A recent trend in the cocktail world is for high-end, world class “destination” bars and celebrity bartenders to further extend their brand and cement their reputation via authoring a book. Some hotly anticipated tomes of note recently include The PDT Cocktail Book (PDT, NYC), Speakeasy (Employees Only, NYC), Death & Co. (Death & Co., NYC), and The Bar Book (Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Portland, OR). All have been eagerly anticipated and well received. In that light, the only surprise is that Martin and Rebecca Cate’s new book, Smuggler’s Cove – Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, took so long to appear on the cocktail book scene. In fairness, they’ve been a little busy with other things, like oh…opening Whitechapel, a shrine to gin akin to what San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove is to rum.
Even among the cocktail enthusiast population, the Tiki crowd is particularly passionate and eager for fresh material. I’ve witnessed firsthand the insane demand and interest for the Smuggler’s Cove book, scheduled to be generally available in early June 2016. As the fortunate recipient of one of the first books off the press, I’ve taken on the task of reading the entire opus–which clocks in at a solid 350 pages from cover to cover. As a teaser before jumping into my thoughts about the volume overall, here are ten of my favorite factoids you’ll encounter:
- Donn Beach, the man who invented Tiki, is buried at the Punch Bowl Cemetery on Honolulu, HI. (If only I’d have known that when I was there a few years ago!)
- Steve Crane, the man behind the The Luau and the Kon Tiki chain of restaurants (the book refers to him as Tiki’s “Third Man,” behind Donn Beach and Trader Vic) was a Hollywood actor and was married to the famous actress Lana Turner.
- Tiki mugs made before 1970 may not be food safe because of potentially high levels of lead. (Though to be fair to your mug collection, lots of vintage dishware made prior to U.S. lead laws carries the same warning.)
- Although Martinique today makes nearly all of its rhum today from sugar cane juice (rhum “agricole”), it once made a substantial amount of molasses-based rhum–until a volcano explosion in 1902 wiped out many of the larger molasses-based distilleries.
- Although Martin himself owns one of the last remaining bottles of the incredibly expensive Wray & Nephew 17 (the original Mai Tai rum), he’s never actually tasted it.
- The amount of Angostura bitters in a “dash” is varies widely between the “normal” 4 oz. bottle and the large 16 oz. bottle used at Smuggler’s Cove. (Editorial aside: Really, why would you buy only a 4 oz. bottle? But point taken.)
- Many craft Tiki bars and Tiki enthusiasts pride themselves on using custom recipes to make their own falernum (a sweet syrup of ginger, lime, cloves and other spices), rather than using one that’s commercially available. However, Smuggler’s Cove bucks that trend and uses John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, which is lighter and less intense than most house-made falernum.
- When juicing limes and lemons by hand, go easy on them. If you squeeze too hard to get the last few drops out, you’ll get a lot more bitterness from the skin oil and pith, which tastes bad in a drink.
- Although many bars include fire as part of their Tiki drink experience, most of them simply light overproof rum on fire, which yields only a small, blue flame. A much better fuel source is a bread crouton soaked in high-proof lemon extract. At around 160 proof with lots of burnable oil, a lemon-extract fueled flame is much larger and more visible. Somewhat of a “Tiki insiders” secret for years, the book puts the technique squarely into mainstream awareness. (Have a fire extinguisher at the ready, if you venture into home testing.)
- In addition to Smuggler’s Cove, Martin is also the co-owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR, as well as a partner in Chicago’s Lost Lake and San Diego’s False Idol. (Not an entirely new factoid for me. I learned it firsthand from Martin while spending days with him on a bus travelling to Jamaican distilleries as part of an ACR/WIRSPA sponsored tour.)
Although entitled Smuggler’s Cove and featuring recipes and techniques from the storied bar, the book is really a loving ode to the history, technique, and culture of Tiki drinks and the Tiki lifestyle. Prior books by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry have covered Tiki’s history (and pre-history) in extensive, exhaustive detail. Here, Martin and Rebecca don’t attempt to outdo Jeff in his quest to cover every angle and the life story of early Tiki bartenders. Instead, they provide a well-written, “Reader’s Digest” version of the major players and critical events in the evolution of Tiki – think five pages on Donn Beach, rather than fifty. The focus is naturally on the founding fathers–Donn Beach, Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic), and Steve Crane–with critical insights into what each of them stylistically contributed to the birth and subsequent “golden age” of Tiki.
