Lucas Bolss CEO, Huub van Doorne

Lucas Bols's CEO, Huub van Doorne

Lucas Bols has seen a lot of changes recently. Earlier this month, just-drinks spoke to CEO Huub van Doorne about the company's IPO earlier this year, as well as the increasingly-crowded US spirits market and how best to target China's new cocktail culture.

Four-hundred and forty years have passed since Lucas Bols opened for business, but the company's most recent 12 months may well have been its most momentous. In January, the Dutch liqueur and spirits producer became the oldest company on the Dutch stock exchange with an IPO that raised EUR125m (US$141.3m). This came just a few months after the company returned to Amsterdam, through the opening of a new distillery in the heart of the city.

“It was a great moment,” says Lucas Bols CEO Huub van Doorne of the distillery opening. “To do that in the centre of a city such as Amsterdam, it is really unique.”

The distillery produces a small percentage of Bols's output, with most production - as well as blending and bottling - based elsewhere. But, it is a symbol of the company's forward momentum that was halted back in 2006 when Remy Cointreau cut loose its EUR510m investment and sold Lucas Bols to van Doorne and private equity fund ABN AMRO Capital.

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In terms of business momentum, however, the IPO was the true game-changer.

“It has transformed the company,” says van Doorne. “We were nine years with private equity, now we have a broad shareholder base. It will help us continue to be an independent company for the 40 years to come.”

There have been other business decisions taken, of late. Van Doorne has focused on the core portfolio of liqueurs and genevers, while also banking on innovations. Earlier this year, Bols launched a barrel-aged genever though its US distribution company, Lucas Bols USA. The brand is now getting a wider launch, starting in the UK this week and moving to other markets in due course.

Key markets are also being targeted with regional products. Bols Date, a date-infused liqueur designed to mix with brown spirits, is being released in the Middle East, while Bols Pineapple Chipotle aims to make a noise in an increasingly competitive US market.

just-drinks: What does the influx of spirits brands mean for the US market?

Lucas Bols CEO Huub van Doorne: The question for all these local brands is, what is their real added value, and do they have the capacity to grow? We always discuss the big successes but there are 600 to 700 brand introductions every year and not all of them will succeed. For us, it's good, because there is a diversity of brands in the on-premise and the Bols liqueur range can fit perfectly well with any of those initiatives. So we are in the heart of this.

j-d: Will new brands keep coming through?

HvD: At a certain point in time it will start to decrease because consumers simply cannot absorb all of these initiatives. So, some of these brands will still be around but will not make it to a very widespread distribution. It creates excitement, and also people look for authenticity, and I say that if you are from the 1500s, you don't need to prove you have authenticity.

j-d: Is there broader recognition in the US for genever?

HvD: We have to build it up. If you talk to well-trained bartenders, they know about genever. But, for the rest, it is about building up the recognition, and that's a longer-term game. That's what we are doing.

j-d: Does the barrel-aged position help?

HvD: Yes, it's seen as a selling point. For us, it's to show that genever can be a very attractive product in an aged version, and that gives it a higher acceptance as a category, and also for the Bols brand.

j-d: Cocktail culture is expanding quickly in emerging markets. How is Lucas Bols taking advantage of that?

HvD: What we see around the world - especially in the big cities in emerging markets - is the start of a cocktail or mixed drink culture. That's exciting when you see people moving from local products to imported or higher premium products. With this urbanisation trend, you see the modern on-trade developing and, when you see that happen, that's where we have an exciting opportunity. It may be small, but it will lay the foundation for the future.

In China now it goes very fast. It's something that happened 15 years ago in Japan.

j-d: But, China is a huge market. How do you connect with this fledgling cocktail culture?

HvD: We try to do that with our distributors, brand ambassadors, but also through the bartender competition 'Bols Around the World' [which took place last week], which uses social media to link bartenders and owners to our network.

But, this is a long-term thing. In big markets like China, India and Russia, there are big challenges in how to connect. That's our daily job, to make sure we are in contact. You need to do it both ways: Connect online and connect on the ground. With social media, it means as a smaller company that you can reach out.

j-d: The Bols portfolio has contracted a lot since you took over the company. Are you happy where it is now?

HvD: What we're going to push more is our Bols vodka brand. We have a brand called Damrak gin that we have launched in the US and now in Canada, so we are broadening our portfolio. We have the Bols liqueur range on one hand and we have the white spirits supporting the development. And, of course, we have the beautiful Galliano brand.