On this “Next Round” episode, host Adam Teeter chats with Kat Hantas, co-founder/CEO of 21 Seeds, and Pierrick Bouquet, the brand’s VP of marketing. The three discuss the unique space of infused tequila, and how 21 Seeds targets new consumers to the spirits space.
Listeners will learn how 21 Seeds began as a kitchen project and why it appeals to the millennial woman. Then, Bouquet explains his role in the brand and why he left the world of rosé to work in tequila. In addition, Hantas shares the celebrities who support her brand, including Katie Couric, Jessica Alba, and even Oprah. Finally, she explains her vision for the future of 21 Seeds.
Tune in and visit https://www.21seeds.com/ to learn more about 21 Seeds.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I am Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We bring you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to give you a better idea of what’s happening in the alcohol beverage world. Today, I’m joined by Kat Hantas, the co-founder/CEO of 21 Seeds, and Pierrick Bouquet, the VP of marketing. Pierrick and Kat, thank you so much for joining me.
Kat Hantas: It’s great to be here, Adam. Thanks for having us.
Pierrick Bouquet: Thanks for having us, Adam.
A: Before we jump into talking about the business, can you explain to me what 21 Seeds is and how the brand started?
K: Sure, and good question. 21 Seeds is an all-natural, real fruit-infused blanco tequila. It comes in three infusions: Valencia Orange, Cucumber Jalapeño, and Grapefruit Hibiscus. Actually, the reason it exists is because of a problem that I was having with wine, of all things.
K: It was actually on doctor’s orders. I was a wine drinker. I drank white wine and rosé for many years, and then I just started to feel crappy, so I went to my doctor. He did some tests, and everything was fine. Then, he looked at what I was eating and drinking. When he got to the fact that I would finish off my night with a couple of glasses of wine every night he said, “Oh, there’s the culprit. I think if you just stop drinking everything fermented, move away from wine, beer, Champagne, and switch over to a distilled spirit.” He specifically recommended that I stick to a blanco, white spirit that is not aged in barrels because that if you are looking to drink cleaner, the cleanest way to drink is a white spirit that’s distilled. He recommended I switch to blanco tequila. It comes from an agave plant, so it’s gluten-free. I did just that. I actually went home, and on the one hand, I was very happy. He didn’t ask me to stop drinking altogether because that wasn’t going to happen. I’m a mom to two kids, and I looked forward to the end of my day to relax and unwind with my glass of wine. Now, I needed to figure out how to relax and unwind with blanco tequila, which is much harsher than wine. I thought, “What am I going to do to this blanco to just smooth it out, lighten it up a bit, make it a little more approachable, make it as easy to sip on like a glass of wine?” I love to cook, so I started infusing it much in the way I was doing it in my kitchen the way you would make sangria. You put the fruit into the tequila, let it sit for various amounts of time. By doing that, it really did the trick. It cut that harsh bite of tequila, smoothed it out tremendously, and imparted a hint of flavor but didn’t make it overly sweet. I find a lot of flavored spirits, traditionally, are quite sweet. They have this weird aftertaste like you’re sucking on nickel but smells like Jolly Ranchers. When you’re infusing, it is a very different experience in its entirety, but that did the trick. I would still serve it to myself and drink it in a wine glass. I would use a little bit of my infused tequila, some club soda, slice of orange, and that became my new wine ritual. That became my new nightly ritual, and I did that for about eight years. Over the course of the eight years, I noticed that a lot of my girlfriends were making that same switch, specifically from wine and Champagne to tequila. They were either drinking blanco tequila, club soda, and three limes if we were out at a bar or restaurant. For our own personal use and their own personal use, they were asking me to make the bottles of infused tequila. After the kitchen became a lab, we decided to turn it into a business. I did that with my sister Nicole. I started the company with my sister Nicole and my girlfriend Sarika. That is where the name 21 Seeds comes from. It’s two sisters, one girlfriend, and seeds. Everything that goes into 21 seeds is all-natural and comes from a seed.
A: Oh, cool. I’m really curious about how you built the brand. It has only been around for a little over two years, right?
K: That’s right.
