Take 5: Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and rum cocktail maestro

You may have seen Martin Cate igniting flaming bowls of fun on the Cooking Channel or entertaining attendees at Tiki and rum events around the world. If you’re a cocktail or rum enthusiast, you’ve certainly heard of Smuggler’s Cove, his San Francisco lair that has redefined the modern rum cocktail and has been acclaimed as one of the world’s best bars, period.

Smuggler's Cove

Smuggler’s Cove

He’s also somewhat of a hero to the Tiki home bartending community, quickly rising from hobbyist on the Tiki Central message board to bartender at the Trader Vic’s flagship San Francisco location in 2005, to Forbidden Island, his first acclaimed Tiki bar in Alameda in 2006. He sold his interest there and opened Smuggler’s Cove in 2009.

In April, while Martin was in South Florida for an appearance at the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, we cornered him in the gardens at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai, one of his favorite places in the world to enjoy classic Tiki cocktails. Following is our latest “Take 5” interview featuring five random questions, plus a special bonus.
See below: Bonus recipes for Martin Cate’s Mai Tai and 2070 Swizzle
More Take 5: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry | The Mai-Kai’s Kern Mattei

Interview with Martin Cate by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward – April 19, 2013

1. Are you a Trader Vic’s or Don the Beachcomber man, and why?

“As you may know, I’m an ex-Trader Vic’s employee. I used to bartend at Trader Vic’s, so I do have a lot of love for the people who are there. It’s a great company and a great crew, so it’s very hard. But I think that Don’s innovations, though, probably out-strip the Trader’s innovations. The Trader had a unique taste, a unique palette. He’s important, he’s distinctive. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be Don, somewhat reluctantly.”

2. Will the current rum and Tiki renaissance last, and how can we make sure it does?

Martin Cate fields Hurricane Hayward's questions while he enjoys a Mutiny in The Mai-Kai's Tiki gardens

Martin Cate fields Hurricane Hayward’s questions while he enjoys a Mutiny in The Mai-Kai’s Tiki gardens. (Photo by Susan Hayward, April 2013)

“It will most certainly last, but what’s going to happen is – my prediction, for what it’s worth – we will never see the kind of intense enthusiasm about the scene that we saw, once upon a time. There was once 12 places within a square mile area in Chicago, for example. That’s not gonna happen. But what I hope happens is that there’s always going to be – in every large to medium-sized market in the United States – at least one really good Tiki bar doing it right, and doing it with real rums and real fresh ingredients. And that will always be an option for the consumer. Because what we’re finding in our experience is that consumers are saying, “I want to go out tonight, let’s get my friends. Hey, it’s Friday night, let’s go have a good time. Hey, let’s go to that Tiki bar.” Or “let’s go to that whiskey bar.” Or “let’s go to that vodka bar.” They’re making choices like they make choices about restaurants. And they’re saying, “I would like to go to the rum bar.” And when they get in line in front of my place and they all come in, none of them ask for gin and tonics, none of them ask for vodka and sodas. They all come in and they all ask for various exotic cocktails from my menu, all rum-based. And that’s great. So I don’t ever expect it’s ever going to reach the peak of where it was in say, the end of the ’50s or early ’60s, but it should always be an option. The same way there should always be a great Mexican restaurant or great Thai restaurant. Every city should always have a great Tiki option.”

3. Is there any one drink or style of drink that you think is the perfect platform for Tiki and tropical cocktails?

“It’s the Mai Tai. In its purest form, it’s an amazing platform for great rums. Its a very simple drink, it’s a very elegant drink. It’s basically a slightly nutty Margarita, for all intents and purposes. And because nuts, orange liquor and limes are wonderful companions to a huge range of rums, you can make a Mai Tai with almost anything and it’s great. Because it’s all about being a gentle accent to a beautiful spirit. So, as such, not only is the Mai Tai the perfect cocktail, it’s also the one that’s most in need of restoration. It’s kind of fascinating. The Manhattan didn’t really fall that far. Maybe the Manhattan got shaken, maybe the Manhattan got cherry juice, maybe the Manhattan stopped using bitters. But it didn’t fall as far as the Mai Tai. The Mai Tai fell to the lowest of the low. The Mai Tai fell to the bottom in a way that no other cocktail collapsed. I consider it a mission. And every other place doing vintage tropical drinks should consider it a mission too. To educate the consumer: “No, the slushy pink thing you had in Hawaii on vacation in the 1970s is not a Mai Tai. Here’s a Mai Tai. Try it, it’s lovely, you’ll like it.” ”

Martin Cate (left) survives Hurricane Hayward's questioning

Martin Cate (left) survives Hurricane Hayward’s questioning. (Photo by Susan Hayward, April 2013)

4. First there was Forbidden Island, then there was Smuggler’s Cove. Do you see yourself reaching even greater heights?

“I’d love to do another space. I don’t know what that is right now. Last year, this year, it’s been a lot of time analyzing options, looking at partners, looking at venues. I have a lot of visions of what the next space might be, and I honestly can’t tell you where it will land yet. I really wish I knew. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I really do think there is something else that I would like to do. Smuggler’s Cove has been an amazing experience, and a joy, and will always be close to my heart. And it has always given me what I hope is the wherewithall to do another spot. I’d love to get something else off the ground. I just don’t know where and what it will be yet.”

