How to Sip Your Spirits Like Anteel Tequila’s Nayana Ferguson

We asked the trailblazing tequila brand co-owner how she got started, and about her go-to home bar essentials.

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Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
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If you could do anything with your life, what would you do?

That was the question Nayana Ferguson posed to then-fiancé Don in 2017 as they discussed potential investments and retirement plans during a trip to the Dominican Republic. “I would own a tequila company,” he responded before quickly adding, “but we can’t do that.” “And I was like, why not?” recalled Ferguson.

Undaunted, the Detroit native channeled the hustle that her city is known for and within two days of research had sourced a distillery in Mexico. That distillery—Destiladora del Valle de Tequila—now produces and bottles Anteel Tequila, the Michigan-based spirit brand responsible for the world's only Coconut Lime Blanco Tequila. The venture also made Ferguson the first Black woman to co-own a tequila brand.

Since launching in 2018, Anteel Tequila has gained national acclaim and overwhelmingly positive reviews. They have won silver and bronze at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, silver and gold medals at the Bartender Spirits Awards, and gold at the SIP Awards.

Their signature tequila goes down smooth “with a hint of lime” according to Ferguson but the process from ideation to actualization was slightly bumpier. After receiving samples, Ferguson, who is a financial analyst by trade, forecasted whether the undertaking was feasible budget-wise. She also needed to convince a still skeptical Don.

“I said we can do a small batch and kind of see how it comes out. And after he tasted the samples, he really liked them. And he's like, do you really think we can do this? And I was like, absolutely.”

Unable to visit Mexico due to the country’s political unrest, the couple handled all the logistics via email and courier services. In between filing permits and seeking Mexican government approval, Ferguson was learning all she could about the spirits industry. It would be 11 months before they physically held their first bottle of the finished product.

Most tequila brands launch with a blanco initially, followed by a reposado and finally an añejo. To set themselves apart, the Fergusons wanted to do something a bit different. Their intel showed that arguably the most popular cocktail in the United States is another Mexican import, the margarita.

“And so we were like, what if we develop something that's like a cocktail in a glass?” shared Ferguson. “All you need to do is pour it and just put some ice in it. So we started researching and found out that the coconut margarita actually was one of the most popular margaritas as well. Margarita is basically tequila and lime. How about we try to do a coconut lime one? We knew that there were tequilas out there with coconut. And we knew there were tequilas out there with lime. But none of them together.”

A tequila with that flavor profile was especially important to Ferguson, as a survivor of both breast and pancreatic cancer, who is also pre-diabetic. Tequila is made from the agave plant so it’s naturally low in sugar, carbohydrates, and calories. Their Coconut Lime Blanco is devoid of synthetics or sweeteners, but rather relies on the natural extracts of the coconut meat and lime. It’s a healthier option for someone like Ferguson who likes to enjoy the occasional cocktail.

“I do hear from some people who are survivors of pancreatic cancer who have tried it and they're like thank you for educating people about it because as a cancer survivor, of course, they don't want you drinking or anything like that,” she said. “But I'm still human and I still want a cocktail here and there. And a lot of people don't know that tequila is considered a cleaner spirit, just because it is naturally gluten-free.”

The brand can be purchased online and is currently available in seven states (Michigan, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Texas) with plans for expansion in 2022. In addition to their best-selling Coconut Lime Blanco, they have since added Anteel Blanco and the Anteel Reposado which is aged eight months in Tennessee whiskey barrels instead of the customary six months in American oak barrels. The company is also experimenting with other expressions. For this year’s National Tequila Day they offered a limited release of Blood Orange Blanco, made with 100% Blue Weber Agave tequila and infusions of Tarocco blood oranges from Sicily. An añejo is also in the developmental stages but in keeping with their overall vibe, it needs to be unique. “We come up with different ideas and different products. We don't want to be like everyone else," notes Ferguson.

If Ferguson seems undaunted, it’s because kicking cancer to the curb—twice—is hardly the first challenge she has successfully overcome. After graduating from Cass Technical High School in Midtown Detroit, she enrolled at Wayne State University as a pre-med student with hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon. A slew of personal setbacks forced her to drop out two and a half years in. She would later complete a bachelor's degree in business and then an MBA in business management.

Being an African-American woman in a predominantly male and white industry also comes with obstacles. Ferguson admits that the most pressing issue is distributorship and getting access to the resources afforded to larger brands. She and her husband poured their own funds into the business for almost two years. They recently opened up to investments from family and friends, avoiding the venture capital route for fear of losing controlling interest in the business.

“We probably will look for some opportunities that will help us in that area,” she said. “We do know of several companies that have opened up for Black-owned brands and we are looking into those." In the meantime, Nayana and Don continue to be partners in every sense of the word. She handles the operations and logistics while he brings his extensive experience in marketing. Even the name Anteel is a nod to their relationship and those nascent conversations in the Dominican Republic.

It’s short for the Antillean Mango Crested Hummingbird, which flitted above their heads during that trip where Don proposed. The hummingbird is embossed on every bottle of Anteel tequila. “We found that in that culture there is a legend about hummingbirds,” Ferguson explained. “They take your wishes up to God and up to the universe if they fly over your head. In some cultures it means joy. They just mean positive things.”

So far, the legend has proven to be true.

Nayana Ferguson’s Must-Haves For Home Bartending

  • Swoon Monkfruit Simple Syrup: “Instead of simple syrup, because it spikes my glycemic index, I use monkfruit sweetener or monkfruit simple syrup.”
  • Reusable ice cubes in multi-colored and white: “I don’t like my drinks diluted. If I’m going to drink something, I want all of my drink.”
  • Glencairn whisky glass: “The way that the glass is made — it’s concave and narrows out — it brings the bouquet and aromas up and it actually opens up the spirit. It gives you the full experience.”
  • Über bar tools - "We LOVE bar tools from Über Bar Tools as they're EXTREMELY high quality, made to last and are made with bartenders in mind."
  • Measuring shot glasses - "These glass measuring shot glasses make it super-easy to make drinks at home, only needing one glass instead of multiple jiggers. Great for beginning mixologists."
  • Margarita glasses from Libbey - "We love the stemless margarita glasses, they're absolutely a great conversation starter."
  • Rocks glasses by Riedel - "Riedel makes great quality glassware that are a must in every home bar."
  • Strauss Collins glasses - "We use Collins glasses a lot, keeping many on hand in the home bar so we love these from Straus as they are very cost efficient."
  • Riedel martini glasses - "Riedel's Extreme Martini glass is a timeless classic, just like a martini. It's like holding glass art in your hand and drinking from it."
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