Best known as the proprietor of San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cate has built his reputation as a rum and tropical drinks expert. Regardless, come late June, he’ll open a steampunk-styled gin palace called Whitechapel in San Francisco that he plans to debut with a staggering 400 bottles of gin, including a bespoke Whitechapel Gin made by San Francisco producer No. 209. But, why would one of the world’s foremost rum mavens open a gin bar? We asked him.
Everyone knows you for rum. Why take on gin?
The inspiration came from one of my partners, Alex Smith. He approached me with a couple of concepts. The one that really captured my imagination was the idea to do a gin bar. I said, we have to Smuggler-ize it—meaning we have to take it to the extreme levels of Smuggler’s Cove, but applied to gin.
Since the cocktail renaissance, there’s more opportunity for people to produce great drinks at home ... I believe we have to create a space, venue and concept that inspires you to leave the house.
What will that mean?
That means diversity, a huge menu that shows the evolution of gin and gin cocktails, and a list of contemporary gin drinks to show how useful and contemporary it is today. Add to that a fun and engaging gin education program and gin club, as we do for Smuggler’s Cove. There’s a "we’re not drinking, we’re learning" component. On top of all that, it has to have a highly impressive, over-the-top interior.
What else can you say about the aesthetic?
Every space I do has an imaginary backstory. In this case, it’s inspired by the true fact that there are dozens of abandoned, cutoff or bypassed London underground stations to this day that are disused, bypassed or rendered obsolete. That always fueled my imagination about these tube stations underneath London. What if one was abandoned in the late 1800s and uncovered by some people who said, "This is a lovely place to build our clubhouse and our little gin distillery"?
Wait, you’re going to make gin?
No, the "distillery" is completely faux. It’s an imaginary distillery.
That’s disappointing. Go on.
It brings a lot of elements of Victorian industrial design-meets-a member’s club plush aesthetic. What if you were to build a private club in a very industrial space rather than a wooden-walled clubby space? The shorthand would be steampunk, but I don’t profess to be a steampunk expert. It’s going to have this plush, clubby feel meets a wonderfully sort of—decrepit is a strong word—weathered and worn industrial aesthetic. You’ll see the carved wood back bars and the crazy Victorian industrial pipework and things like that. You’re not going to feel like it’s your living room, I can tell you that. We’ll have custom wallpaper in the bathrooms—we’re doing as many custom finished textures, fabrics, patterns as we can. Gin botanicals and patterns and things. We’re trying to have a very unified design aesthetic. I take a lot of pride in having a very clear vision from the menu covers to the uniforms. Everything helps tie the vision together. It has been something of a monumental undertaking. It’s a big project in a big space and needs a lot of fun décor to do it. Like Smuggler’s Cove, it will feel like an escape from the outside, like you stepped outside of San Francisco into someplace else that’s imaginary.
Why go to such extremes?
Since the cocktail renaissance, there’s more opportunity for people to produce great drinks at home. For those of us in the hospitality business, it’s our mission to say, please come out! I believe we have to create a space, venue and concept that inspires you to leave the house.
What are you excited about now in the gin world?
I’m excited about the diversity in the gin world right now. Since the start of this conversation, two new gins have been invented. People are gravitating back to gin as something to have fun with. There are so many explorations and applications: traditional London Drys, Western gins, aged gins, old styles like Old Tom, Chief Gowanus out of NY Distilling. There’s a combination of people recreating historic styles and other people pushing spirits forward into the future with new ideas. Gin never feels like a spirit stuck in the past.
Some of the old-line brands like Tanqueray or Beefeater often get maligned or dismissed. People say there’s so much of it, it can’t be well-made. Of course that’s not true. Do you have favorite gin bottlings?
It’s tough because we’re working with so many right now. We’re really excited about a combination of things. I love working with the classics, the older brands, they’re standard bearers. Some of the old-line brands like Tanqueray or Beefeater often get maligned or dismissed. People say there’s so much of it, it can’t be well-made. Of course that’s not true. At the same time, there are a lot of exciting new brands out of the UK—Sipsmith, and Sacred. In America there’s now 14 gins just in the San Francisco/Bay Area, which is wild, and there are so many good ones. We enjoy 209 quite a bit— No. 209 is producing a private label house gin for us. Speaking locally, we love what people are doing at St. George Spirits, Spirit Works Distillery, Anchor Distilling Company, and lots more, who will all give me a hard time for not mentioning them.
Tell us more about that house bottling.
No. 209 is not a traditional London Dry. We wanted to work with them to create a more traditional London Dry that would have more versatility. It’s composed primarily of traditional gin botanicals, with a few fun and not inappropriate twists. There will be some Victorian era-appropriate botanicals in there as well, additions from an English garden, but grown and produced in the U.S. The house martini will be made with Whitechapel Gin.
What about the cocktails?
The drink menu is over 70 drinks long. Every gin is thoughtfully applied to the cocktail. Just like at Smuggler’s Cove, there’s no well rum. "Well" is a bad word. There’s no well gin. Every gin is chosen for specific reasons. It’s about making really thoughtful decisions about everything. The botanicals, base spirit and alcohol level in the gin can make a difference.
What else should people know about Whitechapel?
I should mention we’re excited about the food program, too. We’re going to have a full kitchen this time. The food program is designed to reflect some of the countries that have helped give us gin: British, Dutch. And just a hint of Bangladeshi. We’re paying homage to the largely Bangladeshi community of the neighborhood of Whitechapel, which we’re named after. We asked chef Caleb Jones, what do people enjoy on their nights out in these countries? The food will be small plates, shareable, indicative of a night out in these countries, but more upscale. Think of it as posh 3 a.m. street food.