Known as the Red Rocker for at least four decades, Sammy Hagar has owned a home in Mill Valley for at least as long, moving to Marin when he was in the San Francisco-based band in the 1970s, well before his time as the lead singer of Van Halen. More recently, Hagar’s passion for good food and wine has lead him into the spirits and restaurant businesses. Earlier this year, he launched a new line of canned cocktails and a cocktail recipe book.
You’ve been living in Mill Valley since 1972. What do people in Marin recognize you for?
I think the younger generation probably knows me more for Cabo Wabo Cantina because it has been in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for some 30 years. The Cabo Wabo Cantina has been in Vegas on the strip for 11 years. People also know my restaurants — Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill is in Honolulu and Maui, Cleveland, and Las Vegas. They come in for a great cocktail and a salad. My music isn’t that current. Van Halen was up to 1995. Music nowadays…people program what they want to hear. They are not listening to the radio and hearing your hit. Some of them still come to my concerts.
And you were also involved in el Paseo for a while.
El Paseo was a bittersweet situation for me. After I bought El Paseo in 2009, I had to invest 10 times the cost just into renovations because it was so outdated. As much as I loved and enjoyed that restaurant when I was home in Mill Valley, with my schedule it became impossible to give it the love and attention that it deserved. All in all, it was a learning experience and, like everything else, I have no regrets. El Paseo is still a gorgeous piece of old-world Europe tucked in the middle of downtown Mill Valley.
How did you first get into the restaurant and spirits businesses?
I wrote the song in 1988 [when part of Van Halen]. I was living down there and discovered 100% agave tequila. One hundred percent agave tequila was not available in the USA then. When I went to shop for my first home in Mexico, I was invited to Tequila to taste the real deal. I tasted from a farmer family, who sold to Sauza and Cuervo and Herradura and I went “wow, this is friggin great, I am going to build a bar in this town and serve this tequila.” The original Cabo Wabo tequila was made by [master distiller] Juan Eduardo Nuñez, a third-generation distiller from El Viejito distillery in Jalisco. He made the first Cabo Wabo in a blue hand-blown bottle. Cabo Wabo tequila and Patron were released at the same time, in 1997. Cabo Wabo Cantina opened in 1990.
You have a partnership with Rick Springfield. What spirits do you and Rick make?
The same thing happened with Rick and Beach Bar Rum. I’ve been friends with Rick since I wrote “I’ve Done Everything for You” and he had a hit with it (in 1979). He is a Hemingway guy and wanted to make rum. I like having partners so I sold him 10% of my company and we started making high end blanco rum in Puerto Rico. I’m a blanco guy — I like white spirits and I age them longer than most people do. A lot of people cheat when make añejos. But now, because of cocktails, which are sparkling rum, I use my premium rum in my cocktails and no one does that.
In the introduction to your new cocktail recipe book, Sammy Hagar’s Cocktail Hits, Guy Fieri says he sold a lot of Cabo Wabo and “next thing he knew, he was hanging out backstage.” How do you know Guy Fieri?
This was before he got famous and after I was out of Van Halen, so 1999 or 2000. Cabo Wabo was running a sales contest. He won up here in NorCal [when he was running Johnny Garlic’s in Santa Rosa]. He put my premium Cabo Wabo tequila in his well at his restaurant. He sold a ton and won an autographed guitar. He got his chef to make some sushi and bring it to me and I put the sushi on his guitar and that started our friendship for life.
What tequila do you make with Guy?
I sold Cabo Wabo to Gruppo Campari in 2007. For Santo Spirits, my latest brand of mezquila and tequilas, I went back to El Viejito. I wanted it to be the best, not the biggest. The team there trims the agave very close. There is no smashing with a rock wheel, just gentle cooking, cooling, and extraction, so there is no bitterness. We add nothing — no glycerin, no syrup, nothing. Guy joined me right after I started — he called and said, “I thought I told you if you ever do this again, I want to be your partner.”
Are all the recipes in Sammy Hagar’s Cocktail Hits yours?
I’ll say 90%. Over the years, I have created a lot of cocktails and I spend a lot of time pairing things. And I take notes, tweaking the standards to my unique style. But I do not measure. For the book, (co-author James O.) Fraioli measured every single one of them. If you follow the recipe, every single drink is phenomenal. The only recipe you have to be careful with is the Sunrise — with blue curacao, orange juice, my Beach Bar Rum and grenadine — don’t shake it! It looks beautiful. I developed the flavors for the canned cocktails, too.
Those are under the Sammy’s Beach bar label. Which flavor is your favorite?
Pineapple Splash goes so good with Mexican food. It kills. Try it with al pastor tacos — you will think you died and went to Mexico. I put my Beach Bar Rum in there and kicked up the effervescence a bit. the smell and taste are far superior to anything else. Good ingredients make all the difference. Can’t put bad stuff in and expect something great.
What were your goals when you set up the Hagar Family Foundation in 2008?
I wanted to help families with terminally ill children and I wanted to give 100% of the money away and not give half to the government. Families with terminally ill children often run out of money, even with good healthcare coverage. My heart is so dear to it, to make the last few years on this planet as well as they can possibly be.
And you support food banks, too?
Every city I have played since I started the Foundation, I write a check between $2,500 to $10,000 to the local food bank. Food banks are mostly volunteer so most of the money goes right to the families. They’re really effective. Sometimes on days off, I hand out food so I can meet families. At the food bank in San Francisco, I’ve seen families of four there and I ask what are they doing in this line? The answer? “I am a gardener and my wife is a housekeeper and I need tires for my trucks and my kids need gear and the food bank helps us make ends meet.” That family said they come a few times a month. It helps people make it through.
Are you bringing back Acoustic-4A-Cure in 2022, benefitting the pediatric cancer program at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital?
The goal was to do it 10 years in a row to provide funding to families of children who could come and get surgery for brain tumor treatment or removal, then pay for families to stay in San Francisco. In 2021, we had 50 people at a private philanthropist’s house, but no one could commit to doing it this year. We are going to get it going again in 2023.
What other local causes or organizations are you passionate about?
Philanthropy is something you do out of the goodness of your heart and I don’t like to talk about ,but I like bringing awareness to it. No one should go hungry in this country. I’m also involved with Ambassadors of Youth who help house and feed homeless teenagers. I’ve been there and see these kids and they go to school and they are living in the park and it is heartbreaking. I can’t just sit and watch that happen. As you can tell, I think about what is most necessary in my heart and if your heart feels you should help someone, then go do it. Everyone should support something. Go volunteer your time. We all need a few extra hours a day.
When you are at your Mill Valley home, where do you go out for a cocktail?
I like the Sweetwater, Sushi Ran, Poggio, and Saylor’s — are you kidding me? That one is a given. One of my favorite new restaurants is Michael Mina’s in Tiburon. That mother is good, but bring your wallet.
Where do you like to hang out in Marin?
I love to hike on Mount Tam, my footprints are all over that mountain. This mountain is a treasure.
Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her childrens’ schools, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.