When strolling around the picturesque Old Town, Gamla Stan, on your visit to Stockholm, you’ll soon find yourself at the famous square Stortorget. Opposite the Nobel Museum, in amongst haphazardly scattered, colourful old houses is a place of magic, dating back to the year 1575 – an old pharmacy turned cocktail bar, where some of the medicinal herbs are turned into the most divine cocktails with an unexpected twist. Pharmarium is the talk of the town.
TEXT: ULRIKA KUOPPA-JONES | PHOTOS: PHARMARIUM | MAIN IMAGE: ERIK NISSEN JOHANSEN
Even if you’re not a history buff, Stortorget in Gamla Stan will spark a fascination with the past. You can almost hear precarious hoofs trotting past on the cobbled streets. The cannonball fired in 1520 at the Danish King Christian Tyrant can still be seen in one of the walls surrounding the square, once the place of the infamous Stockholm Bloodbath. Stortorget is riddled with history – there’s no escaping it.
With that in mind, the creators of Pharmarium set upon recreating the atmosphere of the pharmacy’s past, six years ago. Sweden’s first apothecary, Master Lucas, was cleverly placed on these premises in 1575. Only a stone’s throw away from the royal palace, it could offer help in haste in case of emergencies. Lucas’ successor, Anthonius Busenius, looked after the famous King Gustav Vasa, the king who, legend has it, skied 90 kilometres cross-country through the forest to escape Danish soldiers, later commemorated in the world’s biggest ski race, Vasaloppet.
To get a vibe of the medicinal magic created here, the pharmacy theme is clear to see in the interior: dark wood, mysterious labels, dried herbs, curious bottles and drawers with thought-provoking content. This is a great place for an easy-speak date night, a cosy get-together after work, or sipping drinks with friends. With close proximity to the Opera, this place is also perfect for a pre-show meet-up.
Photo: Erik Nissen Johansen
The fascination with alchemy and the search of eternal life have also rubbed off on the drinks and food served here, all combined with foraging for unusual Swedish food. It is a winning concept: Pharmarium was awarded the prestigious Gulddraken for Best Bar in 2015.
Simon Epale is the new bar manager. Love brought him from his native France via London to create magic in Stockholm: “I know, I am a love refugee,” he says with a big laugh. “We see Pharmarium as a high-end bar, closer to the feel of quirky London bars than traditional American luxury lounges. We’re playing on the ambiance of this place, the flamboyance and the alchemy when we’re creating our cocktails.”
He continues: “We’re focusing on the taste and the flavour of the drink, to perfect it. One of our most famous cocktails is smoked in birch wood; we won’t take the lid off until it’s served. We use a lot of uncommon things as garnishes, to create interest as well, like neroli, St John’s wort, cumin and beetroot.”
Photo: Erik Nissen Johansen
One Norwegian reviewer enthuses: “The drinks cannot even be described, you just have to taste them: the Wolf Pack or the Forest Floor – the latter with powder of moss, mushrooms and other things found on the floor of a Swedish forest. Sounds rather strange; tastes great.”
The pharmacy reflected the beliefs of the time when medicine was prescribed and sold over the counter alongside horns of unicorn, exotic ivory, essence of the moon and pulverised Egyptian mummies. No, really! But don’t worry, you won’t find any of these ingredients in the food. “We mainly rely on Swedish produce for our food,“ says Epale. “Our menu has an international feel, but its heart is definitely Swedish. That’s why we like to add typical things like pine shoots and lingonberries as ingredients on the menu. We are not offering a huge selection of food, but tasty treats in generous portions that complement our drinks menu. We’re trying to match them to create the perfect symbiosis.”
Pharmarium’s winning concept is the combination of eccentric cocktails, vibe and customer service. “The service is impeccable, atmosphere unparalleled and the drinks? Don’t even get me started! As a fellow bartender, I admire the expertise, friendliness and knowledge of all the staff and couldn’t recommend this place highly enough,” writes a reviewer from Scotland.
“We’re a well-forged team; we’ve worked together for a number of years now. We have fun at work and we aspire to be chatty. But on the other hand, we also respect the customer’s privacy,” says Epale. “We like to read our guests, to break the ice and give customised service. We spend time giving that little bit of extra care, like helping out with directions and offering suggestions.”
Suggestions might include the nearby Royal Palace, the renowned Christmas market or a visit to the Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. Or just watching the world go by, with another flamboyant cocktail in hand. You never know what you might see…