Hala Kha­laf meets Johan Bülow, whose event­ful jour­ney to cre­at­ing the world’s finest liquorice has earned him high-pro­file fans

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Johan Bülow on his jour­ney to cre­at­ing the world’s finest liquorice

The jar is com­pact and trans­par­ent, filled to the brim with lit­tle round balls the size of mar­bles or Mal­te­sers. Each ball comes in a rose gold or bronze hue, and shim­mers from a dust­ing of glit­ter. You wouldn’t be blamed for mis­tak­ing this jar of gourmet choco­late liquorice by Lakrids – the most ex­pen­sive in the world – for some kind of bronzer. Scores be­fore you have done the same.

Not, how­ever, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid, Vice Pres­i­dent and Ruler of Dubai. Ac­cord­ing to Lakrids founder Johan Bülow, when Sheikh Mo­hammed boarded an Emi­rates air­cra to tour the first class sec­tion, one of the first things he reached for in the gi bas­ket that is a pre­req­ui­site in each cabin was that unas­sum­ing jar of liquorice.

It also hap­pens to be the fastest-mov­ing prod­uct on board all of Emi­rates’ first class cab­ins, says Bülow – the crispy rose flavour dur­ing Eid and the shim­mery brown salt caramel the rest of the year. “From stir­ring a small pot in my mother’s kitchen in Born­holm, to hav­ing Sheikh Mo­hammed taste and en­joy my liquorice in first class,” chuck­les Bülow. “I bring up that story all the time back home in Den­mark.”

A er nu­mer­ous failed at­tempts at cre­at­ing the finest liquorice in the world, Bülow struck gold. His is the only liquorice that is hand­made and pro­duced in tiny batches, made out of the finest raw ma­te­ri­als he can get his hands on. The re­sult is con­fec­tionery that is free of any ad­di­tives, free of gluten thanks to the ex­clu­sive use of rice flour in its man­u­fac­tur­ing, and o en coated in a gourmet Bel­gian choco­late that is mixed with equally elite in­gre­di­ents – ev­ery­thing from blue­ber­ries, al­monds, el­der­flower and pas­sion fruit to ginger, chilli, rose and caramel.

The 34-year-old Dane is hum­ble about his suc­cess story, pre­fer­ring to give credit to those who have helped him on his en­tre­pre­neur­ial jour­ney: his mother, who lent him the money to start his first busi­ness – a kiosk on the beach sell­ing ice cream to tourists – and who al­ways urged him to pur­sue some­thing he would be pas­sion­ate about; a girl­friend who be­lieved in him and agreed to put their lives on hold in pur­suit of liquorice, work­ing tire­lessly by Bülow’s side for 15 months try­ing to find a recipe that would set them apart, and who to­day is his wife and thr mother of his two chil­dren; and his production man­ager, Tage, who showed up when Bülow was at his wit’s end and helped de­velop Lakrids’ very first recipe.

The idea to el­e­vate liquorice came to Bülow one sum­mer, at age 22, as he watched his uncle make rock candy and sell it in Born­holm. Tourists formed a queue out­side his uncle’s store ev­ery­day to buy the hand­made candy. “As I watched, I thought: ‘Why not do this with liquorice?’ It’s such a tra­di­tional sweet in Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries. Why not take it and bring it to a high-qual­ity level, priced high as well, for those will­ing to pay for a su­pe­rior prod­uct?”

Bülow felt like he had stum­bled on the idea of a life­time when he de­cided to make crude liquorice root a part of the huge mar­ket that ex­ists for lux­ury choco­late. “Liquorice root is 100 per cent nat­u­ral. Why don’t I go to the South of Italy or Afghanistan and get the best pos­si­ble liquorice root I can get my hands on? It’s usu­ally com­bined with eight or 10 in­gre­di­ents to pro­duce the candy form of liquorice, so what if I hand-picked those in­gre­di­ents, found the best of the best? I felt sure the con­sumer would be will­ing to pay slightly higher for the best qual­ity.”

It was 15 long, hard months in the mak­ing, but on July 7, 2007 (the date wasn’t planned), Bülow took his first prod­uct to mar­ket. He had cooked for three days and three nights straight, hand-rolling ev­ery bit of it, cut­ting the liquorice into pieces, putting it into bags. With his wife, Sara, he set up shop in a small cor­ner of Born­holm, in­tend­ing to cook the liquorice in an open kitchen, while Sara stood be­hind the counter and sold it. “There was no mar­ket­ing. Ev­ery­one could smell it – the aniseed in the liquorice – from 100 me­tres away, and that’s what brought them. We opened at 10am, and by 12:30, we had sold out. Peo­ple were wait­ing in lines and they were an­gry when they found out we had noth­ing le to sell.”

The couple closed their store early and le a note on the door, promis­ing they would be back the next day, at 10am, with more liquorice. Bülow stayed up all night cook­ing. By 9am, a line had formed out­side the store. “That kept hap­pen­ing for the en­tire sea­son, 12 to 14 weeks of this. By the end of the sea­son, we had a turnover of Dh700,000, just the two of us work­ing over a small pot, hand-rolling ev­ery­thing. Just one recipe, one flavour – plain liquorice. But we also had around 50 busi­ness cards of peo­ple from su­per­mar­ket chains and food stores all over Scan­di­navia, ask­ing us to con­tact them with our prod­uct. It was the be­gin­ning.”

To­day Lakrids is a com­pany with 350 em­ploy­ees, cook­ing up treats in the world’s small­est liquorice fac­tory, using ma­chin­ery that had to be cus­tom-made for the brand, be­cause noth­ing like that ex­isted be­fore. Bülow still makes the liquorice using that same piece of ma­chin­ery, just out­side Copenhagen, and cre­ated a niche mar­ket for him­self by coat­ing the liquorice with gourmet choco­late and ship­ping it all over the world.

On Novem­ber 21, just over 10 years a er that fate­ful sum­mer, Lakrids by Bülow opened a store in The Dubai Mall. It is the brand’s big­gest pres­ence yet, 100 square me­tres, filled floor-to-ceil­ing with gourmet, lux­ury, hand­cra ed, or­ganic, gluten-free liquorice, and it joins dozens of ex­ist­ing stores in Den­mark, Swe­den, Nor­way, Fin­land and Ger­many. The Dubai Mall out­let is its first out­side of Europe, and stocks flavours ex­clu­sive to the UAE. A 150-gram jar re­tails for Dh55; the 250g jar for Dh75.

“If we can make it in the UAE, we can make it around the world,” says Bülow.

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