A: And already growing pretty quickly. When you started the brand. Did you raise funding? Did you bootstrap it? How did you get this off the ground in the first place?
K: Yeah, so we initially started with our own funds. We each put in a very small amount of money, the three of us founders, to just explore. The three of us do not come from spirits, so we needed to learn everything there was to learn about spirits. How do you even make tequila? What do we do once we get it here? We were learning about the business, and we used that money to do that and do our research to figure out if we could actually make the product. At that point, we raised a seed round from friends and family. Right before the pandemic last year, we raised a Series A, so we closed a Series A round. We’ve seen tremendous growth, and we needed to finance that growth, so that’s what led to the subsequent rounds of financing.
A: Amazing. Look, raising money is really hard so I commend you for being able to do that. After you raised money and got off the ground, I think you took a really interesting path, which is actually something that I talk to a lot of brands about often. Not a lot of people do this, where you pay attention to where the consumers buy alcohol — and what I mean by that is I think a lot of new brands really think that their path to the market is focusing on-premise. They want to get into the coolest bars. They want to be poured at the Death & Co of the world, right? They think that’s where the discovery is going to happen, whereas you really seem to have very much focused on the actual retailers, the Total Wines, and things like that. Why was that and how did you make that decision? I have to tell you, I think it’s a decision a lot more brands should make and don’t.
K: Yeah, thanks for noticing that, and you articulated that perfectly. That is exactly what we did. We really thought about “her,” the consumer. Where does she shop, and where does she go to discover brands? First and foremost, before we find out where she shops, where does she go to discover brands? With 21 Seeds, it’s a product “for her, by her, and the men who support her.” But those first two spots are all about her. Our approach was very much how we thought about how RX approached it. They said, “OK, we’re going to create this bar and we’re going to hit the CrossFit community. I think when you’re really focused you end up solving and we set out to solve 90 percent of all of “her” points. Where does she discover it? Is it a convenient product? Is it the product that she wants to be drinking? Is this the flavor profile she likes? Oftentimes, I think in spirits, the industry thinks that just because women don’t like something that’s harsh, like say, whiskey, they want something that’s sweet. That’s actually not necessarily true. We just want something balanced and smooth, so we really thought about every single one of our pain points, including, most importantly, where does she discover brands? In our experience, we are three female founders. We’re also predominantly female-owned and run, so we’re surrounded by women. We had a lot of female friends to talk to and what we realized was, back when we launched in 2019, women were discovering brands in what I like to call the outer-premise, which is this online, digital universe where they go to read about brands that they don’t know about. They go to discover cocktail recipes, they go to discover food recipes, and they go to connect with their girlfriends. Then, whether it’s online where they’re reading about us or truly connecting with their girlfriends through Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, all of that was happening there. That is where we focused from the beginning. Again, this was before the pandemic, before the spirits industry as a whole moved over to online and really realized that was a channel that they needed to focus on because now this was the only way they could communicate and connect with their customer. We launched our brand in that way, so we were ahead of the game in that respect, which was great because it really helped us grow much quicker.
A: I mean, you 100 percent were, which I think is really interesting. Obviously, the way you talk about branding is really interesting. You talk about “her” and really think about the customer. The way you talk about the brand reminds me of another one that I had on the podcast recently. Obviously not a spirit, but a wine beverage. In the same way, were there other brands you were looking at as you were starting the brand to think about how we want to talk about this? Who are we reaching? Was there an area of beverage you were looking at to say, “This is our customer and how do we create a brand that goes after that same customer in the way that these other brands are?”