5. What’s your favorite Mai-Kai cocktail, and why?

“I’ll go with the 151 Swizzle. To me, it’s perfect: Simple, light, but enough of the baking spice, enough of the anise, enough of the character and the cinnamon. And now that they have the 151 Demerara back, it gives it the balance, it gives it the heft. The rum has meat behind it. You have to make sure it’s made right. Every bar doesn’t make it the same way here, but when it’s made perfectly, it’s a wonderful drink. That to me is my mothership. Alternately, I have to say the close runner-up is the Mutiny. I have a drink now on the menu at Smugger’s Cove called the Expedition that uses a coffee liqueur. I try to explain to guests that it’s inspired by the Mutiny and the Black Magic. Using coffee in a citrusy drink is a litle weird for a lot of guests. You really don’t think of lime and coffee together. But you put them together and they say, “Wow, I see what you’re getting at. I see what you’re trying to do here.” I takes a little bit of convincing. And the 2070 Swizzle was drink born of sitting down and taking every single swizzle recipe that I could come up with: Queen’s Park Swizzles, 151 Swizzles, straight rum swizzles. Every single swizzle recipe I knew of … about seven. And with the good graces of one of my customers, Ron, who sat in front of me. I said, I’m gonna make every swizzle I know and you’re going to tell me what you like and don’t like about it. We sat there and we’d drink them. One was too dry, one was too simple. “I really like the mint in that one, that’s a nice accent.” So we basically went through seven swizzles, and I said I’m going to pick what I love about all these drinks. So it has become sort of my giant killer as a swizzle drink. And it’s become a really popular drink. Provided I can find the two critical ingredients as implied by the name. The 2070 Swizzle means Angostura 1919 and Lemon Hart 151. It’s a math puzzle. You need the heavy vanilla weight of the 1919 against the big thunk of the 151.”

Enjoy Martin’s world-class cocktails at Smugger’s Cove, 650 Gough St. in San Francisco, or visit SmugglersCoveSF.com. As a special bonus, below are two of Martin’s signature cocktails. Also highly recommened is his punch recipe, perfect for crowds from one to 200.


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 Martin Cate's Mai Tai

Martin Cate’s Mai Tai, prepared by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2013)

MARTIN CATE’S MAI TAI

* 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/4 ounce rock candy syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
* 1/4 ounce orgeat (almond) syrup
* 1/2 ounce orange curaçao
* 1 ounce Appleton Estate Extra 12-year-old dark Jamaican rum
* 1 ounce El Dorado 12-year-old Demerara rum

Shake with a heaping cup of crushed ice until the shaker is frosty on the outside. Pour unstrained into a double Old Fashioned glass. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with half of a juiced lime shell and a fresh mint sprig.

Tasting notes: A twist on the classic Mai Tai, with Demerara rum replacing the traditional Martinique rum for a slightly sweeter and smoky flavor. Martin encourages you to use any premium aged rums to suit your tastes.

Video: How to Make a Mai Tai with Martin Cate

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Bottled simple syrup is typically 1:1 sugar to water, not to mention often laden with high-fructose corn syrup, so it’s best to make your own rock candy syrup. On a stovetop, heat the sugar and water to just shy of a boil, then bottle and keep refrigerated.

* Bottled orgeat syrups vary widely, so beware of cheap brands containing artificial ingredients. If you can’t find a suitable product, consider making your own. By the same token, there are many premium orange curaçao brands, so no need to use the cheap stuff.


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Martin Cate's 2070 Swizzle

Martin Cate’s 2070 Swizzle, prepared by The Atomic Grog. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, August 2013)

2070 SWIZZLE
(From Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco)

* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/2 ounce simple syrup
* 1/2 ounce honey syrup
* 1/4 ounce allspice dram
* 1 ounce Angostura 1919 rum
* 1 ounce Lemon Hart 151 Demerara rum
* 4 drops Pernod
* 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Swizzle all the ingredients with 1/2 cup crushed ice in a metal mixing tin and pour into a chilled metal cup or pilsner glass. Add more crushed ice to fill. If you don’t have an authentic swizzle stick, feel free to flash blend for 4-5 seconds instead. Top with a pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg.

Tasting notes: A high-octane and super spicy cocktail, yet very smooth … and therefore dangerous. A familiar take the Don the Beachcomber classic.

Notes and tips for home mixologists

* Instead of bottled simple syrup, try the same rock candy syrup you used in the Mai Tai above, or make your own 1:1 simple syrup. Honey syrup is simply equal parts honey and water, mixed and chilled. A 2:1 mix will produce a richer flavor, ala The Mai-Kai.

* You can find many online recipes for homemade allspice dram, aka allspice or pimento liqueur. They entail quite a bit more work and patience than the syrups, so you may want to instead seek out St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, the most commonly available brand. The Bitter Truth Pimento Dram is another option. If you’re lucky enough to find a bottle of the Wray & Nephew brand from Jamaica (aka Berry Hill), grab it.

* There’s no substitute for these rums if you’re looking to make Martin’s distinctive Swizzle. For other 151 Swizzle recipes, click here.

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Past stories featuring Martin Cate
* Miami festival showcases a never-ending variety of rums
* How big a punch can Tiki Month take?
* Audio slideshow: Hukilau 2011 cocktail contest was a Barrel of fun
* Rum Rat Pack starts a revolution at Hukilau 2011
* The Hukilau crowns a Rum Barrel Master Mixologist

More on The Mai-Kai
* Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide | Tropical drink family tree
* Heeeeeeere’s the rich history and lost stories of The Mai-Kai
* Exclusive tour of The Mai-Kai’s bars and kitchen

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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