IF YOU HAVEN’T already, meet Bob - an 11th-generation Nolet, the family of distillers that this year celebrates 325 years in the business. In more than three centuries of distilling – most famously Ketel One vodka – there must have been a fair few Nolets, which goes some way to explain why people refer to the man on your right simply as Bob. Regardless, it is a short list of people who manage to be on first-name terms with a global industry. Wherever you are, Bob is Bob.
Nolet (sorry, no first names in journalism), stands out from the crowd. He has a tall, angular figure – the sort that won’t abide middle-age spread, no matter his middling years. He says he measures 1.9m but you’d have to say closer to 2m if you count his curly hair. But being tall is not unusual when you’re from the tallest nation on earth – here in The Netherlands, Nolet isn’t that much more than the average. “I always think it’s because half the country is below sea level,” says Nolet. “We are tall so we have a chance.”
Remarks like that give away a subtle sense of humour. But with some people it is their position on a sporting field that provides the best read of their character. “I was always the captain and the last defender,” says Nolet, speaking of his time playing hockey and football in his younger years. Nolet is indeed the quiet leader – the type who people listen to when he speaks. He’s not fancy (“I never had the best technique”) but the straight-down-the-line type who isn’t scared of honest words and hard work.
As a boy, Nolet would spend his weekends and holidays at the Nolet distillery, on the bottling lines or polishing the copper. He was a grafter but not so much as a student – he moved from school to school, rarely spending more than a year in one place. “Teachers were trying to teach me stuff from books,” says Nolet. “I thought: ‘You’ve no idea how the business world works – you have never worked in the business world.’ I was always asking difficult questions because I thought they didn’t have the experience to explain to me how things worked.”
Nolet admits he was a “difficult student”, which somehow seems at odds with his laid-back personality, but there’s nothing like time to mellow. Reflecting, he adds that he has a slightly different attitude towards school now he has his own children.
Nolet says he and his brother are “from the street”, by which he doesn’t mean homeless – far from it – but that he is street smart rather than university educated. Why bother with the theory when you can do it in practice, has always been his approach. And why not? He had seen his father tirelessly work to keep a struggling distillery afloat until growing it to the business it is today, producing one of the world’s best-known vodkas. “I saw my father work seven days a week at the distillery – I basically never saw him. I knew what hard work was as a child as I saw it in my dad.”