This article is part of our Celebrity Tequila series. Read more about the rise of A-lister agave spirits here.
The world’s first celebrity tequila begins with a People spread from December 1983 showing the nuptials of rocker Keith Richards and model Patti Hansen at the Finisterra Hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Back in Southern California, a Richards worshipper and growing rock star himself, Sammy Hagar, saw the magazine and thought the luxury resort looked pretty spectacular; he immediately booked a trip down with his wife. In those days, there was only one flight per day and, even if there were then mostly dirt roads leading from Los Cabos International Airport to the Twin Dolphin resort, Hagar still thought it was heaven on earth.
Hagar would become a regular visitor to the town of 6,000 on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, visiting roadside taco shacks, basking in the sun and surf with some grilled fish and a local brew, and enjoying glasses of real tequila, which he quickly fell for on a day trip to Jalisco while shopping for furniture.
“We went to Tequila and I tried 100 percent agave tequila for the first time — it just blew my mind,” recalls Hagar.
He eventually bought himself a condo in a just-built development, a year or so before he would replace David Lee Roth as the lead singer of Van Halen in 1985. Hagar would be so inspired by his new home he’d write the song “Cabo Wabo” in 1988. The title was Hagar’s coinage for how one might walk after drinking too much local tequila: the Cabo wobble.
We drink mezcal right from the bottle
Salt shaker, little lick a lime, oh
Throwin’ down, down tryin’ to reach the bottom
Where the guave worm, well he’s mine, all mine
You can mock all you want, but Sammy Hagar was ahead of his time in many ways. What Americans were drinking mezcal in 1988? There really wasn’t even a commercial example of it in the States until Ron Cooper launched Del Maguey in 1995 and, even then, it didn’t really gain traction in New York and San Francisco until the last decade or so.
Eventually, Hagar decided he’d like to own a performance space down in Cabo. His accountant thought that was such a bad idea he quit. Hagar’s manager, Renata Ravina, convinced him to at least enlist his Van Halen bandmates to join in and defray the costs. Built right on the edge of the marina — the club’s motto: “Where the land ends and the party begins” — Hagar, along with architect and future partner Marco Monroy, would oversee most of the construction and aesthetic details for the bar that would open in April 1990.
“Celebrities just can’t resist opening a restaurant,” cracked The Los Angeles Times in writing about its opening, believing it no different than former Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale’s sports bar in Van Nuys, not realizing it was the start of an empire and, eventually, an entire new category of spirits.
The Cabo Wabo would be 14,000 square feet, with indoor/outdoor seating for 1,000, offering concerts and jam sessions nightly (Hagar and his bandmates left their instruments and equipment there for anybody to use), dozens of varieties of tequila and mezcal (“only the best,” claimed Hagar at the time), and beach-friendly cocktails, including virgin Margaritas for Eddie and Alex Van Halen, who had quit drinking and gone sober by then.
By 1996, Hagar figured the bar should also have it’s own branded, in-house tequila, a move that didn’t seem so smart to most people at the time. “But, by then, I was so successful that no one was telling me what they were really thinking,” says Hagar.
The State of Celebrity Tequila
GrapeStars, an iPhone app that tracks and sells celebrity spirits and wines — yes, that’s really a thing — currently lists 86 celebrities with alcohol brands in its database. Celebrity spirits are red hot in 2021, and that particularly goes for tequila.
It was just in 2017 when George Clooney and his partners sold Casamigos for a cool $1 billion. In 2019, Michael Jordan launched Cincoro Tequila, whose most high-end bottle retails for $1,600. The Rock’s brand, Teremana Tequila, became one of the fastest-growing spirits brands ever last year. While in February, Kendall Jenner broke Instagram when she announced the launch of her 818 Tequila.
Just about once a week it seems a publicist contacts me with a press release for some celebrity’s latest foray into the booze space. Just for laughs, I usually ask if I can have an interview with the rapper or rock star or Hall of Fame shortstop — and I am almost always denied. Because these are nothing more than cash grabs. In most cases, the celebrity has no real passion for his tequila, or her clean wine. Does Bob Dylan even know he “makes” a bourbon?
But, when I asked Hagar’s publicist for an interview, it was booked almost instantly. You could snark that’s because the 73-year-old Hagar has nothing else to do than talk to internet writers, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s because, after nearly three decades — longer than Kendall Jenner has been alive — Hagar still has a deep passion for tequila. He might be the only celebrity spirit maven who has actually truly loved the booze he hawks. In fact, when we got on a phone call in mid-February, he quickly reminded me that it was National Margarita Day, something I wasn’t even aware of.
“When I first started this, I didn’t want it to be a ‘celebrity’ brand,” Hagar told me. In fact, when Cabo Wabo first started becoming successful, he had a business partner suggest they launch a whole slate of other celebrity alcohol brands — a Champagne with this actress, a whiskey with that rock star, a vodka for that athlete. This was in the 1990s, mind you, well before this current boom. “And I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you mean celebrity brand? Cabo Wabo isn’t a celebrity brand,’” Hagar adds. “I was insulted!”
