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Aussie distills Kiss Natural vodka and liqueur

FROM mining in Africa to marine engineering in Australia to growing berries and making vodka in the rugged deserts of northern China, Australian Mel Smit's business career has been anything but conventional.

Based out of Shanghai, Smit is building China's first international vodka and liqueur brand.

Using natural, organic products to create fruit-infused vodkas and liqueurs, the Kiss Natural range is manufactured from a foreign-owned distillery based in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

With business partner Norbert Fischer, Smit has cultivated 1.3 square kilometers in the highlands 30 minutes from Yinchuan, the capital city.

Along with raspberries that they freeze and export, their company Golden Harvest produces peaches, apples, wolfberries and cherries through a cooperative with local farmers.

There is an increasing interest around the world in high-quality raspberries that are prized for their vitamins and high antioxidant content, which is said to help protect against cancer.

Berries freeze particularly well and the Ningxia operation snaps freeze freshly picked berries before exporting them to markets in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

"Ningxia is an ideal growing environment with more than 260 days of sunshine, bountiful water reserves and a dry climate. It's ideal for growing berries and a range of other agricultural products," Smit says.

Smit went into business with Fischer, whose family has more than 50 years' experience growing flowers around the world, and the pair launched the project in 2008.

It took almost two years of experimenting with a number of strains of raspberries that grew well in Ningxia's hot environment and laboratory testing to get the right plant.

The high-tech operation involves a testing laboratory in Beijing where the hybrid strain is grown in vitro before planting.

The Kiss Natural vodkas and liqueurs include a raspberry-infused vodka and an apple liqueur and are available in many popular Shanghai watering holes, including Malone's and the Long Bar in the Portman Center.

"We believe there is a real niche for a premium product like this, made from all-natural products with no preservatives or additives," Smit says.

The distillery can produce up to 11,000 bottles a day and Smit and Fischer aim to broaden their range to soda pop and schnapps.

Smit is no stranger to entrepreneurial adventures, first starting in his family's company, which had mining operations and business interests in South Africa.

Smit grew up in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and left Africa for Australia in 1979.

He moved to the tropical climes of Cairns in Northern Queensland. He was the chief engineer for a fleet of 16 prawn trawlers before making his first foray into Asia in the early 1980s to head the family's granite export business.

His business links were wide ranging across the region and he built links in Singapore, Japan and South Korea before coming to China in the early 1990s.

First based in Xiamen, Fujian Province, Smit diversified into business consultancy for local and foreign companies.

He advises Chinese companies that want to do business according to Western business practices, establish themselves overseas and work with foreign companies.

He also advises foreign companies that want to establish themselves in China. He specializes in project management, accounting and bookkeeping, as well as taxation and company structures.

Six years ago Smit set up his offices in Shanghai and advises multiple industries; one of his last big projects was advising on a turn-key glass fiber plant in Chongqing in southwest China.

Smit's links to China run deeper than business. In the mid-1990s in Xiamen, he married Xiao Dan, a successful businesswoman in her own right.

They have an 11-year-old son Sean and he commutes between Shanghai and Xiamen where the family home is based.

Smit says it will take about four years to build the Kiss Natural brand and they hope to enter their vodka in international competitions to build their reputation.

The company obtained the services of American cocktail expert Mike Armstrong, who also developed signature drinks using Kiss Natural. These include Dragon's Breath, traditional shots and cocktails given a modern twist.

Made from corn and taking only the purest "cut," the so-called heart of the vodka, the spirit also goes through a seven-stage charcoal filtration system to give it a particularly smooth taste.

Combine this with the lack of preservatives and additives, the vodka has a unique kick for lovers of a stiff drink.

"Our vodka is all natural so it won't leave you with a hangover," claims Smit.

Mel Smit

Nationality: Australian

Age: 50

Profession: Business development consultant


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