K: Again, because there are so few spirits within the spirits industry that, from our perspective, really are addressing that female consumer in an authentic way. From inception, it wasn’t an afterthought or trying to grab that female consumer because she’s important. Since there were so few of those in spirits, we didn’t have any examples that we could look to see how they built that. I think it was actually great that we didn’t come from spirits because we did look at other brands and how those brands were connecting. We looked at Glossier. We looked at Outdoor Voices. We looked at those brands to think, “Oh, it’s about the occasion.” It’s not so much about the thing that we’re selling, but inspiring that consumer to want to drink it. What are the occasions that she’s drinking our product? Thinking about those moments, really driving the marketing in that direction, and not so much on the product. We focused really hard on how to make it perfect, and make it delicious. We’ve won great awards within the industry, which is awesome, but for us, we wanted to make sure the product was delicious and amazing. We felt like we did that. We like to say it’s flavor done right. After that, we thought, “That job is done now. Now, let’s think about what we stand for as a brand and how we are trying to reach these women and insert ourselves in those moments in her life where she’s celebrating?” That actually brings us to Pierrick Bouquet, who’s on the call with us right now. I know he’s not saying anything, although he has a gorgeous French accent that everyone should hear. We thought to ourselves, we looked at rosé. Is a rosé any better or so much different than white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, or any light wine? Is it so incredibly different? Yes, you guys in the wine industry would tell me there are a million reasons that make those categories different. From our perspective in terms of what rosé stands for, is it’s the feeling that you get when you pop open a bottle of rosé. As a woman, that means there are good times ahead. Good times ahead with your girlfriends, whether it’s girls’ night, cocktail hour, going out to the pool, or by the beach. I know when I pop open that bottle of rosé, I’m going to have this incredible experience. Since I couldn’t drink my beloved rosé anymore, I wanted to recreate that with 21 Seeds. We even have a cork on our bottle, so when you pop off that wood cork, we want women to have that same feeling that there’s going to be this incredible moment that’s going to get shared, this amazing experience of coming together and celebrating with your girlfriends. That’s what we were setting out to create and that’s why we went and found the guy that really took that to another level.
A: Pierrick, you and I have known each other for a very long time. Obviously, you had a bunch of really cool events that you did in New York, La Nuit en Rosé and Pinknic. You’ve been very much in the rosé world for a long time. I’m curious, from your perspective, what caused you to leave rosé and come into the world of tequila? What was so compelling about this product that made you make the jump?
P: Yeah, I just had too much rosé in my life, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. In all honesty, when I started with the rosé events and festivals back in 2013, what drove me into rosé at the time was really about the occasion of drinking rosé and seeing how millennial women were interested in this category of drink. This is what I find fascinating about 21 Seeds and where this infused-tequila category is going, because people chose rosé for a few reasons. That explains the success of the rosé category within the last 10 years. It’s an easy product. It’s an easy wine to understand. It’s a beautiful wine from the color of it. It speaks to a demographic that grew up with parents that were drinking red and white wine, and they couldn’t really identify themselves with these categories. Now, you have a new category of wine that is available to you that you can actually post on Instagram, TikTok, and have fun with it. That’s what we did with rosé. That’s the beauty of it, and it’s why it’s still very popular today. However, my passion is about looking at the trends in the drink category, especially where the rosé demographics are going and what they’re drinking. I believe what’s happening right now in the spirits space with RTDs, cocktails you make at home, or drinking in bars, this is where the demand is growing right now. This is the direction I want to take because I see this as the future drink for millennial women and moms. 21 Seeds is the definition of that, right? You have this beautiful, high-quality tequila that was infused with grapefruit and hibiscus or cucumber jalapeño or Valencia oranges. It has amazing qualities to begin with, and you simply add a club soda to it to make it a delicious drink that you can enjoy the same way as you would enjoy a glass of rosé. I think people are looking for new experiences, especially integrating spirits in their drink experiences. As Kat said at the beginning, if you just put out a drink like a regular blanco tequila, it’s not going to be the experience that you want to have with a drink. That’s the beauty of 21 Seeds, and I’m excited to be part of the story now.
A: Kat, when you started making the drink, how did you figure out where to source the tequila? What was that experience like, and how much did you work on developing the recipes with the distillery in order to be able to scale to the level that you’re at now, where you’re able to supply places like Total Wine, Target, and places like that?
