What makes a premium vodka, well, ‘premium’? Seems like an innocent enough question but as a self-identified vodka drinker (that is when not enjoying scotch or rum) I realised that I had never really properly explored the world of vodka. Frankly, I suspected that outside of some extreme examples (cheap all-inclusive resorts duly indicted) I really had no idea what was ‘good’ from ‘bad’ vodka other than the quality of the marketing. I figured the best place to start was at the top of the vodka hierarchy and so I packed up and headed off to Amsterdam, a hop, skip and a jump (or 45 minute drive) away from Schiedam, Holland, where Ketel One is headquartered. Founded by the Nolet family, Ketel One is very much a family enterprise with a rich distilling history that dates back to 1691 and which has boasted a Nolet at the head since inception.
The tone for an interesting and educational (and I confess, enjoyable) trip was set early on by the lovely ladies of British Airways. I wonder whether it’s a sign that I have been unable to shake loose the mental shackles of colonialism but I have to admit when they say (for the third time) ‘Sir, please turn off your phone we are ready to depart’ it just sounds more dignified. Anyway coupled with that crisp British accent the meal, beverages and service in general, simply had a more refined feel, but I digress. I quickly checked in at The Dylan – a quaint five star hotel which, like much of Amsterdam, predates the internet and most everything else since 1850, yet has a very modern and chic feel (oh and free WiFi). We were treated to a tour of the Ketel One operation by Bob Nolet who, together with his father and brother, run Ketel One today. A tall athletic-looking chap, Bob was polite, friendly, thoroughly versed in all things vodka, and based on his support of Liverpool Football Club, clearly extremely intelligent, quite possibly a genius.
Did you know vodka is actually defined in terms of legalese? Well yes, and by definition, vodka must be colourless, tasteless and odorless. Huh? Yes indeed, the vodka experts have all sorts of interesting ways to describe their distinguishing characteristics while abiding by the ‘definition’ of vodka. As far as I could tell, most of the distinguishing traits had everything to do with taste, and to a degree, odor, but I have enough challenges in life than to wonder how this all works out in the regulatory world of vodka. The distillery tour was impressive and interesting; seeing the shiny copper pot stills and learning the intriguing story of the Nolets and how Ketel One was born. It was fascinating to understand the role the windmills played, and continue to play, in the production of this ‘tasteless’ delight. The distillery also serves as an active museum which elegantly blends modern facilities while preserving the rich history and traditions. While thoroughly enjoyable and almost miraculously not boring, half a day into my visit I was still none the wiser for determining whether there was a real difference that could be discerned between various vodkas for the non-expert. The answers soon came as we were treated to a blind taste-test conducted by Denise Tamse involving Ketel One and three other vodkas, Grey Goose, Absolut and Belvedere. One of the things I respected the most about the experience and both Dennis’ and Bob’s approach was that they treated the other vodkas with maximum respect. They acknowledged that there is a personal preference that accompanies the appreciation of vodka but with all that said I found it fairly easy to recognise the superior taste profile of one in particular. I assume it would have been highly embarrassing to them had it not been Ketel One but luckily for them, it was a pretty straightforward selection on my part.
The transition from the distillery to the production facility could not have been more stark or, for that matter, more jawdropping. With photography prohibited in certain areas, (I imagine to maintain corporate secrets) what I found incredible was the level of automation. Put it this way… there are no human hands directly involved in the process; from the skids offloading flat boxes arriving at the factory to boxes packed with full bottles departing on trucks from the facility. It sounds like an exaggeration but it’s a fact - they produce on the order of three million cases per annum with a total staff complement below 80 at headquarters. And what do you do after you have had a full day of vodka education? Well you drink (responsibly of course) in the sophisticated and uber chic bar they happen to have on the premises which could just as easily be found at 1Oak or any other hot spot in New York. An evening spent tasting various vodka concoctions produced by mixologist Dennis Tamse (though he prefers the simpler title of bartender) overlooking a maze of waterways on one side with windmills off in the distance filling out the horizon. Yes I am sure there are better ways to learn about vodka; I just can’t think of any at this moment.
Douglas K. Gordon. [email protected] is the Editor in Chief of OCEAN Style Magazine. Follow