Why the Rum Brand Created by Van Halen's Frontman Is Taking Off

July 26, 2019

The sensory overload you experience in the sugarcane fields of upcountry Maui is about as quintessentially Hawaiian as you can get. From the red dirt road, the seemingly infinite expanse of green leaves undulates across the southwest flank of Mount Haleakala like a green ocean with each tropical breeze. Step out of your idling vehicle, and the woosh of the wind rushing past thousands of stringy fronds envelops your ears, a din that is pleasant in its monotony. Get closer, nip off a piece of stalk, and pop it in your mouth; after a few seconds, the meat—the heart—is so sweet it’s almost tangy, rivaling the juiciest peach you’ve ever had in your life. Believe it or not, this sugarcane field is the studio for Sammy Hagar’s next big hit.

Yes, that Sammy Hagar. The red-haired rocker who became famous for shrieking about his inability to drive 55. The guy who stepped in as lead singer to front Van Halen back in 1985. The same party animal who launched his own tequila label—Cabo Wabo—and within 15 years sold it for almost $100 million. These days, Hagar is all about rum. Not just any rum, mind you—white rum. 

For sipping. Like fine wine. The product, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, was launched in November 2011 and has been flying off shelves since early the following year. At $22 per bottle, Sammy’s rum compares favorably with other premium white rums, a position that Steve Kauffman, president of the operation, mostly attributes to the quality of the ingredients and the challenges of running a distillery in Hawaii. But according to Hagar, his rum gives the word spirits a new meaning. “We’ve put together an all-natural product that transports you to Maui every time you taste it,” he says. “Above all else, that’s what makes this rum unique.” 

In many ways, Hagar has worked with spirits for most of his professional life. From the early days as front man for Montrose through the VOA record (the one with “55”) and the Van Halen years, the Red Rocker has made party music—the kind of tracks that go best with a litany of mixed drinks. Even in recent years, when listening to tunes from his current band, Chickenfoot, you want to belly up to a bar and order another round. “He’s selling a lifestyle,” says Kauffman, who worked with Hagar on Cabo Wabo and now serves as president of Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. “It’s something a lot of people relate to.” For this reason, Hagar’s move in the early 1990s to purchase a cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, seemed perfectly logical. Later that decade when he launched his own tequila, that made sense as well. Hagar embraced his role as tequila entrepreneur, investing in top-quality materials from the Jalisco region of Mexico and marketing the product whenever he could. Some might even argue that the marketing went a little overboard: He toured with stages built to resemble cantinas and tattooed the Cabo Wabo logo on his arm. 

In 2007, Hagar sold 80 percent of the tequila to Italian spirits company Gruppo Campari for $80 million (a later deal for the remaining 20 percent eventually pushed the total to almost $100 million). But after completing the deal in 2010, he realized that he missed the spirits business and started looking to dive back in. He was vacationing on Maui at the time—crashing with his wife and kids at their home on the island, when a friend suggested that he try Pau Maui Vodka, which was made in an old pineapple processing facility outside the cowboy town of Makawao on the island. The friend introduced Hagar to the distiller, a Colorado Springs, Colo. native named Mark Nigbur. In addition to looking like long lost twins—both have long, scraggly hair—the two men hit it off instantly. “I tasted the vodka, I loved it, and then I asked him, ‘You’re sitting here, surrounded by sugarcane, so why aren’t you making rum?’” Hagar remembers. Nigbur answered: “You want me to make you some rum?” A partnership was born. 

The duo got to work immediately, collaborating together for months and producing about 50 different flavor profiles. By the summer of 2011 they found the one they liked, and by the end of the year, Hagar unveiled Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum at his Beach Bar & Grill restaurant in Maui. Legend has it that making rum on the islands dates back roughly 200 years to the time of King Kamehameha I, who formally established the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1810. Sugarcane had grown across the South Pacific for centuries; the stalks thrive in the volcanic soils and relentless tropical sun. In the early 1800s, after a sea captain reportedly introduced Kamehameha to the process through which Hawaiians could distill this crop into rum, the monarch was hooked. 

According to news reports, a historical survey commissioned by two spirits entrepreneurs within the last decade showed that the high chief had stills erected around the islands and supplying a steady production of rum until Kamehameha died in 1819. Since then, at least on Maui, efforts to mass-produce the spirit have been a tough slog. (Seagram’s, for instance, built a distillery at Puunene, between Kahului and Wailea, in the 1960s, but it did not succeed.) Until now, rum production had focused on craft distilleries, and in the last 10 years, a number of small batch producers have come and gone. But Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum offers something completely different. It has bold flavors, an earthy tone, and maybe even a hint of terroir, a word more commonly associated with wine or Scotch to describe its region of origin. A number of factors create these distinctions. No. 1 on the list: ingredients. Nigbur, who is technically a master distiller, says almost everything that goes into Hagar’s new product comes from Hawaii. The water is filtered rainwater from local freshwater streams. The cane is some of the oldest and most complex sugar anywhere on Earth. “Sugarcane grows on Maui for two years,” Nigbur says. “I’m not sure any other place leaves their cane in the ground that long.” 

