The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History is here to enthrall you with the odd, the unusual and the otherworldly.
Located in a former call center in the London borough of Hackney, it’s home to the Last Tuesday Society, which was originally founded in 1873 by a Harvard student. The society languished but was revived in 2003 by a reclusive young man who is actually named Viktor Wynd. He established the museum and modeled it after a 17th century wunderkabinett, or cabinet of curiosities.
Within its walls you can find displays of such miscellanea as the skull of a cyclops, a Fijian mermaid, a quartz dildo, and vintage speculums. The museum’s website cautions that “no attempt is made at classification and comprehensiveness.”
This collection attracted the attention of a young couple, Allison Crawbuck and Rhys Everett, who both worked as bartenders at a spot around the corner. Crawbuck is a Brooklyn native who’d studied art history in New York and Florence, worked in New York galleries, then up and moved to London; Everett, a London native, has been in the bar industry since he’d first started working.
The museum originally featured a small cafe that served unusual meat (crocodile burgers and kangaroo meatballs) and tea, but Wynd had other ideas. “Viktor was looking for someone to take over the bar there,” Crawbuck says, and create something appropriate to the surroundings. Who could say no? In 2016, the couple became co-owners of The Last Tuesday Society’s Cocktail Bar.
Crawbuck arrived with her fascination with history intact and proceeded to delve deeply into drinks history—especially the connection of alcohol with the occult. After nearly five years of meanderings in the dark past, Crawbuck and Everett just published their knowledge in the new book, the Spirits of the Otherworld: A Grimoire of Occult Cocktails.
Halloween is, of course, the season in which marketers are eager to link the most mundane items to the sepulchral. If I had a dollar for every liquor company press release that used the word “BOO-zy” to tout their Halloween cocktails, I would not be writing this story. I would be living in the Scottish Highlands and manning the parapets of my ancient castle.
But there’s a deeper and more fascinating connection between booze and the otherworld than strained puns. When researching the early history of liquor for a book, I was delighted to learn that distilled alcohol was once referred to as the “quintessence.” This translates from the Latin as “the fifth element.” High-proof alcohol was something novel, and not like the four other known elements: earth, fire, water and air. It was magical. It was a liquid but burned. It prevented putrefaction. And when consumed in sufficient quantities it provided one with amazing insights. If you’ve wondered why hard alcohol is referred to as “spirits,” you may now cease wondering.
Crawbuck and Everett sidestep the goofiness of Halloween and flying witches and weirdly smelling masks from CVS to dig deeper into these connections. Being surrounded at their bar by curiosities and artifacts from an unseen world inspired them to explore these realms via cocktails.
A “grimoire,” as Harry Potter fans know, is a book of spells. And their cocktail book fulfills that promise, not only offering up well-conceived and intriguing drinks but also short, erudite essays about many and varied aspects of early spiritual and occult life. These range from 6000 BCE Egypt to the more modern but even stranger Aleister Crowley, with stops in between at a 1487 German treatise on witches, at the Inca Empire and in pre-contact Polynesia.
The majority of cocktail books begin with a drink, lovingly crafted and researched, which is then set in the context of a historic vignette. Crawbuck and Everett did the opposite. They started with dogged research—she is the historian of the pair—and this was followed by an essay about, say, Russian shamanism. Then they created a sophisticated drink inspired by the research. Many cocktail books that arise from bars are essentially house cocktail lists albeit lavishly produced. This is not—Crawbuck says only three or four of the drinks have ever been served at their bar. The rest were created for the book.
And the book is lavish—it’s stunningly designed and beautifully photographed. It’s not a cocktail guide that one dips into quickly in search of a recipe, but instead one enters and marvels at, as if exploring an old mansion with nonworking lights, unfamiliar noises and a distant, musty aroma. “We would find a curious tale and find a way to translate that into a drink to spark a conversation,” Crawbuck says.
Consider this: You may have enjoyed a Vesper—a variation on a Martini made famous by James Bond—so you may be interested in the long connection between the drink’s name and the planet Venus. This then opens the door to a lesson in botanical astrology—which was a thing—and the idea that certain planets and signs of the Zodiac are linked to certain herbs and other plants.
They found a helpful guide in this with Nicholas Culpepper, a 17th century British herbalist and apothecary, who would prescribe certain plants for those who wanted to channel the powers found in, say, Venus. “Our history of mixing drinks owes much to the unorthodox remedies of the weird and wonderful apothecaries,” they write.
Nonsense and piffle? Possibly. Modern science may reject the link between a leaf and a dimly distant light, but if you have even the slightest interest in history and how we once viewed the world, it’s utterly enthralling.
Crawbuck and Everett’s research into cocktail history led to a fascination with absinthe, which has “been praised for its magical properties, as far back as ancient Egypt,” they write. In 2020, the couple opened an absinthe distillery, appropriately called Devil’s Botany, producing traditional absinthes with the mission of educating drinkers about the fabled liquor. Absinthe enjoyed a sweeping revival about a decade ago, fueled in part by extravagant rituals (burning sugar cubes, reproduction Victorian absinthe drips). It’s since faded somewhat from the bar scene, but Crawbuck believes it’s ready to settle into a more lasting role of respectability. Absinthe now outsells gin at their bar, and they’re working to get their bottles into more London bars.
Halloween is not a big holiday in Great Britain, Crawbuck says, at least when it comes to costuming. She learned this her first Halloween in London seven years ago, when she spent hours painting an intricate skeleton on her face. Out on the streets, she found herself regarded by passersby as an alarming oddment, with few others around her dressed up. “And pumpkin carving isn’t a thing here,” she adds. She’s since made pumpkin carving mandatory among their staff. “Now they’re into it.”
The downplaying of the spooky holiday might be for the best. Celebrating the occult and otherworldly just one day a year seems churlish and unwholesome, especially when the occult is around us every day. Crawbuck and Everettt hope to crack the doors open to that otherworld, invite folks in, and let them discover the power and charm of the unknown.
“It’s a spell book for your senses,” Crawbuck says of their volume. “We’ll help you explore alchemy, dark arts and the spirit world. And it’s a great excuse to get friends together.”