The Basics Drinking Out

7 Amazing Museums to Satisfy Your Inner Spirits Geek

Drink and learn at the world’s finest institutions exploring alcohol’s history.

La Cité du Vin interior in Bordeaux, France
La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux, France. Image: Casson Mann

Paintings, sculpture, artifacts––all are great ways to have an illuminating glimpse into an era or culture. It’s no different for alcohol. Museums exploring spirits and cocktails help put the drinks we enjoy in context. They may even help us drink better. Knowledge is power, right?

Whether you’re headed to Kentucky to broaden your bourbon expertise or Dublin for insights into Irish whiskey, these seven institutions of, er, higher learning will give you much to ponder over your next dram.

  • The International Museum of Wine (Kinsale, Ireland)

    Desmond Castle & the International Museum of Wine interior

    Desmond Castle

    While Ireland is not exactly the first place you think of when it comes to wine, this little seaside spot housed in a circa 1500 stone castle was a well-traveled port for ships bound for Bordeaux, France. And, indeed, there are legitimate Irish connections to France––those known as Wine Geese, who married and traded with French winemakers. After strolling through this small but fascinating museum, you may even be convinced that French wine, like the rest of us on St. Patrick’s Day, is a little bit Irish.

  • Fraunces Tavern Museum (New York City)

    Fraunces Tavern Museum exterior

    Fraunces Tavern Museum

    In the bustle and glam of high-rise real estate culture in New York, it’s easy to forget the city was once a significant Revolutionary War site. Built in 1719, this tavern and museum owes its name to innkeeper Samuel Fraunces, who took over the old stone building in the 1750s. It soon became a haunt for the Sons of Liberty. See the room where George Washington bade farewell to his Revolutionary generals and view an actual silk slipper worn by Martha Washington. There are also special events, like a class on making colonial milk punch. The tavern is still operational, with 130 beers and more than 300 whiskeys to fuel your sense of discovery.

  • George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill (Alexandria, Virginia)

    George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill interior

    Mount Vernon

    Thanks to the passionate work of archeologists, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, American historians and preservation-minded distillers, the distillery that George Washington ran from 1797 to his death in 1799 was authentically rebuilt more than 200 years after it began at his Mount Vernon estate. Twice a year at this working distillery, manager of historic trades Steve Bashore literally stokes the fires that fuel the old ways of whiskey distilling. But even when the stills are silent, it’s more than worth a tour for a glimpse into the past to see how the founding father himself made whiskey. You can buy it, too: unaged rye ($98), barrel-aged rye ($188) and peach or apple brandy ($125).

  • Irish Whiskey Museum (Dublin)

    Irish Whiskey Museum interior

    Irish Whiskey Museum

    It’s a testament to the ever-growing popularity of Irish whiskey that Ireland finally has a proper museum dedicated to its spirit’s history. It includes one of the most significant moments in booze making: the perfected patent of the continuous still by Irishman Aeneas Coffey. The hour-long guided tour through Éire’s whiskey past—how it started in the 11th century, the rise of its pot-still popularity, the dark days of near extinction and the happy ending of a uisce beatha resurgence––ends with a raised glass.

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  • La Cité du Vin (Bordeaux, France)

    La Cité du Vin exterior
    XTU Architects

    This ambitious over-budget project opened its opulent doors on the Garonne River in Bordeaux looking kind of like an oenophile’s dreamed-up version of James and the Giant Peach. It’s swooping design by XTU architects Nicolas Desmazieres and Anouk Legendre is meant to conjure the circling motion of wine swirled in a glass. La Cité celebrates wine from everywhere, not just Bordeaux, in its permanent exhibits and trio of annually changing ones. And of course, there’s a wine bar, too.

  • Museum of the American Cocktail (New Orleans)

    Museum of the American Cocktail interior
    Stephen Binns

    Leave it to famed barman Dale DeGroff and the city of New Orleans (the only city in the nation to have its own officially legislated cocktail, the Sazerac) to dream up the country’s first museum dedicated to the cocktail. Located in the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in Central City, MOTAC takes its drink preservation seriously. You’ll find antique bottles, books, openers and all other aspects of imbibing ephemera, as well as rotating exhibits exploring everything from Prohibition raids to specific spirits histories.

  • Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (Bardstown, Kentucky)

    Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History exterior

    Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History

    Any bourbon hound worth her char will have this Kentucky spot on the hit list during a visit to charming Bardstown, Kentucky. Named for whiskey distiller and historian Oscar Getz, who died in 1983, the museum is chocablock with Getz’s own fascinating collectibles from the Revolutionary War to Prohibition. See pro- and anti-whiskey advertisements, legal documents and licenses, stills gone quiet, and if not the largest, certainly one of the most interesting collections of old whiskey bottles in the country. You can even see a few that were smashed by the famous ax of temperance activist Carrie Nation, who wouldn’t like this museum one bit. But you will.