It takes something special for a bar to stand out in San Francisco. Some spots earn notoriety by offering an eclectic selection of cocktails while others make their names by doing one thing better than anyone else. Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant and Smuggler’s Cove are in a class of their own, with the largest collections of tequila and rum in the city.
Not satisfied to simply advertise themselves as the keepers of world-renowned collections, they both offer courses on the history and qualities of their respective spirits. This is no simple checklist to be knocked out in a summer. They offer detailed curriculums and students get tested and scored before they graduate to the next level. Dedication pays off, though, with rewards unique to each bar.
The Rumbustion Society offers three levels of expertise: Disciples, Guardians, and Masters of The Cove. To bear the title of Master, a total of 200 rums must be sampled over time. That may sound like a lot, but consider the fact that Smuggler's offers over 500 different varieties, including bottles from the vault of rare and vintage rums. One such bottle was distilled on the island of Martinique in 1819 under the auspices of the family of Marie Antoinette (a one ounce sample of which goes for a sobering $595). Only four people in the history of Smuggler’s Cove have sampled the entire Rumbustion list.
Upon graduation, Masters of the Cove are invited to visit a distillery with owner Martin Cate. Which distillery you ask? That's a surprise. Past trips have brought Masters as far as Trinidad and Puerto Rico with no more instruction than when to show up at the airport. More information is available online, but I would strongly recommend visiting Smuggler’s Cove and talking with the bartenders yourself.
Established in 1965, The Bermejo family at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant has amassed the largest collection of 100% agave tequila anywhere outside of Mexico. Their margaritas are things of legend and their collection of individual tequilas numbers well over 400. When you sign up for the Blue Agave Club, expect a full presentation on the history of the spirit. If you intend to see this membership through to the end, you should also expect to build some new friendships with the bar staff. Just sitting down and chatting with co-owner Julio Bermejo one afternoon ended with eight different bottles on the bar and a few friendly samples sent my way.
The club was conceived as a way to promote the culture of 100% agave tequila and to better inform the public on this often misunderstood spirit. Students graduate to the levels of Tequila Master, PhD, Ninja Master, and Demigod. Once you've passed all the tests and have proven your mettle to the lords of tequila, they'll even take you on a trip to Jalisco to see how the stuff is made firsthand.
Regardless of whether you intend to become a tequila expert, you absolutely should stop in and spend some time at the bar. I guarantee you’ll walk away with a higher appreciation of what Tommy's has to offer. Just don’t ask for a shot of Cuervo.