One of the natural consequences of living in an era of resurgence in craft cocktails and a global appreciation for fine spirits is that we have a large and growing number of innovative bartenders writing excellent books about their craft. In the US in recent years, many of the top bars in the country have seen their bartenders write great cocktail books. My favorites have been Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s (of Clyde Common) “The Bar Book;” David Kaplan of Death & Co. wrote an eponymous book, and The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan. Each evokes the spirit of the classic bar books of the late 1800s and early 1900s by the likes of Jerry Thomas and “Cocktail” Bill Boothby, providing not only wide ranges of recipes, but details on bar mise en place and philosophies towards customer service.
Martin Cate has published “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.” Smuggler’s Cove (the bar) is an unequaled tiki and rum bar in San Francisco; it’s been one of my required stops when visiting the Bay Area since it opened. Cate’s book immediately joins the ranks of these outstanding modern cocktail books by bar men. Where Cate truly excels is that his is just as much a history of tiki and Polynesian exotica, as it is of rum cocktails, as it is of his personal exploration and evolutions as a bar owner and enthusiast. It is well written and full of rich stories from nearly 100 years of the history of this splinter of the cocktail movement.
What I most love about “Smuggler’s Cove” is that the prose beyond the recipes achieved a rare dynamic in cocktail books: it was more compelling than the recipes themselves. I found myself barely scanning recipes in a quest to hear more about how Smuggler’s Cove (the bar) emerged and evolved from less than an idea to an obsession to a benchmark of tiki culture. Cate’s writing is clear and approachable. He educates and informs, displaying a tremendous breadth of knowledge for his craft and the history of predecessors. He is remarkably generous in how he shines attention on the people who lit and kept burning the tiki torch (apologies for the pun) from its earliest sparks in the imaginations of Donn the Beachcomber and Trader Vic Bergeron to it being a national craze and back to a barely smoldering phenomenon. Cate gives attentions to the outposts of tiki that survived its collapse, to the purveyors of Polynesian Pop detritus and thrift store menus, aloha shirts, and totems. The personalities and the community they formed keeping tiki alive come through in all their vibrant colors (and frequent accompanying photographs).
These dimensions make “Smuggler’s Cove” a special and unique cocktail book. That is not to diminish the quality and clarity and creativity of Cate’s recipes. He deploys an incredibly useful and approachable system of categorizing rum varieties used in his recipes, eschewing brand rigidity. There are extensive, detailed recipes for every type of house-made syrup that shows up in cocktail recipes. Numerous techniques for tiki bar craft are shared. Like any of the most successful cocktail books, “Smuggler’s Cove” could easily be used as a how-to manual to set up an outstanding bar.
Since reading “Smuggler’s Cove,” I’ve been recommending it as much as a cocktail book as an historical anthropology of tiki culture. You don’t need to be a hardcore tikiphile to enjoy the book. But if you’re a cocktail aficionado, then it is absolutely a must-read.