Owning the cocktail

Mark de Witte, ceo of De Kuyper,has transformed the sleepy dutch distiller into a force to be reckoned with in the labyrinthian, mixed, infused world of cocktails. Christian Davis goes to Rotterdam


FROM A SPORTS shop to personal healthcare, to Melitta coffee then Seagram and Bacardi, Mark de Witte is now liqueur king at Dutch distiller De Kuyper.

As a famous footwear company proclaims: Just do it. Now De Witte aims to “own the cocktail”.

Through refocusing, restructuring and reorganising – readjusting just about everything – he is taking the still family-owned Dutch company, best known for its huge range of liqueurs, on a journey.

De Kuyper was founded in 1695 and De Witte joined as CEO in July 2015. What he obviously brings to the company is big-time corporate skills, such as focus, the importance of structure and organisation, but also energy, enthusiasm and the importance of adherence to teamwork – getting people to buy into the vision.

The fact that the company has a liqueur called Napoleon, as in Mandarine, might seem indicative of De Witte’s vision and leadership skills.

His biography boasts: “Managed in 11 European countries and was eight years member of the European leadership team of Bacardi, the third-largest global premium spirits company, selling, marketing and distributing around 20 premium and super-premium brands, such as Bacardi, Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, Dewar’s, Patrón and Martini.” Impressive.

He is 58 when many people start thinking about pensions, hobbies, grandchildren, putting their feet up. “I still have the energy,” he says chirpily in his office on an industrial estate near Rotterdam. “In 2015, I was 55 and still hoping for another 10-12 years. I wanted more independence and I wanted something slightly less ‘political’,” he says diplomatically.

In what, where? “Drinks or other luxury goods,” he responds. He was contemplating a job with Poggenpohl, the German luxury kitchen company – in fact, the Rolls Royce of kitchens. But then De Kuyper came knocking. Hardly surprising as, for about the past 50 years, nothing much had happened at De K other than adding another flavour to its already extensive liqueur range.

“I wanted to make a change,” he says, understatedly. A presentation setting out the company’s stall quotes survival of the species proponent, Charles Darwin, who, according to a De Kuyper presentation once said: “The most agile wins, who can adapt best – not the biggest and even not the fastest wins, but the one who understands how to adapt.”


De Kuyper’s portfolio of ‘vision-building brands’ include: Rutte genever, Mandarine Napoleon, Peachtree, Warninks advocaat, Drop Shot, Kwai Feh lychee liqueur and Choco Vine, the Dutch chocolate and French Cabernet Sauvignon liqueur.

Last year it bought the Danish cherry liqueur brandy, Peter Heering, best known as an ingredient in one of the world’s classic cocktails, the Singapore Sling, as well as Blood & Sand. More recently, it has taken on the agency for Beam Suntory brands in the Netherlands. And there’s more.

‘Old’ De Kuyper exports 14 brands to 100 countries. De Witte is now in phase two of his three-phase game plan for the company. The strategy going for-ward is to distill down to five brands in the company’s top 10 countries –Rutte, De Kuyper, Mandarine Napoleon Peachtree and now Peter Heering. There is also Bébo 100% Arabica coffee liqueur from Cuba and Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, the bergamot peel, cedro lemons, chamomile, lavender, gentian, yellow roses and Melissa balm liqueur. De Witte has also formed an ‘advocacy specialist’ division called Cooper & Barrel to train bartenders and promote the use of the company brands in the process.

“The vision is to ‘own the cocktail’ – every time people think about cocktails, De Kuyper should come to their minds.” His mission statement for the company is: “We will change our products to match the role they play in the cocktails.”

To that end a complete relaunch of the core De Kuyper liqueur range has just been unveiled. Before embarking on this, De Witte commissioned research to try to identify who is making and drinking what in cocktails.

It identified two ranges. Essentials comprises: Margarita (triple sec), Blue Lagoon (blue curaçao), Kir Royale (crème de cassis), Grasshopper (crème de menthe green/crème de cacao white), Espresso Martini (crème de café) and Amaretto Sour (amaretto).

The Variations range consists of: Margarita variations (watermelon and strawberry), Mojito (passion fruit and blueberry mojitos), Fizz (melon, watermelon and mango), Daiquiri (banana and melon), Martini (grapefruit and passion fruit) and Spritz (strawberry, mango and water melon).


The bottom line is: “Think cocktail, think also about De Kuyper.” De Witte says: “There’s still a long way to go. It’s all coming together, we are on track”

So what does he do to relax? “Skiing, running, tennis, golf. And I love travelling, discovering the world – especially Asia and the Caribbean,” he replies.

And what does he like to drink, other than De Kuyper products?

“Wine: Rioja and Barolo, Chardonnay for white. Spirits: Rutte Old Simon genever (spotted – that’s DeK). Beer: Grolsch.” His first drink? Martini vermouth at a friend’s birthday party. Aged 16.

Looking back, what is De Witte most proud of? “The successful European launch of Grey Goose and the creation of Bacardi’s Global Legacy Competition,” he says.

In conclusion, he says: “I am happy with my achievements and my life business-wise. I want to conclude the successful business transformation at De Kuyper and leave a legacy.”

Asked what would be on his epitaph, he replies “Lived and enjoyed to the max – felt privileged.”