JERSEY CITY, NJ - A flavored vodka that started in a Jersey City kitchen, and then grew into a partnership between two widows inspired to keep their husband’s legacies alive, has taken on yet another meaning as the brand builds and becomes one that will generate funds for first responders in need.
Cheryl Ann Lee, along with her husband Jersey City Fire Department Captain Mark V. Lee Sr., were well known for their charity work across Hudson County, including by hosting a Christmas Drive that supported more than 7,000 needy children, well before RocaBella Brands became a popular choice for vodka enthusiasts across the region.
“I used to create flavored drinks for barbecues,” Lee said. “They became so popular that people used to ask me to make them for them.’
“Back then I used other company’s vodka, now I’m using our own,” she said, pointing to a coconut, mango, and pineapple flavor selection that she refers to as her “signature flavor.”
Though Lee lost her husband, a 9/11 first responder, to respiratory failure in 2014, she was unhesitating in her efforts on behalf of the community, launching the Captain Mark V. Lee Fund and becoming an organizer of the American Cancer Fund in Liberty State Park.
A partnership with Maryann Woods, also a fire widow having lost her husband, Jersey City Firefighter James Woods who died after finishing a shift on Christmas Day the same year as Lee, led to the launch of RocaBella Brands.
“We became like sisters,” Lee said of her bond with Woods.
The vodka, and the company, according to their website, is inspired by their husband’s legacy of love of family, and the value and importance of selflessness, and represents the emotional and physical strength characteristic of first responders.
It’s ultimate mission, the website continues, is to help fallen first responder families with a hands on approach.
Going from party favorite to brand carried on store shelves took some work, Lee reflected as “in Jersey City we don’t measure.”
“We put a little of this and little of that in,” she said. “We soaked the fruit overnight and put some sherbert it in,” she said of the instant hit.
The drinks brand, now manufactured in a citrus distillery in Florida, is now available in locations across New Jersey, including locally at Stuyvesant Liquor on Kennedy Boulevard, Bottles on West Side Avenue, and the New Park Tavern, has also spawned the launch of RocaBella Gives, a national nonprofit dedicated to building a solid foundation for children through activities that support education, confidence, and positive growth.
“There will be others after this pandemic is over,” Lee assured.
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