Sammy Hagar’s life is a classic tale of the baby boomer generation American Dream. Raised in rural Fontana, Calif., Hagar describes his childhood upbringing as “bone poor.” His father was a rough and tumble professional boxer-turned-steelworker, and his mother was a nurturing caretaker who fought to keep her children clothed and fed. From unglamorous and often difficult roots grew an iconic figure, who today is categorized as one of the preeminent rock stars of the last 40 years.
From his notable beginning in 1973, Hagar got his first taste of success with the band Montrose. That was enough to launch Sammy on to his first decade as a successful solo artist, and he never looked back. Between 1976 and 1985, Hagar released a total of eight solo albums between stints with Capitol Records and Geffen Records. Four of those albums went on to achieve the Platinum Record designation, totaling at least 1 million sales each. During that time, Hagar collaborated with the likes of Neil Schon—the founder of the hugely successful band Journey, and Michael Shrieve—the genius drummer from Santana, among others. He also headlined arenas across the country performing popular songs like “I Can’t Drive 55.” With a prosperous music career in his own right, it was in 1985 that Hagar was launched into another stratosphere when he became the lead vocalist for the band Van Halen.
Van Halen is one of the biggest rock bands of all time. With Sammy Hagar at the front, the group released four consecutive multi-platinum records that all reached #1 on the Billboard Charts. Although Van Halen already experienced massive success prior to Hagar, the band had not previously released a #1 charting album. Not to mention the numerous top 10 singles, and countless sold out arenas across the world, where tens of thousands of screaming fans religiously appeared night after night.
Despite this larger than life success, Sammy Hagar was controversially fired from Van Halen in 1996 due to artistic, personal, and professional differences with the Van Halen brothers, and new management. It was at this same time that Hagar was in the process of branding a new tequila company by the name of Cabo Wabo, to go along with his exciting restaurant called the Cabo Wabo Cantina. After departing from Van Halen, rather than Hagar’s career being over, it was the beginning of yet a new era of success for the boisterous star.
Cabo Wabo Tequila is an ambitious small business story that starts with Hagar’s love of tequila. Having spent time with small town farmers in Jalisco, Mexico, Hagar perfected his own method for producing consistently high-quality 100% agave tequila, before the practice was widely known in the United States. Initially, the tequila would serve as the house tequila for Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, brought in by way of multi-gallon jugs. These small farmers would follow Hagar’s direction for picking only the ripest and juiciest agaves and cooking them to perfection, then hand fill jugs with the end product and send it to the Cantina to be stored in barrels. Eventually, Cabo Wabo Tequila caught fire and required its own packaging and bottles. And so from the small farms of Mexico, and the creative ambition of Hagar, came a huge multi-million dollar brand. Of course, Hagar still with music in his blood, formed an anthology party band called The Wabos, performing at the Cantina for his loyal fans.
The man affectionately known as the “Red Rocker,” has essentially conquered the world in his 64 years, and is still driving hard and fast for the next big thing. An early influence on Hagar, Rod Stewart, describes it best in the song “Forever Young.” The man that grew up at the bottom, has an endless passion for staying at the top. Having sold no less than an estimated 30 million albums in his music career, between his solo and band recordings, the poor boy from rural Fontana is today a legend in American Rock music. And unbelievably, his greatest financial success has come from the creation of Cabo Wabo Tequila and Cantina, although passion rather than money has always been Sammy’s driving force. Not letting up, Hagar has added to his long and extraordinary resume, hitting #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for his 2011 tell-all autobiography, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock.
I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Hagar for close to an hour, discussing in detail his experience with Cabo Wabo Tequila and Cantina, his amazing car and wine collections, some of his experiences with Van Halen, and also his new endeavors. He touches on his new band, Chickenfoot, which is a collaboration between Hagar, guitar great Joe Satriani, former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Finally, the Red Rocker discusses his airport restaurant Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill, and the associated new rum he’s launching in January 2012, and how the new brand supports his charity for poor and terminally ill children.
Cigar & Spirits: Let’s start with Cabo Wabo Tequila. Born from the Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas Mexico, what was your original inspiration for branching out to your own tequila brand?
