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‘Try this.’ It’s upstairs in the Smuggler’s Cove. I’ve just finished rambling about rum and only broke into song once. Martin Cate clearly thinks I need a drink. I probably do. The liquid he gives me is funky, oily, weirdly resinous, pungent with the effects of age and dunder. It reeks of a wildness that you know spells danger and drags you ever further down a shady alley of depravity. We’ve all been there. It was bottled by Ellis & Co of London in 1936 and hails from Jamaica.
To explain, Smuggler’s Cove is the greatest rum bar I’ve been to. To enter it is to be absorbed into a darkened, jetsam-festooned cave (with added flotsam for balance). There’s an anchor above your head, a waterfall running down into the basement lagoon and shrines to masters of tiki past. Oh, there’s also close to 600 rums.
As I sit and chat with my new rum buddies, the bar is filling up. It’s 5pm. Clearly they like to start their drinking early in San Francisco. There’s vintage aloha shirts and work clothes. People sipping neat rum, punches and tiki drinks being mixed, a soundtrack of exotica.
Smuggler’s Cove: The bar stocks more than 600 different rums (photo: Kelly Puleio)
My friends are members of the Cove’s Rumbustion Society, all of whom have drunk a minimum of 100 rums (including some of Cate’s ‘Immortal’ bottlings). Some have topped the 400-rum mark. There are some who have gone 200 beyond that. Dedication. But not beyond the call of duty.
‘There’s something wrong with your hands.’ Cate’s back. ‘They seem to be empty. Name your poison.’ I drift across the Caribbean and go for agricole. ‘Vieux, or très vieux?’ I go for the former. No need to be greedy.
He reappears with two glasses. ‘You have two hands.’ If I keep up this pace, I’ll soon have four. One glass is a Dillon from the ’70s, the other a Neisson of similar vintage. If that’s vieux, who knows what très vieux means...?
The Dillon has a cool restraint to it, a tailored gent carrying a sword stick. The Neisson, on the other hand, starts off like a pungent denizen of the opium den he is walking past. It smells of earth and horse sweat, savoury and deep. In time, this flies off, like Sherlock Holmes throwing aside a grimy disguise. Rum does that to you. Below us the tiki drinks are still being rocked out. Someone is ordering his 608th rum.
Would I have got this from a whisky bar, I wonder. I mean, this is… fun. Here – and at all the great rum bars I’ve frequented – a balance has been struck between the geeks who sip on their rums and the outrageous concoctions being mixed. It allows everyone to feel welcome.
Whisky doesn’t do tiki. It would be absurd to reverse-engineer it into that space, but there is a lesson to be learned from places like this. One where passion and fun can combine contentedly. Where people learn as much as they want in a relaxed way.
The folks worshipping at the altar of tiki aren’t considered unsophisticated. They are part of the crew. They are here because they love rum – it’s just tonight that love is manifested in a different way to those who are taking their medicine neat. When was the last time you saw that in a whisky bar?
Whisky is getting better at talking about the primacy of flavour, but what of the fun? Any of us who have bellied up to the bar with a bottle or two know that it can be the spark which can ignite an evening, as well as the sinuous thread that pulls people together. There is fun within the bottle, but the spirit is released only when we forget what we have been told whisky should be. It’s like having a drink with a vicar, then discovering he’s a wizard with a pool cue.
The new whisky bars – think Black Rock or Swift – know the importance of fun as well as flavour, but to many the whisky bar is not a destination for enjoyment. Rather, it is a place for worship: bar as a church, not a club. If I was in a bar drinking a whisky from the ’30s or the ’70s I can pretty much guarantee that my neighbour wouldn’t be sipping on a Bobbie Burns or whisky punch. Y’see?
Rum is learning from whisky – single malt especially – but whisky can also learn from rum, and there’s no more important lesson than this.
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