Tiki Talk With Martin Cate
For every tiki era there is a seminal tiki book. In the 1940s, Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink was the end all of pu-pu platters and heavy-duty rum drinks. After some unfortunate decades, tiki had a rebirth in the early aughts when Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari showed a new generation how to swizzle. Now, as tiki becomes a staple of high-end cocktail programs, Martin and Rebecca Cate, proprietors of the Bay Area tiki stalwart Smuggler’s Cove, have given us Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki.
With scads of obsessively crafted recipes, along with essential rums, bar recommendations, history and more, Exotic Cocktails is a tiki treasure chest for our time. We sat down with Martin to talk about tiki today, its time in exile, and what makes the Pearl Diver such a pain in the butt.
Supercall: There are already so many tiki books on the market. Why did you feel the need to write one?
Martin Cate: We wanted to present tiki cocktails in context. They don’t exist in a vacuum. They were part of a larger pop culture movement that involved art and architecture and sculpture.
SC: What makes tiki so special?
MC: Before jet travel, before color magazines, before the internet, tiki drinks let you take a journey to an imaginary island at dusk where you were presented with dangerous and mysterious things amid a soundtrack of faraway jungle drums. Today’s best tiki places give you the complete experience. They make it an escape. They black out the windows so you forget where you are. It’s a vacation in a glass. A trip down to the corner that takes you somewhere else. Good tiki bars also celebrate carvers, sculptors, ceramicists and other artists. Working with them keeps these traditions alive. Tiki’s not about being tacky or kitschy; it’s artistry. We recognize that some of our guests think it’s silly. That’s fine. They’re smiling, and that’s all that matters.
SC: Tiki is popular now, but only after a three decade slump. What led to tiki’s dark ages?
MC: No cocktail category has been as badly debased as tiki. And we’re still playing catchup. You have people out there making Mai Tais with orange juice or other noncanonical ingredients. You’d never say, “I’m going to make a Martini with rye and tequila.” The trouble was, in the 1980s, the first generation of tiki bartenders retired, and took their secrets with them. No one knew how to make any of the drinks! Recipes turned into a game of telephone. Plus these drinks are time consuming. It got harder to find bartenders who wanted to make them. Meanwhile you had business operators saying, “Why squeeze fresh citrus? We have instant sweet and sour mix.” Pretty soon no one knew what was in a Mai Tai. So there’s a level of re-education at play.
SC: What’s the most underrated tiki ingredient?
MC: Coffee is really interesting. It acts like a spice, and if it’s strong enough, it can be a bittering agent like an amaro. We use a liqueur from Bittermens called New Orleans Coffee Liqueur. It’s espresso based and extremely bitter with chicory. I use a half ounce in place of two ounces of regular coffee.
SC: What’s the most underrated tiki drink?
MC: I’d like to see the Pearl Diver make a comeback. It’s a really challenging drink. It’s tough for mixologists because you have to cream butter with honey and keep it at room temperature. It’s cold and citrusy and rummy, with a lovely creamy quality to it. But it’s such a pain in the butt.
SC: What’s your favorite new tiki drink?
MC: The Donn Day Afternoon. It was something that came to me as a lark. Beer cocktails were trending, so I thought, “Can I make an interesting tiki beer cocktail?” Don the Beachcomber loved mixing grapefruit and cinnamon, so I mixed grapefruit beer with lime and cinnamon and agricole rhum. It seems like an innocent day drink like a Shandy. But it has two ounces of 100-proof agricole in it. It’s a bartender’s day drink.