Founder and CEO

How Female-Owned Tequila Start-up 21 Seeds Found White Space in the Spirits Category

What started out as a response to doctor’s orders turned into full-fledged, tequila-making powerhouse 21 Seeds. The recipe for success? A focus on quality, compelling storytelling and breaking every rule in the book according to founder and CEO Kat Hantas. And despite her lack of experience in the spirits industry, “girls call the shots” in this female-owned company that focuses on their consumers' passion and pain points. From partnering with a female-owned distillery in Mexico to recently signing a national distribution deal with one of the largest spirits distributor in the country, Kat Hantas is challenging an entire spirits category traditionally dominated by men. Find out what Kat said she’d never waiver on when starting her own business, how 21 Seeds supports females throughout the entire production process, and where we can expect to see 21 Seeds post-Pandemic.

Where did the idea for 21 Seeds come from? 

About nine years ago, I started experiencing night sweats and general health issues, so I went to my doctor. He suggested we take a look at my diet, which included a couple of glasses of wine each night. He smiled like the cat that swallowed the canary and proceeded to explain that as we get older, our bodies have more difficulty metabolizing fermented spirits, and proposed a switch to distilled spirits (thank goodness he didn’t ask me to stop drinking entirely!). He suggested I switch to Blanco tequila since its plant-based and one of the cleanest spirits and sent me home. As soon as I stopped drinking wine, I felt 100% better, but I wasn’t sure what to do with this harsh Blanco tequila to make it…light and easy to drink like my wine. I like to cook so I thought heck I’ll infuse it and see what happens. It completely changed it for the better, from how it smelled, to what it tasted like: smooth, not sweet, and refreshing…not the usual adjectives that come to mind when you think about tequila.

As the years rolled by, I noticed a lot of my girlfriends were also moving over to tequila specifically from wine and champagne because they too wanted to drink cleaner and have fewer carbs and lower sugar. They began asking me to make bottles of my infused Blanco for their home use. One bottle turned into many over the years and finally, I thought perhaps there was a business in this.

21 Seeds bottle in agave plant.
21 Seeds is committed to using all-natural ingredients both in their tequilas and cocktails.

How did you manage to disrupt such a crowded and highly-regulated industry? 

The trickiest part is that the spirits industry has historically been very male-dominated. So, in most meetings, we were the only women in the room talking to a group of men about how there is nothing in this category on the market for women. It’s not always an easy proposition for the decision-makers, but we knew our stuff. We had the data and information and intuition to back up our product. … The fact that we stayed in our lane and held our ground with respect to really focusing on that female consumer and all her pain points is ultimately what made us stand out and find white space in a very crowded category.

What have you been up to lately and what’s in the works for you? 

We just signed a national distribution deal with Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits. ... We hear from fans all the time who want to support our brand because its female-founded and have heard such great things about the liquid, and we are so excited that we can share it with everyone in the country. SGWS is going to help us do that in a big way. Look out 2021, here comes 21 Seeds!

Women sitting down drinking tequila.
From left to right, 21 Seeds Founders Nicole Hantas-Emanuel (CFO), Kat Hantas (CEO), and Sarika Singh (COO).

What’s one learning from your career that you carry with you to your role today?

"We always need to tell a compelling story because that’s what sets our brand apart from any other."

I was a filmmaker in my prior career and my job was to tell stories. I think this is the key to how you build any brand—through storytelling.  The tequila is the thing, 'the what.' The real thing is 'the why.'  That’s where storytelling comes into play big time. And not just with our consumer but in every aspect of our marketing, even with our distributors. We always need to tell a compelling story because that’s what sets our brand apart from any other.

What’s one eye-opening thing you’ve learned about your consumer? 

Not surprisingly, our core demographic (around 80%) is female, which is huge and highly unusual for a spirits brand, particularly in the tequila category. We love that our brand is resonating with ‘her’ because we are her. But our hope was that we would ultimately be a brand for her by her to be enjoyed by all, and it’s really cool to know that 20% of our consumers are young men. These are the guys that have been drinking easy, light refreshing things like White Claw and are finding that we fit that same profile of easy, light and refreshing. We love our Seed Squad and welcome all to join us!

What have you learned from partnering with a female-owned tequila distillery? 

The truth is that we didn’t set out to find a female-owned distillery. We sought out the best distillery because the quality of the liquid is everything. And it just so happened that the best distillery was female-owned…go figure! It was perfect because we love being able to support a fellow female-owned business. And the cool thing is that it’s also predominantly staffed by women. They even adjust the work hours to ensure that they coincide with school hours so that the women don’t have to get outside childcare.

Group of female employees sitting together.
21 Seeds partners with a female-owned distillery in Mexico that is also predominantly staffed by women.

When you first started your company, what was one thing you told yourself was something you would never waver on? 

Quality. We knew that we would only get one chance at this and it had to be right. We are lucky to have Sarika on our team, who is a Stanford educated mechanical engineer.  She helped figure out the processes that ensure optimal freshness for our real fruit infusions so that our liquid is consistent and delicious!

How are you thinking about 21 Seeds’ long-term strategy and what the ecosystem looks like post-pandemic? 

We set up our brand quite differently from the traditional model, which is that you build it at bars and restaurants (on-premise) and then eventually people purchase a bottle for home use (off-premise). We didn’t come from a spirits backgrounds so we didn’t know this and therefore had the freedom to really think about our female consumer and where she goes to discover brands, what we call the outer-premise. The outer-premise is online, social media, online media. We introduced her to the brand in all the places she already was.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? 

“We broke every rule in the book in launching this brand.”

Always trust your gut. We broke every rule in the book in launching this brand. Had we followed the playbook, we never would have achieved the level of success that we have! Also “find a parade and get in front of it!” I think about this all the time and apply it often. For example, in driving awareness we reached out to much bigger female-founded brands than ours (the parade) and asked to partner up with them, doing collabs for social media or through events, pre-COVID (get in front of it).