Then comes Nigbur’s unique distillation process. Unlike most stills, which are copper and heated at the bottom, Nigbur’s proprietary vessels are made of stainless steel, and have their heating elements built into the sides of the tanks. Because of this unusual design, heat comes into direct contact with the rum, causing a hint of carmelization, or “crème brulée-ification,” as Nigbur calls it, over the course of the distillation process. At this point, Nigbur runs it through a special carbon filter he designed to remove impurities but leave the flavor.

Though Nigbur oversees the day-to-day distillation process in Makawao, Hagar remains intimately involved. When he’s visiting his home in Maui, he heads to the distillery, sampling the rum at various stages, and offering Nigbur tasting notes and other operational suggestions. Nothing escapes Hagar’s touch, including labels and store displays. Kauffman, the company president, says this hands-on approach is how Hagar lives his life. “One thing I’ve learned about Sammy is this: The guy throws himself completely into everything he does,” he says. “It’s true for his music. It was true for the tequila. And it’s true now with the rum.” That Hagar cares about every detail hasn’t escaped the spirits industry’s notice. According to Paul Clarke, a spirits expert and contributing editor at Imbibe, Hagar’s involvement with Cabo Wabo solidified him as a top brand ambassador—a guy whose name alone usually clinches a sale. “Most of the time, when celebrities put their name on product, it has no bearing whatsoever on quality and, in fact, usually implies a shoddy grab-the-cash-and-run sort of deal,” says Clarke, who is based in Seattle. “But [Hagar], with his tequila, totally nailed it the first time, and I think that’s made people trust him and his brands.” Not that the product has needed much of a marketing boost. 

In less than one year since the bottles hit shelves, Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum has collected a number of top industry accolades, including a gold medal at the 2013 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition in May. Earlier this year, the rum also received a score of 94 (out of 100) from The Tasting Panel; the highest score the publication has ever awarded to white rum. The rum also plays a part in Hagar’s efforts to give back to the Maui community. Through the Hagar Family Foundation he’s given more than $1 million to local charities.

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With production on Maui humming along (at last check it was at 1,000 cases per month) and distribution of the flagship product in all 50 states, Hagar and his team already have set their sights on expanding the brand and making the operation more accessible to the general public. First up is a new rum that captures a different essence of Hawaii: macadamia nuts. Nigbur takes the base rum, infuses it with Hawaiian macadamias, and then adds a organic red dye. The result is a rum that works best as a floater on the top of a Mai Tai. That—and the fact that Hagar fans call themselves “Redheads”—is how the product got its name: Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum Red Head Topper. “There are so many flavors on Maui that you really can’t find anywhere else,” says Nigbur. “When you consider how easy it is to infuse rum with some of these flavors, there are literally dozens of things we can do down the road.” Hagar admits there are other products in the pipeline, including barrel-aged rums akin to reposado and añejo iterations of tequila. When pressed for specifics, he demurs. Instead, he prefers to croon about plans for a new tasting room at the facility near Makawao.

Currently, when visitors want a closer look at the inner workings of Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, due to state liquor laws all they can get is a scheduled tour. By the end of this year, however, the company will roll out a public-facing education center that offers a history of the area, a step-by-step look at how the rum is made, and an up-close-and personal experience with the cane fields just outside the front door. After receiving approval from local authorities, the new facility also will include a tasting bar where visitors can sample some of the rum first-hand. “It’s hard not to get excited about this stuff on Maui,” says Hagar. “Everywhere you look, the cane is around you. It’s part of the experience. We’re using the best sugarcane in the world. You can taste it every time you make a drink.”

Sammy’s Maui Hideaways

Mama’s Fish House: “The ambiance and the view at this restaurant [in Paia] are just unbeatable. The place is right on the beach, so after dinner you can walk out and look at the waves. The food isn’t the greatest, but it’s not terrible, either. There’s lots of fresh fish. I’m a big fan of wahoo, so when they have it, I get that. I just get it grilled; I don’t want anything on it. I also like the Beef Polynesian—it’s basically steak served in a papaya. On the islands, you can’t do any better than that.” 

Hana: “This town is so special, there’s just nothing like it on Earth anymore. It’s rustic. It’s untouched. Everybody talks about the Hana Highway, but the drive around the backside of the island to get there is amazing, too. Do the loop and you’ll see 1,000 of the greatest views Hawaii has to offer.” 

Makena Landing Beach Park: “Locals love the beaches near Wailea, but most of them go to Big Beach and Little Beach in Makena. We prefer this one, just beyond the Fairmont Kea Lani. There’s a nice shelter for picnics, and it’s family-friendly—hardly ever crowded.”

Makawao Rodeo: “If you’re a horse person, don’t miss the Makawao Rodeo, which they hold [in Makawao, an upcountry village,] July 4 every year. It has cowboys and horses and all that, but they also have a parade with traditional costumes and all sorts of booths with food like deep-fried Twinkies.”