Sammy Hagar: Well I actually built the Cabo Wabo Cantina to be a tequila bar originally. The first time I went to Cabo was when I bought a condo down there, which was over 30 years ago now. My business partner said “hey let’s go to this tequila bar,” which I thought was a great idea. It was the first time I tasted tequila that good and it made an impression on me. At that time, the tequila available in the U.S. wasn’t great quality-the high end stuff hadn’t yet been discovered in the U.S. I became a huge tequila fan, so I started Cabo Wabo Cantina. I decided I’m going to build a place where I’m going to have all these great tequilas from Jalisco, Mexico in my bar and blow all my friends’ minds. All the musicians I knew would drink tequila on special occasions back then, doing shots here and there, but didn’t really know about the good stuff yet. So I had this fun idea where I would tell them “taste this,” and I would blow their minds with these handcrafted 100% agave tequilas that were aged for two years. Back then it was so hit or miss, because no one aged the tequilas for a specific time, some people would age the añejo for 1.2 years, some for 2 years, they would just take it out when they had a buyer. So it was fun to blow people’s minds. I would sit there with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead and say “here try this,” and he would say “wow!” So I got my idea to come out with my own tequila.
Cigar & Spirits: This was in 1996, around the time that you left Van Halen, correct?
Sammy Hagar: Well trying to start Cabo Wabo wasn’t easy while being in Van Halen. The band didn’t like it because they had put some money into it originally and it wasn’t making money at that time. It was dying and they certainly weren’t going to invest another $50,000 for me to go down and bottle it and create my own brand. I kind of moved around it until toward the end, when I basically saw that the band wasn’t getting along anymore and I’m thinking this is about over, and I’m going to do the tequila myself. So I bought the rest of the band out of their ownership and took it over myself, including all the debt. From there I started my own tequila company. It was strictly because of the love of tequila. At the time when I started Cabo Wabo Tequila, tequila really hadn’t come to the U.S. yet, I was right there at the front of it and that’s one of the reasons I think I was successful.
I was right behind Patrons the whole time, and I was in the US before Don Julio was. I really feel that was a big part of it, in addition to having an awesome product. On top of that, my existing fan base went out and immediately starting buying the product, which really helped it take off.
Cigar & Spirits: After you decided to start the tequila, what was the process that you went through to decide on the specific ingredients and flavors to make your final product?
Sammy Hagar: When you don’t really know a lot about tequila and you’re first getting to know them well, the añejo is very appealing because it’s smooth and it tastes like whiskey or scotch and they have all these really cool flavors. I was really in love with the añejo, so I wasn’t really paying much attention to the blanco which is the key to a good añejo, which I didn’t know at the time. It was a learning process for me. I found out that I really enjoyed the tequila that was aged 18 months. To me, this is when the tequila really hits and tastes its best.
Back in those days I would just shoot the blanco or the reposado with lime and salt, and you can still do that, it’s still an interesting way to drink it. I would sip the añejo, and sometimes add orange slices with cinnamon on them and it was incredible, I was really having a lot of fun with it. Then I went back to the blanco because you taste the true flavor of the tequila. I started getting really into the blanco and using the biggest really good ripe agaves I could find. Before that, the farmers would use some ripe agave, some not as ripe, some big, some small, but I wanted only the biggest, ripest, freshest agaves. When we started doing that, we started making really great tequila. Then from there we would age it and everything just got better. We realized we had something great enough to start putting into Cabo Wabo bottles. That’s how I did it, I did it with my own palate and I learned as I went. We were using this small little distillery that would do whatever we wanted, and I pretty much created this new style. The añejo was a little more aged at 18 months, the reposado was aged six to eight months, and the blanco was made with the best agaves that were cooked to perfection. How much better can it get? I was very hands on and involved in the entire process. I would go down to Mexico two or three times a year to make sure it was perfect.
Cigar & Spirits: So did you actually own the agave fields when you first started, or did you have someone do all the farming for you?
