Words by: Jane Ryan
Turning his back on corporate life, Martin Cate's tiki infatuation has shaped the last eight years of his life, taking him from office worker to bartender and rum expert as owner of Smuggler's Cove bar in San Francisco.
I used to work in maritime transport logistics, basically shipping, and I noticed more and more that I'd be out talking, not about containers, but about Mai Tais. I started as a passionate home enthusiast, but once I had wandered into Trader Vic's in Washington DC I absolutely fell in love with exotic cocktails. It became pretty clear that I was in the wrong job.
In 2004 I bid farewell to office job and tried to find a sales job in Traders Vic's but they didn't have anything. They did, however, have a bartending opportunity so I said 'ok I'll give that a shot', though I honestly had no idea so many people, not just bartenders, were dedicated to the craft.
Working with a fellow bartender one day, I was told about the US Bartenders Guild. I went along to a meeting, which happened to be about tequila. I was absolutely floored. Completely inspired, I signed up and paid my dues right away, then rang my wife and said I know what I want to do with the rest of my life, this is it.
Tiki is more than just about a great bar, or the cocktails, it's also a lifestyle, a passion for music, the clothes, the whole culture surrounding it. Of course I have a home tiki bar, an elaborate contraption hidden behind curtains with remote control lighting. Its predecessor was called Foggy Grotto when we lived in San Francisco, now we live in Novato so it's called the Novato Grotto, because happily, it rhymes.
With a couple of business partners we opened our first bar in 2006, Forbidden Island. I designed the drinks programme and was a co-owner but left to open Smuggler's Cove in 2009. With the new bar I wanted to take what I had done at Forbidden Island, and expand it to create a tiki bar with well-crafted drinks, blending fresh juices and good spirits. Rum has to be my favourite spirit, it is incredibly diverse and complex, so have a 75-page menu celebrating 300 years of the history of rum.
Smuggler's Cove is a completely immersive crazy space, but what makes it fun is that it has a blank façade, there is nothing outside to indicate the space that lies within. Inside, you'll find three storeys all packed with vintage tiki décor, nautical memorabilia from both WWI and WWII as well as ropes and fish nets. One of my favourite pieces is a WWI British army rum ration jar, which is pretty hard to find where I am. They used to be filled and sent to the boys in northern France to keep them warm at night and it's a great example of how rum was such an exceptional part of history, an inseparable part. At home I have an original lamp from Mak Kai, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which is a Mecca for tiki lovers.
I make a lot of drinks with different styles but the ones I'm happiest working within traditional ingredient constraints. Just as if you worked in a pre-Prohibition bar and based your recipes on Jerry Thomas, you wouldn't use Midori.
Jeff 'Beach Bum' Berry was the man who unlocked all the doors for me, certainly when I was getting into it. He was the one that researched into these drinks and was absolutely invaluable to the development of the growth of tiki. Before, tiki bars were just bamboo-decorated venues with some punch thrown in and everyone thought, well who cares? But we do care and thanks to Jeff, who uncovered a lot of information, we have the complete picture of what tiki should be like.