“There’s really no connection between tiki, rum and the fez,” explains Martin Cate of his epic headpiece. “People like tiki and people like secret societies,” he says referring to the Shriners, a fraternity that made the fez iconic. As he sees it, the Shriners are part of the mid-century pantheon out of which tiki was born. Cate himself runs a society, The Rumbustion Club, from his San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove. Upon completion of a three-level course involving the tasting of 200 rums, members are bestowed a red fez.
This conflation of mystical, escapist story lines is something for which tiki is famous. Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber married Polynesian culture with their own brand of California exoticism peppered with a bit of self-perpetuating myth. In fact, it was at the Washington D.C. outpost of Trader Vic’s that Cate first discovered tiki culture. “I walked into this lush atmosphere buried in the basement of a serious, gray marble hotel on a cold winter night. I never imagined something like that existed,” he says. He’s been hunting down tiki recipes, rums and esoteric ingredients ever since.
After throwing a tiki party in 1998, he and his wife surveyed the wreckage and decided to build a home bar with the leftover gear. Finally, in 2004, when Cate decided to leave his job in transportation logistics, he walked into Trader Vic’s in San Francisco looking for a job and handed the bartender a photo of his second-bedroom tiki bar. Though he had no résumé, the bartender said, “We can work with this.”
In 2009, Cate opened Smuggler’s Cove for the public and has since released a wildly successful book on tiki culture and cocktails by the same name. As Cate has become an authority amongst cocktail enthusiasts, so has Smuggler’s gained a place in the canon of great American bars—and not just because it feels like a pirate’s hideout or has its own indoor waterfall. Smuggler’s is a bastion of modern-day tiki, carrying on a tradition born and bred in the same California oasis.
But what does Cate do when he’s not slinging drinks, or writing books? Here, he takes to our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his weirdest cocktail experiment, the worst thing he ever drank and his favorite bar in the world.
The Cate Escape
Owner, Smuggler’s Cove (San Francisco); Co-Owner/Partner in Whitechapel (SF), False Idol (San Diego), Lost Lake (Chicago) and Hale Pele (Portland).
What do want to be when you grow up?
Retired, I hope.
Best thing you ever drank:
It was a drink in Las Vegas in the 1990s. Had barrel-aged maple syrup, fresh lemon juice, bourbon and egg whites and was ahead of its time. Maybe not the best, but it opened my eyes and I’ve never forgotten it.
Worst thing you ever drank:
A Mojito where the bar had run out of mint and substituted peppermint schnapps. Also [in] the 1990s. An era of contrasts, apparently.
First time you ever got drunk:
Sometime after midnight, sophomore year of high school, in a public park playground, Olde English 800.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
London 0 Hull 4 by The Housemartins.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Have you seen my bars?
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
How ferocious hangovers get after 40.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Fat washing calf brains so I could put actual brains in a Zombie.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Hiking—ideally with a pub at the end, so still a little drinking.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Zinfandel and Diet Coke. It’s a thing, apparently.
Your favorite bar, and why:
The Molokai Bar at the Mai Kai, Fort Lauderdale. Because I feel at peace when I’m there.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
It was a huge plate of fresh seafood and smoked salmon at a quiet coastal pub somewhere near Galway. Great atmosphere, cool sea air and plenty of Guinness.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Either something from their menu or a Manhattan.
In a dive bar?
Bourbon neat and a High Life.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Full English Breakfast.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Mezcal used as a modifier. Sorry.
The last text message you sent:
“Gotta be 6″ left and right and 5″ top and bottom.”