Sammy Hagar: No I didn’t own the fields, but I was very lucky because I didn’t know what I was doing at the time and I got involved with farmers, rather than a distillery. My business partner took me around and we went to all of these little agave farms and tasted their home recipes. At the time we really only needed about 100 cases a year of Cabo Wabo, so we were just looking for someone small to produce the agave. When we went to the big distilleries they would tell us we could have a tour, but they weren’t going to make anything for us—they’d say get out of here! I wanted to put my name on something and no one would give me the time of day, but these small time farmers would make me whatever I wanted. I got involved with farmers that had their own private batch, but it was made inconsistently. So I put in a process to make the tequila taste the same, and had them send it to me in jugs to put in barrels in my restaurant.
Then the brand started growing and getting big, and we decided to get our own bottles. We had the bottles made and the farmers would fill them up by hand. Then we just grew and grew and grew. We started ordering hundreds and hundreds of cases from the farmers, so they got rid of their donkeys and started buying trucks and really thought it was awesome. It’s really a romantic story. They bought trucks, then the next thing you know we’re ordering 6,000 cases and they freaked out, they loved me! They would do whatever I wanted, I would go down there and they’d have rodeos and big fiestas for me, I’d have mariachi bands meeting me at the airport! These small farmers were now buying homes and putting a roof over their little distillery. Then the next thing you know we grew and grew and grew, and were doing 167,000 cases a year. Now these guys that started out as little farmers are living in big houses and driving nice cars. It was really amazing how it happened, it made a lot of people happy.
Cigar & Spirits: It sounds like you really did a lot to help the local economy around Jalisco, Mexico, where the agave farms were located.
Sammy Hagar: That’s true, and because of what I did the people were really grateful, and I never had to buy a bunch of land to start my own agave farm or build a distillery. I was really lucky, because nowadays I don’t think you can really do it that way, it would be extremely difficult. I mean it really started as a small, basically primitive operation, and grew into something huge—it was great.
Cigar & Spirits: Getting more in depth with the tequila, how long does the Cabo Wabo process typically take from the agave fields, to distillation, to the oak barrels, to the bottle and are you still involved in the process?
Sammy Hagar: I’m not at all involved in the tequila making process anymore. I sold my last 20% of Cabo Wabo Tequila back to Gruppo Campari this year. I had already sold them 80% [for $80 million], so I sold the last 20%. Not because I was disappointed or anything, I just wanted to be free to do other things, and still owning the brand I couldn’t make the rum which I’m making now. I really want to do the same thing I did with tequila with rum, and I have a great idea and a great product that I’ve already made. I had to sell the last 20% of the tequila to do the rum, and that’s what Campari wanted anyways. I wrestled with Gruppo Campari to keep 20% initially, they really wanted the whole thing and what I really wanted was to be 50-50 with them, but they said no way. I wanted worldwide distribution and I wanted their distribution muscle in America because we got to a certain point where we started to struggle, we couldn’t grow as fast as I wanted, so that was my reasoning in getting involved with Campari initially.
Cigar & Spirits: So you’re no longer an official owner of Cabo Wabo tequila, but you clearly still play a large role in representing the brand as the original founder.
Sammy Hagar: Absolutely, for the rest of my life I’ll be involved. I don’t have to, but I insist. For example, I just tasted a new product that they want to do that I won’t get into too much detail about, but we’re going to re-issue a blue bottle signature series sometime next year. I tasted the product to make sure that I believe in it, so they still consult me on stuff like that. They really want to keep the heart and soul of the product and the person that made it still a part of it. They’re smart to do that, they’re good people and they know what they’re doing. So I’m completely happy with everything, I just want to have freedom to have more creativity.
Cigar & Spirits: Tell us a little bit about the Cabo Wabo Cantina. Which cantina can you be seen in the most often?
Sammy Hagar: Well it’s hard to say which one I’m in the most often because it’s so spontaneous. There are some events that are etched in stone. One of them is my October 13th birthday bash. I go down to Cabo San Lucas during the month of October and play shows at the Cantina for about two weeks. I also head to Cabo the day after Christmas, until a couple of days after the New Year. I pretty much head down there anytime my kids are out of school also. I do about 30 free shows per year down in Cabo, because the Cantina there is the mother ship and I love it down there. The next event that’s etched in stone every year is the anniversary in Lake Tahoe, Calif. which falls right in the same week as Cinco de Mayo. I do at least two shows there for about 1,300 people each night, which is small, compared to what I usually play. We also do an annual Labor Day show in September at the Lake Tahoe Cantina for about 8,000 people. As for the Las Vegas location, it’s not really as big of a show venue as compared to the others. It’s more of a bar and restaurant where you just hang out, drink margaritas and eat tacos. They occasionally have a band pay there on the weekends, but it’s not a consistent stage where people can jump up and play, so I go there for other reasons.
