Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Martin Cate of World Famous Smuggler’s Cove Talks All Things Tiki

Martin Cate, the proprietor of San Francisco Tiki haven Smuggler’s Cove (as well as gin palace Whitechapel) is also the author of a brand-new book, "Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki" ($30, Ten Speed Press), with co-author (and wife) Rebecca Cate. We spoke with him about the evolution of modern-day Tiki culture and cocktails worth sipping in your personal Polynesian paradise.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

I think I was bullied into writing this by an aggressive agent. But in part, there had been some good things out there, but there hadn’t been a holistic approach, something to put it all into context. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry did such a great job writing about the drinks, [Sven] Kirsten about the artwork. There’s been this revival and some renewed interest. I wanted to talk about how people have started to talk about the past—what Kirsten calls urban archeology.

Urban archeology?

It can seem a little bit overdramatic to put it in these terms. But because Tiki was virtually extinguished from the landscape, the buildings torn down or remodeled, we forget about its aesthetic, what it looked like, how far-reaching it was. It seems odd to be talking about archeology for something only missing about 20 years, but it really was extinguished.

I wanted to talk with people who were passionate and wanted to bring it back to life. They didn’t see it as kitschy—they saw it as art, working in carving and ceramics. This is a Pop Art movement that spanned 40 years. It’s not kitsch at all. I think it’s enchanting, it’s magical.

Speaking of aesthetics, let’s talk about the section of your book that focuses on creating “Tiki look and feel.”

For those of us into Tiki for 20-plus years, we knew it’s the decorative elements, the sculptures, the ceramics and the cocktails that work in concert to create this complete experience. Berry helped save and elevate these drinks to their rightful place. But the cocktails are one piece of the experience. What we’re trying to say is: There’s more.

So much of what Tiki was about was creating this imaginary perpetual dusk atmosphere, this grotto on the island where you’d escape completely. The atmosphere surrounding the cocktail was part of the experience. We wanted to talk about how to elevate this experience, whether commercially or in your backyard.

Three Dots and a Dash.

Speaking of Tiki cocktails, what are some of your favorites?

Another reason I wanted to write the book is I wanted to define Tiki cocktails. The Three Dots & a Dash helps define the genre really well in one drink. It ticks all the right boxes for structuring an Tiki cocktail: It has citrus, interesting sweeteners, this nice baking spice hiding in the middle and then our combo of rums—rich demerara, floral, grassy rhum agricole. This is what the Tiki cocktail is as envisioned by Donn Beach, the grandfather of Tiki cocktails.

What about a modern-style Tiki drink?

The Undead Gentleman. It takes the Zombie, a fairly complex drink, cuts down the number of ingredients and puts it in a coupe. It shows that you can take that structure and format and play around with it. We’re trying to say there is a foundation and framework that helps you create a better modern cocktail if you pay homage to the way they were built.