Since the Beachbum visited Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco last April, he’s had flawlessly executed exotic cocktails in Havana, Hawaii, Miami, Los Angeles, Ibiza, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. But the call of the Cove remains strong.
Why? Smuggler’s (pictured above) is the only new craft cocktail bar in the United States that lives, breathes, and drinks Tiki. Other craft cocktail bars flirt with exotica, but refuse to take the Polynesian plunge, pulling back on atmosphere and vibe; like its old-school counterparts, the Tiki-Ti and the Mai-Kai, Smuggler’s Cove walks the walk and talks the pidgin.
The elaborate, imaginative Poly Pop decor — which includes a three-story waterfall that drops from the ceiling to a basement lagoon — triggers daydreams of moonlit islands and tall ships, while the 80 rum drinks on the menu are all expertly, intricately, lovingly mixed. Equally important, the place is infused with the spirit of aloha. You feel it emanating from the staff, you feel it reflected back from the guests, and you especially feel it from proprietors Martin and Rebecca Cate.
Strip Martin of his Smuggler’s Cove logo fez, and you have Otto Preminger in a Hawaiian shirt. But Martin has more in common with the dictatorial Austrian film director than a shaved head and a face made for a monocle. Like Preminger, Cate is an obsessive. He’s a kill-devil control-freak, in search of a Platonic ideal: not just the right rum for every cocktail, but the essential rum.
These days, saying that a craft cocktail bar serves drinks with house-made ingredients is like saying that a big-budget movie has great cinematography. It’s no longer cause for rejoicing, it’s simply expected — a given. Stealing a cue from his spiritual fathers, Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic, Martin (pictured above) has upped the ante: Smuggler’s Cove not only crafts its own syrups and bitters, but its own rums.
He started with an in-house Demerara, “Smuggler’s Private Reserve,” a blend of Guyanese rums each distilled in wooden pot stills and aged up to 12 years. Sipped neat, the blend is thin at the top, but gradually exposes a big, fat, beautiful bottom. How did Martin’s rum develop this case of liquid steatopygia? After trying every off-the-shelf Demerara rum on the market, he approached Demerara Distillers in Guyana: “I couldn’t afford to call for a new distillate, so I came up with a blend of their existing products and told them, ‘This is what I want.’”
He took an even more hands-on approach with his house agricole (rum distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane, as opposed to the usual molasses). Bars normally source their agricoles from Martinique, but Martin wanted something home-grown. So he hired Bay Area distiller St. George Spirits to craft an artisanal California agricole, using sugar cane grown in Fresno and Imperial Valley. Martin tasted six separate test distillates, each made with a different type of cane, and liked two — a strain fermented from elephant cane, and another from green cane. “I put them together in a French oak cask to give the rum a buttery rather than a vanilla flavor,” he says, “and after six months in the oak, I switched it to a second six months in a used Bourbon cask, to help keep a lot of the cane character. 86 proof was just too hot, and 80 was a little limp, so I went with 84 proof.”
The result was Eurydice Single Barrel California Sugar Cane Rum. “’Single Barrel’ is not a gimmick,” laughs Martin. “At this point, there really is only one barrel!” He freely admits that his baby “is not a starter-rum,” but the Beachbum instantly warmed to its clean, herbaceous taste, not unlike a marriage of cognac and grappa, with hints of beurre blanc and brown sugar.
On our April visit, we had only a short time at the Cove — and 80 drinks to try. Fortunately we were in the company of Tiki Central webmaster Hanford Lemoore and Critiki webmistress “Humuhumu” Trott, two Cove addicts who know their way around the ten-page menu. With a sip of their drink orders to supplement our own, we managed to sample 10% of Smuggler’s specialties. They were all stellar. We list them below, in no particular order.
Pampanito: Pampero Aniversario rum laced with lemon, allspice, and a simple syrup that is anything but simple. Said syrup is a combination of three sugars — white cane, golden turbinado, and dark muscovado — each added in different amounts for just the right density and flavor. Cate officially enters mad scientist territory with this stunt: mixing three types of sugar is insane. But also insanely good.
Carlo Sud: Agricole shaken with Benedictine and Angostura. Savory and assertive. (Pictured above.)
Rum Barrel: we detected molasses, passion fruit, and possibly pineapple, offset by the pleasing astringency of a mystery extract which Martin steadfastly refused to reveal. Admirably presented in a ceramic Smuggler’s Cove rum barrel, complete with logo swizzle stick, orchid, and fresh mint.
Kona Cocktail: aromatic and romantic.
Port Royal: an exhilarating see-saw between sweet and heat, the sweet being Smuggler’s bespoke jerk-seasoned simple syrup, and the heat courtesy of the aptly named Hellfire bitters. “It’s like making pepper spray,” says Martin, who has to wear a face-mask while rendering this tincture of Scotch bonnet and jalapeño chiles. “It actually physically hurts us to make it.”
Chadburn: Demerara rum teased with tawny port, pear brandy, and chocolate bitters.
Zombie: the classic 1934 Donn Beach original, nimbly mixed with 151-proof Lemon Hart Demerara and Smith & Cross Jamaican.
These drinks were all made carefully and served cheerfully by the Cove’s gemütlich staff, Christine England, Marco Dionysos, Sudeep Rangi, and Patrick Ponikva. Since the Bum’s visit, Christine has left Smuggler’s Cove — but having sampled the original cocktails of new Cove barman Steven Liles at his former home, San Francisco’s Fifth Floor restaurant, we can say with confidence that he’ll make a fine priest in Martin and Rebecca’s temple of rum.