While the book’s take on Tiki’s distant past is a welcome addition to the existing literature, what’s particularly interesting to me is an account of the Tiki revival moment, which started circa the late 1990s and continues to this day. In the book you’ll find good overviews of key figures: Jeff Berry (of course), as well as Sven Kirsten (The Book of Tiki), and Otto von Stoheim (Tiki Oasis). And no book on the Tiki revival would be complete without the origin story of how Smuggler’s Cove came to pass. Starting with an innocent comment by Rebecca after a home Tiki party, the book details Martin’s journey through the San Francisco Trader Vic’s, to opening Forbidden Island in Alameda, and finally to creating Smuggler’s Cove in 2009, which is now consistently heralded as one of the world’s best bars.
From a high vantage point, Smuggler’s Cove is divided into five sections:
- An Invitation to Escape – Tiki history
- Smuggler’s Cove: The Modern Tiki Bar – All about the Smuggler’s Cove experience
- The Spirit of Rum – Rum history and styles of rum
- Exotic Cocktails: Mystery and Technique – Tiki ingredients and technique, plus detailed background on eight essential classic Tiki libations
- Creating Paradise – Creating your own Tiki-focused space and throwing Tiki-themed parties
Each part is divided into smaller sections, with a batch of thematically appropriate recipes (as made at Smuggler’s Cove) capping each one. Following the main sections are paeans to two of the last remaining bars from the golden age: Tiki Ti (Los Angeles) and the Mai Kai (Fort Lauderdale). The book’s final few pages feature recipes for Smuggler’s Cove ingredients (orgeat, cinnamon syrup, etc.) as well as resources – books, web sites, where to buy Tiki paraphernalia and ingredients, and some of Martin and Rebecca’s favorite Tiki and rum bars in the U.S.
Of all the topics the book covers, I believe the section on categorizing rum and how it’s applied to the book’s recipes will generate the most discussion among the rum crowd. “Rum Through the Ages” provides great, easily understandable background on what rum is made from, as well as historical context explaining the evolution of key styles of rum: The heavy, pot-stilled rums from former colonies of England, sugar cane juice-based Rhum Agricole from the French colonies (most notably, Martinique and Guadeloupe), and the lighter, column stilled “Spanish style” rums from islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico. The section also includes a few paragraphs about the past sixty years, wherein the distinctive, easily identified rum styles have (in many cases) been homogenized and dumbed down to compete with vodka. Likewise, the rise of flavored rums has reinforced the common notion that rum is just cheap party booze not worthy of respect the way Scotch whisky, bourbon, and Cognac are.
With rum’s history well covered, the book ventures into the murky waters of rum categories. It first outlines the gist of the most common categorizations (i.e. English, Spanish, and French; or more crudely, white, gold, and dark) and makes quick work of dismissing them as confusing and useless. For instance, a “white” rum may be cheap, unaged swill, or it may be expertly crafted and aged for several years, then carbon filtered to remove the color for use in particular cocktails. Both rums could be categorized as “white.” A gold rum may get its color from aging or from additives. Color is absolutely not a good way to indicate what a rum may taste like, nor is it good for specifying rums in drink recipes. Even specifying a country of origin is dicey–there are plenty of pot/column blended rums from Jamaica that don’t exhibit the strong “hogo” associated with the Jamaican style.
As I witnessed firsthand as a judge at Miami Rum Renaissance, categorizing rums is a tricky business, and any classification system will have its critics–but that doesn’t stop people from trying. A recent example of a classification system has been put forth by Luca Gargano, and promoted by Foursquare master distiller Richard Seale, and looks like this:
- Pure Single Rum – 100% pot (i.e., batch) still
- Single Blended Rum – a blend of only pot still and traditional column still
- Rum – rum from a traditional column still
- Industrial Rum – modern multi-column still
This categorization serves a useful purpose in some regards; it leaves relatively little open to interpretation. Some marketers love to promote additive-laden ethanol from a multi-column still as equal in value to a premium pot still rum from, say, Hampden Estate in Jamaica. However, the Gargano classification does not address two important dimensions in the production process: Source material and fermentation, and aging. Both have a huge impact on the overall flavor profile. Taste the Jamaican Hampden Estate’s pot still rum side-by-side with Port Morant rum from Demerara Distillers Limited in Guyana. Both qualify as a “pure single rum,” but flavor-wise, they’re worlds apart. The difference starts with their recipe and fermentation process and continues through the type of still used and how the heads and tails cuts are made.
