A very long and extremely entertaining story about how Sammy Hagar got into the tequila business ends rather abruptly.
“I guess the real answer is, fuck, I don’t know,” says the rock legend, laughing.
Hagar, 73, is best known for the decade he spent as frontman for Van Halen, and also as the man behind “I Can’t Drive 55” (I’d also argue for one particular soundtrack song). But outside of his music, the singer has started a number of successful businesses, from the Cabo Wabo cantinas to a rum brand and, most importantly, the first “celebrity” tequila.
When Cabo Wabo was launched in the mid ’90s, it was after Hagar had spent years trying to develop his own tequila for his cantina. Unlike many of his modern-day celebrity agave slingers, he did the homework and spent a lot of time down in Mexico. He finally sold off Cabo over a decade ago, but he recently returned with Santo Spirits, a unique new spin on tequila that he launched with the help of friend and Sammy doppleganger Guy Fieri.
We spent a wildly entertaining 30 minutes on the phone with Hagar in March, asking about his agave past, his new “mezquila” (a tequila-mezcal blend that maybe shouldn’t work but definitely does … kind of like a Hagar-led Van Halen) and how Fieri cheated his way into Sammy’s heart (and business).
InsideHook: Saw you got your second shot recently. Congrats. How was your year?
Sammy Hagar: I feel good, Captain Kirk (laughs). By the way, somebody just sent me a video where they hired [William Shatner] to do a birthday wish. What a kook! I wouldn’t do that for money. I have enough things people come after me for, they can already find something stupid I’ve done.
But yeah, the second shot was tough. I had all the symptoms of the flu, felt lousy for about 30 hours, then I was fine. I’m happy I got it.
On to better things. How did you become friends with Guy Fieri?
The short story is that way back in the 1990s or so, I had a contest for whoever sold the most of my Cabo Wabo tequila. You got a signed guitar and got to come backstage. Guy, and this was before he was a star, told everyone he was gonna win. At the time, Cabo Wabo was a premium brand — it was just a dollar apart from Patron.
Anyway, he put Cabo as the well tequila in his restaurant. A $47 bottle.
So he won, came backstage, and he was really cool. And he looked like me! Shorts, goatee, same shades. He knows how to fucking win someone over. He was exactly like he is now, and we became friends. He cooks for us backstage when we’re in town. And when I sold Cabo Wabo, he told me if I’m ever going to do tequila again, he’s in. So when I started Santo, I gladly took his money.
You got into tequila really early.
I built Cabo Wabo, which was a cantina. It was food, dancing girls, live music and drinks. And I was like, you gotta have tequila. I went to Guadalajara to look at furniture, and the architect there was like, “Let’s go to the town of Tequila.” I went there, started drinking these handmade, 100 percent Blue Weber agave tequilas that weren’t in America yet — this was 1988, remember — and I was like, man, this will blow people’s minds.
But nobody was willing to make us tequila. One family finally said if I brought them handblown bottles, they’d do it. But our company quickly outgrew that. All of the sudden, I was in the tequila business. I guess the real answer, is, fuck, I don’t know!
But everyone said it was the best thing they’d ever had. That got to my head — it’s like telling someone you’re their favorite singer or guitar player. So we went from 5,000 cases to 100,000 cases, and it became a legitimate passion. And we did it without any promotion.
Maybe I should have. Patron started taking over everything, and they became a five billion dollar company. I only sold mine for 100 million!
Why’d you come back to it?
It wasn’t for the money. I love it. It’s the most exciting business. And it’s changed a lot. When I started, it was like the Wild West. Now there’s a million celebrity brands. That’s unfortunately what I am. Well, fortunately, I guess.
For our blanco, we trim the agave, get the bitterness out, just use the hearts of the plant. Everything from how it’s crushed to how it’s cooked — we double cook to get a deeper, sweeter taste. For the reposado, we had to change the barrels we were using, we were tasting the funk. It took a bit to figure out.
You also do something called a mezquila.
I learned so much by doing Cabo Wabo. And I made some mistakes. One thing we did was Cabo Wabo Uno. I wanted to make the best tequila in the world. So I asked our master distiller, I said, if you could make that at any cost, what would you do? And he told me about stripping down the agave, getting rid of the grene stuff — so you’d lose about a third of your product — and leave it in the barrels for 46 months. It was $235 per bottle, but we made less than our $37 bottle.
So it was expensive, but I learned what was really possible. This time out, I didn’t want to compete with my first baby. So I made rum in Hawaii — then moved that to Puerto Rico because it was too expensive.
When I decided to come back, I had to do something different. I went to Oaxaca for three weeks, and I tasted every mezcal. And for me, the more expensive they were, the worse the taste! One of them tasted like fire, another like the house burned down and the people were still in it. So I backed out of making a mezcal.
But if you mix tequila and mezcal? It reminds me of the really old fashioned tequila I had when I first went down to Mexico in the ‘80s. Tiny producers, wood-burning ovens, a steam smell like smoke. I was reaching for that experience again. I asked our distiller Eduardo if he could make it work. He said no! And it turns out a 50-50 tequila/mezcal split was nasty. Like oil and water. But we kept playing with it, redistilling it, trying all these things. And one day he came to me and said, “This is not tequila, this is not mezcal. This is mezquila. And I can’t tell what I did because you wouldn’t understand.”
What’s your favorite way to drink this?
My favorite margaria is the juice of one fresh mexican lime, double that with Contrreau, add a 1/4 teaspoon agave syrup — I like it sweet — and then double that with Santo Blanco. Have a pure sea salt rim on your glass. Shake the drink and serve it straight up in an ice cold glass.
Everybody’s getting into tequila now, including a lot of singers.
They can do what they want! Look, I made more money in tequila than being in the bigget band in the world. And it’s so much fun to walk into a liquor store and see your bottle in a case or walking into a restaurant and seeing your tequila in the back bar; it’s like the first time you hear your song on the radio.
If I see Santo in a bar, I’ll buy everyone a drink. I’m a rock star and an egomaniac, we like flattery! [Chants] Samm-y! Samm-y!
But seriously, I don’t like to see people just throw their name on something. You might as well sell milk. You gotta be excited about what you’re doing. You gotta go out into the agave fields and then eat the food right on the property — it’s like having bread and cheese at a Bordeaux vineyard, it’ll never taste as good anywhere else.
Do you “take your vitamin ‘T’ with salt ‘n lemon slice” as your song goes?
That was a good rhyme. And it’s lee-mon. (Laughs). But with a blanco, I’d only use a bit of salt before my first sip to clear my palate, like a sea or kosher salt. Then maybe a lime rinse on the rim and a thin piece of lime in the glass, don’t squeeze! It’ll bring out the citrus.
With our reposado, I’d just have it with an orange slice. An anejo, maybe a bit of orange zest, but I’m a purist. I remember my first time in Mexico City at a restaurant, they gave all the men in our group a blanco with salt and lime. And they gave all the women an orange slice and cinnamon. I was like, can I get that? (laughs)
What’s your booze rider for a show?
Sammy’s Beach Bar rum, all three of my Santos tequilas, six limes, some kosher sea salt, six oranges or tangerines, a bottle of Triple Sec. That should do it.
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