Cigar & Spirits: Tell me a story from the last time you visited the Cantina.
Sammy Hagar: I was just in Vegas for a couple days so I stopped by the Cantina. I just go there to eat and drink and relax, there’s a balcony there that directly overlooks the Strip right across the street from the new City Center, the people watching from there is just unbelievable. I like not telling anyone I’m coming, show up there with a hat and some shades, sneak up there and get a table on the balcony with some friends or my family and just people watch. Then I walk around to the tables to make sure everyone is having a good time, shake hands, and sign some autographs. There’s always a boat load of fans. I was so shocked the last time I was there, this girl was sitting there with one of my custom guitars, a Cabo Wabo shirt on, a Sammy Hagar tattoo on one side and a Cabo Wabo tattoo on the other side! She had been sitting there every day for five days because she just came to town and thought, well maybe I’ll see Sammy. I just went up to her and said “wow, pull that guitar out so I can sign it for you.” It was a really great thing to be able to do that. I love sneaking up on people like that because it really makes their day. It’s my favorite way to walk into a Cabo Wabo Cantina. My fans have supported me for so long, and if I can do something for them it’s great!
Cigar & Spirits: Lets switch over to learning more about you personally. I understand that you’re a vintage car collector. What are some of the most interesting cars that you have?
Sammy Hagar: I’ve got 17 cars, seven of which are special Ferraris. I guess my favorite little car would have to be the 1965, 275 GTS that I’ve been driving around the last couple days. It’s a small little 12 cylinger convertible, it probably has 220 horsepower but it’s small. It’s not the fastest Ferrari, but it’s really special and it just looks fantastic and it sounds fantastic, it belongs in an Italian movie. The newest car I own is the new 599 Fiorano, which I’ve had for a few years now. That is the fastest car ever made as far as I’m concerned. I have to recalculate the way I think and the way my brain and everything works before I get into that car. I have to build up to it. If I get in that thing cold, like after driving an SUV, it scares me to freakin death—I mean you’ll have a heart attack if you’re not prepared. It is just so fast and so powerful. If you’re going 40 miles per hour, you could probably kick it up to 140 miles per hour in 3 seconds, I mean I’m not exaggerating here, it’s really that fast. And if you get to 140, next thing you know you’ll be at 150, 160, 180, 200, I mean it just doesn’t stop accelerating! Anyways, I have an ’83 Ferrari BB 512; I have a ’72 Daytona; I have a Roush Mustang; a ’67 GT 500 Mustang; I have a big ‘ole 454 El Camino 1970; an Aston Martin Vanquish S; an old E-Jag 12 Cylinder black on black 4 speed. I mean, I’m a collector so I have a lot of nice cars. They’re beautiful, and I drive them too, I rotate through them. I get into a car and drive it for a couple days, I go back to my warehouse swap it for another one, drive it for a few days. Some are better for bad weather than other so I park some for the winter, so I just rotate through them.
Cigar & Spirits: I also understand that you’re a wine collector. Tell me about your collection—what’s your favorite wine?
Sammy Hagar: I have over 10,000 bottles of wine that I’ve been collecting since the early 1970s. I have beautiful cellars in a couple of different places. I have a warehouse with a lot of stuff that hasn’t been touched yet. I usually keep 10 year old Cabs in my personal cellar, so everything in my house is drinkable. Whenever the wines come of age, I move them into my personal cellar. I really have everything you can imagine, every kind of wine that’s been made that’s good wine, going back to the early 1900s. My favorite wines are the big Vega-Sicilia Unicos, which aren’t made all the time. They don’t make them for five years at a time. If I remember right the 1975 vintage wasn’t released until like 1990, they just held it because they didn’t want to sell it or have anyone drink it until it was ready. Then once they’re ready to drink, I mean I’ll open up a bottle from 1964, and it looks like a brand new Cabernet from California! They just age so well, it’s amazing. I just love the Spanish wines and the Italian wines because they’re such great food wines. I like the Italian Barolos. Really, all the Italian wines are so great with food and that’s what I’m into. Some of the French wines are so delicate, some of your older Bordeaux wines, you almost don’t want to eat with them. I’ve got a great French collection though, but I’ve kind of moved passed it at this point. When I’m in the mood for the French wines I love Burgundy or a good Bordeaux.
