One sterling survivor is the Nolet Distillery, a family business that opened its doors in 1691, earning global recognition for its gin during the 18th and 19th century. Today, the Nolet Distillery remains family run and produces great gin, but, rather ironically considering the relentless wave of juniper spirit, it now makes a mark with its luxury vodka, Ketel One. And it was this spirit that made me that martini.
The perfect Martini
My quest for a flawless martini has taken me to some far-flung places over the last 20 years, but this week I found one of the best exponents served a mere 50-minute flight across the North Sea.
The specific location was Schiedam in the Netherlands, a quaint city and one of the country’s smallest, which sits just outside Rotterdam. On the surface, Schiedam might seem like an unlikely location for a martini, but for die-hard fans of distillates it is high on a list of mandatory pilgrimages. So, after a night of indulgence in Amsterdam, lining the stomach with some extraordinary libations in the Flying Dutchman Cocktails bar, I slid south to check it out.
During the 18th century, Schiedam was the centre of the spirits universe, its modest 20 square kilometres accommodating an incredible 400 distilleries. History has not been kind to Schiedam’s spirits industry though, and while it remains a pretty city with a Dutch postcard positioning of windmills and canals, the impact of World War Two seriously dented the fortunes of distilling.
For the initiated, Ketel One Vodka is a specific ‘ultra-wheat spirit’, initially subjected to column distillation, including the use of a rectification still with extra copper plates. This spirit is subsequently passed this through pot stills, specifically the Nolet’s historic 19th century ‘Distilleerketel #1’, before being filtered and blended with the ultra-wheat spirit.
The pot still adds a crucial character to the vodka, so it is exceptionally smooth, but there is also a discernible and very welcome peppery bite. The spirit is crisp with minerality and because of this it works particularly well in cocktails.
The complex flavour profile ensures this vodka is surprisingly discernible in the likes of an espresso martini or bloody mary, two mainstays on my vodka menu, but also means it shines in a martini. This is because as well as being easy to drink neat, the vodka plays off a light touch of interaction with the botanicals in vermouth, an essential reaction in a vodka martini.
I’m often guilty of a stubborn loyalty to a gin martini, but using Ketel One reminded me that, when the vodka has character, the vodka martini can be magnificent. It was also a reminder there is still plenty to celebrate in vodka. For centuries the quest for this spirit was to distill to a level of such purity there was an absence of flavour or aroma; but a more recent movement has seen other producers celebrate the terroir or character that can be teased out.
Ketel One was created with this at the forefront of its ambition. In the 1980s, Carolus Nolet visited San Francisco to suss out the gin market and discovered a dearth in vodkas he could drink neat. Bartenders echoed his desire for a vodka with character that would also work in cocktails, and after seven years of development, the Nolet family returned to key cocktail cities in the US and UK and realised their ambition. Now it is one in the growing catalogue of quality distillers bring more taste and flavour to vodka.
In the last week it also amped up the creativity by launching a new group of botanical vodka expressions in America, a self-proclaimed “first-of-its-kind vodka,” combining the use of botanicals in distillation followed by the infusion of natural fruits and botanical essences. And as well as being passionate about vodka and the creative force of bartenders it also champions artists in other fields. Earlier this year the brand commissioned two artists in collaboration with Sarabande, the Alexander McQueen Foundation which nurtures emerging creative talent, and it has a history of working with creatives.
A day trip to Schiedam will enable you to see the country’s most impressive 16th century windmills, enjoy a canal trip and indeed visit the Jenever Museum to learn all about the history of gin. But the star of the show is the Nolet Distillery, which makes the city an essential expedition for any discerning drinker in search of an immaculate martini.