In March 2020, Tail Up Goat beverage director Bill Jensen began broadcasting weekly wine-tasting sessions from his basement on Sunday afternoons, bringing what he calls a “Wayne’s World” vibe to the sometimes stuffy world of wine education. The project started as a fundraising vehicle for staff thrown out of work by the pandemic, but it became something more.

Jensen, a co-owner of the Michelin-starred Adams Morgan restaurant, brings a decidedly casual attitude to the enterprise. A self-described “self-loathing sommelier,” he embraces an approach to the description of tasting notes, for example, that is often more poetic than pretentious, pooh-poohing the notion that a home bar needs different types of glassware for different wines. The school eventually graduated to a sunny window booth at TUG’s Adams Morgan sister bistro Reveler’s Hour, where he continues his entertaining and informative sessions.

With the onset of coronavirus closures and partial reopenings, area wine-lovers — and those who love whiskey, cocktails or craft beer — have shifted their gathering spots from the real world to the virtual one, creating community in online clubs and tasting classes. They joined millions of Americans, who have turned to the Internet not for doom-scrolling and binge-watching, but to learn to tend to micro gardens or nurture a sourdough starter. There’s just an added bonus: Happy hour.

On Friday nights, Scott Harris, the owner of Purcellville’s Catoctin Creek Distilling, finds himself playing ringmaster at a Zoom cocktail class with dozens of chatty, friendly regulars. He welcomes back couples by name, and queries the crowd to see how far-flung they are: A recent session had participants from Seattle and Chicago. “I’m basically doing what a good bartender does: socially setting up a situation where people can enjoy themselves a little bit,” Harris says. “But instead of a bar, we’re sharing that online space.”

No matter what your taste runs toward, there’s a locally based class that’s sure to fit the bill, while also providing a sense of community that’s especially welcome right now. Each is different — some fees include ingredients, some do not — but all will liven up an evening while providing knowledge that you’ll be able to use, even when we can all gather around a bar in real life.

Catoctin Creek Distilling

The email that arrived before one of Catoctin Creek’s recent Art of the Cocktail classes contained some pretty serious homework. Participants needed to spend at least an hour cooking up three simple syrups, including one that involved simmering clover honey with Old Bay. The syllabus, which focused on salt-based drinks, included cocktail recipes calling for Aquavit and Yellow Chartreuse, and featured a drink originally crafted by Jeff Faile, the bartender at Iron Gate and Pineapple and Pearls. Thankfully, there was no mention of fancy tweezers for delicately placing garnishes.

The actual class, however, resembled sitting around the bar in the distillery’s Loudoun County tasting room, sipping drinks and chatting with the person a few stools down. Someone mentioned that they hadn’t been able to find Aquavit at a local store — let’s face it, not everyone has Scandinavian spirits in their home bar — and another participant suggested Tenth Ward, a female-owned distillery in Frederick, Md., which makes a similar product called Caraway Rye. Multiple people in the Zoom chat asked for the Tenth Ward bottle to be held up to the webcam so they could see the label.

Before the series started, “I had some people fretting, like, ‘I don’t want to go out and buy a $50 bottle of Saint-Germain just for this one class,’” Harris says. “And I’m like, ‘Then don’t.’ Chill and relax and enjoy the class. Don’t sweat it. I’ve had to reassure people that it’s just a drink. Like, if you don’t have X, then use Y. It’s going to taste okay.”

The collegial spirit is key: While Harris goes over the ins-and-outs of four cocktails each week, the classes, which include a lot of couples, have taken on a higher purpose. “I’ve been getting a lot of feedback like, ‘It’s so nice to have some little thing we can do on Friday night. It’s become like a date night for us,’” Harris says. “That was my hope. It’s almost like the classes are just sort of a framework for what ultimately turns into just drinking together and having a little bit of a social hour.”

The original Art of the Cocktail classes, launched seven years ago, “started out as a way to get butts in chairs during the very slow months of January and February,” Harris says. So when the tasting room closed last summer, Becky Harris, Catoctin Creek’s chief distiller and Scott’s wife, suggested offering the classes virtually, and each had 30 to 50 participants. The current series is the second; Scott Harris plans a different cocktail series in the spring.

In addition to structured classes, Scott Harris also leads monthly whiskey tastings, open to anyone who has purchased a sampler pack containing three different expressions of the distillery’s signature Roundstone Rye. (The boxes, available at local liquor stores, contain 200 ml mini bottles, and have a QR code for registration.) The experience is similar to purchasing a guided flight in the tasting room, including a brief history of the company and information about the local grain used, but it’s “a little bit more special, I think, because you’re getting to do it with the owner,” Harris says. “I am never in the tasting room as a normal rule, neither is Becky.”

