Sammy Hagar says he still can’t drive 55. But it’s hard to tell if he means that literally, or if he’s speaking about his take-no-prisoners philosophy of life as a whole.
Hagar — aka the Red Rocker — is the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer best known for his stints as lead singer of Van Halen over two periods (yes, he’s the guy who followed David Lee Roth). He’s also worked extensively as a solo artist, with his 1984 song, “I Can’t Drive 55,” being his biggest hit.
But Hagar, now 75 years old, is a musician who’s found equal footing in the business world, almost like a hard-rocking equivalent to the entrepreneurial Jimmy Buffett.
He scored a major success with his Cabo Wabo tequila brand, which he sold to Gruppo Campari for $100 million in 2008. Today, his empire covers spirits (he’s got a new tequila called Santo); canned cocktails (he launched Sammy’s Beach Bar Cocktail Co.); and restaurants (his Cabo Wabo Cantina, located in Mexico, has been in business since 1990, plus there’s his Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill chain). He’s even written his own mixology book, “Sammy Hagar’s Cocktail Hits.”
Somehow, in the midst of all this, Hagar also keeps making music. He now heads up a group called The Circle, which released its latest album, “Crazy Times,” in 2022.
MarketWatch caught up recently with Hagar to learn about his frenetic life and career, and to get his views on key matters of personal finance. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
MarketWatch: You’ve had a very successful career in music, but you just keep branching out. Is there a logical thread that connects your career in music with all these other things you do?
Hagar: It’s plain and simple. I’m a creative person, and my mind expands beyond just writing a song. If that’s all I was stuck with doing, I would get kind of stagnant. I love a challenge.
The whole hospitality business is so connected to my fans. It’s like me entertaining them at all times, me just giving them things to do, showing them a lifestyle, showing them some good food, some good drinks, turning them on to things. And then, I make my own spirits so they drink that, they go into my bars, they go into my restaurants, they play my music, they come to my concerts. I think it’s a more complete experience.
MarketWatch: You were trying to get people to take tequila seriously long before George Clooney was peddling expensive bottles. What did it to take to elevate the spirit, which really had a very bottom-of-the-barrel reputation in the U.S.?
Hagar: Boy, it sure did, and I had the same opinion when I was growing up. Then, I went to Jalisco, Mexico, to buy furniture for my Cabo Wabo restaurant. A friend of mine said, “Have you ever been to where they make tequila?” And we went there, and I tasted 100% agave tequila. This is like 1987. And I went, “Whoa! I gotta turn people on to this. This is blowing my mind. This is delicious.” So it was easy because the way I experienced it was such a cataclysmic experience. I got it in people’s hands that were influencers like Willie Nelson. Everybody that tasted said the same thing, and the good news was that no one had really tasted good tequila before.
Ingredients are the most important thing (in a spirit). Otherwise, that would be like saying, “I got a great song. Now let’s just get some guy to record a guitar solo for it.” No, you should say, “Let’s get Eddie Van Halen.” Now, it’s really a good song.
MarketWatch: You’ve also gone into the canned cocktail business. That’s a crowded market right now. Some would say it’s too crowded. What do you think it will take to succeed?
Hagar: The same thing: a better product. That’s all I rely on with everything I do. Because I’ve had success in so many different ways, I could support myself more than I would ever need with my music, or I could support myself more than I ever would need with my restaurant and cantina business. So it’s not like I have to make a living off this and I have to cut corners. I can break even and be happy.
MarketWatch: You’ve written a new cocktail book. What’s the biggest mistake that most people make when it comes to preparing cocktails at home?
Hagar: I think the biggest mistake is using an already-made mixer. Make your mixers from scratch. The better the ingredients, the better the cocktail.
MarketWatch: What are you discovering as an artist at your age that you wish you knew when you were younger?
Hagar: I wish I would have spent more time making records instead of just wanting to get my ass out there on tour. I really thought touring was my avenue for success, because I’m a performer and I took recording lightly. I’d make a record as quick as I could, so I could get back on tour.
MarketWatch: You’re probably not the guy who can answer this question objectively, but we’ll ask it anyhow: Which Van Halen era was better — the Sammy Hagar era or the David Lee Roth era?
Hagar: Dude, that’s like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg? For me, I think the Hagar era was much more elevated musically. We wrote much deeper, more complex songs. And my melodies and my range were so much better than what Dave could do. Dave was more about the antics of the band and the gimmicks.
MarketWatch: What’s something you’re willing to splurge on?
Hagar: Fine wine.
MarketWatch: What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle?
Hagar: Oh, God, please don’t ask that question, it’s embarrassing. How about If I’ve told you I’ve drank $80,000 bottles of wine. I didn’t spend that much on them at the time, though. You see I’ve been collecting wine a long time, so I have a very deep collection. I have probably 15,000 bottles. So, I would have a bottle that maybe I paid $2,000 or $3,000 for 40 years ago that is worth $80,000, $90,000 or $100,000 now.
MarketWatch: Conversely, what’s something you hate spending money on?
MarketWatch: What’s the biggest financial mistake you’ve made? Have you ever bought an expensive bottle of wine that had turned to vinegar?
Hagar: Oh yeah, I paid a couple of thousand dollars for a ’45 Lafite that was just shot. And the seller goes, “Well, it’s an old bottle of wine. There’s no guarantees.” I said, “You got to be kidding, I’ll never buy wine from you again.” And I didn’t.
MarketWatch: You clearly have a good head for business. But why do so many other entertainers — and rock stars in particular — get into so much trouble with money?
Hagar: Well, it’s so easy when you’re hitting it big to think you’re just on top of the world. You don’t think about paying your taxes. You know, the first time I made a million dollars, I spent a lot of it. I bought my first house, and I bought a Ferrari and I invested some. And then next year, my accountant says, “You know, you’ve got $472,000 in taxes.” And I go, “Holy s—t. I need to book some shows. I’m broke!”
That’s one thing. And also, you think you’re invincible. You’re making so much money year after year that you don’t realize it could come to an end all of a sudden. And for most artists, it does. The artists who have longevity, we’re lucky. Me, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.