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Fee Brothers Will Outlive Us All

The pioneering bitters company has survived the Civil War, Prohibition and the dawn of the renaissance. But how, exactly?

fee brothers bitters

Located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario in the northwest corner of New York state, Rochester is the birthplace of many renowned brands, from Eastman Kodak and Xerox to French’s mustard, Genesee Brewing Company and the grocery chain Wegmans. Often left off this roll call, however, is the 156-year-old Fee Brothers, whose paper-wrapped bitters bottles emblazoned with the mustachioed profiles of the four founding brothers—James, Owen, John and Joseph—stand at attention on bar tops around the globe.

While best known for their namesake bitters, the fourth generation of Fees (the great-grandchildren of James Fee) continues to produce a cabinet of curiosities of cocktail mixers: cordial syrups, foams, brines and botanical waters that have weathered the Civil War, Prohibition and the more recent megaboom in cocktail bitters—all with a staff that today numbers only 14 people.

“Titles don’t mean a whole lot in a business of this size,” says Joe Fee, who in addition to being president, treasurer and sales manager of Fee Brothers is also “the guy who was just underneath the bottling machine fixing it.” Although Fee recalls screwing caps onto bitters bottles when he was just six years old, he didn’t officially join the family business until after graduating from college in 1991, when he came on as office manager assisting the sales department. In 2012, he and his sister Ellen, who oversees product development and production, took over the company from their father (he passed away in 2015 at 94), becoming fourth-generation owners of the family business.

Tall and bespectacled, the 55-year-old Fee can often be spotted making sales calls or attending global cocktail conferences like Bar Convent Berlin and Tales of the Cocktail, with his salt-and-pepper hair tucked under a brown leather, Australian outback–style hat which has become a familiar sight for those in the know. “I don’t wear it on a daily basis, but when I’m in my ‘Salesman Joe’ role, I’m wearing my signature hat,” says Fee in his distinctive, flat and slightly nasal Inland North accent.

Though much of their branding indicates that the company has been operational “since 1863,” Fee Brothers was, in fact, founded in 1864. “Here’s the rub,” Fee reveals. “My grandfather thought himself something of a poet and he came up with the limerick, ‘The House of Fee by the Genesee since eighteen hundred and sixty-three.’ I guess 1864 didn’t work for him so he took a little poetic license. We’re slowly, as we reprint things, changing it to 1864 to be more historically correct.”

Owen Fee and his wife, Margaret McMahon Fee, emigrated from County Monaghan in Ireland to Rochester, where they opened a butcher shop in 1847. They raised five children: James, Mary Jane, Owen Jr., John and Joseph. (While the current generation of Fees have never met him in person, Stephen Colbert is a distant cousin and descendant of John Fee’s branch of the family.) After his father died, the entrepreneurial oldest son, James, opened a produce store, later adding the importing and selling of wine and liquor to the business; they eventually began making their own wine from local grapes.

After a string of losses—the deaths of Margaret, Owen Jr. and Joseph as well as a fire that destroyed their building and derailed their business in 1908—the sole surviving brothers, James and John, enlisted their children to help and rebuilt the company within a year. When John Fee died in 1912 at the age of 64, followed by brother James at 79 in 1920, the second generation of Fees took over the family business—just at the onset of Prohibition.

It was the Angostura shortage between 2009 and 2010 that changed everything.

Those dark 13 years turned out to be a creative time for the Fee Brothers, sparking an interest in non-alcoholic products that still drive their inventory today. They created a series of cordial syrups in flavors like Benedictine, Chartreuse, rum, brandy and crème de menthe that were advertised as a way to flavor water, but were primarily used to cover up the taste of bootleg spirits. “It gussied up bad booze. I doubt it was perfect, but at least it was a nod in the right direction, right?” says Fee.

While the Fee Brothers were also permitted to produce sacramental altar wine for churches throughout the eastern U.S., it was their Vin-Glo service that gave them a leg up during the dry years of Prohibition. Capitalizing on Section 29 of the Volstead Act, which allowed heads of household to produce up to 200 gallons of wine annually (so long as it was a byproduct of preserving fruit), the Fee Brothers began selling home wine production kits as well as providing assistance setting up the barrel and beginning the fermentation process, later returning to bottle, cork and label the results.

The company’s archives, housed in the Fee Brothers Museum, a small annex in the ever-expanding headquarters filled with family ephemera including vintage bottles, barrels, labels, advertisements and production tools, contain an old record book with the names of people—including some notable figures—who availed themselves of the Vin-Glo service. “There was the CEO of Kodak and the local postmaster and a few restaurant owners and their immediate neighbors who may have possibly been in that book a few more times than was strictly legal,” says Fee.

Fee Brothers also created their first bitters during Prohibition—an original orange bitters, still in production, that might have satisfied the need for a classic Martini, but also delivered a bit of orange zest to cocktails in a time when year-round fresh produce and refrigeration weren’t the norm. While many businesses never recovered from the debilitating effects of Prohibition, Fee Brothers managed to survive by creatively navigating, and maximizing, the loopholes of the period’s draconian laws. (In addition to Vin-Glo, they also sold a five-gallon liquid malt extract cheekily called Bruin, advertised by a bear mascot under the pretense of cooking and baking purposes that could also be used to brew beer. Get it? Brewin’?)

