Cocktail Club

Meet the cocktail educator helping people find community over Zoom

Brian Hoefling wrote 'The Cocktail Seminars' and moved his cocktail classes online during the pandemic. Now his lessons include bar room banter over Zoom.

Cocktail Club guest Brian Hoefling recalled going to Caffe Vittoria in the North End with his family to have dessert and cordials. Liza Weisstuch for The Boston Globe

How Brian Hoefling got his start in cocktails sounds like a euphemism: It all started in college. But it’s true. 

A student at Yale, Hoefling was put in charge of the bar for a student group’s alumni event. So he dug up an old copy of “Mr. Boston’s Bartender’s Guide” from his cousin’s Cape Cod garage and mixed mint juleps: whiskey and sugar in a glass topped with a mint sprig. It’s far from the version he’d make today, but something clicked for the undergrad. 

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By senior year, Hoefling was teaching his classmates how to mix the classics and “drink like adults,” he said. He subsequently launched the Herzog Cocktail School where he now teaches virtual classes to people around the country, and has authored three books “Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions,” “Classic Cocktails,” and his latest which published in June, “The Cocktail Seminars.” 

Last week, Hoefling joined the Cocktail Club for disco-era drinks, mixing an amaretto sour and tequila sunrise. We spoke with the Cambridge-based writer, cocktail educator, and rum aficionado before the class about sipping cordials in the North End, the skinny behind cocktail origin stories, and how virtual cocktail classes have helped people through the pandemic. 

How did you get into mixing cocktails? 

Where I think it really took off was my senior year of college. I was broadly interested in classic drinks. Some friends approached me and said they were concerned that they were going to graduate soon and did not yet know how to drink like adults, and could I help them. I said yes. And absolutely everyone involved, myself included, got in way, way deeper than I think any of us expected. I wrote up a syllabus of 30 cocktails that I thought we should all be acquainted with before we graduated, and set a schedule we would meet in my suite once a week for that last semester at Yale. And we would go through it like a seminar every week with two or three recipes. 

Is that how Herzog Cocktail School got its start? 

[When] I graduated, I learned that Tales of the Cocktail existed. I booked a flight I went to that very first year. I was 22. It was the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail. It was amazing. I came back and [thought] I’ve got to keep doing this. And so the Herzog Cocktail School ultimately grew out of that. I had wanted to try to find other ways of doing something similar to that cocktail class [in college]. And there’s a guy I knew who owned a restaurant in Waltham, who said, I feel like my mother-in-law would love it if you came to her house and taught her and her friends how to make their cosmos. That was where the business came from.

Who attends your classes? 

I have been able to offer classes to a much wider audience of people than I otherwise could have [pre-pandemic] because I’ve moved everything online.

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I have definitely had classes where people were there principally because they wanted to learn. People have been drinking a lot more over the last year. When you do something a lot, you often find that you want to learn how to do it better or make it more enjoyable. … I think it’s people who have missed being able to do something special to celebrate an occasion or an accomplishment. I don’t even think a lot of folks realized pre-pandemic how much of a role bars and restaurants played in that aspect of their lives. … [B]eing able to do another recurring class like the one I did in college was a ton of fun for me. But it was also ton of fun for the people who were there, because every single event we did was a Zoom meeting. So I’m giving the lesson, but they can ask questions live. They can talk in the chat to each other. Sometimes they would derail the conversation and just talk aloud to each other. … You’re missing that barroom banter that people would otherwise get. And I think that was actually part of the motivation for people who came back week after week.

Brian Hoefling

If you were a cocktail, what would you be? 

The Ward Eight. It’s the old, archetypical Boston cocktail from the 1890s, probably from Locke-Ober. (That’s a hotly debated topic.) I’m aggressively dyed in the wool Massachusetts. That part certainly fits. I am very old school in a lot of ways. I don’t think of myself as all that particular of a person, not fussy or anything like that, but some other people have sometimes expressed that I might be.

How has the pandemic affected your work? 

A little bit after my first book [“Distilled Knowledge”] came out — I’ve got a little chunk of change, I’ve a higher profile, I can do a little bit more in the industry — I ended up going to work for a liquor distributor for several years. We were a boutique house, we focused on regional distilleries, mostly in New England and New York — independent craft producers, which is always very near and dear to my heart although that was a difficult thing to build a sustainable business on. … I had left that job to start my own business, basically marketing and consulting for similar kinds of distilleries and helping them manage their Massachusetts market. And that was looking really good for the first two-and-a-half months that I was working on that, which is to say, January through mid-March of 2020. I was very fortunate to be able to spend a decent chunk of that year working on the [“The Cocktail Seminars”] book that is now out. 

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There is a graduate program at Boston University, which I had been thinking about for a long time. It’s in mechanical engineering, something that has been an interest of mine, specifically fluid mechanics — the movements of liquids and gases. They were still taking applications for September, the industry that I’ve been in was not having a banner year, and the business that I was starting was some combination of impossible and illegal because we can’t exactly be pouring samples in liquor stores, or running events at bars when it’s April 2020. I got in, and started graduate school last September. 

What’s the most unforgettable rum you’ve ever had? 

The particular bottle that comes to mind is actually from a local shop, Privateer Queen’s Share. They make a very good rum. … At The Hawthorne a couple of years ago … I got a sample of the Queen’s Share Bottled in Bond. I took a sip of it. I just stood there and let it kind of wash over my mouth and completely lost the thread of anything that was being discussed for several minutes. 

What do you like about the amaretto sour?

My family is Italian, my last name notwithstanding, so I have a long history of familiarity with amaretto. We would often go to the North End for special occasions and wherever we were eating, we would go to Caffe Vittoria at the end to have dessert and cordials. My parents were Sambuca people. That was never for me, but amaretto I’ve always loved. The particular recipe that I’m making is the update on the amaretto sour from Jeffrey Morgenthaler. … [With] Morganthaler’s recipe, he doesn’t succumb to the temptation to say the amaretto sour has a base spirit that is not amaretto. No. Amaretto is still the main ingredient, but he’s got that little bit of cask-strength [bourbon]; he’s got the egg white added to it. Those both feel very much like they are modifications to the amaretto sour but … still defined by a kind of rich, nutty base note of amaretto with complimentary accents, and then the brightness of the citrus. This is what you want in an update. 

Have you been going out to any local bars since reopening? 

I love showing people around Boston. Two places that, absolutely every trip, we are going: The Union Oyster House and Drink. I have tried, multiple times, to go to Drink since reopening, and they have been flooded every single time. 

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I’ve gotten much more in the habit of going to local places — I live in Cambridge — as a result of the pandemic: Cambridge Common, Grendel’s Den, [and] Felipe’s in Harvard Square, which, low key, has some of the best margaritas in the city.

How can people support you and those in the hospitality industry right now? 

There is a group called In the Weeds that comes to mind. They focus on mental health, in particular the wellbeing for people in an industry that historically has not prioritized that. 

If you want to help out people in the hospitality industry right now, keep getting takeout, keep getting cocktails to go, dine in if you feel comfortable with that. And if you do, be patient with the staff, chances are they’re understaffed. Remember this is a place that you want to continue to exist. 

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