Sammy Hagar is back for an encore.
The ex-Van Halen front man and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who struck it really, really rich as a tequila tycoon is now singing the sweet praises of rum. Specifically, it's Sammy's Beach Bar Rum, a white spirit from Hawaii designed to compete in a segment long dominated by global giant Bacardi.
After his success with Cabo Wabo Tequila, a brand spun out of his Cabo Wabo nightclub in Mexico in the 1990s and sold a decade later for $100-million, Hagar brings some cachet and industry savvy as he attempts to crash Bacardi's party. His excellent rum was just released in Ontario at $29.85 (no word yet on a time frame for other provinces).
At the product's recent Toronto launch, Hagar told me the rum reflects a personal lifestyle shift now that he owns a home in Maui in addition to his more established nests in northern California and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. "I'm taking people and I'm moving them out of Mexico," he said. "We're gonna move over here to Hawaii and we're gonna party here for a while."
Clad in white cargo shorts and a red T-shirt under a signature mop of stringy blond curls, the jovial Hagar comes across as the perfect mascot for the sunny escapism of both tequila and rum – Jimmy Buffett with the Marshall amps cranked to 11. The 66-year-old spoke of his tequila brand's sale to Italy's Gruppo Campari several years ago as a bittersweet parting. "It was my first baby," he said, rolling up his sleeve to expose a Cabo Wabo tattoo. "It's like your daughter grows up, gets married and changes her last name, but she's still your daughter." The upside of that transaction: Hagar now ranks among the highest-net-worth rock stars, with a fortune that's helped finance five Ferraris for a man who penned the 1980s hit I Can't Drive 55. (He's on the waiting list for a new limited-edition model, LaFerrari, with a sticker price of almost $2-million U.S.)
Prevented under terms of the Campari deal from competing in the tequila market, Hagar chanced on a happy alternative after making the short Maui pilgrimage to meet Mark Nigbur, distiller of Pau Maui Vodka, a craft pineapple-based spirit of which the rocker is a fan. Gesturing to the tiny distillery's surrounding fields of sugar cane – rum's raw ingredient – Hagar asked the distiller, "Why aren't you making rum? Why are you making vodka in Hawaii?"
Weeks later, Nigbur came up with an experimental rum batch for Hagar, who says he loved it from the get-go, tweaking it only subtly to reach the current formulation.
As a passionate wine collector for 40 years, Hagar, who has 10,000-plus bottles in his cellar, no doubt possesses a more refined palate than his endearing party-animal public persona might suggest. He also clearly knows that a good story can help improve the flavour in consumers' mouths. And so a reporter is treated to the product's high-grade features, which include the use of expensive Maui Gold sugar cane (harvested at the likely more flavourful age of two years versus the standard one year) and single distillation and filtration (versus the heavier-handed processing of most big brands).
Sammy's also boasts proprietary use of heating rods inserted into the fermenting tank to impart a subtle crème-brûlée flavour.
I like stories. I even would be prepared to take at face value the assertion, offered by Stephen Kauffman, president of Hagar's rum company, that for the time being, just to get the product established, "we've priced this so we're not making a dime on it here in Canada."
(The LCBO price is indeed barely higher than the typical price you'll find online south of the border, keeping in mind the exchange rate and the fact that U.S. prices generally do not include sales tax.) But it's the flavour I actually find compelling.
This is unusual rum, cleaner and more delicate than much of its kin. I get dry earth, sea breeze and pleasant vegetation more than the much more common molasses, vanilla and spice. It could sooner be compared with – dare I say it? – a fine blanco tequila or good cachaca than with other white rums, like the cocktailready selections below. It's enjoyable to sniff, too – and I would say that of few other white rums, which are designed mainly for stealthy service in cocktails. And yet it does make a very good mojito.
For his part, Hagar likes it in what he calls a "rum-a-rita," a riff on the margarita made with 3 ounces of fresh lime juice, ¼ ounce of Cointreau and 1½ ounces of the rum in place of – and presumably with apologies to Gruppo Campari – tequila.
Sammy's Beach Bar Rum (Hawaii)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $29.85
Earthy but in a clean way (is that an oxymoron?), it's light, fruity and floral, with subtle vegetation and a sea-breeze saline note on the crisp finish. This is enjoyable on the rocks as an accompaniment to a slice of grilled pineapple (Sammy Hagar likes to dunk a skewered slice, yielding a sort of rum Popsicle). And it's also good for a mojito or margarita.
Brugal Especial Extra Dry (Dominican Republic)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $27.95
New to the market, this fine product comes with a marketing campaign that encourages consumers to "join the dry movement." That's an allusion to the generally sweeter profile of other rums. It's relatively dry, to be sure, but there's a rounded silkiness and also substantial midpalate weight, imparting a subtle impression of sweetness thanks to the vanilla overtones of oak-barrel aging. An increasing number of white rums such as this spend time mellowing in oak – the colour source of amber and dark rums – but the wood is usually neutrally tinted and uncharred. Filtration helps rid these rums of any amber hue. It's a good all-round choice for cocktails, but particularly suitable for a daiquiri.
Available in Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Mount Gay Eclipse Silver (Barbados)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $28.75
Aged in wood and triple charcoal filtered, this white rum is smooth and fruity, with poached pear, banana, spice and vanilla flavours that start sweet yet finish reasonably crisp.
Mount Gay recommends trying it with Sprite to echo the rum's apparent citrus notes. Give me a Hemingway daiquiri instead.
Bacardi Superior (Puerto Rico)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $25.95
This is classic by definition. It set the standard for white, or light, rum in the 19th century and remains the Goliath even in an increasingly crowded field. It's hard to deny its appeal, with its layers of vanilla, caramel, ripe pear, brown sugar and aromatic baking spices. This is classic mixing rum, with a sweet, rounded profile that harmonizes well with many ingredients, particularly in sweet long drinks like rum and Coke and pina coladas