"Mess with it too much and it doesn't taste like tequila anymore." Sammy Hagar's wisdom on distilling his Cabo Wabo brand may also apply to his other well known pursuit: rock 'n' roll music. The former lead singer of Van Halen recently took a break from his current tour with the band Chickenfoot to drop in at the Cigar Aficionado offices and talk about the evolution of the tequila that first hit the market 13 years ago.
"This tequila used to come in porcelain jugs with a label that looked like it was scribbled with a crayon," he says with a laugh, reflecting back to the brand's micro-batch days of the mid-90s when it was created for sale at Cabo Wabo, his nightclub in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But while his tequila is now a global commodity, positioned as a top-shelf spirit, its redesigned label was conceived by the same artist who designed some of Hagar's albums. "So there's a little rock 'n' roll in there," he allows.
Rock 'n' roll indeed, but what makes it premium?
"The agave," Hagar answers. "If you distill it too many times, you get vodka. Two distillations is all you need, and if the agave is good, the flavor will come out sweet and clean."
New spirits and musical projects notwithstanding, it's difficult to separate Hagar from his days as front man for Van Halen, the band for whom he first sang the song "Cabo Wabo" in the 1980s. While 13 years have passed since he parted ways with that volatile rock group, Hagar, at 62, has lost none of his laid-back, sandy-haired beach bum comportment. Still, it's odd seeing him out of the stadium setting, away from his retinue of bodyguards and pantie-less groupies and seated in our conference room surrounded by bottles of Cabo Wabo. Is it a coincidence that Cabo Wabo was born the same year Hagar and Van Halen divorced? His little tequila side project came to market in 1996 and quickly grew into a national brand so successful it got the attention of the Skyy/Campari Group who bought it from Hagar for $80 million in 2007. Eighty percent of it anyway. Hagar sits on the remaining 20 and is the official spokesperson for the brand. Gerry Ruvo, president and chief executive of Skyy Spirits, has praised the singer's development of the brand and said that the company is anxious to continue working closely with him to build it further.
Hagar also oversees quality control and says that he has spent the last decade establishing excellent relationships with the agave growers of Jalisco, Mexico, and is convinced that he gets the lushest, plumpest agave for his brand. He describes how the choicest agave hearts (or piñas) are delicately, even lovingly handled when de-leafed and slow-roasted in the oven. They are then fermented in stainless steel and eventually matured in American oak.
And it is these same Mexican agave growers who probably shake their heads in disbelief when they hear how much Americans are willing to pay for this stuff. Cabo Uno, the brand's crown-jewel luxury spirit, retails for $250 a bottle. The other varieties are more soberly priced.
Although reluctant to admit it, Hagar himself has become a tequila connoisseur. More than 25 years of agave appreciation has turned him into an aficionado of the plant's byproduct. But connoisseurship has given him no delusions about being a distiller, nor does he consider himself an expert, though he humbly concedes to being an enthusiast and a hobbyist with the highest respect for the craft.
Some of Hagar's spare time is spent in a cellar in Mexico tinkering with different tequilas, aging some, infusing others. Those are experimental blends—beta batches that might one day see a release of some kind, but for now, Cabo Wabo is offered in four versions: Blanco ($44.99), Reposado ($49.99), Añejo ($54.99), which is barrel aged for 14 months, and the hyper-premium Uno ($250), which is barrel aged for 38 months. He recommends the Blanco for mixing, the Reposado for shooting, and the Añejo for late-night sipping. "You would sip this like you'd sip a cognac, and it would go great with a cigar I'd imagine," says Hagar.
Though he does not smoke, he is nevertheless right. The agave's floral, honey and peppery flavors are a natural pairing for the sweet and spicy character of any high-grade Cameroon-wrapped cigar, like something from La Aurora or Arturo Fuente.
With Hagar's recommendation comes surprisingly tame drinking advice.
"Do not do more than three shots every half hour. After that, ride the buzz with a Margarita, but take your time. If you do seven shots in a row, the night's over."
Tequila is obviously not the only thing that can mature well with a bit of age.
Photos by Jenny Acheson
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