Book Review: Smuggler's Cove
People who love tiki really love tiki. Cocktails can be a hobby, but for those who love tiki, it’s a ukulele-soundtracked, grass-skirted, rum-soaked, palm-trees-swaying-in-the-breeze way of life. That lifestyle has been beautifully captured in the new book Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki by Martin Cate with Rebecca Cate (Ten Speed Press). The authors also happen to be the owners of the bar of the same name in San Francisco, and the story of how that tiki cocktail destination came to be, along with the history of tiki, drink recipes and other essential information all comes together in this tropical monsoon of a book.
The scene is set with a life changing trip for Cate to Trader Vic’s and the fascination that ensued. He then flashes to tiki’s origin stories and how Americans were “drawn to the allure of the South Pacific since the 19th century.” They still had yet to change what they drank (Martinis with a lei garnish, anyone?), even as early 20th century American nightclubs, informed by visits to Prohibition era Cuba and tours of Polynesia during World War II, began art directing with palm trees and exotic music. He profiles the three “founding fathers” of what is considered the golden era of the California tiki cocktail movement: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gant, a.k.a, Donn Beach, founder of Don’s Beachcomber Café in Hollywood; Victor Jules Bergeron, a.k.a. Trader Vic; and Joseph Stephen Crane, the wild, Indiana-born nightclub entrepreneur responsible for The Luau in Hollywood. Along the way, sidebars provide insightful details about the scene, with an exploration of the word “tiki” itself, as well as descriptions of the essential music and the stages of its style from pre-tiki to high tiki. The classic tiki cocktails are also represented in this section, including Don’s Grog, Pupule, Three Dots and a Dash, the Jet Pilot, the Suffering Bastard, the Hurricane and Port Light.
Then history shifts to what is the cocktail equivalent of a nuclear aftermath in the 1970s and ‘80s. These pillars of the tiki movement, with the exception of a couple of Trader Vic’s holdouts, closed as society shifted its gears. Layered drinks with fresh ingredients gave way to one note concoctions with processed, neon-colored, sugary sludge in the majority of the surviving tiki establishments (with scant exception if you knew where to look), whose ambiance matched the synthetic quality of the drinks and food served in them.
Was it mentioned that for real tiki lovers it’s a way of life? The next chapter covers the modern revivalists - people who sacrificed their time, finances and in many cases, personal relationships (luckily for Cate, Rebecca understood the necessity of turning a spare room into a tiki oasis) to the tiki gods, setting up home bars, immersing in all aspects of tiki-ology, including architecture, and cult tiki conventions like Tiki Oasis, Tiki Kon and the Hukilau. With the popularity of the Internet and subsequent rise of cocktail culture and social media, these enthusiasts, artists and authors became bonafide stars in their own right, including Sven Kirsten, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (who opened Latititude 29 in New Orleans in 2015) and Otto von Stroheim, and there are exceptional photos of other figures on the scene, including New York City’s Rhum Rhum Room founders Nicole and Joe Desmond.
And of course, Martin and Rebecca Cate.
Now we enter the Smuggler’s Cove, and Cate explains the methods to the madness. It's so well described that readers are basically airlifted into the bar, with all of its meticulously chosen facets explained down to the last Polynesia Pop detail. Proprietary recipes, such as Norwegian Paralysis, Shudders in a Whisper (high five, Durannies!) and Center of the Galaxy are listed here.
However, Cate’s own journey could not have been completed without a total immersion, and next, he gives readers a well researched, thorough chapter on the history and production of rum, the starring base spirit of tiki, that serves as an excellent primer for anyone looking to dive into the realm of spirits and cocktails. Tiki drinks often include a variety of rums and base spirits, each adding their own subtle nuance to the cocktails, and this section explains how each of those components become necessary and how the drinks would collapse if any layer was removed.
There is also a detailed section on how to mix exotic cocktails, breaking down each ingredient and technique, with more drink recipes (Boo Loo, Caibeño and Bumboat among others) for practice. This includes information on syrups, juices, different types of ice, tools, methods, garnishes and drinking vessels. This is where the true dedication of the tiki comes through - tiki takes skill and LOTS of practice, folks! The recipes for the Eight Essential Exotic Elixers - Planter’s Punch, Mai Tai, Doctor Funk, Zombie, Navy Grog, Scorpion, Fog Cutter and Singapore Sling (the authentic version) are represented here with their histories.
A tiki experience is meant to be like leaving everyday life behind and stepping into an exotic land. How does one take this information and tiki on? Even more instructions on planning one’s own home oasis, with another era of cocktail recipes such as Puka Punch and Yuletidal Wave. It ends with a reverential passage about tiki’s heritage, and bars like The Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, who continue the legacy.
This is an impressive and thorough read, with a stunning layout and images by star lifestyle photographers Dyland + Jeni. It’s engaging even for someone who isn’t quite prepared to capitulate to the full allure of tiki, and Cate does an excellent job of making it sound daunting, yet awfully tempting.