For over four decades, Sammy Hagar has carved out a niche for himself in the perpetually unstable world of rock ‘n’ roll. After first making his name fronting the band Montrose in the mid-1970s, the Red Rocker, so named for frequently sporting his favorite color, launched an increasingly successful solo career in 1976, the first phase of which was capped off with the wildly popular single “I Can’t Drive 55” from the platinum-certified VOA album. After briefly performing with the “supergroup” Hager-Schon-Aaronson-Shrieve (HSAS) around the VOA period, Hagar replaced David Lee Roth in Van Halen, allowing the band to continue their string of multi-platinum releases by suffusing their signature hard rock style with pop sensibilities. After a decade-long tenure with the VH machine, Hagar went solo again in 1996 then joined forces with the Waboritas, toured with Roth in 2002, reunited for a VH tour in 2004 and is now part of supergroup Chickenfoot, a hard rockin’ ensemble featuring former VH bassist Michael Anthony, guitarist Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. They play some concerts next month, release a live DVD in the spring and should start recording a new album next month as well.
Beyond music, Hagar has launched a successful tequila business — he’s still on the board of Cabo Wabo Tequila but sold 80% of it in 2007 for a reported $80 million — and runs two small bar/restaurant ventures, the Cabo Wabo Cantina and Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill, the latter of which donates money to charity. It seems that no matter which way you slice it, Hagar has lead a very satisfying life and has had a rewarding career. He’s like a cat — whenever he falls, he lands on his feet. When he sat down to chat with ADD, he displayed the zeal and passion that keeps him going after all these years. (Read Part Two here.)
So you’re doing well?
I’m doing great, you know. I can’t complain. Life’s been pretty good, and to still be going strong without even trying [makes me] the luckiest guy in the world. With the Chickenfoot thing, we went gold in almost every country. I’m at the stage in my life where people with even big bands — I won’t mention any names — but a lot of big classic rock bands that are still together with the same guys, they make a new record, and it doesn’t sell anything, including me. But I just happened to put together the right group of guys and made the right record, and we’ve had just so much success with that I’m shocked. I’m the happiest guy in the world.
It’s crazy to me that the stuff I grew up on is already called classic rock. Are you amazed after all these years that you can cycle through these resurgences?
It’s really cool. Honestly, I’m not bragging. I feel extremely lucky. I’m going, “Geez, how can I keep pulling the stuff off?” It’s so effortless. It’s not like I’m busting my ass and trying to be rich and famous and trying to come up with a new scheme. I don’t do that. It’s not the way I live, it’s not the way I think. I feel something, the light goes on inside my head, and I see a real clear vision of something. It’s not like a little idea that keeps growing and growing and growing. The way things work with me, it goes “Bing!” I’m sitting there eating dinner and going, “Wow, I just got a great idea!” It’s that simple. And I get very excited — and anybody that knows me can tell you that I’m a real excitable boy — and once I get excited I just start doing it. It is so effortless then because once you have inspiration, a vision and heart and passion, it’s just effortless. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done that I could say, “Oh man, I broke my ass. Man, it was rough.”
I’ve noticed that a lot of veteran musicians are now working on outside projects, both as a new creative outlet and as a way to make extra income. Many rockers are putting out drinks, hot sauces and opening restaurants. Obviously you love tequila and have your own Cabo Wabo Tequila. Why did you decide to put out your own brand?
First of all, it was before anybody else had done it. I’m not trying to take full credit for being the first guy, but quite honestly I wasn’t following any path. I went to Cabo in 1980, and it was three hotels, one plane in a week and one plane out of week. No newspapers, no telephones, no TVs. I was sitting down there and fell in love with the place. I said to myself, “I want to build a little bar down here.” A tequila bar, because I was a tequila fan back then, and I’d already been there on a trip to Mexico and went on a wine tour. At that time there were four or five Château’s besides Cueva and the big boys [in Jalisco]. There were little ones that would let you taste their tequilas. I tasted a fantastic tequila that was the real deal before it was in America. There were no 100% agave premium tequilas back then. I tasted the real deal, thought it was great and wanted to build a little tequila bar with a P.A. and a stage. I loved the place [Cabo] so much that I finally bought a house there in ’81. There was nothing to do there except fish, hang on the beach and lay in the sun. So I decided I was going to build this place.