The Smuggler’s Cove book plunges into its classification system with all the necessary disclaimers in place. It substantially expands upon the Gargano system above, primarily by adding an age dimension as well as separating molasses/evaporated cane rums from fresh cane rums, e.g. Agricole-style. The categories are best summarized like this:
- Pot Still (Unaged, Lightly Aged, Aged, Long Aged)
- Blended (Lightly Aged, Aged, Long Aged)
- Column Still (Lightly Aged, Aged, Long Aged)
- Black (Pot Still, Blended, Blended Overproof)
- Cane (Coffey Still Aged, Pot stilled Unaged, Pot Still Aged)
- Cane AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole (Blanc, Vieux, Long Aged)
- Pot Still Cachaça (Unaged, Aged)
Expanding the major and minor categories, there are Pot Still Unaged, Pot Still Lightly Aged, Pot Still Long Aged categories, and so forth. A few of the categories are important enough that the book assigns them numbers, which I’ll come back to shortly. As you’d hope, the book gives examples in each of the categories, with an emphasis on rums available in the U.S. As an example, here’s the list of rums in the Blended Lightly Aged category:
- Appleton Estate Signature Blend (Jamaica)
- Banks 5 Island and 7 Island (region blend)
- Cartavio Selecto 5 (Peru)
- Chairman’s Reserve Silver (St. Lucia)
- Cockspur Fine (Barbados)
- Denizen (regional blend)
- Diplomatico Anejo and Blanco (Venezuela)
- El Dorado 3 year (Guyana)
- Mount Gay Eclipse (Barbados)
- Plantation 3 Star (regional blend)
- Real McCoy 3 year (Barbados)
- Santa Teresa Claro (Venezuela)
For you high rollers out there, here’s the Pot Still Long Aged category:
- Appleton Estate 50 year (~ $4,500)
- Diplomatico Ambassador and Single Vintage (~ $250, ~ $100)
- The Black Tot (~ $950)
As an aspiring rum wonk reading through Jeff Berry’s book back in 2007, I was starved for a classification system like this. For a person just getting into rum, it can be overwhelming trying to learn which brands are from which countries, how a “Jamaican rum” tastes different from a “Virgin Island” rum, and so forth. With a few nits here and there, the rums listed in each of the book’s categories seem entirely defensible on a factual basis. If you must know, my main concern is the Pot Still Aged category, which consists primarily of independent bottlers:
- Berry Bros. & Rudd
- Duncan Taylor
These are all outstanding brands, and I have many expressions from each in my collection, but if you look through their releases you’ll find plenty of examples of column stilled rums. Including those is a difficult proposition for sure. It’s entirely natural to want to list these excellent bottlers, but short of classifying each of their ever-growing list of expressions, they don’t fit cleanly into any one of the book’s categories. Luckily, these bottlings are often clearly labeled with the production method including a still type, allowing the informed consumer to determine what category it fits in.
A major topic of debate in the rum world today is the adding of sugar or other sweeteners to rum, and the book addresses this topic head on. I’m not here to say that sugar is good or bad, but almost everyone can agree that sweetened rums are noticeably different in profile than non-sweetened rums. In listing specific offerings, many of the book’s categories include a mixture of non-sugared and sugared rums. However, the book doesn’t tread into the minefield of providing specific guidance as to which rums may be sweetened; there are other online resources for that.
The key takeaway from all this is that a rum category from the book is not the same thing as flavor profile. This might seem academic, however the book uses the categories (rather than specific rum recommendations) in every recipe. The first recipe I made after receiving the book was the Golden Gun:
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
- 1/2 ounce SC Demerara Syrup
- 1/2 ounce natural apricot liqueur
- 1 ounce blended aged rum
- 1 ounce lightly aged rum
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Looking though the category list, I chose Cockspur Old Gold and Cockspur VSOR (12 year) for my rums, and the results were outstanding. (Really, try this one out!) However, per the book’s categorization, I could have used Dos Maderas 5+5 in place of the Cockspur VSOR. If you’ve tried both rums, you know they’re completely different in flavor: The VSOR is a dry, Bajan-style rum, while the Dos Maderas 5+5 is a super-sweet, sherry bomb of a rum. I enjoy both of them for different reasons, but the choice of one versus another absolutely impacts the resulting flavor profile of the drink. Likewise, a recipe calling for a Column Still Aged rum could turn out very different when using El Dorado Single Barrel ICBU (a dry, funky Guyanese rum) as opposed to Zacapa 23, a sweet, glycerol-laden rum from Guatemala.
