Not every company can stay in business for more than three centuries after being passed down through 10-plus generations, but Holland’s Nolet Distillery—makers of Ketel One vodka and Nolet’s gin—has done it.
The distillery will celebrate its 325th anniversary (yes, you read that right) this year. We caught up with Carl Nolet Jr., the company’s 11th generation president/CEO, about this remarkable achievement.
Congrats on the 325th anniversary of the Nolet Family Distillery. How did you celebrate the actual anniversary?
It’s a celebration year! The actual celebration will be on May 14, 2016. The whole entire year, many things will happen. One of the first will be we started a new brand campaign called Our Life’s Work, celebrating the distillery and putting the family in the foreground.
[Lasting] 325 years is a long time. How have things evolved within the family business over the centuries?
In this ever-changing industry, trends come and go. You have opportunities all over the world, and things that happen that you don’t expect. World Wars, for example. During World War II, the whole distillery was closed.
But what hasn’t changed is an unwavering commitment to quality. One of the things a family business has is passion. You come through the doors of the distillery and feel the 325 years coming right at you. You see the pot still No. 1. We’ve combined the modern distilling techniques, the column distilling process. You go underground, and under the old canal. We combined a logistics center with the distillery on the other side. Each generation has done a great job in an ever-changing landscape to create products that have stood the test of time.
In 1945, the distillery doors closed. In the distillery, you can either go up or down to store your vodka. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, had to pour concrete over the floors to store the vodka. Later, he had to take the concrete away. He put his life on the line during the resistance. Those are the things that are part of 325 years of history.
How is knowledge passed down through the generations?
Every father does it differently. Traditionally, the business was passed on to the first-born son. That changed with my dad’s dad, the ninth generation. His father had already learned his lesson during Prohibition about survival mode. My grandfather was the youngest one, not the oldest one. Times have changed. His father, my great-grandfather, said it’s no longer [automatically given] to the oldest son. It’s to the smartest. My father is the middle of three. And he controls the business.
It starts as a kid. My dad was always at the distillery. Office is above, distillery down below. My brother and I pretended to give tours—which we do today. You don’t realize you’re being groomed to take over. But you are. This passion grows inside you. I know my dad would be extremely proud.
It’s not just what happens at the boardroom table, it’s also what happens at the family dining room table.
Any daughters in the mix?
My brother has two sons. I have seven kids. Four girls, three boys on my side. There’s a darn good chance. We’re not against it, it just hasn’t happened.
How did you train for your role at the distillery?
When I started on August 8, 1988—a lucky day in Holland—I said, “Dad, I’m ready to come work for you.” He said, “I don’t want to scare you, but your life is going to change. The relationship between us is going to change. Being your boss is different from being your dad. I’m going to tell you as your boss, you have only one strike and then you’re out. Your standards need to be much higher than anybody else’s in here.”
I got really quiet and said, “Well, this doesn’t seem as much fun as I thought it would be.” He said, “You have to earn your spot in the company.” My brother did, too.
He sent me down to the distillery. [I] changed from my suit into jeans and a shirt, and they found a job for me. They gave me a cloth and said, “We’ve got a lot of copper pot stills, and they’re in need of a shine. By the time you’re done, hopefully we’ll find something else for you.” Days later, my hands started to get really green. More and more green by the day. Lesson No. 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, ask. Because if you had told me that you don’t know how to polish copper, I would have told you to put on gloves. That’s a family value—if you don’t know, ask.
Tell us about the 325th anniversary bottle.
The emphasis is our pursuit of family excellence for 325 years. We added 1691 [to the bottle design], that’s when we started. We have maintained the highest standards of quality. What we did, the three of us—my dad, my brother, me—we designed this bottle to reflect on our past. It draws inspiration from the copper of the pot still, from the Dutch spirit bottle. On the side we have quotes, the 10th generation before us. And ironwork. The inspiration comes from the front door of our distillery.
This is the first time that we put our signatures on the back of the bottle, along with our dad’s signature—that is the ultimate guarantee for quality. We’re proud that for the first time, we have our signatures on the bottle. We have turned from a potential liability to an asset. That’s what the family business is all about.
It also holds all the weight on your shoulders from that moment on. It’s easy to put your signature on the bottle. What’s hard is the responsibility that follows.