is now recommended to bartenders by the World’s 50 Best Bars. “We didn’t always make such good vodka,” he says, adding that a good vodka shouldn’t burn while sliding down the throat or leave you feeling dehydrated. His family has been distilling alcohol for more than 330 years. “My father worked on the distillation process to bring about that tingle of alcohol but no burn. He saw that vodka was popular but there was a gap in the market for a premium one,” he says. So Nolet travelled around the world educating bartenders. “Now, I just travel to international conferences for bartenders where they set up everything for you,” he says, laughing. “Far less luggage to carry.”
Nolet hasn’t missed the premiumisation of spirits such as gin and rum in India, which he says will also drive up demand for vodka and is, in turn, great for higher-end brands such as Ketel One. “Vodka is neutral—by law, it has to be colourless, flavourless—and it’s a great base for cocktails. But, most vodkas are 40% alcohol and water, which is why you feel the alcoburn when you take a sip and it leaves the mouth dry,” he says. So, bartenders have to add a lot of flavours and sugar to remove that feeling of burn and dryness and make the drink sing. “The 40% alcohol, which makes everyone happy, is great for a lot of drinkers, but if you want to drink responsibly, you need a more premium vodka that doesn’t need so much sugar and flavouring,” he says, explaining that Ketel One is distilled in copper pot stills that impart flavour and smoothness to the alcohol.
Despite this adherence to the tradition of vodka-making, Ketel One launched Botanicals, a line of vodkas flavoured with peach blossom, cucumber and mint, and grapefruit rose in 2018 and ready-to-drink canned cocktails in 2020 for the international market. The botanical-flavoured vodkas have an ABV of 30% compared the usual 40% of traditional vodkas, including Ketel One. “People are looking for less alcohol in cocktails. They’re moving from nightlife to enjoying cocktails during the day and so you need to create lighter, more natural cocktails with less alcohol,” says Nolet.
They use the same distillation process but add herbs and spices in the early stages, as is done with gin, in order to retain that “tingly mouthfeel”, before adding cucumber, mint and other flavours. “So the alcohol content is lower but you still have that tingle of alcohol,” he says. For its flavoured vodkas, Ketel One has borrowed gin distillation techniques from Geneva, adapting knowledge from other methods and marrying it with their own. Nolet acknowledges that is hard to balance traditional methods of distillation for a spirit like vodka with contemporary needs of younger drinkers. “But you do need to adapt while keeping the spirit of the alcohol intact because this will be a trend in the long term—that people look for different spirits for different occasions because they are more educated about drinking and therefore, want to drink more responsibly.”