Fair warning to all non-drinkers: This isn’t the museum for you. From the outside, Lev Mezhburd’s house appears an unremarkable part of its tranquil Staten Island, New York, neighborhood. Step inside, however, and you’ll be treated to a celebratory tour of the Booze History Museum, several small rooms filled with hundreds of drinking-themed objects from around the world.
Upon entering the house, visitors walk through a hall decorated with cautionary tales from temperance movements past. Posters and paraphernalia warn innocents of the evils of intoxication, while a collection of original doctor’s prescriptions for alcohol illustrate the clever ways Americans skirted Prohibition. “You could get a prescription for everything,” says Mezhburd. “Coughing, back pain, bronchitis.” Before the tour begins in earnest, guests must baptize themselves with booze. Mezhburd calls this process “disinfection.” He offers a rack neckties. “Ties and drinking don’t mix,” he says. Then, he escorts guests into the finished basement-cum-barroom, where colorful rows of booze-themed knickknacks from across the world and throughout history overlook a bar sporting every conceivable form of alcohol delivery.
First round of “disinfection”: A red spray can, reminiscent of a fire extinguisher, from which he sprays pure vodka into guests’ mouths. Subsequent rounds include small shots, but don’t fear getting too buzzed: For all the alcohol served during the tour, the portions are sensible, and each shot is chased with a snack such as cured fish or a skewered piece of bread, pickle, and salo (cured raw pork fat). If they’re lucky, guests may even get to experience disinfection delivered by a small sculpted donkey, who, with the pull of a switch, sprinkles vodka from its nether regions straight into a cup. Once sanitized, guests are ready for the museum proper, a small sitting room turned full-on gallery on the first floor of Mezhburd’s house.
“When you read the literature about drinking, it’s negative,” says Mezhburd. “But I did my own research. Ninety-seven percent of alcohol brings joy, brings happiness, brings people together.” Mezhburd’s collection is certainly joyous. A display case shows kitschy sculptures of people drinking by region, including Northern Europe, Russia, Southern Europe, and Asia. A collection of drunk monks beams merrily from a display case; a wall hung with plates project colorful drinking scenes; and back issues of drinking magazines add a graphic punch.
Mezhburd, who immigrated to New York City from Russia in 1989, began his collection by accident: He just liked going to yard sales. Soon, however, his passion for kitsch turned into the full-time focus of his retirement (he was an engineer). Today, he scours the internet for unique additions to his collection, and is seeking an independent space for the collection. For now, the museum is open by appointment only, and Mezhburd often hosts members of New York’s Russian community, as well as visiting Russian artists, for private gatherings. In a nod to this heritage, those lucky enough to snag a visit to the booze museum are likely to find not just a delightful tour, but Russian snacks, a sample of Mezhburd’s homemade horseradish vodka, and plenty of camaraderie.