LONG PROCESS: Unable to find a manufacturer in New Zealand that could combine both jelly and vodka, Jake had to search offshore for a company that could – a process he says was long and complicated, and which set him on a steep learning curve. D8245-06

JAKE Smith doesn’t gamble. The 20-year-old former Trident High School student says he wouldn’t put a coin in a pokie machine.

“There’s a difference between a risk and a gamble,” Jake says, laughing off the ribbing he says he gets from his friends who suggest their non-gambling friend may have just taken the biggest gamble of them all.”

A shipping container recently arrived in New Zealand carries the result of Jake’s business venture – it is filled to the brim with vodka shots. Shot It vodka jelly shots, to be precise – 25 shots to a jar, six jars to a box, 520 boxes, 78,000 shots in all.

The arrival of the container and it bountiful contents represent a process that spans the past two years. The entrepreneurial young man says the venture began when he was inspired to create a different and “fun” way of consuming alcohol, with an eye towards keeping it small and portable.

“My original idea was to make vodka lollies,” he says. “Typical lollies, but with alcohol.”

Jake started researching, gathering different ingredients and flavours and using the kitchen of his family’s Poroporo home to experiment, determining what might work and what wouldn’t.

“A lot of things didn’t work,” he laughs. “Vodka evaporates once it gets to about 70 degrees, so the first thing I found out was that I wouldn’t be able to make hard lollies.” Not easily deterred, Jake then tried his hand at making soft lollies instead, and then, to making jelly lollies. But despite many months of experimenting, he couldn’t get it right.

First trying a recipe of distilled water, gelatine and vodka, he says the lollies “tasted awful,” spurring him to develop his recipe to include flavourings – an experimental process that would continue for months.

“I tried so many things, so many ways of flavouring them but each time there was a problem,” he says. “They’d taste of the flavour for a few days and then they’d start tasting just like vodka, and a few days after that, they’d be tasting like nothing at all.”

Realising he needed a way to seal each individual lolly, protecting it from “leeching” both alcohol and flavour, Jake says he finally had to concede his beloved vodka lolly concept wasn’t going to happen. “I didn’t have the equipment or any way to carry out a process like that. I had to let it go.”

But Jake had been playing around with vodka jellies for a long while at that stage and wasn’t planning on giving up and he says when he had the idea of putting the vodka jellies into little cups, it was his “ah ha moment”.

“I’m young,” he says. “I know how popular shots are”. And while recipes for jelly shots can be found on line, Jake says as far as he is aware, they can’t be commercially purchased in New Zealand.

The decision “to go for it,” to create and sell his own product, was, Jake says, exciting, though nothing could have prepared him for the intensive process that would follow, a challenging few months in which he says he has learned so much.

Navigating his way through the rules and regulations involved with producing and selling a food or beverage product in New Zealand would, Jake says, consume the better part of the following year.

“I didn’t have a commercial kitchen to produce the shots myself, so first up was finding a way to have them commercially made.”

“It was difficult,” he says. “There were people who handled the manufacture of lollies, and people who handled alcohol, but there wasn’t really any crossover. I couldn’t find anyone in New Zealand who would do it.”

Looking further afield, it was an overseas manufacturer that gave Jake the ‘yes’ that he was searching for. “It was awesome to hear that someone could make them. Exciting,” but he says it signalled just the start of the journey.

“There were so many things I needed to learn about food and beverage compliance, about ingredients and how they are listed. I had to register with Ministry of Primary Industries as an importer and register with customs.” All this, while building the relationship with an offshore company that Jake was trusting to make his dream come true.

Alongside Jake’s fulltime job as a mechanical engineer (nearing the end of his apprenticeship at Norske Skog), he says for several months, he needed about 20 hours a week to get up to speed with all of the regulations, the legal requirements and “endless paperwork,’ ensuring he could adhere to everything correctly. “Up early on the computer before work, straight on when I got home.”

Communication with the manufacturing company overseas went well. “They knew exactly what I wanted, and I had my logo designed in Whakatane and sent them that too. They did a test batch and sent samples, and they were great. Aside from needing them to change the size of the shot container, and a whole lot of stuff around the labelling, I was really happy.” And so, he says, “I went all in”. A diligent saver since first starting work, Jake used his savings to fund the order – 78,000 Shot It vodka jelly shots, enough to fill an entire shipping container.

Waiting for that order to arrive was an anxious time. “It had been such a long process and I just wanted to see the result.” But he says when the container arrived at its Bay of Plenty storage facility, and he went to take a look, the reality of it all set in. “I really couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I looked in that container and just thought sxxx, that’s a whole lot of shots,” Jake says, “and they all need to be sold”.

Jake is well under way with the next stage now. The marketing. ‘I’m not so keen on the selling part,” he says, “I’m not really that good at.” It’s a humble statement, perhaps. Using any spare time since his product arrived to travel to liquor outlets throughout the Bay of Plenty and beyond, Jake has already secured 28 outlets that are now trialling his Shot It vodka jelly shots.

“They’re all just trials though, it’s the re-orders I’m waiting for now,” he says. “There’s is a long way to go and a lot to do, but it’s a good start and it’s exciting. I believe in what I’m doing. I don’t see it as a gamble”.

And with over a thousand people already following his Shot It Facebook page, it looks like Jake’s onto a winner.