About Time You Tried: The World’s Best Tasting VodkaBy Tom Stevenson
Every brand has a story. People like why rather than what: why this brand started, rather than what it is. Brand ambassadors and sales reps tell these stories over and over when they introduce the product to potential customers.
When I worked in rum, my story began with my boss in a bar talking to a bartender about how a new luxury vodka appears on the market every week. Beautifully branded with a strapline about being pure as virgin blood, quadruple distilled, drank by ice queens, diamonds and polar bears. They have to do this because vodkas all taste the same and taste of whatever you mix them with. Unlike rum. I said this so many times that I believed it. I believed it up until the first time I tried Ketel One.
Ketel One: The Why
Ketel has being making gins, liqueurs and genevers since 1691 in the Nolet distillery in Schiedam, Holland.
Carolus Nolet, the 10th generation Master Distiller of Ketel, identified a gap in the US market for a crafted vodka, perfect for classic, modern cocktails and drinkable neat. In 1983, Ketel One launched in the US market.
Ketel One: The Difference
Here is how vodka tasting in a bar normally goes:
1. Bartenders arrive 11am. They worked until 2am last night then went out for a few drinks after. Their feet hurt too.
2. An athletic man with a tie clip and fashion stubble brandishes a tall slim bottle from the freezer. It’s frosted glass, maybe crystal with either an arctic mammal or mystical mythical creature as the logo.
3. As the bleary-eyed bartenders pick up, tilt and grip the freezing bottle, the athletic bearded man tells them the liquid has been distilled three, even four times to achieve maximum purity and smoothness. He pours out four glasses. Three well-established brands for the back bar. You’ve seen them in the supermarket and on the telly. You know they’re big names. He pours his last.
4. The perpetual state of hangover and shock to the tastebuds causes the bartender to wince on the first glass. Probably the second two. The power of suggestion and sale ensures he doesn’t think much of the third glass either. By the time he reaches the all-important fourth glass his palet is prepared and mr sex stubble’s persuasiveness has reached climax. The team all agree the fourth is the best.
Quality bottle. Distillation story. Cold as possible. Last in line. The flawless four-point plan to sell a vodka.
Ketel One: The Bartender’s Choice
Ketel One do it a little differently. The bottle’s isn’t sexy; it’s resilient, practical and designed for the benefit of bartenders. No sharp foil; no sherry cork and the pour spout slides right in. The brand story’s on the back and I challenge you to break that bottle. It’s my favourite bottle to use in a game famed amongst a group of my friends simply called ‘smash or bounce’.
Multiple distillation to achieve maximum purity is a myth. The vast majority of vodkas are made using column stills. The liquid is funnelled upwards and downwards many times. Some brands (particularly the American ones) count the number of time the liquid changes direction as the amount of times it has been distilled. Ketel One Vodka is created first through a column distillation and then again through the old style copper pot distillation method. The copper gives Ketel One a very distinctive feel and finish.
This has been proved and accentuated by a team of sound engineers, employed to establish which sounds enhance Ketel One’s feel and echo its finish. We were treated to the result, a sonic masterclass, with the Ketel One boys last week. The music in my ears was the renowned sub-genre: English pastoral chiming brook. The mouth salivates and the tongue tingles and that tingle trickles all the way through the body.
‘In here’, said Bob Nolet rubbing his tummy, ‘Can you feel it?’
I could, but I was off with Titania and the rest of the fairy spirits dancing in a vodka stream. I find sensory experiences worryingly hypnotic. In this tasting, Ketel One place their vodka first and at room temperature. The reason? They are so confident of Ketel One’s superior quality that they would rather showcase it at it’s worst to prove that it’s the best. It’s like a model going down a catwalk without make-up.
It works. Bartenders see past the bullshit. Grey Goose uses the tagline ‘The World’s Best Tasting Vodka’ – a title they won at a regional competition in France in 1998. Beluga is suddenly everywhere from nowhere. Last year at a trade show I visited in Cannes, Beluga had bought up every single billboard between the airport and the show. Ketel One did not make a single TV commercial until it sold over 1 million cases. From 1983 to 2002, Ketel One only advertised through gaining the approval of bartenders and trusting word of mouth.
And do not think that allegiance to the bartender salesforce has let up since Ketel One partnered 50/50 with Diageo in 2008. These three US TV commercials, Commitment, Name and Time all follow the back of a man into a bar. You assume the narrator is a voiceover or the man himself, but he arrives and the narrator is the bartender. He delivers the closing brand line. In a similar advertising campaign, a painter, an archer or a violinist is build up only to be revealed as terrible. In fact they are all brilliant bartenders. The slogan reads ‘Do one thing well’.
Bartenders have been central to the meteoric rise of Ketel One Vodka. I had the pleasure of making drinks for the entire Ketel One team at World’s 50 Best Bars. Surrounded by the biggest names in the drinks industry, each of them personally thanked me before they left at the end of the night. How many bartenders get a hug from the brand owner and master distiller midway through a shift?
Ketel One: The Cocktail
I’ve worked a few events for Ketel One, but one of the cocktails that night was something special. The Verbena Stimulant, designed by Tim Phillips at Bulletin in Sydney is:35ml Ketel One Vodka 15ml Ketel One Citroen 30ml Cold drip coffee 15ml Simple sugar syrup Lemon verbena sprig Shake and fine strain in paper coffee cup with a straw.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately learning about Ketel One, tasting Ketel One, reading the incredible history of the Nolet family. I’ve been both sides of the bar and I’ve talked to journalists, bartenders and industry experts and contrary to the throwaway remark of a Frenchman 16 years ago, I can confirm that Ketel One is the world’s best tasting vodka.