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September 22, 2022
Higher Intention: An Interview with Wunder Founder & CEO Alexi Chialtas

BY TRINA CALDERÓN | Images courtesy of Wunder

The rise in popularity of "healthier" alcoholic drinks drives a unique demand, with the summer penchant for a nice rosé now being replaced by a hard kombucha, dry cider, or highball seltzer in a can. But inside your local dispensary, there’s a refrigerator case with cannabis-infused beverages in a variety of sparkling flavors and formulations that come with the unique benefits of tuning in instead of tuning out. 

For Wunder beverages, there’s a higher motive, and their co-founder/CEO Alexi Chialtas strives to quench your thirst with intention. When you consider why you want your drink with this effect, and this taste, in this moment, this award-winning cannabis drink brand is trying to answer those questions with their variety of fine-tuned, precisely dosed flavors.

When I tried Wunder's drinks, I found they’re effective, taste refreshing, and for me, feel better in my body than alcohol. I asked Alexi about the genesis of the two beverage lines that make up Wunder, the lower dose Sessions with 2mg THC, 2mg Delta-8, and 4mg CBD, while the Higher Vibes selection has 10mg Delta-9 THC and 10mg Delta-8 THC per can.

While new THC-infused beverage brands at large are leading with the hope that first-timers discover their drinks as a hangover-free alternative or addition to alcohol, Wunder has a new approach: to "raise your vibrations," and help you feel more present, more mindful, and open to more wonder. Ember recently caught up with Alexi to hear more.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

EMBER: What inspired you to develop a cannabis beverage?

ALEXI CHIALTAS: There's two paths that came together, the first having used cannabis socially discovering it in college. I lived in Europe in an international dorm, so my exposure to it wasn't a bong. It was spliffs, mixing cannabis with tobacco and using that as a ritual for social occasions. Whether it's the end of the day on a Friday or at the end of dinner or after late night out, it was this ritual of smoking together with a group of people and having real conversation. That was something I always appreciated during my college years. 

As I got older, first with crazy work and then with the family and kids, cannabis fell off the radar. It became harder and harder to get if you weren't getting it consistently. When I had kids, when cannabis was legalized in California in 2018, I was excited. I'd buy a pre-roll or whatever, and I realized it wasn't the same experience.

I realized that one, [smoking] in front of my kids, I couldn't really do. That was a new part of my life I hadn't recognized as it relates to cannabis. Second, it wasn't the ritual anymore, because I could take one hit or maybe two hits and then that would be it. There was no social conversation, because I was usually by myself when I was thinking about doing this. It was without the actual social occasion, and the people, and the interaction. That's one thread around my cannabis use that would combine with the idea that alcohol is present for the best occasions in your life and often can be present in some of the most stressful times in your life.

"[We realized] there's an opportunity to change the way that people think about social moments, alcohol consumption, or beverage consumption."

I was at a high growth startup that was growing insanely—in three years, we went from 300 to 3,000 people and went public. We had lots of celebrations, lots of great opportunity, and alcohol was right there, usually in a positive and fun way, but sometimes with mistakes. But as we started going through stressful times, I realized the duality of alcohol and how alcohol was used for these stressful moments to bring people together as a coping mechanism.

I had the scotch collection on my desk, and if it was a rough week, you could come by. I was a vice president, and as we were restructuring and going through those moments, it later became eye-opening to see that I was really using alcohol as a coping mechanism for myself. When I left the company, I stopped drinking unintentionally; I wanted to refocus on my personal and physical health.

When cannabis became legal recreationally in 2018 within California, I started looking at the industry because I was curious and interested. When my co-founder and I realized we’d be able to make cannabis beverages, the kind of thesis around alcohol alternatives, around a true alternative in terms of feeling an effect relative to alcohol, that thesis came together, and we got really excited about it. It’s tech meets personal consumption, being an adult with kids, and realizing that there's an opportunity to change the way that people think about social moments, alcohol consumption, or beverage consumption.

 

How does changing the social situation come across drinking a Wunder beverage?

It's easy to generalize across "social" and "fun." But if you really look into it, even within the alcohol spectrum, there's a different beverage for different occasions. A glass of wine with a nice dinner is very different than a tequila shot at a bar. A vodka Red Bull is very different than a scotch night cap.

Through our formulation, our flavors, and the format, we provide an opportunity for someone to take our drinks and apply it into a more intentional setting. For some people it might be this way, but for most people and cannabis in general, it's not the, "Hey, I want to be somewhat disassociated, and I want to go into a bar with 100 people where I don't know anyone and I want to go have a good time."