K: Yeah, absolutely. We had to scale so quickly last year. Last year, the premium tequila category grew 67 percent, largely driven by our sales. No one was talking about flavored tequila in 2019. Then, in 2020, the category was up 67 percent, and in the last 26 weeks, it’s up 138 percent. We’re really driving all that growth, and we had to scale quickly. The good news is we found an incredible partner down in Mexico. A distillery also owned by a woman and predominantly staffed by women, which I think played a big part in why we were able to do the things that we were able to do because nobody was infusing tequila down in Mexico when we went down and started touring distilleries that would actually make the product for us. When we found this distillery, which was the one that we ultimately partnered with, we chose it based on the quality of the base tequila. We needed the smoothest possible blank slate, so that’s what we were looking for and we chose her distillery. We presented what we were trying to do, and she didn’t have the equipment in place to infuse that scale, but she saw in us herself when she was first getting started. She’s a second-generation, and her mother recently passed away, but her mother owned a tequila bottling company in Veracruz. She had grown up in the industry and saw that there weren’t a lot of women in the industry. She really wanted to bring more women into the industry and she saw us, three women, trying to do something very different in tequila. We wanted to make tequila much more approachable to an audience that was curious about it and interested in it especially for all the wellness reasons but for those that still couldn’t find their way into the category because it was still a bit too harsh for them. She saw that we were really innovating and doing something different and told us, “Look, I see myself in you guys.” She really wanted to help us, so because of that, she was willing to allocate a certain portion of her distillery to where we could house our equipment and really get behind the brand, even though we had never proved ourselves in the spirits industry. We were new to spirits and certainly new to tequila, so she’s been super helpful. The team there has been incredibly helpful. It took us about, I would say, close to a year to get the tinkering and everything down, to make the product that you taste today. It was quite a journey and without that distillery, we never would have been able to do it.
A: In terms of the consumption of 21 Seeds, are you mostly recommending that people mix with it, or is anyone drinking it straight? What’s the desired way to consume it?
K: The truth is, I always imagined having a spirit on my bar cart at home. I love those scenes in “Mad Men” where they just go and pour it straight into a whiskey glass or something. Where’s that spirit for women? I think there are certainly women who drink it straight. Katie Couric actually loves the Cucumber Jalapeño on the rocks. That’s how she drinks it, and she is a huge supporter of the brand. We’ve found some great support for 21 Seeds early on. We made Oprah’s list of summer favorites. The way she loves to drink it is as a spicy Margarita, so the Cucumber Jalapeño with just a little splash of simple syrup, lime juice, and you’re done. Then, there’s a whole group of people out there just drinking it as a spritz. I would say that probably the most common way that we are consumed is just 21 Seeds, tequila, club soda, and garnish with your favorite fruit. Maybe you add a splash, but there are so many different club sodas now on the market and flavored seltzers that between those two ingredients, just 21 Seeds, tequila, and a flavored club soda, plain club soda, or flavored seltzer, you’ve got a gorgeous four- or five-ingredient cocktail. Again, this speaks to the convenience part of it again, which is another one of I say women’s pain points, but all of the people’s pain points. When they’re looking to make a cocktail at the end of the night, no one wants to measure stuff and do math. You want it easy, convenient, and you want it versatile. That’s the other reason why we didn’t make an RTD, because I think with RTDs, if you don’t like exactly what’s in the can now, suddenly you’ve got to doctor that and add a little more tequila and add a little more club soda. We figured if we just create this incredible infused tequila, then people can scale up, scale down, go hard, or go light. There’s so much flexibility in it and it’s still very convenient, easy, and you don’t take fresh lime out of the equation.
A: OK, so a lot of what we talk about on this specific program is the business behind everything. You obviously mentioned some amazing people who are fans of the brand and I’m sure people who are listening are curious about how those fans come about? Was that PR? Was that the right place, right time, or are there massive investors in the product? How did you get to some of these people? We’ve had people who are avid listeners and entrepreneurs themselves who wonder how that happens in the first place.
K: Absolutely. Many of the fans that have found 21 Seeds, it’s all happened organically for us. I’ll give you a perfect example. Katie Couric was interviewed by New York Magazine at the end of the summer of 2019. She was asked what were some of her favorite things from the Hamptons from that summer? She actually talked about us, and she just had us somewhere so she tasted the brand, and likely it was recommended to her by another woman. One thing to note about 21 Seeds is that we have an 80 percent female consumer, so what we set out to do, we did.
A: That’s impressive.
