Stuart Forster visits Arcen in the Dutch province of Limburg and tastes asparagus liqueur at Graanbranderij De Ijsvogel, a craft distillery in the Netherlands.
Disclosure: Stuart visited the Arcen watermill during a group tour organised by Visit Limburg. Neither Graanbranderij De Ijsvogel nor Visit Limburg reviewed or approved this post. Some of the links below and banners are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Talk of visiting a distillery in an old mill in the Netherlands had my mind conjuring images of sails turning slowly on a windmill. Yet the Graanbranderij De Ijsvogel is based in a water-powered mill. The premises are at Arcen in the Dutch province of Limburg, just a couple of kilometres from the Netherlands-Germany border.
Craft distillery in the Netherlands
The distillery is named after the kingfisher, a species of bird that was rarely seen on the waterways of Limburg in 1993 when De Ijsvogel opened.
These days, the colourful birds are spotted frequently. They sit on overhanging branches and dart into the water while hunting. The company logo depicts a kingfisher perched on a branch.
More than 60 different types of spirits and liqueurs are produced in the distillery. The range includes genever, the alcoholic spirit that inspired the English to make gin.
De Ijsvogel also distils herb-based bitters with medicinal-like flavours and a version of whisky.
Yes, Dutch whisky. It spends three years ageing in bourbon barrels and one year in old port barrels. In fact, it’s now a tradition for the mill to host a festival on the first Sunday of October during which the new batch of four-year-old whisky is presented.
A mill has stood near the place where spirits are now distilled by De Ijsvogel for centuries.
In 1677 a new watermill was built at the site on the orders of the Dukes of Arcen, whose castle is a short walk from the mill. It remained in use, milling grain and squeezing oil from flax seeds until 1928.
The ravages of time and the impact of Allied munitions during World War Two left the mill in a state of ruin until the 1980s. Restoration continued until 27 May 1993. On that date, the restored mill reopened with its distillery.
I was welcomed in by Pieter, the proprietor of the distillery, who asked me to follow him up a steep wooden staircase before explaining how he distils strong alcohol from beer.
Pieter’s father-in-law was formerly the owner of the nearby Hertog Jan brewery, whose seasonal beers are still produced in Arcen. Beer, with a strength of around eight per cent alcohol by volume, is heated in kettles with a capacity of 400 litres. It’s distilled twice to create a powerful spirit.
Mash in the attic
To discover more about how flavours are added to his drinks, Pieter bade me follow him into the attic. That meant climbing up a narrow flight of wood more akin to a ladder than a regular staircase.
A 10-litre glass demijohn filled with alcohol and asparagus peelings stood on a long wooden table that was sagging in the middle, despite looking heftily made. Perhaps the cumulative effect of the weight of demijohns since the distillery opened?
Pieter explained that asparagus peelings are collected from local restaurants and then soaked with other ingredients for a year. Seven litres of strong, aromatic alcohol are decanted from each demijohn. They provide the basis for 25 litres of liqueur with an alcohol content of 25 per cent by volume.
Asparagus liqueur from Limburg
Each year, De Ijsvogel produces 5,000 bottles of asparagus liqueur. The novelty drink is made from one of the region’s most celebrated agricultural products. The sandy soil of Limburg is ideal for growing asparagus. Farms from the region deliver their harvests to Venlo, where the so-called ‘white gold’ is auctioned from April into late June.
The asparagus liqueur made a favourable impression on those who tasted it. You might even say that De Ijsvogel is transmuting white gold into liquid gold.
Travel to Arcen
The De Ijsvogel distillery is in Arcen, a little more than 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) north of Venlo.
Venlo is in the southeast of the Netherlands, around two hours and 30 minutes’ rail journey from Amsterdam. The Dutch capital has a Eurostar station and direct services from London St Pancras International.
Arcen is a 188-kilometre (117-miles) drive from Hook of Holland. DFDS Ferries operate between Newcastle and Amsterdam.
The castle garden at Arcen, known locally as the Kasteeltuinen Arcen, is one of the key tourist attractions in Limburg.
Map of Arcen
The map below shows the location of De Ijsvogel distillery next to the Arcen Castle garden:
Hotels in Limburg
Search and book hotels in Arcen via the HRS website:
Books about The Netherlands
Keen to know more about the Netherlands? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Graanbranderij De Ijsvogel
The Graanbranderij De Ijsvogel (Schans 20a, 5944 AG Arcen; tel. +31 77 473 1240) can be visited for a guided tour of the mill and distillery, including a product tasting featuring three of the drinks. De Ijsvogel’s website has information about the distillery’s opening times and prices.
The mill has a cosy, old-fashioned bar on its ground floor and seating out on its terrace. It’s well-placed for refreshments, or perhaps something to dull the pain, after cycling along one of the trails that run through the nearby De Maasduinen National Park. The cycling trails run for between 25 and 40 kilometres (15.5 and 25 miles). A 12-kilometre (7.5-mile) footpath is also a way of exploring the dunes of the national park.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, was named Digital Influencer of the Year award at the 2018 Netherlands Press Awards and in 2020 was named Travel Writer Writer of the Decade.
Illustrating photos are by Why Eye Photography.
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about the production of asparagus liqueur at the Ijsvogel distillery at Arcen. If you appreciate the story of spirits production, you may enjoy reading about Carpathian Single Malt whisky from Romania. An interview with Christian Krogstad of Westward Whiskey might also appeal.
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A version of this post was initially published on Go Eat Do on 3 May 2018.