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, in addition to reinvigorating their wine production, John Jr. ramped up the company’s non-alcoholic endeavors that had proved successful during the dry years, with products like Fee Brothers’ Frothy Mixer, a concentrated lemon-flavored liquid used to make sour mix that was popularized with the slogan, “Don’t squeeze, use Fee’s.” Before his sudden death in 1951, John Jr. intended to shift the company’s focus entirely to their non-alcoholic portfolio. Following his wishes, Blanche Fee, John Jr.’s wife, contacted the New York State Liquor Authority after his death to surrender their liquor manufacturing license.

The next morning, before she had time to even consider bottling the remaining inventory of wine to sell off, federal agents showed up with axes and made a show of smashing the barrels. “We were right on the banks of the Genesee River and they ran it all out into the river,” Fee recalls being told. “Thousands of gallons. These barrels on their side were taller than a man. They had to have been coopered in place in the basement. That Friday’s fish fry came pre-marinated.”

Blanche Fee and her daughter Nancy kept the business alive despite losing production know-how and recipes with John Jr.’s death. Blanche’s son, John “Jack” Fee III (Joe and Ellen Fee’s father), a chemist working at Eastman Kodak, would even moonlight in the factory, helping his mother make batches after work. He eventually took over the family business with his wife, Margaret, but only a handful of original recipes were known to him—the orange bitters and a few syrups—and Jack had to continually experiment to try to recreate his father’s work. “My grandfather wrote his recipes in code and only he knew the key. My father told me it would say things like, ‘Take a scoop of ixmas.’ Well, what the hell is ixmas, right?” remembers Joe Fee.

“I’ve overcome any perception that using glycerin is bad.” 

Jack expanded their lineup with the creation of an aromatic Old Fashion Bitters in the mid-1950s, eventually adding mint and peach versions in the early 1990s. Jack’s daughter Ellen Fee added lemon and grapefruit bitters to the portfolio in 1994. Jack went on to develop about 60 products,” says Fee. “My sister Ellen now has developed about 65. I developed one: Black Walnut Bitters, baby, that’s mine.”

For much of Fee Brothers’ existence, the company primarily sold its products wholesale to restaurants and bars. But in the mid-’90s, when the internet made it easier for enthusiasts to discover vintage cocktail recipes and share their findings on discussion boards, the phones started ringing with early cocktail revivalists, including Ted Haigh, who chronicled his quest to find orange bitters to make a Satan’s Whiskers in his influential book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails published in 2004; Robert Hess, who created the Trident, his 2000 Negroni riff that calls for Fee Brothers Peach Bitters; and Gary Regan, who inquired about buying a bottle of their bitters, and would eventually go on to develop his own Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 in 2005.

The bitters boom that came later saw their bitters sales increase steadily, but it was the Angostura shortage between 2009 and 2010 that changed everything. “I’d go around and talk to accounts and they’d be like, ‘Why do I need you, we’ve got Angostura?’” recalls Fee. “They thought we were some Podunk company mixing up bitters in trash cans in our garage. I was getting no traction. Then all of a sudden, bitters are having their heyday and there’s no Angostura and I start getting phone calls. In 18 months I added at least 27 new distributors. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Having survived a devastating fire and Prohibition, the latest hurdle the company faces is from the bevy of new bitters that have saturated the market. In a landscape where many new-look bitters makers are using all-natural botanicals and bittering agents macerated in a high-proof neutral spirit, Fee Brothers’ 19 flavors of bitters are occasionally dismissed as artificial, as they rely on custom flavor extracts and a vegetable-based glycerin solution.

Fee, for his part, lets the criticism roll off his back, and has little interest in updating the ways of the past. “I’ve overcome any perception that using glycerin is bad,” says Fee. “That’s how Grandpa did it, because he couldn’t get alcohol during Prohibition, and that’s how my father did it. It just makes my life so much simpler. Plus, it works.” They use four different flavoring houses to source alcohol-based natural fruit- and nut-flavored extracts whenever possible, but often rely on an artificial flavor to bolster the blend until the desired profile is reached. “I’m not getting that much pushback these days,” says Fee. “People accept us for who we are. We’ve stood the test of time.”

Bartenders remain the frontline ambassadors for Fee Brothers’ success, and their bottles are a familiar sight at top bars across the country. But with so many making their own syrups, cordials and even bitters, one wonders who the customer is for Fee Brothers’ deep inventory of orgeat, grenadine and Margarita mix. “We may not be in the top 2 percent of craft cocktail bars, but the other run-of-the-mill places have got to drink, too,” says Fee. “I’m still going to sell our Whiskey Sour mix to bars at bowling alleys and people need triple sec for their Margaritas. I’ve got no problem with that.” In some ways, it’s just another survival strategy for one of the bar world’s longest-running bitters companies.

While Fee Brothers’ 10-year period of double-digit growth, largely due to their bitters sales, has steadied in recent years, an unexpected wildcard from their archives has been skyrocketing: Fee Foam. The clear, food-grade foaming agent, an early invention of Jack Fee, is seeing a spike in sales as a vegan-friendly and cost-effective alternative to egg whites. “The Fee Foam is the comeback product of the century,” says Fee. “It was a dog product. When I was a kid, my father would make up a whole year’s need for that product in a 5-gallon bucket. The last couple of years and the bartenders are going apeshit over it. Oh, mama, I just sent two pallets of it on a container over to our distributor’s warehouse in Amsterdam and they’re already saying most of it is gone.”

As for the future of the family business, Joe is unsure of the prospects. “There doesn’t seem to be a fifth generation stepping up right now. I don’t have any children—but it’s Friday and the day’s young,” says Fee, quick with a dad joke. After a bit more contemplation, he notes, “Where we go from here is a little bit too crystal ball–like for me. I don’t think we’re going anywhere.”

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