That, whether people consciously are saying it or not, that's what people do when they pre-gameThat's a social construct and a social situation. Wunder's approach is: "I'm with familiar people that I want to connect with. I want to be in tune to what I'm feeling, in tune to what they're feeling, and be comfortable with myself and in my own skin." We're not saying don't drink alcohol, but what we are saying is, be intentional and think through what you want. 

"Wunder's approach is: "I want to be in tune to what I'm feeling... and be comfortable with myself and in my own skin."

How did you approach creating the unique Delta-9, Delta-8, and CBD combinations for Wunder's beverages?

In 2018 and 2019, we were in our R&D mode. Our north star for thinking about what we wanted to create goes back to this idea that cannabis is a very complicated plant. It's not one-dimensional. It can be oversimplified to be just about THC. That may be the first innings of cannabis from recreational speak. 

Our belief at the time was that there are over 200 different compounds in the cannabis plant and the only one we talked about was Delta-9 or THC. Our vision was that we could create a different product, supported by a different ingredient stack that would be appropriate for different occasions. Those ingredients can include cannabis and non-cannabis. In our first step forward, it includes cannabis only, but it includes different compounds within cannabis.

Because we are all so early in the scientific understanding of these different compounds, we wanted to know how we could start to do our own trials and tests and with consumers and small groups to understand: What happens when we include Delta-8? What happens if it's just CBN? What happens if it's THCV? What happens if it's just Delta-9? How does that feel? How do people react? What is that experience? How do we match the ingredients stack to the experience that we're trying to go for, which is a relaxing, weight-off-your-shoulders-after-a-long-day feeling? That's why we picked Delta-8, since people were telling us that it gave them more of a body relaxation feeling.

 

How did you choose your sparkling flavors? There’s a great spectrum of taste, like Grapefruit Hibiscus and Blackberry Lemon.

We wanted our customers to feel nostalgic, but also have it feel fresh. Our target audience, which is 30 to 45 or 50 years old, grew up with some form of soda, whether that was a Fanta, an Italian soda, a Coke, or a root beer. It's these bold flavors that today people tend to associate, and rightfully so, with, "This is bad for me because it's sweet and it tastes really good." It's the sugar.  

When you have a 12-ounce drink that has 40 grams of sugar, that is bad for you. That's why our all-natural drinks keep the sugar count as low as possible. When the pendulum shifted from this bold, flavor-packed with sugar drink to lightly flavored, basically sparkling water drink, we wanted to figure out interesting ways to deliver on the flavor. Grapefruit, lemon, blood orange, and watermelon were our core base flavors that we started with.

We also wanted to make the flavors modern and fresh. That's where the secondary flavor comes in from: hibiscus, ginger, bitters. These flavors add complexity and depth to the flavor profile, which matches the cannabis profile. 

"How do we match the ingredients stack to the experience that we're trying to go for, which is a relaxing, weight-off-your-shoulders-after-a-long-day feeling?"

I’ve read a lot of positive WUNDER testimonials, from people from all walks of life. Here’s one example: "Hi, I stumbled across your product. I had not heard of Delta-8 before. I have to say your product is the only one that I have taken that doesn't make me high and handles my trigeminal neuralgia pain. I have tried smoking, vaping, edibles, CBD/THC ratios, and yours is the only one that stops the pain and I can function (read: take care of my 11-year-old son and be a full-time university student).”

Your customers are expressive, considerate, and real. The testimonials I read felt like an insight into cannabis that's creating meaningful moments for people. What is it that Wunder can do for other people to help provide that experience, perhaps even a mood of true 'wonder'?

Part of why we've fallen in love with this concept around Wunder, is that ‘wonder’ can mean so many things to different people. That's the power of it, it’s very personal and individualized. I find lately that some of my biggest moments of wonder—particularly this week when things are so challenging, the macro environment, and work—is being with my four-and-a-half-year-old. She loves coming up to me, hugging me, sitting with me, and cuddling. Whether I'm using cannabis or not, that's a moment of wonder. 

When you can have so much stress on your mind, using cannabis and allowing its effects to sink in allows you to be more open to seeing those special, small moments of wonder that can be easy to overlook. For some people, myself included, you could go on a hike, get outside, go for a walk, have a Wunder, and experience the trees, the surroundings, and feel your heart rate. That’s a moment of wonder. Our hope is that people can open themselves up, and experience how cannabis could help them find those moments for themselves to appreciate.


Trina Calderón is an author, journalist, and multimedia artist from Los Angeles. She is devoted to stories with social impact and diverse participants. 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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