Behind The Bromance: Talking Friendship & Tequila With Santo Founders Sammy Hagar + Guy Fieri

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Philip Faraone

SAMMY HAGAR AND GUY FIERI’S PREMIUM TEQUILA LINE IS A LABOR OF LOVE. HERE IS HOW THESE TWO LEGENDS JOINED FORCES AND HOW THEY’RE PROPELLING THE BRAND FORWARD IN THEIR QUEST TO BE THE BEST.
BY LAURA SCHREFFLER

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Philip Faraone

It’s been said that friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is the only truth. The bond between Sammy Hagar and Guy Fieri is a testament to that.

Both vividly recall the fated moment they met. The year was 1998. Or was it 1999? Whatever: they’re clear on everything else. Time is just a construct anyway, right? Former Van Halen front man Hagar announced a promotion: whoever sold the most Cabo Wabo — the tequila he launched in 1996 (the same year he left Van Halen, incidentally) — in Northern California could come backstage and not only meet the Red Rocker himself but win a signed guitar.

Way back when, Fieri was not the restaurateur, author, documentarian, Emmy Award-winning television host or Donkey Sauce creator he is today. The Next Food Network Star, which catapulted him to fame and fortune in 2006, was almost a decade in the future. He was just a guy who owned a few restaurants — the highly successful chain Johnny Garlic’s California Pasta Grill. He was a die-hard fan of Hagar’s (whom he’d met only in passing at fan meet and greets), and he was determined to win. Basically, there was no contest: that guitar was his.

“I don’t want to sound like too much of a fan geek, but that’s what I am,” Fieri confides during our Zoom interview. “When I was in school, elementary through high school, Sammy Hagar was — and still is — the greatest. I love the guy. I know all his songs, know all the albums, saw him play with Van Halen, the whole thing. [So when he announced the contest, I said to the Cabo Wabo sales rep], ‘Well, just go get that guitar, because I’m going to sell all of it.’ And I sold it all; I was the best. I won the guitar and the meet and greet with Sammy.”

Little did he know just how much he’d be winning: Hagar’s attention, admiration, eternal friendship — and, one day, a highly successful business partnership (the reason, might I add, that we’re talking in the first place). So yeah, a win-win situation overall.

Of that first meeting, Hagar, now 73, recalls, “He was just some guy. He’s got spiked-up blond hair, he’s got the same kind of sunglasses I’m wearing. He’s got a goatee like mine; he’s wearing shorts and flip-flops. I’m going, ‘Does this guy think he’s my twin or something? Is he my long-lost cousin?’”

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Philip Faraone

But Fieri had a trick up his sleeve that was more impressive than mere twinning. While Hagar was in his dressing room cleaning up after the show, “Guido” (as he’s known to all his close friends but Sammy, who prefers to call him “Guy Bones”) took the opportunity to serve up some homemade sushi on the guitar Hagar had signed for him. It was an unforgettably baller move, to be sure. And it worked.

“I just went, ‘This guy is too cool,’ and we immediately became friends,” Hagar reminisces during a morning phone call. “He’s a car nut like me — he had a Corvette, and I had a Cobra — and we even switched cars one day and terrorized the back streets of these [California] mountain roads. We just like the same stuff. We’ve had a relationship kind of like best friends. I guess I’m kind of like his uncle.”

Whatever they call it, their friendship definitely goes beyond their physical resemblance and love of cars. “He’s living my life now. Watching him get rich and famous reminded me of me,” Hagar admits. “He would say, ‘What do I do with this money? How do I keep from getting screwed? How do I protect myself? I’ve got all these offers.’ I was like, ‘Man, I’m not sure I have all the answers, but here’s what I did.’ We’ve got that kind of relationship.”

Needless to say, when Fieri, now 53, got his big break on the Food Network, it was Hagar he went to for guidance. “When I got on TV, I called Sammy and I said, ‘Hey man, I’m just doing this thing. Got any advice for me?’ And he said, ‘Keep doing what got you here.’ Sammy’s real straight to the punch. There is no bullshit.” Hagar showed his support in other ways, too. “I asked him if he’d do my cooking show with me. He said, ‘Hell, yeah!’, jumped in his car and came up north [he lives about an hour away]. So everything was going great. I got to hang out with a legend, somebody I really admire, and that was it.”

But then…dun dun dun: cue onomatopoeic three-note dramatic guitar solo sting here.

Although they can’t quite remember who called whom — each retells this part of their history differently (although for his part, Fieri’s vote is for his business partner’s version of things: “Sammy has a memory like a f—ing elephant. He remembers everything — he’s got a way better memory than I do!”) — the bottom line is that some very significant news was shared on one particular day in 2007, news that would impact their professional future. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had officially sold Cabo Wabo. (The Campari Group purchased an 80 percent stake the company at that time for $80 million; it bought the remaining 20 percent in 2010.)

