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The brains behind ‘The Cocktail Seminars’

Brian D. Hoefling has been teaching people about the history and science behind their drinks since his days at Yale.

The Yale Cocktail, a tribute to author Brian Hoefling's alma mater, where his newest book originated a decade-plus ago.Brian Hoefling

Over the endless months of coronavirus-imposed confinement, some people learned how to bake sourdough bread, some learned how to knit, and others learned how to make cocktails. Brian D. Hoefling learned how to teach people to make cocktails.

Actually, he’s been teaching people how to mix drinks since 2011. It was his senior year at Yale and he’d skipped over the whole regrettable-drinks phase and leaped right into a scholar-level approach to learning cocktail history. But that’s only to be expected from a history major who wrote a thesis about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. He devised a syllabus to teach his soon-to-graduate friends worried about making a good impression in the working-adult world.

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“The Cocktail Seminars,” (Abbeville Press, $24.95) which came out in June 2021, is the formalized version of that first draft of a class. Last month, it was a finalist for Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, the drinks industry equivalent of the Emmys or Grammys. It also completes his troika of drinks books, combining the academic approach of “Distilled Drinks,” a scientific examination of spirits, and the far more egalitarian “Classic Cocktails,” an encyclopedic volume with 150 recipes.

Taking cues from college textbooks, this book is broken down into five “seminars,” organized around various aspects of the cocktail renaissance, from the foundational 20th-century standards to tiki drinks. Each includes 30 recipes and their history. When taken as a whole, the volume is a cumulative cultural record, with instructions.

There’s practical stuff — lessons on ingredients and tutorials on techniques, plus exercises and examinations. But the part I find most engaging is the high-concept yet eminently user-friendly graphic representation that accompanies every drink. Each circular diagram provides a visual analysis of flavor and body qualities that aren’t typically considered quantifiable: sour, bitter, sweet, savory, thickness. Though Hoefling maintains that some of the metrics are more impressionistic than data-driven. Indeed, it can veer into the theoretical, if not metaphysical, and that’s part of the fun. (“What’s the opposite of sweet?” he asked when we spoke. I’m still pondering: Sour? Bitter? Savory?)

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“We have the cocktail culture that we have now because a group of a couple of people who cared a lot and worked hard to create and educate clientele,” Hoefling said. “If we want that culture and tradition and art to stay in place, we need to keep educating.”

Yale Cocktail

2 ounces London dry gin

⅓ ounce dry vermouth

⅓ ounce crème de violette

1 dash Angostura bitters

1. In an ice-filled mixing glass, combine all the ingredients. Stir 10 seconds.

2. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Adapted from “The Cocktail Seminars”



Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @livingtheproof.