What happens, especially when customers find out it’s the founder of the distillery in front of the camera instead of a regular tour guide, turns into a real-life Reddit Ask Me Anything session, where Harris is peppered with questions about the types of barrels Catoctin Creek uses, how they’re stored in a warehouse, or which whiskey works well in different cocktails. You wouldn’t necessarily make a standing date for it, like you would for the Art of the Cocktail, but it’s an informative base for any would-be whiskey hound.

The Art of the Cocktail class is offered Feb. 5 and 12 from 7 to 9 p.m., and costs $10. A different series of classes is tentatively scheduled for March and April. Upcoming virtual tastings are listed on catoctincreekdistilling.com/events .

Craft Beer Cellar

When Craft Beer Cellar hosted a beer tasting before the pandemic, it usually meant swinging by the H Street NE beer shop after work or on a weekend, where a brewery rep wearing a logo shirt would pour a couple of tasters at a table in the back of the room. You’d stand and sip while they told you about their new IPA, and maybe pick up a six-pack before heading home. Owner Erika Goedrich wanted to hold serious tastings and classes, she says, “but with the space we have, it’s just not conducive” for in-person events.

Since last spring, Craft Beer Cellar has found that space online, stepping into a role as D.C. beer educators with weekly events on Zoom. They’ve worked with Right Proper to demystify pairing beers and cheese, and matched a platter of Federalist Pig barbecue with beer from Bell’s. Multicourse “Beer Dinner to Go” events packaged food from Granville Moore’s and Cafe Berlin with guided beer tastings.

And while those classic beer dinner formats attract crowds — Goedrich had to organize a second date for Federalist Pig after the first event quickly sold out — it’s the educational opportunities that separate Craft Beer Cellar from the usual brewery events. Last summer’s “Exploration of Hops” with Pennsylvania’s Troegs included three different beers that were packed with hop cones, so participants could have the sensory experience of seeing and smelling them alongside the brews. A powerful online panel in August welcomed brewers and staff from Denizens, Sankofa and Port City breweries, among others, to address problems of diversity in the craft beer world. A new monthly series called Beer School dives into more general topics, such as the differences between ales and lagers. “You have some people who are pure novices, if you will, and definitely people who are more educated, so finding the right balance is always going to be the tricky part,” Goedrich says. (Classes are streamed on Facebook, and available to watch later.)

Lest you think that beer’s going too highbrow, this week’s sold-out event features four beers from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing paired with four varieties of Girl Scout cookies, provided by Troop 44039. This is the third year they’ve done the class, Goedrich says, and when it was announced on social media, “People called and said, ‘I have the cookies, I just want the beer. Do you have extra beers to sell?” A customer from Pennsylvania called the store and asked if they could sign up for the class — but said they already had the beers and the cookies, and just wanted to purchase tickets to watch the pairing. “I was like, ‘I’ll send you the link,’” Goedrich says, laughing. “We just want to share the education part of it.”

Craft Beer Cellar classes are held Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets usually go on sale 10 days before the event. Ticket sales for beer dinners end on the Monday before the event. Up next: An Early Valentine’s Day Beer Dinner to Go with beer from Oxbow and food from the Salt Line (Feb. 11, $76); a Beer Dinner to Go with beer from Austria’s Schloss Eggenberg and food from Stable, plus an appearance by Eggenberg owner Karl Stohr (Feb. 18); Get to Know Other Half Brewing (Feb. 25); and Beer School: Craft Beer Buzzwords (March 4).
dc.craftbeercellar.com
. Beers and food for events can be picked up at Craft Beer Cellar, 301 H St. NE, or delivered within D.C. for an additional fee.

Seco Cocktails

Before she was out of her mid-20s, Carlie Steiner stirred up creative cocktails at José Andrés’s Barmini and served as the beverage director and wine enthusiast at Himitsu, a restaurant she co-founded, which Bon Appétit quickly named one of the best new restaurants in America. But after the pandemic closed her two Petworth hotspots — small plates restaurant Pom Pom and the festive Dos Mamis bar across the street — Steiner and her partner traded the District for a house outside of Annapolis, where, she says, she found joy woodworking in her garage.

In November, she launched Seco Cocktails, offering public and private cocktail classes online. “It’s become a bit of a saturated market,” she admits, with so many bars and bartenders posting videos online. She knew that she needed to go beyond deep dives into Old Fashioned variations, because, while her classes have steadily grown a following of curious cocktail aficionados, “I wanted to add in things that kept everybody coming back more,” she says. “I really see myself as having a purpose to entertain my regulars more so these days.”