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Philip Faraone

In Fieri’s recollection, the story goes like this: “One day, Sammy called and he says, ‘Guy Bones, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.’ I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He says, ‘Brother man, I just made a hundred million dollars.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s f—ing great news. What’s the bad news?’ He says, ‘Brother man, I sold Cabo Wabo.’ I said, ‘You’re selling a lot of it?’ He said, ‘No, I sold the company.’ I said, ‘Well, amen for you, bro, but if you ever, ever, ever do tequila again, I want in.’ He told me it wasn’t going to happen because he had a non-compete. Fast-forward five or six years, and he starts Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. I call him and go, ‘Red Rocker, what the f–k! You started a rum? You said you were going to call me.’ He goes, ‘You said tequila.’ Well, shit. He was right.”

Many more years passed. By this time, Fieri was indisputably a star — the guy everyone referred to as the face of the Food Network. He was a New York Times best-selling author with restaurants all over the country and more TV shows under his belt than seemed humanly possible. But when he received a call from Hagar with the vague demand “Guy Bones, are you in?”, he didn’t hesitate. “I was like, Am I in what? But I said, ‘Yeah, Sammy, I’m in.’ And he goes, ‘We’re in the tequila business, baby!’”

And with that declaration, a partnership was born. Out of it came Santo.

The idea came to Hagar as he was driving through Guadalajara and saw wild agave growing at the base of a cross (in Mexico, crosses, shrines and flowers typically denote grave sites or a spot where someone has died). He thought the image was beautiful, that there was something about it that suggested strength, so he snapped a photo and put his phone away. At the time, he had been toying with the idea of launching a second tequila brand, but nothing was concrete. Many months later, when he was ready to turn his concept into a fully formed reality, the word “saint” came to him. His Mexican partner, third-generation master distiller Juan Eduardo Nuñez of El Viejito, a famous distillery in the highlands of Jalisco, explained that the Spanish word for “saint” was “santo.”

“I’m a creative person, and when you have a vision of two creations and all of a sudden see a thread between them, you go, ‘Oh man, this is it. No wonder I saw that cross. No wonder I took that picture seven months ago. This is so right, it has to happen.’ I’m getting goosebumps just telling you this. It almost felt like a religious experience. And although I believe in God, I’m not a religious guy,” Hagar explains, adding that this is why the symbol of a cross also appears on Santo’s brick-like bottles, which are modeled after the shape and style of the original clay bottles used in authentic tequila making.

Now that he had a name, Hagar, who is often referred to as the “godfather of tequila,” came up with a business plan. His initial launch in 2017 was a super-premium, ultra-luxe hybrid spirit, the world’s first and only blend of tequila and mezcal, which he dubbed “Mezquila.” The collaboration — then with Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine — was made from 100 percent blue Weber agave and 100 percent angustifolia variety Espadín agave.

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Alyssa Henry

What he had initially created was special, but it was also meant to be a one and done. He didn’t think of expanding the line until Fieri reminded him of a particular promise he once made. “I didn’t plan on doing a whole Santo line until Guy got involved,” Hagar says. But when Fieri adamantly declared that their first joint effort should be a blanco — a colorless tequila known to be the purest expression of the agave — Hagar was immediately on board.

And damned if they didn’t have fun taste-testing together. Hagar, an avid wine enthusiast with a 10,000-bottle collection, spit in his quest for perfection. “While Guy and I were creating this blanco, we’d sit there and have ten blancos in front of us. But I spit. I don’t care what anybody says about wasting a good drink. I’d taste it, roll it around in my mouth just like you would with wine. You’re trying to get the finest thing you can have, and if you sit there and have four or five drinks and swallow them, your opinion kind of goes out the window. We did a lot of spitting and tasting. But I wouldn’t spit it out now,” he hastens to add. “Once it’s in the bottle, that means don’t you dare spit it out! But I can’t drink more than a couple shots of tequila, or a margarita [which he refers to as “the greatest drink on the planet” and takes straight up in an ice-cold glass with a semi-salted rim] or two. Even in Mexico, I can’t go all night. Guy can.”

Which is why, perhaps, Fieri’s approach to Santo consumption is ever so slightly different. “I sample,” he confides cheekily. “I don’t do it all at one time, so I don’t have to spit it out. You know you’re going to get a little altered when you try it, but I do try to make sure that when I’m having my samples and taking my notes, it’s only a couple at a time.”

Whatever their individual process may be, the end result is a full and complex tequila complimented by earthy white pepper and citrus aromas, with delicate spice and floral flavors that add intensity to the 100 percent blue Weber agave. Its packaging plays into its old-world-style sensibility.

Hagar says that Fieri’s palette was “instrumental” in finalizing the blanco. “When Guy and I tasted the blanco by itself, it was too harsh,” he recalls. “Juan Eduardo told us to cut the agave a little tighter, because those stems are bitter as hell. Guy understood this. He could taste water mold and rot. And we wanted this to have no aftertaste except the agave when you swallowed it: that little bit of salt, a little bit of sweetness and honey; natural flavors. Guy got it. All you had to do was give him one good taste and he’d be like, ‘That’s crap.’”

