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