A State of Mind
It took a long time to build this brand, however. The Cabo Wabo cantina was losing money for its first three years and the other members of Van Halen were beginning to think they were stuck with a financial disaster. The always-optimistic Hagar offered to take it off their hands, and the Van Halen brothers along with bassist Michael Anthony were happy to hand it over; it was already $300,000 in debt with trashed furniture and a broken sound system.
“I’m not a good businessman at all, I’m crazy, I’m an idiot,” says Hagar. “The brilliant genius thing I did was discovered Cabo [San Lucas] right before it was about to explode and I made a tequila right as tequila was about to explode [in America].”
The cantina’s initial guests had been a mix of locals and tourists from the four hotels in town. With so few dining options, they’d come for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, though no one ever stuck around for any nightlife and it was usually closed by 8 p.m. That was until the mid-1990s when the area began paving some roads, adding more flights in, and upgrading the town’s technology. (Hagar claims he imported Cabo San Lucas’s first-ever satellite dish and fax machine.) As business at the cantina began to boom, and Hagar headed toward a divorce with Van Halen, who had grown tired of his side hustle, he decided he wanted to try to sell his own tequila.
If today it seems like a piece of cake for celebrities to connect with a willing tequila manufacturer, Hagar says he initially had trouble finding one as he drove around Jalisco knocking on doors. Most farmers sold their crops to the big producers, he learned, using the little agave they retained for their own family and friends’ batches.
Hagar would ultimately connect with Juan Eduardo Nuñez, the third-generation distiller for Tequila El Viejito, a family-run distillery in the highlands of Jalisco. Initially, Nuñez sent him tequila in 5-gallon gas cans that the Cabo Wabo team would transfer to oak barrels and then serve straight to restaurant customers out of a spigot.
After a while, Hagar began packaging his tequila in hand-blown blue bottles and took all the other tequila brands off the cantina menu, giving visitors no options except for Cabo Wabo Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo. It sounds silly to say, but for many American tourists in the 1990s, it may have been their first-ever taste of a non-mixto tequila (most Americans back then were used to low-grade Cuervo you shot with salt and a lime). If they enjoyed Cabo Wabo, which they often did, they grabbed a bottle at the adjoining gift shop and brought it back to the States. But back then, Hagar was still only producing around 2,000 cases per year.
In 1999, Hagar’s friend, the legendary talent manager Shep Gordon, helped him make a deal with Wilson Daniels, a wine dealer, which began importing Cabo Wabo into America. By then, he had switched production to Agaveros Unidos de Amatitán, after Nuñez found himself in some tax trouble. It was an instant success, selling 37,000 cases in its first year of full distribution.
“This would have been when there were very few actually good tequilas widely available in the U.S.,” explains Chantal Martineau, author of “How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit.” She believes Cabo Wabo’s massive success would ultimately be a double-edged sword, though. Sure, it introduced many Americans to 100 percent agave tequila and created a market for more traditional tequilas in the States. “But I would assume it was not good for people’s perceptions of tequila, reinforcing tired stereotypes about it being party fuel,” she concludes.
“Bono on Agave”
He may be self-effacing these days, but Hagar’s actual genius was how much of an extension Cabo Wabo became of him, similar to how Jimmy Buffett grew to inhabit the Margaritaville lifestyle. For instance, when his post-Van Halen band — cheekily called The Waboritas — went on their 12-date Mas Tequila Tour ’99, they traveled with a stage designed to look like the barroom of the Cabo Wabo cantina, with palm trees, a palapa roof, seating for 40 fans on stage, and even bikini-clad servers.
“I’ve been doing this touring thing for a long time, and I always have to do something fresh and new in order to be sparked,” Hagar told The Missoulian that year. “I’d get bored if I had a set list that I played every night. With the party on stage, I can just go with the evening and see where it takes me. Plus, I love having a waitress bring me an icy Margarita before my next song.”
(Though, Hagar tells me he actually prefers to drink rum and Dr. Pepper while performing, as it keeps a light buzz going while amping him up a bit with the caffeine jolt.)
Of course, naysayers would claim Hagar’s act had just become some shameless gimmick to move product. “His show is obscene,” stated Salon, with writer Porter Fox noting Hagar would do everything from beating a 20-foot-tall replica of the blue-glass Cabo Wabo bottle with his guitar, to bringing people on stage to bash a tequila bottle pinata full of confetti, to playing a trumpet that shot fireworks out the end of it during the song “Mas Tequila,” a single he wrote over a sample of future disgraced sex offender Gary Glitter’s arena anthem “Rock & Roll Part 2.” The song would peak at No. 4 on the Billboard charts.
