Carl Nolet Jr., the son of Carolus Sr., the 10th generation patriarch of the Nolet distillery in Schiedam Holland, has some big shoes to fill. The Nolet family has been making top quality spirits for the past 325 years, and each generation strives to leave the company better off than when the keys were handed over. But Carl Jr. and his brother Bob are following a legacy that brought the mighty Ketel One vodka to the States at just the right time in the 80’s, and a partnership with liquor giant Diageo which helped propel the brand to its current annual haul of almost 2.25 million cases. And that’s a tough act to follow. So we caught up with President & CEO of Nolet Spirits USA Carl Jr. to discuss the 11th generations first product launch, Nolet’s Silver, the secrets to 325 years of success, and emerging from the shadow of his father, the great Carolus Nolet, who sits on the Forbes billionaires list at No. 666 with a personal fortune of over $2 billion. But hey, no pressure.
So where does an heir apparent to a world class spirit company get started in the business?
Here at Nolet’s, a generation does not start in a corner office. We all start off on the ground floor and we are expected to work our way up. My brother and I learned every aspect of the business, including distilling. But getting my first job here was not an automatic. You first need to prove yourself before humbly asking dad for a position. My first task in 1988 was polishing copper at the distillery. There is about 5 miles of it and I scrubbed that copper until my hands turned green. And that was my first important lesson learned: If you don’t know what you are doing, then ask. If I had asked my manager how to polish copper, he’d have told me to wear gloves. But I was too smart for that.
It was early in your career when came to the US to revitalize the marketing effort for Ketel One in 1992. What was your expectations of success for the brand at that time, and how did it compare to what actually happened?
My Dad sent me over with 100,000 Dutch guilders (about $27,500 U.S.), which he thought was an incredible investment at the time. Our goal was to achieve 1% of the imported vodka category, which was around 30,000 cases. In 1992 we did a little over 4,000 cases and by our third year we sold 52,000 cases. For about 15 years there was never a month that we sold less than the month before until March, 2007 when we came up 450 cases short. I am still bothered by that.
What was your approach to getting the word out about the vodka?
I focused on the quality of the liquid inside the bottle. Our biggest ally has always been the bartender, so I held seminars to explain how Ketel One was made differently. We used videos to demonstrate the art of the distilling process and how we blend a continuous column distillate with pot still vodka to achieve its unique taste profile. Twenty six years later we were recently awarded a 98/100 for taste, and that’s what I needed to bring to the bartenders, the salespeople, and the consumer.
After growing and sustaining a global brand the past 15 years, what’s your best advice for setting yourself up for success?
Try not to make mistakes. Every generation is taught this sentence in our family. It’s so simple yet incredibly difficult to live up to. Our family’s 325 year history is based on trying not to make mistakes. We envision what the future is and we lead. So we’ve built Ketel One and now Nolet’s gin with this sentence in mind.
As Ketel One was really your father’s baby, Nolet’s Silver was created by you and your brother. Why did you decide on making a gin?
It took us almost 7 years to make Nolet’s Silver. In May 2001 our Dad pulled my brother and I aside and told us to think about creating a unique gin that’s never been done before. And neither of us even liked gin at the time. But we did some research and we noticed that in the bartending world it had became a hot item. We don’t follow trends, but there was something there that made sense. We also knew that innovation is the main lifeline of a business and that the future for us will be gin.
Are you confident you didn’t make any mistakes?
We did an analysis of the gins out there and saw immediately that everything is gathered around ‘juniper heavy.’ There was a void on the right field for us to consider something totally different. My thing was that I couldn’t get a glass of gin to my nose, I just didn’t like it. So my brother and I put on lab coats and played in the sandbox. We tried all the combinations of common botanicals in every known shape and form and continued to end up with a product that we didn’t like. That was our first mistake. But Dad reminded us to ask ourselves ‘what’s the vision is for this’? So we looked for things that smell exceptional, and when we struck on Turkish rose, peaches and raspberries, the succulent and the tart, we knew we finally had something unique.
Are you attracting a new flock of gin drinkers or are you finding more gin lovers finding Nolet’s?
Well we hope gin drinkers like our taste, we made a unique and approachable gin, but it’s still very much a gin. I do believe it’s going to bring a different resurgence into the category. All the new gin styles coming out either go juniper heavy or you go into the field where we are and do something different and send our drinkers on a on a wonderful journey. And that’s what Nolet’s is.
So its fair to say that Nolet’s Silver a gateway gin for non-gin drinkers?
You know, you see honey in American whiskey, and of course they have to do that to make it approachable for people to take the first step and enter their world. And they chose an approach of honey. But I believe that Nolet’s Silver’s fruits and flowers are absolutely unique and it’s going to change the world.
How has the spirits landscape changed over the years and how do consumers evolving habits inform your strategies?
It used to be that you could call your consumer’s adorers. These are folks who drank nothing but a specific brand. Today you have a much better educated group of consumers who’ve worked through many categories, and it’s not just millenials, it’s everybody, including myself. We are all experiencing education through knowledge and that’s where I believe our brands have a common denominator. It’s about the authenticity of something; brands need to have substance. And I believe that’s where the future is. The consumer today can google anything and find out if a product is telling the truth or not, or read about other people’s experiences. So to stand out from your competition you need to work harder and, as we always say, try not to make mistakes. Never cheat yourself or cheat the consumer in that respect. Some people are short sighted sometimes by cutting costs, but that’s never in our best interest. As a family business we look at what we are contributing as a generation.
What kind of company do you hope to pass down to your children?
When I look back on my Dad as the 10th generation, he can be very proud of everything that he has accomplished. For the next 25 years it will be up to my brother and I to build on what he has started. So we consciously as a family try to give back. We take so much from our planet already, and what good does it do if our business is still there but no planet. We are always interested in doing the right thing and it’s the prevailing thought in everything that we do. And that starts with the ingredients, how we distill our product, and is every meticulous detail. It’s all about your behavior as a human being.
What’s your go-to, game changing Nolet’s Silver cocktail?
I am a firm believer of the Vesper, which gives me the best of both worlds: Ketel one and Nolet’s together with a splash of Lilet Blanc—it’s a magnificent cocktail.
This article was written by John McCarthy from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.