It’s an entirely fair criticism of cocktail recipes in general that specifying an exact spirit–say… Plantation Five Year–seeds trepidation in the mind of the reader who may not have that exact product or doesn’t yet have the extensive, hard-won knowledge to know a good substitute. In choosing to use rum categories rather than specific rums or styles (e.g., “Jamaican”), the Smuggler’s Cove book becomes more accessible to the newcomer or a cocktail enthusiast without the space or funds to build up an extensive rum collection. (Yet. We know how these things go, don’t we?)
On the flip side, readers with extensive knowledge and rum collections are used to recipes calling for a Demerara overproof or a Jamaican or a light Virgin Island rum, and knowing exactly what to reach for in their collection. When confronted with something like “column still aged” in a recipe, I mentally blank out – I’ve got dozens to choose from. And certain rums like Lemon Hart 151 are iconic. Even if I only had Hamilton Guyana 151, it’s easier to think “Lemon Hart 151” rather than “Black Blended Overproof.”
There’s absolutely something to be said for experimenting with different rums within the same recipe. That’s one way to learn about different styles of rum–and what works and what doesn’t. Plus, people’s palates are different – an ultra-funky, high hogo Jamaican might enrapture one person (say, me) while turning off another (say, Mrs. Wonk). That said, there are some recipes where a very specific type of rum is called for; the book addresses this by stating the rum category but also including a note in parenthesis afterward. For instance, the Kingston Palaka recipe states:
1 1/2 ounce blended aged rum (Jamaica)
It would be beneficial if this additional nudge (in parenthesis) was used more widely throughout the recipes.
(Update: Be sure to check out Martin’s comment on this post, which has great additional insight into the above.)
The book’s advice for beginners is to put numbered labels on the neck of their rum bottles indicating what category they’re in for quick visual reference. The numbers here refer to the categories that the book uses frequently enough to warrant a number. My own two cents: Photocopy the pages with the rum categories and keep them tucked into the book to avoid flipping back and forth between a recipe page and the suggested rum list.
One of my personal highlights from the book is the methodical breakdown of Tiki ingredients into three distinct palettes corresponding to Donn Beach, Trader Vic, and the Golden Era (1950s and 1960s). Each palette has these subsections:
- Tropical fruits and juices
- Spirits and liqueurs
- Spice and bitters
The first palette naturally starts with Donn Beach, covering the birth of Tiki in the immediate post-Prohibition era. Under sours, you’ll find lime, grapefruit and orange juices. In the tropical fruits section are pineapple and passionfruit. If you limited yourself to the ingredients from the first palette, you could probably approximate a Donn Beach recipe from the early days of Tiki. Noticeably absent from this palette are lemon and orgeat, staples of many later recipes.
The second palette (“Vic’s Additions”) builds on the first, adding things that Trader Vic brought to the table in the 1940s, including the aforementioned lemon juice and orgeat, as well as banana, tequila, gin, Pisco, and vermouth. The final palette (“Golden Era”) further adds to the Tiki lexicon, introducing ingredients such as guava, mango, coconut cream, triple sec, Cognac, and cream. This deep dive strikes a Wonk chord because it’s an even more in-depth categorization of Tiki ingredients than I did in my post: Minimalist Tiki: What You Truly Need to Make the Classics at Home.
The only topic I wish the book covered in more detail is the extensive, world famous rum collection at Smuggler’s Cove, which currently numbers around 1,200 distinct bottles. How did Martin acquire them? How are they categorized and cared for? What goes into deciding what to add to the collection? What sort of crazy insurance policy is in place?
Martin and Rebecca have done an absolute bang-up job with this book. It’s thoroughly readable and provides a gentle introduction for the newcomer enthusiast while still dropping plenty of tidbits to keep the hardcore rum and Tiki zanies happy. None of the drink or ingredient recipes use anything too esoteric, and the instructions are clearly written. The photography throughout is gorgeous. Even if you’ve read all of Jeff Berry’s books multiple times, don’t pass up Smuggler’s Cove, with its distinctly different style and spin. It’s essential reading for anybody who can’t fathom life without a bottle of orgeat close at hand.