Mixing past into present with Huub Van Doorne

Bars 5.10.2015

MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin takes a trip to Amsterdam and meets with Huub Van Doorne, CEO of Lucas Bols. Here’s what he found out about a man whose relaxed vibe belies a fierce determination to bring Lucas Bols to the forefront of the cocktail movement.

“It’s crucial to have eyes at the back of your head” is a phrase beloved of high-school teachers the world over. It’s required also in the boardroom of a big beverage conglomerate. Huub Van Doorne, the CEO of Lucas Bols, has made this his je ne sais quoi. He’s not dealing with unruly school kids here but he requires a type of multi-vision that’s both spatial and temporal.

Lucas Bols is the Dutch beverage company, established back in 1575, best known for their own-brand Bols liqueurs but who also have Galliano, Vaccari Sambuca, Pisang Ambon and Gold Strike on their books. Not to mention their Bols Genever which is trying to, as Van Doorne puts it, revive a “forgotten spirit”. A lot of spirits to keep an eye on indeed, but it’s more than that. “With Bols, we are trying to use history as an inspiration to go to the future,” says Van Doorne.

We meet in the auditorium of Amsterdam’s striking Rozengracht Theater. It’s the location for the Bols Business Class – an open platform aiming to educate and inspire the bar industry. Impressed by the day’s seminars on topics stretching from social media to bar design to increasing productivity, we settle down to discuss his Bols mission. Cool as a cucumber, my first impression of Van Doorne is a man for whom taking on challenges is second nature.

From Cointreau to Bols

Before delving into the modern day, we head back to explore his industry timeline. Having started off at Proctor and Gamble, the ambitious Dutchman moved into beverages by joining the local distribution company for the Rémy Cointreau group in 1989. In 1992, he moved to Mexico to set up a Rémy Cointreau distribution company. In 1995, his Mexican sojourn came to an end and a Parisian affair took over, gaining a seat on the Cointreau executive board in charge of the liqueurs, spirits and cognacs for the whole world. Then serendipity decided to play its hand – in 2000 Rémy Cointreau acquired the Lucas Bols brand, for which Van Doorne would be responsible.

Fast forward to 2004 and Van Doorne decided to leave Cointreau. Looking for a new challenge, and with Cointreau looking to focus on their premium brands, he asked whether they’d potentially sell one of their Dutch brands. 2005 saw him begin to look into a buyout. Then in April 2006 together with AAC international he purchased Bols, alongside Galliano and other select brands. “As a proud Dutchman, I just had to see it come home.”  It marked a double homecoming for Doorne, as he returned to work in the Dutch capital.

Homeward bound

Van Doorne had a logistical task that would strike fear into even the most accomplished CEOs. A company needed to be made out of all these disparate brands and a base established. Say au revoir to Paris and hello to Amsterdam. And after nearly a decade of hard work, brand building and consolidation, Bols went public and launched on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange in February this year. Welcome back!

Back to the modern day, Van Doorne looks at using the brand’s storied history for today’s purposes. That’s a distinct change from the Rémy Cointreau era, whose focus was strongly on the youth angle – with the clubbing scene and all that comes with it. It’s something some claim has left a residual effect, but Van Doorne truly wants to focus on heritage. “We were at the beginning of a cocktail culture in the US with Genever. We were in Paris at the World Exhibition,”  he claims.

Working directly with the bar owners and mixologists through events such as Bols Business Class and the Bols Around the World are attempts to position themselves at the heart of mixology and cocktails. Setting new standards for bars and bartenders – all through the Bols range. And there’s relaunching Genever too as a premium spirit – using the swirling typography of old.
But Huub Van Doorne’s life is about more than just liqueur. He’s also a family man, with 5 children and his wife Sandie, who works at Bols too as a Creative and Communications Director. It’s a demanding juggling act he’s been performing for a decade now.

The difficult Dutch market

We move on to discuss the Netherlands, the home of both himself and the business he has taken on. Discussing the Dutch economy, he’s optimistic about its growth, but bemoans the hit the alcohol market has taken from governmentally imposed measures. The VAT increase, two excise duty increases and a legal drinking age increase from 16 to 18 are all noted. Still, his innate optimism emerges. “You have to deal with it, that’s what it is, and never give up. We continue to invest and for sure, in the future it will all be okay again!”

The Dutch are stereotyped as frugal and Van Doorne doesn’t dispute this. “If you try and charge Dutch people €19.90 for a cocktail – they say no,” he laughs. “The key is training, education and good cocktails, making it accessible so that they come back!”  Moving onto cocktail bars, he has praise for one Amsterdam bar in particular, Tales & Spirits, and the atmosphere in the bar they have created. He struggles however for the right word. “Innovation?” I ask. “No, everything is innovative nowadays,” he bemoans. “It just has that special something”.

On the topic of innovation, his mind is on going homeward bound with the cocktail bar experience. “We are now experimenting with the Bols Cocktail Scooter. If you’re throwing a party and want 100 cocktails, we will bring you your order on our scooter!” Just like with Bols and Amsterdam, high-end mixology is coming home.

A G & T to the future

I spy he’s drinking a Gin and Tonic. Isn’t Gin the pretender of Genever, the one that stole all the worldwide glory? He chuckles, as he enjoys a G & T and then expresses his surprise that the Gin & Tonic is the hottest drink in Amsterdam right now, given that Gin has the lowest sales of all the spirits category in Genever loyal Holland. We’ve truly come full circle – the drink of the older generation is now de jour again. Legacy and the now are synonymous.

Despite this, he’s passionate for Genever. His five year plan? He wants to see Genever get the worldwide respect it deserves. “I want people to really say: Genever’s back.” He continues. “Oh and keep the shareholders happy too!” An Amsterdam rainstorm typical of early Autumn rages outside. The outlook for Bols and Van Doorne? Far brighter.

 

Disclosure: The author was invited by Bols. Flight and accommodation were paid for by Bols, all opinions are the author’s own.

Bildquelle: Huub Van Doorne via Lucas Bols

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