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Behind the Backbar at Smuggler’s Cove

In "Anatomy of a Backbar" we get to know the world's most notable spirits programs in five bottles. This round, Martin Cate explains his approach to building a nearly 700-bottle collection of rum at Smuggler's Cove.

When Martin Cate began dreaming up San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove, his vision was simple, if ambitious. Not only was he intent on creating a contemporary spin on the classic tiki bar, he was determined to build the largest collection of rum in the United States.

Since opening in 2009, the bar has garnered numerous awards and boasts a near-constant line of eager drinkers stretching out its doors and down the block. Though many are there for the cocktails, a number of enthusiasts come for the spirits collection, which today consists of nearly 700 rums from around the world, priced by the ounce at anywhere from $11 to $360. (Surprisingly, just 28 of those rums are used in mixed drinks.)

“You’ll definitely see guests come in and order punch bowls to share or frothy drinks with fun garnishes. But the folks that start to come regularly want to understand the spirit,” says Cate, who approached building the program as a means of bettering his own understanding of rum. Last year, he visited 17 distilleries in the Caribbean alone, and has collaborated with a number of producers to blend rums for both sipping and mixing into drinks. 

Organized alphabetically by country, the rums are split between the first floor and downstairs bars, with the remainder of the collection housed “deep within the recesses of the building.” Many of the bottles, hailing from the Caribbean to India, include a number of last runs and historic bottles that can’t be found anywhere but Smuggler’s Cove. The same is true of the exclusive collaboration bottlings that Cate has worked on with brands like Plantation and El Dorado. 

For Cate, the aim is to show how wide-ranging the category is and to provide an access point for the rum-curious. Hence why he set up a rum club, The Rumbustion Society, to help members navigate the bar’s collection of rums through private tastings, events and trips to distilleries. Membership currently numbers in hundreds—further proof of Cate’s belief that there’s a potential rum lover in all of us.

“There’s such breadth to the category,” he says. “We’re here to tell the story of how flexible and diverse [it] is.”

Smuggler's Cove in Five Bottles

Neisson L'Esprit Blanc Rhum Agricole

This rhum agricole from Martinique represents the “smaller, more esoteric releases” that Cate tries to seek out. “It’s a very special expression that represents only the pure distillate of fresh sugar cane juice. There is no water added during fermentation or bottling, so it’s a very unique way to experience rhum agricole.” This is an example of a product that came through Smuggler’s northern California distributor in “single-digit bottle quantities,” says Cate. 

  • Price: $80
  • ABV: 70 percent

Denizen Merchant’s Reserve 8 Year Old Rum

Cate describes this rum, a blend of pot-stilled Jamaican rum and rhum grande arôme from Martinique, as “an interesting example of a collaborative process with a producer to recreate a rum style that was lost.” Specifically, this bottling was based on a rum used by Trader Vic in the original Mai Tai. “One of the rums used was this esoteric, molasses-based rum from Martinique called grande arôme, which is very uncommon,” says Cate. “It’s rich and full-bodied and makes a really satisfying Mai Tai.”

  • Price: $30
  • ABV: 43 percent

Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof Rum

“This rum was developed when the founder [of Plantation] approached me and a handful of other tiki [and] rum lovers and asked, ‘What’s missing in your arsenal?’” says Cate. The group, which included Cate, Paul McGee, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Scott Schuder and David Wondrich, traveled to France with ideas, suggestions “and vintage bottles of styles that were long gone” in tow. The result is an estery, full-bodied rum that “is great on its own, but is good in a lot of tropical drinks,” he says. 

  • Price: $28
  • ABV: 69 percent

The Real McCoy 12 Year Old Smuggler's Cove Limited Edition Rum

This private bottling is a blend of two ex-bourbon barrels hailing from the acclaimed Foursquare Distillery in Barbados. “Its natural sweetness is the result of careful fermentation and distillation methods,” says Cate, in reference to the distillery’s un-adulterated approach to rum production, “rather than sugar added post-distillation.”  Cate loves it for its “leather and oak aromatics” and baking spice.

  • Price: $50
  • ABV: 46 percent

House Spirits Triumvirate

“This bottle is the tale of the first three guys in our rum club who crossed the threshold to become a Master of the Cove,” Cate says, in reference to the honor bestowed on The Rumbustion Society club members who’ve sampled at least 300 different rums. The 100-percent pot-stilled rum from Oregon was created when the group took a trip to House Spirits Distillery in Portland to produce their own bottling. Triumvirate is now “virtually extinct,” says Cate. Only 100 bottles were produced. 

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