Bottoms up with beverage guru Jim Tonkin

For a quarter-century, Jim Tonkin has been the go-to guy for beverage product development and consulting expertise. Got a drink idea? Run it past Jim — catch him if you can, though, because he's an inveterate world traveler, with clients and business interests around the globe.

FI: I can't help but think of you as George Clooney in his latest movie, Up In the Air.

JT: A number of people called me when that movie came out and said it's written about me. I noticed my friends didn't say what the other part of the movie was about — the affair with the gal he fell in love with. My wife and I saw it and I said, "Why did our friends call me on this!" But the rest of the movie was totally me.

If you're going to be a road warrior, there are hotels, restaurants, airlines, rental car companies, and if you don't synergistically point them all together, you're an absolute idiot. My family goes traveling every year, to Hawaii or wherever, all on points. The system is there for everyone if you learn how to use it. You need to take advantage of it.

FI: So which airline has the best rewards programme?

JT: I had almost 3 million miles with United when I lived in San Francisco. When I moved to Phoenix after 9/11, I joined with America West airlines and became what's called a Chairman, meaning you have to fly 100,000 miles a year, after only four months. I'm now hooked into US Airways. I've been a Gold No. 1 club member with Hertz, the highest award they have, for 38 years. They always upgrade me one or two cars anytime I rent.

I paid my dues at Best Western and cheap Marriots, then worked my way up to the Hyatt system — they give upgrades to suites, late check-outs. Now I'm a Starwood VIP, so when I go to a St Regis or a W, all luxury collection of hotels in Europe and Asia, I'm automatically upgraded to the best room in the house. I don't need it, but they obviously appreciate all the travel I do.

FI: Did air travel, with the miniature bottles of alcohol, have anything to do with your professional pursuit of beverage innovation?

JT:I used to have quite a collection of mini bottles. I still collect products, usually as it relates to incredible packaging.

FI: What do you like on the market now?

JT: There's this drink called ViB — vacation in a bottle. It's a fantastic, all-natural beverage. I'm not a carbonated-beverage person, but this particular drink is light and refreshing. It's a unique package, a pictorial on the package that makes you feel like you're out of wherever you are. Most of the aura around it celebrates the right thing.

FI: How important is packaging?

JT: Energy drinks have that iconic 8oz packaging. If you have that, it's going to be assumed to be an energy drink. The precursor of the American energy shot, in those little 2oz shot containers, was these 2.5oz shots in the Asian culture. They know they're going to karaoke at 9 o'clock, so they drink them as a pick-me-up after lunch to get them through the afternoon. The opposite change is also true — look at Arizona Beverages with its 24oz can. Monster followed suit — twice the amount of Red Bull at half the price, a typical American equation.

FI: Are all these drinks good things?

JT: The only bad part is that the healthy aspect is often overlooked, and that's why I'm not into that space. The ingredients in some of those things are enough to make a woman abort. If it's not healthy I'm really not involved. But there's been meteoric success of energy drinks and consumers love it.

Want to hear Tonkin's opinions on potential beverage regulations? How about whether stevia will make it or break it on the backs of beverages? Listen to the entire podcast conversation at Cheers!

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