Alison Brita sat at a window-side table inside Annata Wine Bar in the small town of Hammonton and read the list of cocktails from the drink menu.
“We have a Lemon Cello Martini, we also have the Peppermint Martini,” a smile grew across her face as she continued down the list. “We also have a Blueberry Tini, we also have on here the Espresso Martini.”
They all have one thing in common — they are made with her award-winning Mamma Bella spirits.
Brita is the owner, CEO and Master Blender of Mamma Bella Cello, a manufacturer of liqueurs and cello — a chilled before-or-after dinner drink.
The wine bar, which carries her spirits, is just one of the many signs of Brita’s growing success.
Raised in the “Blueberry Capital of the World,” Brita said she’s proud to be the first spirit manufacturer in the Atlantic County town’s history. She formed Mamma Bella in 2015 and received her rectifier and blender license from the state in October 2017.
“I’m breaking through the ceiling of this industry,” said Brita, an Ocean City resident and mother of Bella, her 16-year-old daughter, who the business is named after. She said she wants to inspire other women to follow their passion and dreams and welcomes them to join in on the mostly male-dominated liquor industry, one of many professions that some women might not think about.
“I’d love to show women that there is a whole new industry for us to get in and conquer,” she said.
Brita is quick to point out that a rectifier and blender is not a distiller. She blends her carefully crafted recipe with a neutral grain spirit and creates her cello and liqueurs. The multistep process to reach the end result — which happens inside her building a half-mile from Hammonton’s quaint downtown — is more involved than some may think, she said.
The signs of her success can be found in various locations throughout South Jersey. Inside Annata’s, her spirits are displayed on a section of a wall next to prominent wines. They can be purchased in numerous liquor stores and are used in bars, casinos and restaurants, including Water Dog in Atlantic City and Steve & Cookie’s in Margate.
The business is growing and is in the process of branching further out, “conquering one place at a time,” Brita said.
She does not employ a big staff which means she is involved in all aspects of the business. “There’s not one bottle that leaves my facility that I don’t have my hands on in some manner,” she said.
Hours after her visit to the wine bar, she made the quick drive to Joe Canal’s in Hammonton in her colorfully decorated Hummer — artwork of a woman standing on a ladder in a green field proudly displaying her cello — to set up her spirits for two hours of a meet-and-greet to promote her product.
“You know, you think when you’re little ‘what am I going to be when I grow up?’” Brita said. “And this is nothing I’ve ever dreamed of or thought of.”
Her passion and work ethic started in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother, her friends’ mothers and grandmothers, where those feelings of Italian traditions were embedded into her, one of which was having a shot of cello after a meal to help with digestion.
“Just like you’d have an espresso after dinner you have a shot of cello, so it’s something growing up and seeing and you want to keep those traditional things as part of your family and I happen to love that.”
Her love for cello would lead her to try different brands but she found they tasted harsh, so she decided to work on her own recipe and eventually found the taste that was perfect for her. Come to find out it was perfect for her family and friends as well, she said, and decided t
o look into starting her own business.
Two years after receiving her license, she entered the New York International Spirits Competition and won gold medals for her lemon cello and peppermint liqueur, and a bronze for her grapefruit cello.
“That really set my sights to this is a great product, it’s agreeable, not just to me, friends or family, that I have backing of gold medals.”
Jackie Dolan, the director of sales and business development at Annata Wine Bar, said that they have been using her cello for years and that it was “love at first sip.”
“It tasted like limoncello when I was in Italy,” she said.
The Lemon Cello Martini is a customer favorite, said Dolan, and having quality ingredients is important in making quality drinks.
The fruit-based cellos are all-natural, gluten-free and four times distilled. Lemon, grapefruit and blueberry, made with Hammonton blueberries, are made all year round. Seasonally available is the s’mores cello along with the pumpkin spice and peppermint liqueurs.
Everything is hand-crafted and in keeping with tradition made in small batches and not mass-produced.
Cello has come a long way since being labeled as an after-dinner shot and has taken on a life in a number of drinks including martinis, margaritas, mimosas and mojitos.
“You can mix it with vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon and make beautiful drinks,” she explained.
Just inside the main entrance of the Hammonton Canal’s, Brita carefully organized her line of spirits, chilled over ice, preparing to educate people about how creative they can be with her product.
“Oh that’s good,” was the overwhelming reaction from customers sampling the few different flavors, many leaving with a bottle in hand.
She said on average she will interact with approximately 40 customers over two hours, another way of promoting her product because she does not have a storefront or tasting room for customers to visit. Her license does not allow for that.
She is very visible in the area and wants people to know the face behind the business, the face that looks similar to that of the confident woman who is on all the bottles and on her vehicle.
The artwork of the black-haired woman holding a basket on a ladder is made up of three generations of her family, the strength of her mother, the eyes of her daughter, and a little bit of herself.
What she envisioned in the artwork was old-world tradition meets New World, just like the spirits she makes.
“It’s the tradition of Italy of making the cellos and then it’s the New World which is me and my spin off of making that a little bit different.”
Brita is passionate about her product and started the business based on family heritage and tradition. Her love for cello is so strong she formed Cello Day, a yearly celebration of cello in Hammonton that takes place at Annata Wine Bar and the neighboring Mannino’s Cannoli Express. The May 6 all-day event, now in its fifth year, will feature Brita’s cello in signature cocktails, an entree, and cannoli.
< p class="article__paragraph article__paragraph--left" id="64KIOSC4IVA5XER3RGR3O4BQAU">“One big family dinner,” she said of the event that brings together all that enjoy cello.
She has encountered a few struggles on her way to cracking the ceiling and is grateful to her customers that supported her and helped her push forward.
“There’s no saying no to things. There might be obstacles and barriers. But unless you push through those, you’re not going to attain what you want to attain.”
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