Mythical elixir recreated as a bitter schnapps
2 september 2022
Three centuries after the scientist and alchemist Urban Hjärne created his imaginative universal medicine, two Swedish researchers have reconstructed Hjärne's Testament as a digestif – and connoisseurs are giving two thumbs up.
In the late 17th century, Swedish scientist Urban Hjärne produced the original version of what would go down in history as Hjärne's Testament. Word of the Swedish universal medicine and its miraculous abilities spread quickly and soon the precious drops were sought after far beyond our nation's borders. Today, more than three centuries later, pharmacist Nils-Otto Ahnfelt and historian Hjalmar Fors have recreated the mythical elixir.
“The story of how Urban Hjärne's recipe spread around the world is extremely fascinating. Hjärne was also an alchemist and searched for the absolute essence of nature. At the end of the rainbow, he hoped to find the Philosopher's Stone, the substance that would create gold and cure all diseases. In the early 18th century, this provided excellent PR, something his sons gratefully cashed in on when they traveled around the Baltic Sea, marketing their father's creation. Over the decades, the recipe ended up in the hands of Franz Joseph I of Austria, whereupon the elixir became popular in the German-speaking world,” says Nils-Otto Ahnfelt, Visiting researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences.
Even in our time, Schwedenbitter, or Swedish Bitters, can be purchased in health food stores along the most unexpected latitudes, Nils-Otto himself has specimens brought home from both Australia and Barbados. However, the content differs to varying degrees from Urban Hjärne's original product. The early recipes preserved for posterity list a number of unusual ingredients – viper meat and opium anyone? Several of which are next to impossible spices in our time, making a certain degree of ingenuity necessary.
“Our version of Hjärne’s Testament is a modern reconstruction, based on interpretations of recipes, samples from museums and a sensory analysis carried out at Kristianstad University. We have replaced some raw ingredients with similar alternatives. But even back in Hjärne's days, there was never a precise taste. The elixir was prepared as a concentrate for own dilution. We have sweetened with a pinch of honey, mixed with artisanal liquor and created a ready-to-drink experience,” says Nils-Otto Ahnfelt.
And how does Hjärne’s Testament taste in 2022? On the website, the product is presented as "a bitter schnapps, a digestif with a history of alchemy, secret recipes and exotic ingredients since the 18th century". The flavor is attributed to carefully performed extractions of various herbs and plant parts, among them gentian root, saffron and Chinese rhubarb root. The most concrete statement is "tasty".
“We have twisted and turned the recipe, and today we have a drink that is in the borderland between Liqueur, Whiskey and Underberg. A slight sweetness, pleasant aftertaste and of course with a sting of bitter, or as Linné said: otherwise it is no medicine. In short, we're exceptionally satisfied with the final result, and it's not just for history buffs. We got taste statements from both a Swedish Master Blender and a hockey legend, and the gave thumbs up!”
Production takes place at Tevsjö Distillery in rural Hälsingland, where Nils-Otto Ahnfelt produces the extract for Hjärne’s Testament. The first 700 bottles are already available to order via Systembolaget, and in September, the official launch will take place at an event at Spritmuseum with the ambition to also distribute the drink via restaurants.
“If the market shows interest, we have several additional leads to explore. For example, an elixir produced by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and his sister Sophia that inspired Urban Hjärne, as well as an extract distilled by Anna of Saxony. May be that they lack medicinal and magical effects and that we might never earn a penny. But these are strong products surrounded by exciting stories, and above all, we have great fun,” states Nils-Otto Ahnfelt.
- Urban Hjärne (1641-1724) was one of the most famous Swedes of his time. He was a royal physician, a distinguished scientist and, not least, an alchemist.
- Hjärne’s Testament was created around the turn of the 18’th century and was traditionally sold in small bottles whose contents were dripped into alcohol or tea.
- Today's version of Hjärne’s Testament contains roughly 70 selected ingredients from the plant kingdom.