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Alyssa Henry

Their efforts paid off. After the blanco was praised to the hilt, they decided to employ a similar process in creating their second Santo effort, a reposado. This offering, which will debut in April, is made by adding completely matured pina (heart) from the agave plant that is bee-pollinated and double-steamed in authentic stone ovens for 17 hours each time to the blanco, which then rests in lightly charred, used American oak bourbon barrels for four to five months. The result is an artfully balanced, distinctive reposado with a heady blend of smoked char and vanilla-maple, with a peppery final kick. Most significantly, the Santo Reposado — which is displayed in a striking matte blue bottle in homage to the blue-green hue of natural agave — is made without additives or sugar, setting it apart from almost every other tequila on the market. Hagar and Fieri are currently working on an anejo, which could be done by fall, but it also might take longer. And they’re okay with that, because sometimes the quest to be the best takes time.

“It’s almost to our detriment, how often we sample what we’re making to make sure that we’re steering this thing,” Fieri admits. “It’s almost — I don’t want to say ‘artisan’ and I don’t want to say ‘pet project,’ and I don’t want to say all that other bullshit that sounds like bullshit, but that’s the way it is. Our guys wanted the anejo yesterday, and there are ways we could expedite it, but we’re not expediting shit. We’re waiting. We don’t know when that anejo is coming out, when it’s going to be exactly what we want it to be. But we’re not doing anything until it is.”

This commitment to making the brand the best it can be is something they passionately agree upon. They independently make the point that Santo is not something they slap their names on and throw on shelves to make quick money: it’s something they own, of their own, that they can be proud of and control, a labor of love and a testament to their friendship. And it might not be for everyone, but that’s okay. Hell, it’s preferred.

“We’ll probably never hit the masses, but so what?” Fieri says with a shrug. “What we’re going to do is hit the tequila aficionados. We’re going to hit the people who love tequila.” Hagar concurs: “We may never be the biggest tequila in the world, but we will be the best.”

And though they might have to play the waiting game for their upcoming release to reach perfection, they’re certainly not being idle in the meantime. Says Fieri, “With Santo, Sammy and I have a lot of plans. We’re going back down to Mexico, and we’re going to build out and do a big tasting program. I want to build a tasting kitchen and culinary center, something that combines tequila and food. We’ve just got to get through the pandemic and get the world back to stable ground, stable legs, and then we’ll see where we start going after that, how things progress. But I mean, it’s a steam train. We are a locomotive, baby, on the tracks and going. There is no end in sight.”

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Alyssa Henry

That goes for Santo, which is now available in all 50 states, through its distributor, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, and for their respective careers. Hagar released a new album, Lockdown 2020, with his new outfit Sammy Hagar & the Circle in January, and Fieri is going a mile a minute working on what seems like a dozen new ventures. He’s currently shooting Guy’s Grocery Games, Takeout and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives for the Food Network; the second season of Tournament of Champions also just premiered on the network last weekend, all on the Food Network; just launched 175 nationwide virtual kitchen concepts, Flavortown Kitchen, a joint effort with Buca di Beppo owner Robert Earl; has more than 80 restaurants around the world; a winery, Hunt & Ryde (named after his sons, Hunter and Ryder, whom he’s also working on getting certified for underwater diving); planning the follow-up to his pandemic-focused hospitality-industry documentary Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line; and continuously raising money and awareness for the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, a charitable venture he created in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, which has brought in more than $21.5 million to date for unemployed restaurant workers through donations made by large corporations such as PepsiCo, Moët Hennessy USA and Uber Eats.

Hagar has helped on this front, noting that he’s done several online auctions in support of the restaurant industry. How could he not, with Fieri as his business partner? But he’s one to give credit where it’s due, and he bows down to Fieri. “He’s nonstop. He does so much that you don’t know about, and that’s the beauty. He doesn’t brag. That’s the way you’re supposed to do charity, not for publicity; the publicity is only to bring awareness. It’s an honor to be involved with a guy like Guy. At my age, to be working alongside a guy who’s just as hardworking and ambitious as I’ve been my whole life is just a dream come true. An angel on my shoulder saying, ‘Get involved with this guy over here. He’ll allow you to be in this business for an extra 20 years.’”

Fieri can’t hold back his admiration for Hagar, either (truth be told, they both rave about the other multiple times during the course of our interviews; their affection and admiration is that great). “It’s such a neat thing to find somebody who — and I’m not trying to make this into a Hallmark card, but it really is the truth — inspires me like Sammy does. You know, if you had told me back in 1982, when I was in eighth grade [when Hagar’s solo album Standing Hampton was released], that I would be partnered up with a guy I admired for so many years, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it’s my reality, and this project goes far beyond selling tequila. This is a project of helping. This is about creating, this is about believing, so it’s a much bigger thing to me. It’s like a live rock and roll show dealing with Sammy, in all the most positive ways.”

He chuckles and then pauses for a moment before adding, “For me, it’s not about money. I mean, of course we want to make money — who doesn’t? But this is really about two brothers hanging out, doing it right, having a good time. People always ask, ‘Are you going to sell?’ I say, ‘You know, I guess that’s what you do; you create these things, you build them up and then you sell.’ But I don’t see Sammy and I doing it that way. I think we’re both having too much fun.”

Rock on, brothers, rock on.

Guy Fieri + Sammy HagarPhoto Credit: Philip Faraone

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