Geerben’s liqueur conquers the land
Rhubarb at the bar
‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ says Geerben Bleeker when he spots the fresh rhubarb our photographer brought. The refreshingly sour vegetable might be essential to his rhubarb liqueur, but he mainly handles the finished product, not its ingredients. Especially since it’s been a long time since he’s sourced the rhubarb from his mother’s garden.
For years, his mother had been making rhubarb vodka, a recipe of her own making. ‘She’d put the rhubarb in these old sauerkraut jars and pour the alcohol on top of them. We always drank it on New Year’s Eve, it’s delicious’, says Geerben.
When the student of economics & business economics was bored sitting at home at the start of the pandemic in 2020, the idea for his own business quickly came to him. He had his friends try the drink and they loved it. ‘The only type of rhubarb I’ve ever had is the one in the liqueur’, his friend Floris de Steur, a media studies student who helps out in the communication department, says jokingly.
Geerben was looking for a way to scale up his product, ending up at a distillery in Zaandam. There, the vodka was turned into liqueur with an alcohol percentage of approximately 24 percent, all in accordance with the strict rules on alcohol levels set by the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.
I want the liqueur to be as pure as possible
He also decided to find his own farmer; he wanted to communicate with them directly instead of dealing with a middleman. The rhubarb for his liqueur is sourced from Limburg. ‘Farmer Niek was very inviting and told us to stop by whenever. He showed us his whole crop’, says Geerben.
Geerben and his friends drive down to the south a few times a year to pick up the rhubarb, where it gets cut up and packaged in netting. They then take their harvest to Zaandam, where the distillery makes batches of 1,500 bottles at a time. ‘So it’s looking good.’
Geerben takes advertising his liqueur particularly seriously. He sends sample bottles to restaurant owners and follows up if he doesn’t hear from them. ‘They tend to be a little chaotic, so if you don’t hear from them after a while, you just need to try again.’
He pulls out two little sample bottles. ‘I’m curious to know what you think.’ A small sip immediately reveals how nice, sweet, and flavourful the rhubarb liqueur is. ‘It’s an intense flavour, but a very specific one. There isn’t really anything to compare it to’, says Floris. ‘It has sort of the same viscosity as limoncello, but the flavour is completely different’, Geerben adds.
It’s a little expensive for students
Limoncello did indirectly influence the rhubarb liqueur’s name, though, since the word is the Italian diminutive for lemon liqueur. Geerben liked the idea of a name that included the actual name of the product. He called his drink Rabarbérique, as a tribute to his mother, Frédérique. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. I also haven’t said the word rhubarb as often as I have in the past year’, he says, laughing.
The company name, Reben, has a different story behind it. Geerben dated a Russian girl for a while and turned to language app Duolingo to find out what rhubarb was in Russian. ‘The real word is actually “reven”, but the Russian v kind of looks like a b, which I thought was distinctive.’
Another factor was that his father, who passed away the year that Geerben started Rabarbérique, had a special interest in Russian art and culture. The first batch that came out of Zaandam was shipped in cases with his father’s initials on it.
The rhubarb liqueur has only three ingredients: rhubarb from Limburg, sugar from Groningen, and Dutch alcohol. ‘Rhubarb liqueur often has a lot of additives, but we made sure not to do that’, explains Gerben. ‘My mother would always keep everything pure and never used any extracts, only real rhubarb. I want to honour that.’
That’s also why Geerben personally keeps in touch with the rhubarb farmer in Limburg. ‘As I understand it, restaurant people really appreciate that.’ Boer Niek also grows all his rhubarb by hand; he doesn’t use any machinery.
We’d love it if it became just as hip as gin and tonic
Because he’s handled every single bottle sold himself, Geerben feels closely involved in the manufacturing process. ‘If there’s ever a bottle where the colour or flavour is off, we pull it.’
Right from the start, he’s received help in running the business from several friends. His start-up’s bookkeeping is being handled by one of his friends’ dad’s companies. Floris is most closely involved in Reben. ‘I should probably update my LinkedIn profile to reflect that I’m the PR guy’, he says with a wink. ‘For now, I’m being paid in free alcohol.’
Geerben thinks his liqueur appeals to two target groups in particular. ‘Older people in high-end restaurants are reminded of the past, and younger people in cocktail bars love to try new things. We’d love it if it became just as hip as a gin and tonic, which people once called nasty but which is now very popular.’
These days, Rabarbérique is on the menu at twenty restaurants in the north of the Netherlands and can be found at sixty liquor stores for thirty euros a bottle. In Groningen, you can buy it at De Roemer and Slijterij Groningen at the Vismarkt, but it’s also available in Roden, Meppel, Vlieland, Leeuwarden, Vlagtwedde, Zwolle, and even Amsterdam. ‘It’s a little expensive for students, but I’ve regularly been told it makes a great gift for parents.’
Geerben has also been looking to expand abroad. He recently travelled to Zürich, which has just as many Michelin-starred restaurants as the whole of the Netherlands. ‘I would love to build such a strong brand that I’ve sold my product even before it’s been made. But I’m already enjoying other people’s enthusiasm. I love hearing that people enjoy my drink’, he says. ‘I really love that I’ve been able to expand on my mother’s recipe like this.’