Brooklyn’s House of Wax Bar Mixes Cocktails and 19th-Century Oddities

Negroni | © Igor Kostenko / Shutterstock
Photo of Salma Abdelnour
22 August 2018

At the House of Wax bar in downtown Brooklyn, you may not immediately notice that you’re sitting inches away from a diseased corpse. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the corpse is actually a wax replica, which is next to dozens of other horrifying anatomical specimens.

Decorating a bar with diseased bodies, albeit wax ones, isn’t such a stretch—cocktails originated as medicinal compounds as far back as the days of the Roman emperor Nero, when a doctor wrote about medical remedies involving wine and other spirits. But it’s rare to find a place like the House of Wax, which serves up your happy-hour drink alongside visuals of the most terrifying things that can happen to a human body and makes it impossible to look away. Chances are you’ve visited other wax museums, but nothing like this one.

The House of Wax’s displays don’t just allude to the historic link between cocktails and pharmaceuticals. The wax figures belong to a long-forgotten exhibit called Castan’s Panopticum, which was popular in Berlin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It showed replicas of bodies suffering from diseases like syphilis and included celebrity death masks as well as other curiosities that walked the line between science and sensationalism. Most of the items on display at the House of Wax come directly from the Panopticum and were originally displayed at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum before finding a home at the House of Wax bar.

The bar’s temporary exhibits get even more explicit than the permanent displays. A recent collection included wax replicas of deformed fetuses, women giving birth, and people undergoing various graphic surgeries.

The drinks here are aptly named, like the Napoleon Death Mask (cognac, rhubarb bitters, bacon), which you can sip right next to the wax replica of his original death mask, or the one of Kaiser Wilhelm I. You might also find yourself sitting in front of the wax head of a woman afflicted with a severe “nevus flammeus” condition that turns half of her face a Burgundy-wine red. Take it all in as you sip your classic Campari-spiked Negroni or your Horse’s Neck, a bourbon-and-bitters cocktail inspired by a recipe from Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual, published in 1882.

Despite its décor, the House of Wax is an oddly appealing place to meet for drinks, with its dimmed lighting, speakeasy layout and ironically cheerful vibe. Still, if all that gore leaves you needing another cocktail, preferably in another room, you can walk a few steps and land in the Alamo Drafthouse theater, which shares the same lobby. There, you can catch a movie, order from an in-theater menu of drinks and snacks, and forget everything you just saw. Or at least, try to.

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