To cross the threshold of the nearly unmarked Smuggler's Cove is to leave Hayes Valley and enter a tropical fever dream. And, if it's possible, things are stranger than usual at Smuggler's Cove tonight. Is that a shriner's meeting at the bar?
No, it's an induction ceremony into the Cove's exclusive Rumbustion Society.
Mysteriously sporting his own red fez, owner Martin Cate begins to explain: "A tiki place should have a great sense of escapism. Throw your phone in that waterfall over there, that’s what it"s all about." But in a Hawaiian shirt surrounded by the vintage tiki décor he's collected for 15 years, Cate looks right at home.
The exotic backdrop of Smuggler's Cove (650 Gough) is fitting, considering that rum — the bar's liquor of choice — is a spirit you could practically sail away on. Made in 200 countries on 6 continents, “every rum tells a story,” says Cate, whether that’s the story of an island’s tradition or a region’s colonization. “It’s got adventure, it’s got romance, it’s got tragedy, it’s got everything.”
It was in recreating exotic cocktails from the 40’s and 50’s that called for blends of many rums that Cate learned the spirit’s nuances. “No Manhattan’s ever asked for 3 kinds of rye, so you taste all these rums neat and you see they’re really different. Then you ask why.” That question led Cate to form the Rumbustion Society, an education and appreciation program unique to Smuggler’s Cove.
So that’s what the fez wearers are: rum aficionados who have attained the Rumbustion Society rank of “Guardian of the Cove.” There are more than 30 Guardians according to Cate, who punningly refers to himself in the society’s hierarchy as "Potencate."
The Guardians began as "Disciples of the Cove," trying 20 one-ounce pours of various rum styles with a punch card to keep track of them. After another 80 rums, checked off on a list kept behind the bar, the final rite of passage before guardianship is a hazing ritual and an oath of allegiance.
And that's why the Guardians are gathered here tonight.
"I hereby declare and solemnly swear," begins Cate as two Guardian candidates place their hands on a bottle of some very expensive rum, "that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."
When they say "so help me rum" at the end of the oath, tonight's candidates will receive their fez and a plaque on the wall bearing their name. But the hard part was the hazing. In a ritual customized to each candidate's interests (they fancy themselves mixologists), the two fixed each other unappetizing drinks and raced to finish them for higher plaque order. Both looked pretty seasick.
Should you be foolhardy enough to continue, another 100 rums earn you the title of "Master of the Cove". There are about 15 such Masters, who are invited on a distillery tour with Cate. There are 9 or 10 members of the 300 club, and to Cate's surprise, a handful have passed 400; one is at 425.
Through the Rumbustion Society, Cate learns which rums and regions Guardians prefer, which shapes his purchasing decisions. “It’s almost like a giant focus group,” he says.
The oath complete, everyone raises a glass. "So help me rum!" chant the newly-minted Guardians, and they're welcomed by cheers into the Society's motley crew.