Cigar & Spirits: So how do you usually go about purchasing your wine?
Sammy Hagar: I’ll tell you a little story. I’ve always bought my wines as pre-arrivals, I’d read up on them to find out a good year like the ‘75s or the ‘78s for French wine. Then the ‘82s came out and everyone was yelling and screaming about how these were the best wines ever, so I bought 2 cases of all the first growths and some second and third growths I drank some of them, and I always try to keep an unopened case back in the cellar for as long as I can to see how it develops. I put this case of the ’82 in my cellar and didn’t touch it since the day it came out. About a month ago I was reading a popular wine magazine, and they were talking about how the 1982 Lafite Rothschild wines are the highest praised and most sought after wines at wine auctions, and they’re going for as much as $5,000 a bottle! So I’m sitting there reading this, going “wow!” I have brand new cases of these in my cellar, and they’ve never even been opened. I had a brand new case of all the ‘82s. I ended up calling my wine broker who I always buy wine from and told him what I had, and I asked him if he wanted any of it. He said “I’ll be right over,” and he comes over and sees what I have. The first case he looks at, he says “I’ll give you $55,000 for it.” By the time he left he had purchased $88,000 worth of wine from me, which I had paid less than $1,000 for all together! It was incredible, I mean it blew my mind. I had never planned on selling these for such a huge profit, but I was lucky and it worked out. Anyways, Italian and Spanish wines are my everyday drinking wines. And if I did smoke cigars, I wouldn’t mind having one of those old 1945 Rothschild Moutons, they smell and taste like a cigar. The old Bordeaux wines really have a cigar thing going on.
Cigar & Spirits: You’re widely known as a rock ‘n roll legend, especially for your days as the Van Halen front man. You were actually inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame for Van Halen. Tell us about some of your most memorable experiences with Van Halen and what happened when you left the band?
Sammy Hagar: Well to make a long story short (you can get the full story in my book that I really poured my heart into Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock), one of my most memorable experiences was the first year in the band. It was the first “5150 Tour,” and no one really knew what they were going to see, but we sold out every arena in the world. We went out and played the first Van Halen album and a couple of my songs, and a couple of the old songs, and people accepted it. It went straight to #1 on the Billboard charts. That was such a huge success for me, I mean I already had success when I was performing solo—I had done multiple arenas, I had four platinum albums (each met a threshold of 1 million sold) in a row. But the band together just accelerated everything, I mean selling seven million albums, selling out four nights instead of two nights in arenas. The album goes to #1 instead of top 10 or top 20. We all just exploded and that was a great, great thing. We rode that wave for nine years, being on top with every album #1, every gig sold out, year after year after year. We loved each other during that time, but eventually it just went bad—like marriage or anything else.
Cigar & Spirits: So what do you primarily attribute to the downfall of your era in Van Halen?
Sammy Hagar: The ninth year in, our manager Ed Leffler died, and he was my long time personal manager that I brought into Van Halen to manage the band. Everyone loved him and it was hard for us when he was gone. At that point Eddie Van Halen brought his brother-in-law on to manage the band, and I agreed because before that I brought in my manager, now they should be able to bring in theirs. At that point I already knew it was wrong, we were already fighting over what we were going to do and who should manage the band. We all had different ideas, and it just went bad. This new manager came in and he divided and conquered. The Van Halen brothers brought him in, and he sided with the brothers on everything. If I said black, they’d say white. Then if I said OK white, they would say oh no-no we want black. At that point it was just over, eventually I didn’t even want to be around them and I didn’t want to do anything that they wanted to do. They wanted to make a greatest hits package which I just couldn’t do. They wanted to do a song for the Twister movie and I was against that, because why make one song for an album that will have all these other people on it, when Van Halen was so special? I mean everything we had done had been #1, and I didn’t want to do anything to harm that. So at that point they pretty much threw me out of the band and tried to get the old singer back, which didn’t work, so they ended up getting a completely different guy by the name of Gary Cherone. They did one album and one tour in 18 years, and that was the end of Van Halen. Then I came back in 2004 to do a reunion, and I was thinking come on now it’s been 10 years since I’ve been out of the band and you guys have done one album and one tour and they both bombed. So I said I’m willing to come back and try to do an album, but we couldn’t do it. Eddie was in bad, bad shape at the time, so we could only make three songs. The reunion tour was a mess, we fought, and Eddie was just not the same. That was the end. It’s unfortunate because it was one of the greatest bands in the world, and I miss that.
