Feedback
Science

19th-Century ‘Elixir of Life’ Gets Remixed, and Boy, Is It Bitter

When archaeologists discovered a tiny bottle labeled the "Elixir of Long Life" in a 150-year-old pile of trash on New York's Lower East Side, they didn't stop there: They tracked down the original recipe for the stuff — and found out that the elixir contained ingredients that are still used in cocktails and health potions.

Plus a stiff belt of alcohol.

"I made the drink," Irene Plagianos, who followed up on the find for DNAInfo New York, told NBC News on Monday. "It tastes bitter, which I guess is not surprising."

Sign up for Science news delivered to your inbox

Image: Elixir and bottle
Archaeologists found a vial said to contain "Elixir of Long Life" amid 19th-century liquor bottles buried at a New York construction site, and were able to reconstruct the recipe based on a German medical guide from that era. The result was a bitter-tasting, red-colored drink that was heavy on the grain alcohol. If you make it, be careful: The saffron in the concoction can turn your hands yellow. DNAinfo.com

The elixir was just one of the many concoctions marketed during the 19th century as a cure-all. Chrysalis Archaeology, which regularly oversees excavation projects in New York City, found the vial amid a buried cache of liquor bottles while surveying the site of the future 50 Bowery Hotel. A century and a half ago, the plot was the home of a German-style beer hall.

"We decided to engage in our own brand of experimental archaeology," Chrysalis' president, Alyssa Loorya, told DNAInfo. "We wanted to know what this stuff actually tasted like."

It's the same impulse that has led others to try re-creating Cleopatra's perfume, ancient Nordic grog and the wine of the Canaanites.

At Loorya's behest, colleagues in Germany searched through medical manuals and found the recipe: aloe (which has an anti-inflammatory effect), gentian root and powdered rhubarb (bitters that can promote digestion), saffron and turmeric (spices with medicinal properties), and one part water to three parts alcohol.

Was it the herbs or the alcohol?

The Chrysalis archaeologists found two other bottles that once contained a different tonic of the time, Dr. Hostetter's Stomach Bitters, and they plan to re-create that potion as well. They'll need a few more exotic ingredients, however, including Peruvian bark (an anti-malarial bitter also known as cinchona) and gum kino (an antibacterial tree sap). To get the full recipe for the elixir as well as the stomach bitters, check out Plagianos' report on DNAinfo.com.

Loorya said it's not clear whether "it was the copious amounts of alcohol or the herbs that perhaps made people feel better." Plagianos pointed out that 19th-century imbibers probably took only a few drops of tonic at a time. That's a good thing — because based on her experience, she's not sure anyone would want to down a whole glassful.

"There's nothing sweet about this drink," she said.