Then I decided to get my own tequila just for the place, so I went back to Guadalajara, after Cabo Wabo [Cantina] was built, and found some farmers who grew agave for all of the other big brands. They sold them the agaves. They were just farmers with hundreds of acres, but they made their own little batch. They made about 20 cases a year. They just kept it in barrels. They didn’t have bottles or anything. A friend of mine took us over, and we started drinking straight out of the barrels. I told him this was the most amazing tequila I ever had and asked if they would make some for the Cabo Wabo, and they said sure, bring us bottles. So I brought them bottles, filled them up and started selling them at the Cabo Wabo. Somebody tasted it and in a magazine article said it was the greatest tequila they’d ever had, and the next thing I knew people were knocking on my door. I said, “I don’t know anything about this business, but how many cases do you want?” So one thing led to another.
You’ve been doing this a long time then?
In the Cabo Wabo we were making the tequila. Somewhere around ’91. I immediately started trying to put my tequila in bottles. At the time I didn’t have bottles, so we just took these jugs and poured them from their little wooden barrels. They would send them to me in five-gallon gasoline cans. I’m not bullshitting. Not that gasoline had been in them. They were brand-new gasoline jugs, plastic containers that you would use. They would send it to me in the weirdest fucking things, but it was so good. So we would pour them into little barrels and give people shots out of the barrels at the Cabo Wabo. That was how primitive it was when I started.
So you started getting into this in the late ’80s?
It was in the late ’80s when I was really starting to get into the really high-end tequilas. I would go over there four or five times a year and see if there were any new places and hit some new joints. Some places wouldn’t let you come in, they didn’t give a shit about making anything for me. When it became a real business and I had to get down and do it, it wasn’t as easy as it was when I was just walking around and tasting stuff. You get around to doing a real business, they do things very differently in Mexico. [laughs] We finally had to make a deal with the family, and it seemed like the bigger it got the harder it was to get the product from them. And then when I started importing it, I was thinking, “What the fuck am I doing?” It was not hard work, but these people were just so slack. You would order 20,000 cases and get 1,400, and you’d go, “No, dude, you don’t understand.” They were pretty slack and unprofessional, but the tequila was damn good.
Are you using different people now?
Well, no, as we got bigger and started getting into the hundred thousand case category, we had to put our own guy down there. We hired a real manager for the plant, and the plant built up slowly. The tequila was growing really fast, and the plant couldn’t keep up, so we kept having to build up more. Then we needed another distillery. Then another oven. You had to keep adding on like a Lego set. We got it up to speed, then we got so big we really had to put two or three of our own guys down there, and everything changed. It was efficient, and we put the farmers back in the field and got them out of the office.
Over the last 20 years, how has Sammy Hagar the rock star managed to balance out with being Sammy Hagar the tequila mogul?
I always had other people doing everything. It was my palate and my concept. I would go in taste and say, “Leave this in the barrel a little bit longer.” That was my job. I could do that right before I went on stage. That’s a perfect time to do it, as a matter of fact! They would have five samples and want to know which one I liked. When I first started Cabo Wabo, we were doing it in traditional ways. We were doing it by the seat of our pants. Every time we made a batch it was a little bit different. I started learning more and more about it. At first I liked añejos that had been left in the barrel for a little bit over a year, and I was always going with that. “I love this! Let’s leave it in for two more months and see what happens.” I was experimenting, but then I started pulling back as I became really into tequila and really understanding it. I started moving towards a blanco, and the reason is that if you like tequila you want to drink a blanco. That’s what tequila tastes like. An añejo tastes like scotch and cognac, and if you’re a real tequila drinker you want that blanco chilled down just a little bit with a hint of salt on your tongue the first time. After that you don’t do salt lime. Blanco tequila is a tequila drinker’s drink, so I started moving towards that. Then I started trying to perfect my blanco because if you put your blanco in wood then your reposado is really good.
We started becoming a little bit more consistent with the formula — distill it twice, pick the agaves by hand, get the biggest, fattest, ripest ones, cook them for 42 hours, then grind them up. We had the system down. Then here is your blanco, and this is the shit. Once we had the shit, then we put it into barrels for four to six months because I like a reposado that’s not too añejo. I was leaving my reposados in there longer as well. So we started pulling them back to about four months. Then I started liking it at four months. It was lightly wooded and just took the edge off a little bit. It was nice. I started getting into super añejos after and started aging them for three years. It’s a process of how your palette changes. That’s all I did. I just made all those decisions. “Let’s try this, let’s try that.” I would taste it and go, “This is killer. Now let’s do this…” And someone else did it. Like I said, there was no work involved, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. [laughs]
Read Part Two of “The Red Rocker and Tequila King” here.