An Interview With Sammy Hagar, One Of The Pioneers Of Premium Tequila

Food & Drink

When Sammy Hagar, the red-headed rocker known both for his stint as lead singer of Van Halen and his prolific solo career, decided to open a bar in Mexico in 1990, no one thought it would help launch a transformation in the liquor industry. But it did and these days a plethora of spirits brands can trace their roots back to the day Hagar opened the Cabo Wabo Cantina on the sandy southern tip of Baja California.

The tequila he created for his bar, Cabo Wabo Tequila, quickly captured vacationing drinkers taste buds and was launched in the United States in 1996. It alongside Patrón Tequila, helped to singlehandedly create the premium tequila segment and perceptions surrounding tequila.

When Hagar sold Cabo Wabo Tequila to Campari Group for a then unheard of sum of $100 million in 2008, it opened people’s eyes to the possibilities from launching a liquor brand. A self-professed tequila lover Hagar couldn’t stay away for long and in 2017 he launched Santo Spirits, and in 2019 brought celebrity chef Guy Fieri on as a partner.

These days when he is not on tour he spends much of his time between his successful restaurants and overseeing his growing tequila company. We dropped in on him to learn more about his long history in tequila and where he sees the industry heading.

Sammy, you are one of the pioneers of premium tequila, how does that happen to a rock star?

I fell in love with making tequila, something I never thought would happen. When I was first introduced to tequila in 1990 after opening the first Cabo Wabo Cantina I was a wine lover, I still am today. My business partner suggested that we go down to Jalisco to taste some tequilas for the bar, and I thought he was crazy. I told him there was no way I was going to go tequila tasting, I had had enough nights regretting shots of the stuff back in the day. He told me I really didn’t know what good tequila was and forced me to go.

The first time I sipped a true agave tequila at the source I was blown away. It was amazing. From that moment on I was hooked and only wanted to dive deeper into tequila. Introducing people to pure agave tequila became my passion. Pretty soon the tequila we created to the bar was converting drinkers and they wanted to be able to buy it back home, so we created Cabo Wabo Tequila. It was successful because it was a great product that consumers didn’t know existed. Tequila had such a black eye back then, we helped heal it.

I have always put all my heart into any endeavor I am involved with from music to my cantina’s, to tequila. I don’t care about attaching the celebrity aspect to my products. Instead, I have found that by producing authentic products I can connect with my fans and that’s all that matters My passion is that I want to make the best tequila, the best rum, the best tacos in the world, always. If they aren’t the best then I am not interested.

What was your goal for Santo Tequila when you decided to get back into the industry again?

I missed making tequila so when my non-compete clause from the Cabo Wabo sale expired I thought why not try again, it was so fun the first time. When I decided to get back into tequila my first thought was to dive into mezcal. They are exotic and fun. But it didn’t take me long to realize that while I liked them I didn’t love them, they are a bit to smokey. So, I went to Juan Eduardo and told him about my dream to make the world’s first Mezquila, a merger of mezcal and tequila. So, the two of us got to work on it and after extensive testing he came to me with a concoction that was freaking awesome, so, I decided to create Santo to introduce it to the world.

When I launched Santo I was still laidback in my thinking, I just wanted to make great tequila again. But not long after rolling it out I got a call from Guy, I had told him years before that if I ever got back into tequila I would partner with him and he wanted in. When Guy came in he had bigger plans and after a bit he convinced me to expand.

We didn’t cut any corners in crafting our lineup of bottles. Unlike many other startup brands these days; we didn’t go out and buy a bunch of liquid and slap our name on it. Instead, we distilled everything and put it in barrels to age. To earn the Santo name, we both must love the liquid. That’s part of the reason we are still a smaller brand, we won’t over produce and release bottles just to meet sales demands.

As we moved forward together I realized how much the tequila industry had changed back from my Cabo Wabo days when we flew by the seat of our pants. There were so many tequilas on the market so we would have to become a much more sophisticated spirit’s company. The two of us realized that we needed help, so we hired in a great team to ramp things up. These days we are a real spirits company that is poised to expand into other spaces with brands to round out our portfolio. It’s exciting and a little scary making sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves.

Tequila is one fire these days as more people are drinking it now than ever before, is that a good thing?

I think that the trend that people are drinking more tequila is awesome. It seems that mixologists are embracing it and really turning out some fantastic cocktails made with excellent tequila. That only raises its exposure and introduces drinkers to pure agave tequila. As consumers palate’s advance, much like they have with bourbon, they will start looking for real tequilas with real stories behind them.

As more brands pop up to feed consumer demand there is a stress being put on the agave crops in Mexico. There is only so much great agave available to harvest each year for tequila, you must have connections to find the good stuff these day, and right now too much of it is being steered towards tequilas with additives, not the pure stuff that is so fantastic. We have to make sure that we don’t turn away to many people with crappy liquid that is tequila in name only.

Given your long history in tequila, where do you see the industry headed over the next few years?

I think you’re going to see a lot of people who got into the spirits industry to make a quick buck going away. To successfully launch a new brand today you need to put in ten, twenty, forty million into it, unless you get lucky. The days where you can strike gold the way we did with Cabo Wabo have passed; the industry is just too diverse now. You must build whole sales teams around a brand to put it in before of consumers. The brands that will succeed, especially in tequila, need to have been founded for the right reason. There should be a passion behind it, a driving focus to make something great, not just another product with a celebrity name attached to it. As bottles leave the marketplace that will leave more good agave for the brands left standing which is a good thing.

I also think you are going to start seeing a divide happening in tequila, one that is needed. Consumers are increasingly understanding who makes pure agave tequila, why it is so much better, and who doesn’t. I think more retailers will start to create sections that feature pure agave tequilas for their customers. I also think that you are going to see more mezcals and higher octane tequilas coming out in response to consumer demand for more exotic flavors. You are also going to see more experimental stuff coming out of Mexico as a new generation of tequila makers looks to what is happening in the bourbon world and pushs the boundaries. Some crazy stuff is bound to hit the market, some will be great, some so-so, and some not so much. All I can say is bottoms up its going to be a fun ride.

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