Hagar reckons he was doing 120 shows a year of this nature for a good five years. This was grassroots marketing at its finest, and it worked. Hagar would wear colorful swim trunks, a Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops on stage, fully leaning into this relaxed, tequila-swilling lifestyle. He got a Cabo Wabo tattoo on his bicep (to be able to still promote at appearances in which he wouldn’t be allowed to wear a Cabo Wabo T-shirt), he drank tequila on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and he opened a second cantina in the basement of a casino on the south shore of Lake Tahoe.
Has any modern celebrity spirit-seller ever hustled so hard to push product?
By 2002, tequila sales in America would start growing at an average rate of 6.2 percent per year and Cabo Wabo was ushered along on that upward trajectory. On Hagar’s 2002 reunion tour with David Lee Roth, he had taken to appearing in a “Got Tequila?” shirt spoofing the “Got Milk?” slogans that were popular. By then, Rolling Stone was referring to him as a “tequila tycoon,” while Roth — who refused to drink it, saying he was more of a Jack Daniel’s guy — had a more bitchy analogy: “He is Bono on agave.”
Other celebrities had taken to Cabo Wabo as well, including Toby Keith, who name-checks it in his 2004 song “Stays in Mexico.” It got pretty good critical reviews too, making Wine Enthusiast’s 50 best spirits of the year in 2004. By 2006, Cabo had become the second best-selling tequila in America behind Jose Cuervo, moving 150,000 cases per year.
And, by 2007, Hagar was facing a reality that today’s celebrity booze entrepreneur also dreams of: He could sell out.
A Real Brand
“I’d wake up in the morning and go, ‘What the f*ck am I thinking?’’ says Hagar, in regards to the buyout deals he was receiving. “Get out of here, I don’t need money. I’m just going to pay a bunch of taxes and stick it in the bank.”
Yet beverage conglomerates kept coming to him with offers of $20, $30 million. Hagar claims he was making around $4 to $5 million a year as a rock star back then, so these offers would certainly catapult him into a new stratosphere of wealth. Gruppo Campari finally called him with an offer of 10 times Cabo Wabo’s earnings over three years, which placed the number in the $60 to $70 million range. He was in Cabo at the time for his annual Birthday Bash and invited its chairman, Luca Garavoglia, and new CEO, Robert Kunze-Concewitz, to join him there. They flew over from Milan and asked him what amount of money would change his life. Hagar said $100 million. And they agreed.
“I fell off the chair,” says Hagar. “F*ck! You got a deal.” He eventually sold them 80 percent, before selling the remaining 20 percent in 2010, though he would retain his Cabo Wabo nightclubs, which now have locations in Las Vegas and Hollywood.
Through force of will — and some supreme shamelessness — Hagar had masterminded the celebrity spirits game plan, crafting a blueprint for how one goes from idea to brand to corporate sellout. And yet today, he gets hardly any credit.
In the countless recent articles blasting Kendall Jenner for her lack of tequila knowledge and surefire cultural appropriation, George Clooney is always credited with starting the celebrity tequila boom. And, if Hagar is mentioned at all in these articles, it’s often in passing, and always in relation to his more recent ventures in the space.
Maybe it doesn’t even matter. Martineau for one isn’t sure he should be saluted but, if anything, derided.
“I think to say Sammy Hagar is responsible for white celebrities launching tequila brands is like saying Elvis is responsible for white pop stars stealing Black dance moves,” she says. “The blame shouldn’t fall on one person for supposedly starting a trend, but rather on a society that normalizes appropriation and embraces those who perpetuate and commodify distorted ideas about cultural products and traditions.”
Hagar had a tequila non-compete for a few years, meaning when he wanted to get back in the beverage game in 2011, he instead released Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, his second-favorite category of spirit. It’s been a solid but unspectacular earner, something Hagar is fine with.
Likewise, when he started itching to get back into the agave game in 2017, he didn’t want to head straight back into bed with tequila. He again joined forces with his old buddy Nuñez (and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine) to release an oddball blend of tequila and mezcal, Santo Mezquila, the world’s first ever so-called mezquila.
“I didn’t want to make tequila again because of Cabo Wabo being my first child,” says Hagar.
In 2019, however, he would finally relent, teaming up with celebrity chef Guy Fieri to launch Santo Fino Blanco Tequila and Santo Reposado. Hagar’s fans have enjoyed how much it tastes like the original Cabo Wabo. (“Oh Hell yeah ! It’s like the original Cabo Wabo…not the new crap (sic),” wrote one reviewer on Tequila Matchmaker.)
Today, Cabo Wabo is still owned by Campari and distilled at its Destiladora San Nicolás. Hagar has all but been scrubbed from its website and social media materials, the brand instead positioning legendary BBQ pitmaster Myron Mixon as its current celebrity face. Cabo Wabo has seemingly got lost in a shuffle of countless other tequila brands. But Hagar could have told you that would happen once they paid him off.
“A celebrity brand is something where you just put your name on the bottle,” he tells me before he hangs up on our call so he can go enjoy a Margarita in the garden with his wife.
“A real brand is something you build from your heart.”
Published: May 17, 2021