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Monday, December 14, 2009

Martin Cate of Smuggler's Cove: The SFoodie Interview

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2009 at 8:00 AM

Rummy: Cate stays up late making custom ingredients for his rum drinks. - MIKE D./YELP
  • Mike D./Yelp
  • Rummy: Cate stays up late making custom ingredients for his rum drinks.
We snatched Martin Cate for a chat last week, just days after the opening of his Hayes Valley rum bar, Smuggler's Cove (in the old Jade Bar space, 650 Gough at McAllister). The extreme rum aficionado shared his vision for a hideaway full of mystery and danger, the reason he keeps some drinks brutally strong, and details on his rarest jug o' grog from the British Imperial Navy.

SFoodie: What's the biggest difference between Smuggler's Cove and your last bar in Alameda, Forbidden Island?

Cate: At Forbidden Island, we did tiki drinks from the '40s through the '60s really well. Smuggler's Cove traces rum from Colonial America through Prohibition-era Havana to the present day. That's why this project is so ambitious. We skipped right from a tiki bar to a bar that celebrates the entire 300-year history of rum.

How were the first few nights at Smuggler's? Just as busy as opening night?

Oh yes, we've been slammed. I noticed a lot of industry people the first night, is it still the same sorta crowd? We've got a mix, but yes, lots of industry folks from other spots are closing us down every night. Rum fans, tiki fans, neighborhood people, people who used to come to Jade, and pre- and post-theatre people are all gathering together each night. The crowd hasn't settled into a groove yet, but that's OK.

click to enlarge The decor elements came from nautical salvage dealers. - AMELIA R./YELP
  • Amelia R./Yelp
  • The decor elements came from nautical salvage dealers.
So let's jump to the bar decor. Where did you get all this crazy stuff?

I've been collecting tiki paraphernalia for years from Trader Vic's across the world. We're going for more of a nautical maritime theme. You know, lots of flotsam and jetsom. So I've worked with many nautical salvage dealers in Texas and the port of Los Angeles. It's tough to buy things from a lot of the L.A. shops because they get so much money renting their goods to Hollywood for studio designs, but it's been a great source for me. I want the space to feel warm, inviting, and evocative, with a sense of mystery and danger. If a group of smugglers had a clubhouse piled with their plunder in a cave somewhere in the Caribbean, this is what it looks like.

So, I remember there used to be windows at Jade. What happened there?

We covered them up with a fake wall. I didn't want the traffic, cars, and tension of outside to become a part of our bar in any way. This is a true escape, where you can hide out, listen to the sound of trickling water, and drink a tall glass of rum.

Some of those drinks are pretty strong. What's the average alcohol pour?

Most of them are 1 ½ to 2 ounces. We designate drinks that have more than 2 ounces of rum with a barrel symbol on the menu. Some vintage tiki drinks from the '40s and '50s are brutally strong, ahead of the garish era of Long Island iced tea. So we do have some drinks that pay homage to that and come in at a little over 4 ounces of rum.

How do you think San Francisco will react to all this rum? Are we ready for it?

Last night my upstairs bartender poured a lot of vodka martinis. We have a niche concept here so I do think our clientele needs a little hand-holding. If they knew that I don't sleep because I stay up all night making custom ingredients for these rum drinks, maybe they wouldn't order vodka. People are more stubborn about their liquor choices than they are about food. I'm trying to help people out of their comfort zone into the huge and very complicated world of rum. It's certainly the hardest category for consumers to get their heads around ― much more difficult to comprehend than tequila, bourbon, or any other liquor.

What's the biggest misconception about rum?

People don't realize what an enormous variety of rums there are in the world. Everyone can find a rum they like. All white rums don't taste the same; all aged rums don't taste the same. Rum comes from many different countries, and there are regional specialties in most places. I created my Rumbustian Society to help clarify this to the public. So what's the story with this society? Rumbustian is an 18th century word for rum. We've created a short course in which there are 20 chapters, each devoted to a different category of rum. Each has homework: to try a specific shot that exemplifies that category. Graduates of the program get a badge signifying their acceptance into the Rumbustian Society; they are granted access to our vault of ultra rare, secret rums, and there are some secret initiation rights. Basically, we're getting as dorky as possible about our rum.

What about this card I heard about?

Well we also have a Voyager of the Cove certification, meaning that you've tasted your way through all 80 drinks on the menu. Our Mahalo Club Card is an incentive for people seeking entrance to the Rumbustian Society or the Voyager of the Cove to get a little discount as they're coming down the road. We haven't released this card yet, but it will offer something like $10 off every $200 you spend on rum.

What's the rarest rum you have?

We have a bottle of Royal Navy Imperial rum. It's from the days when the British Navy had a daily ration of rum they were allowed to drink on the ships. The sailors and officers demanded very high quality rum. They custom blended a mixture of rums from two royal colonies: Jamaica and Guyana, and served it in imperial gallon ceramic jugs wrapped in wicker. On July 31, 1970, the drinking of rum on naval ships was outlawed and the stash of premium rum was stockpiled. They've since cracked one bottle out for Andrew and Fergie's wedding and I have one containing some of the final drops of the royal plunder.

So how much does a shot run?


I noticed a lot of different bar paraphernalia. What are some of the coolest tools you use to make these drinks?

The drink mixer that looks like a blender is a traditional tool for Caribbean cocktails and vintage tiki drinks. It's like a turbo-charged swizzle stick that was first introduced in Havana. We also use a le le from a tree indigenous to Martinique. It's a natural fiber, nature's gift to bartenders. We use it as a swizzle to chill, dilute, and aerate a cocktail in three seconds. Oh and we also have paper umbrellas.

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Carolyn Alburger


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