May 27, 2016 – The amiable Martin Cate is one of those people who make lemonade when life hands out lemons. In his case, the lemonade involved drinks with little umbrellas.
About 25 years ago, when Martin was a student in the Washington D.C. area, he had his first Tiki bar experience. He was amazed by the décor and, of course, the drinks with exotic names served in unusual containers. The experience started him on a hobby experimenting with the drinks, learning the history of the Tiki culture and collecting the bric-a-brac that seemed a prerequisite for serving an authentic drink.
When we chatted in San Francisco recently, where he was a judge for the Bacardi Global Legacy Cocktail Competition 2016, he admitted his hobby became something of a passion as he frequented thrift shops looking for old recipe books and discarded Tiki serving pieces and ornaments. He built a Tiki bar in his home and joined other aficionados at Tiki conventions in the late 1990s. He also collected dozens and dozens of different rums and became very popular with his friends.
In 2004, his employer went out of business so he decided to put his personal passion to work and took a job at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. There he met his two business partners and they opened a bar in Alameda, across the Bay from San Francisco, called “Forbidden Island”.
The Tiki bar craze got its start in 1934 when Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who morphed into a new character as Donn Beach, opened Don the Beachcomber’s in Hollywood. The bar’s mystique and exotic drinks fed America’s obsession with all things Polynesian.
After the Second World War, interest in Polynesia was sparked by the nostalgia of G.I.’s returning from the South Pacific and James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Tales of the South Pacific” which was published in 1947. “South Pacific”, a musical adaptation by Rodgers & Hammerstein debuted on Broadway in April 1949. The movie followed in 1958.
The Tiki theme flourished through the 1950s to the 1970s and then began to wane. For the hobbyists in the 1990s like Martin Cate, not only were the props gone, except for thrift stores, but also authentic recipes were unavailable. It turns out Don the Beachcomber was a very smart operator. All his recipes were written in code! A recipe might call for two parts #3 and a dash of #1. No one knew what 1 and 3 represented so the competition couldn’t steal his drinks with evocative names like Zombie, Mai Tai and Missionary’s Downfall.
Thanks to the indefatigable Jeff Berry, another Tiki cocktail aficionado, former bartenders were tracked down and little black books acquired. The bartender’s recipes were in code so Berry set out to crack the codes. There was a bar on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles run by a son and grandson of a former Don the Beachcomber bartender. Jeff Berry would order a specific drink then reverse-engineer it. This led to finding out that a specific code applied to a certain brand of rum and, he discovered, many drinks contained many different rums along with fresh fruit and special syrups.
Jeff Berry shared his findings and for someone like Martin Cate, bent on authenticity, it meant offering correct versions of historic drinks.
In 2009, Martin Cate opened Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. The bar has been named one of the Top 50 Greatest Bars on Earth by the Sunday Times of London. Similar extravagant accolades have been bestowed by several trade publications as well as Playboy, Esquire, Food and Wine Magazine and featured in a long list of respected newspapers and magazines. Smuggler’s Cove stocks almost 600 rums and Martin Cate is recognized as a world authority on rum cocktails. No wonder he was a judge at the Bacardi competition where cocktails were judged on taste and aroma, communication skill of the creator, ease of production, its name, and presentation to the customer.
Martin’s latest projects include a new Tiki bar called False Idol in San Diego, and a book “Smuggler’s Cove. Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki” from Ten Speed Press which will be released June 7. His goal was to trace the complete history of rum back to the founding of this country and it includes more than 100 recipes, new and historic, many photos and illustrations for an affordable $17.44 hardcover or $15.99 Kindle. With Father’s Day just three weeks away, you can pre-order on Amazon and have it shipped in time to take Dad down memory lane, especially if he hung around Tiki bars in his youth. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1607747324/ Or you can keep it for yourself and escape into the fantasy of Tiki with every sip of your wonderful cocktail.