Cigar & Spirits: So what are you doing now musically?
Sammy Hagar: I started a band called Chickenfoot, with Joe Satriani who is one of the greatest guitar players in the world, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers who is an amazing drummer, and Michael Anthony my dear friend from Van Halen on bass and backing vocals. We just finished a new album that will be out by September of this year, and we have a new single out called Big Foot, and it went #1 the first week on the rock charts. It’s great because it fills the Van Halen void for me because I’m palying with these stellar superstars who are amazing musicians. And I also have my band called The Wabos which is a party band that is my anthology band, whereas Chickenfoot is my cutting edge band. I love having two bands like that which I could have never done with Van Halen. I’m the happiest guy in the world, and I’m in love with the new band.
Cigar & Spirits: I understand that you have a newer restaurant chain, and you also mentioned the new rum brand that you’re launching. Can you give us the details?
Sammy Hagar: My new project is this restaurant that I started called Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill with HMSHost in airports. The idea with this was not to see if I could make another gazillion dollars, but to actually give back and help kids. What I’ve been doing over the last few years through the Hagar Family Foundation is help kids. I help families with terminally ill children, and I help families that are very poor to make sure that their children can have food to eat. I have Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grills in Maui, St. Louis, Las Vegas, New York, and one in Atlantic City. Every penny from these restaurants goes to helping feed children and families with terminally ill children. It’s not something to brag about, and it’s hard, but I love doing it. I have a guy that goes out and finds legitimate cases, and rather than trying to give everyone a single dollar, I help out 1 or 2 families at a time so I can really make a big impact on them.
Cigar & Spirits: So are you connecting Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill to the new rum, similar to how the Cabo Wabo Cantina and tequila are connected?
Sammy Hagar: Yes, so with the Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill—which I’m also launching in San Diego and Rooseville, Calif. soon—I started the new Beach Bar Rum. The theme behind this is an “upscale island classy rum.” I’m making this out of pure cane sugar, just like when I went down to Jalisco when I found these big fresh agaves to make tequila, I’m doing the same thing with the sugar canes from Hawaii. We have an unbelievable method, which I’m working on with a guy named Mark Nigbur, where we’re using the juiciest and nicest sugar canes. Mark started Pau Vodka which is an ultra-premium vodka made from pineapples, and it’s the smoothest stuff you’ve ever had. He’s making my rum, and we’re just starting to age some of it now. This is really the only white rum that you can drink straight; my slogan is “Rum Rocks.” You put this over rocks with a squeeze of lime, and it will change your life and your opinion about rum. I think this is the only white rum that’s ever been palatable without mixing. We’re releasing the rum now starting in Hawaii and making sure we have all kinks out of the packaging, making sure we can keep up with production, and then we’re bringing it to the states starting in January 2012. It’s a premium rum, but it’s not out of reach. It’s a little more expensive than the average rum, but it’s a lot better. We’re going to feature it like crazy in all the Cabo Wabo Cantinas and also in the Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill. The idea behind this is all about my fans, I’m bringing them something new and great, and the dollars they spend at Sammy’s Beach Bar and Grill, and on the new rum, goes straight to helping children in need. It’s a win-win situation!
Cigar & Spirits: Sammy, I really appreciate your time and sharing your stories with us.
Sammy Hagar: It’s really no problem at all. We need magazines like yours to help promote these products, so thank you.