Last month, that meant a cocktail photography class with Farrah Skeiky, whose glam food and drink photos have made numerous restaurant websites shine. After Steiner walked participants through making a Spanish-style gin and tonic, Skeiky offered pro tips on artfully arranging garnishes, using fabric backdrops or finding lighting angles that deliver Instagram-worthy shots even when using a dining room table in a basement apartment.

On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, Steiner is teaming up with singer-songwriter Justin Trawick for the first in a promised series of “Cocktail Concerts.” Tickets come with recipes for eight of Steiner’s favorite drinks, and “We’re going to have like a 20-minute intro where we’re all making our cocktails, catching up a little bit with the people who are returning and meeting the new people,” Steiner explains, before everyone settles in for the show — it’s an evening that’s less about technique and more about entertainment.

Steiner plans to offer these events in addition to her usual weekly classes, and says they won’t always feature music — she’d like to involve a friend who works with pottery and ceramics, and is looking into how to ship materials before the event, “so we’ll do a class where we make cocktails and work with clay.”

The Cocktail Concerts might allow more people to taste Steiner’s classes, which she intentionally keeps to 25 or 30 people, “because that is where I have decided that I can talk to every single one of those people during the class without feeling overwhelmed right now,” she says. If the focus is less on interaction, and more on enjoying an experience, she’s okay with the crowd expanding a little more, while still keeping an intimate vibe. “It is very much like entertaining, but in the comfort of my own home, without all the cleanup. It just really is very nice.”

Seco Cocktail classes are held Fridays or Saturdays at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30-$40, which is per household, not per person, making it good for a date night or a group. A Zoom link, recipes and a list of needed ingredients is sent after registration. secococktails.com.

Tail Up Goat Wine School

Jensen calls his chosen profession — which he describes, with a tone of self-effacement and a touch of longing, as “glad-handing from table to table to sell wine” — as “fundamentally preposterous.” But it’s clear that he misses the preposterousness he’s had to put on hold for close to a year.

In his Zoom wine classes — the first 40 of which have just been archived on a YouTube channel — Jensen attempts to replicate that same warm and personal interaction, even though he’s now talking to some 100 or so regulars on a computer screen.

Going forward, Jensen says that classes — which have focused on such themes as Maryland wineries; pairing wine with food; and a celebration of Sonoma County varietals in celebration of Kamala D. Harris’s election as vice president — will shift from weekly to every other week in 2021, with occasional special events, such as a Valentine’s day-themed fundraiser for One Love on Feb. 14. Food, which was previously only offered sporadically, in addition to $30 flights of four four-ounce pours available for takeout, will be a more regular option in the new year, with “snack packs” from chef Jon Sybert available for carryout.

In many of Jensen’s sessions from last year, he wears the same T-shirt, almost a uniform, emblazoned with the word “Sculptor” over his heart — and beneath that, text that’s too small to make out on a Zoom screen. Turns out it’s the opening of a Thomas Moore poem that lends Reveler’s Hour its name, and that Jensen reads from at the start of class:

Sculptor, wouldst thou glad my soul,

Grave for me an ample bowl,

Worthy to shine in hall or bower,

When spring-time brings the reveller’s hour.

The casualness of his attire, along with a sense, on camera, of an artist at work, are telling. Jensen responds with delight when told that TUG Wine School feels less like a school than a form of “social sculpture”: a virtual space carved out online, in which people can gather to drink and break bread. Wine need not be “fussy or remote or elitist,” he says. “Anyone should be able to drink well for $15 to $20 a bottle.”

Jensen leads class with a chatty accessibility, shifting one week from a discussion of a wine’s minerality (i.e., the taste of “water over wet rocks”) to what he calls a “delightfully nerdy” conversation with a winemaker about management of such pests as the grape berry moth. There’s an eclectic and slightly unpredictable vibe.

That’s as it should be, says Jensen, who expects the wine school to continue even after the coronavirus restrictions lift. Drinking wine together — heck, drinking anything together, coupled with good conversation — is a form of sorely needed communion. Whether that talk — which, yes, includes discussion of wine — also touches on literature, science, history or whatever depends on the week.

The next TUG Wine School session, on wines of Portugal, is Feb. 7 at 4 p.m. Email wineschool@tailupgoat.com to participate. You’ll be added to a mailing list and sent a Zoom link necessary to join. Wine flights and snack packs are available for purchase at Reveler’s Hour, 1775 Columbia Rd. NW. Delivery is available within the District, and the restaurant will assist you in finding appropriate wines if you live outside the area. tailupgoat.com/wineschool.