K: Yeah, and think about that. We’re talking about tequila here, right? This is not an RTD. This is not wine. This is not a ready-to-drink in a bottle. This is tequila, and we have an 80 percent female consumer. Our hypothesis is to go where she is, let her know about the brand or product, and make a really good product and she’ll do the rest. She’ll recommend it to her girlfriends, and that’s the beauty of it. The grapevine, right? Women love to recommend to other women, so we really relied on that. What happened was Katie tasted it. Then, she wrote about us in her Wake Up With Katie, which is an incredible newsletter. She wrote about us in that and then the Today show saw that because they follow Katie. Then, they called us and did a whole profile on us on the Today show. From there, Katie continues to support us where she always includes us in giveaways, holiday giveaways, Mother’s Day giveaways, and her readers see it and recommend us to other folks. That’s what happened. Jessica Alba is another fan of the brand. She recommended us to other people. We knew that Naomi Watts knew Jessica Alba, so all of a sudden Naomi Watts is posting about the brand. All of these people are just authentic fans of the brand, and that’s the power of the female network, which I think a lot of industries sometimes ignore that are outside the traditional industries of, say, skincare, and clothing.
A: That makes a lot of sense. What does the future hold for the brand? Is this something where you brought on someone like Pierrick, you’re continuing to scale and you’re growing? Do you want to continue to fuel the growth? Is this a brand that you ultimately would like to exit from? What are your goals, your sister’s, and your girlfriend’s goals with the brand? Or what have you thought about in terms of where you want to see this in the next five years or so?
K: Yeah, so we feel like we’re just getting started. The interesting thing is we went after where she was to let her know about the brand. Then, we wanted to put it where she shops, right? Our power user is the millennial mom, and she shops at the grocery. We wanted to make sure we got into all the grocery stores from Sam’s Club to Walmart to Safeway, all of those places. That was the first round. Now, the beauty of that is we’ve laid out this great distribution network, and now our girl is drinking us at home. When she goes back out, as things start to open up again, she’s going to want to be able to find us on-premise. Now, we can take all of that great distribution and awareness and go to the on-premise and say, “Hey, guys and girls, listen, they’re drinking this at home and they’re going to want to drink it in the bars and restaurants.” Our focus is to really hit the on-premise big time where we think we make so much sense because we make those most commonly sold cocktails, Margaritas, Spicy Margarita, Paloma, and we’ve done 80 percent of the heavy lifting.
K: You can make a cleaner, easier-to-drink, lighter, few ingredients, and fewer bartender touchpoints with 21 Seeds. We think that there’s a real opportunity in the on-premise, which we’re excited about for this year. We want to just continue to grow the brand, continue to bring in more women and people who have left the category. Oftentimes, we’ll get folks who say, “Oh, I can’t even smell tequila. I want to because everyone’s been drinking it, but since college, it’s too much.” We say, “Just smell it.” Then they do, and suddenly we’ve brought them back to the category, and they’re so excited. We think there’s so much potential still that we have not even begun to unearth, and we’ve gotten requests from overseas now for the product. We want to focus on the U.S., really hit this market hard over the next couple of years, and think about expanding internationally. We’re open to whatever the future holds, but we’re so excited to do this. On top of it, I think we are pioneers where we are part of those early women in spirits, which we’re thrilled about, to bring more people into the category. I talk a lot with younger females, not necessarily younger, but just other women who are looking to get in the industry, sharing how we did it, our approach, which we love. I’m on the advisory council now for WSWA helping with exactly that.
A: Oh, wow.
K: Yeah, which is really cool with how you bring a craft spirit to market in this day and age. We’re writing that playbook together with some other really cool brands that they’ve included in the advisory council, so I’m really, really stoked about that.
A: Very cool. Well, this has been really interesting to learn a lot more about the brand, to hear all about the growth, what’s been happening, and how you created it. Kat, thank you so much. Pierrick, it’s been great to chat with you, albeit not as much, but that’s fine that you just joined. It’s been awesome having you on as well, so thank you both so much for joining me to chat about 21 Seeds. I really appreciate it.
P: Thank you, Adam.
K: Thanks, Adam.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.