Sweden has a strange relationship with alcohol. After going through a period of prohibition in the early 20th century, booze officially resurfaced but under strict government control. Today, for example, you can only find three brands of vodka on store shelves: Absolut, Good ol’ Sailor, and Explorer. If you want a more high-end variety – say, Karlsson or Purity – you’d have to find it in a bar or order it online.
Whatever the case, you might need a bit of vodka before visiting the new Spirit Museum, or as it’s officially written, Spiritmuseum, in Stockholm. This is not a place dedicated to the ghoulish and ghostly; it’s all about alcohol. You won’t, though, learn much about the history of booze in Sweden. You won’t learn, for example, that Swedish Protestants played a large role in implementing Prohibition in the United States. Or that in Sweden, a “bar,” as we know it cannot exist: the establishment has to serve food. Or even that in the 1950s the Swedish government had ration books that kept track of how many bottles of booze you were purchasingInstead, you’ll enter a bizarre booze-themed fantasyland, created by someone who most certainly was under the influence of a Swedish spirit. The bi-level space is separated by seasons and guests are given a packet of spirits and to drink at each the season. In spring, I tasted an orange liquor. Summer was elderflower, late summer was caraway and dill, and autumn was wormwood. And each room/season had a particular theme: spring had fake trees and the summer room contained two campers, like the kind you pull behind your car – the back windows of each showed videos of people singing Swedish drinking songs.
Upstairs there’s a “hangover room,” a small space bedecked to look like someone’s apartment. As soon you shut the door, a recording of a hung-over woman begins. She’s talking to herself about how crappy she feels until the recording culminates with the woman vomiting. In the next room, you’re encouraged to lounge on a cozy banquette and watch a video of a guy’s night out. The show takes us on a journey through his inebriation, labeling each stage: sober, tipsy, loaded, hammered and wrecked. By the time we get to “gone,” he’s passed out in the snow.
It’s admirable they don’t necessarily romanticize alcohol. But neither does the museum seem to make much sense.
Fittingly, there’s a bar inside the museum as well (one that, of course, serves food). Of the cocktails on the list, I was intrigued by the Brooklyn Cocktail: Four Roses single barrel, Amer Picon, and Dolin vermouth. As I was contemplating getting one – maybe it would have helped me understand what I had just experienced – I met the museum director, Helen Ericsson.
Did I like the museum? Um … yes, I did. “It’s not about the production of spirits,” she told me. “It’s about the human experience with alcohol.”
And then she added: “Next year we’re taking a step back and adding more about the history of spirits. People now think the museum is a little strange.”
I’ll drink to that.
[Photo by David Farley]