Fee Brothers has been part of Rochester's cocktail scene for nearly 150 years
Fee Brothers is not in Rochester because the company wants to see it return to prominence. When the wine company stopped producing alcohol during Prohibition, the law ordered that Fee Brothers empty thousands of gallons of wine into the Genesee River, and a symbolic union formed. The lifeblood of their company flows in the city’s veins. Fee Brothers does not just believe in Rochester; it is Rochester.
If not for the yellow sign adorning the otherwise unassuming Portland Avenue headquarters, Fee Brothers would be invisible. Venetian blinds and a forest of houseplants cover the storefront windows. Inside the entryway, an aroma of spice-infused fruit subdues the smell of the city street. There are shelves of bitters, the classic paper label with four original Fee brothers portrayed in lime green ink wrapped around every bottle.
“I see so many young bartenders who are afraid of bitters,” says forty-nine-year-old Joe Fee. “They’ll grab the bottle, and they’ll put their HAZMAT glove on, and they’ve got their catcher’s mask on … and they let a couple drops fall in the glass, and they’re afraid they’ve gone too far.”
Fee stands six feet tall and has a loud voice regularly broken with laughter. He owns the company with his sister Ellen, who is fifty-five. They’re the fourth generation of Fees in the family business.
Fee’s bitters philosophy revolves around a single idea: fifteen varieties of Fee Brothers bitters are like a kitchen spice rack for your bar. As he sees it, you don’t ask what to put basil in; you dash it in whenever that flavor is missing, whether the recipe calls for it or not. Depending on the cocktail, maybe it will be rhubarb bitters, Aztec chocolate bitters, or the standard aromatic bitters that Fee calls the salt of the spice rack.
Timidity, however, is never the right ingredient. “Don’t be a sissy about bitters,” he says. “Get in there and dash it!”
He pours some aromatic bitters in a tasting cup. Overtures of cinnamon, nutmeg, and a plethora of organic flavors abound in just a few drops. “Here’s the thing,” says Fee. “Salty, savory, sweet, bitter. You want to get all the taste receptors involved. That’s what makes for depth of flavor and a good tasting experience.” Boxes labeled Russia spill into the storefront from the warehouse. Exports. Fee Brothers has a distribution network spanning the globe with centers in America, England, South Africa, and Hong Kong. Astoundingly, the Fee Brothers production area is relatively small, and Ellen runs the whole show. She confides that she’s known as the Willy Wonka of cocktail mixes, striving for world domination of bitters.
The hum of machinery and drafts of cool air surround the production area. Two forklifts workers long ago dubbed Harvey and Camille zip around, trying to keep up with an international demand.
Behind the production space sits Fee Brother’s history. It’s all there in a museum of photographs, genealogy records, and antique tools of the trade. Joe tells the story by heart: Irish immigrants Owen and Margaret settling in Rochester with their five children, Owen’s death baptizing the boys into an early life of entrepreneurship.
Adversity was the Fee family’s constant companion, but they always turned it into profit. The old North Water Street location sat on the east bank of the Genesee River. Before the Mount Morris Dam was built, the river’s waters sometimes seeped into the sub-basement, rising around large casks of wine and making it impossible to walk down and fill jugs. Instead of closing, the Fees simply installed a rowboat, taking orders, floating to the cask, and walking up the half-submerged stairs to the customer.
The Fees’ greatest test wasn’t from nature; it was from government. In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment passed, and Prohibition descended. A household could still make a certain amount of wine for personal use, and the Fee Brothers Vin-Glo kit was born, providing thirsty masses with tools and instructions. A ledger of wispy-inked script contains the names of a Kodak CEO, the postmaster, and restaurant owners whom Fee suspects used the service a bit more than was strictly legal.
“When Prohibition came along, our best and brightest bartenders boogied for work elsewhere. They went to Canada, Europe, and Cuba. They were genuine celebrities, these bartenders. The state of the art of bartending went through the floor,” says Fee. “Then we had world wars, and America’s attention was drawn in other directions. Then came along the disco era when the piña colada was king.”
Then, something happened. Fee Brothers no longer merely existed. It boomed. Since January, business is up forty percent. In the last six years, it’s risen at least twenty percent every year. Three stacks of orders, each about four inches tall, wait in the warehouse to be filled. This summer, they are breaking ground on the lot next door to expand operations.
Why? What city is demanding their empty glasses be filled with Fee Brothers product?
“It’s no one place. It’s one movement,” says Fee. “The craft cocktail movement. Modern mixology. Just a whole craze toward fresh ingredients [and] really hands-on building of a cocktail.”
Around 1991, bartenders started talking to each other online. “They started relearning old skills and decided, ‘You know what? The shaker is cool. The blender isn’t.’ They started applying these old skills to new spirits,” says Fee.
Traditional skills also enjoyed an unprecedented distribution network for fresh ingredients. Bars like The Daily Refresher, a modern Alexander Street speakeasy that focuses on quality and creativity steeped in tradition, can have fresh oranges in January. Bartender Jonathan Swan says he uses Fee Brothers because the local, storied brand offers something others don’t. “We go over to their facility and pick it up, and it’s wild in there; it’s like nothing’s changed. They really do stay true to the roots.”
Fee aromatic bitters are standard in Swan’s manhattans and old fashioneds, and black walnut bitters features in his Ural Sidecar. Other local clients include Lento, Good Luck, 2 Vine, and The Owl House.
“There’s an old saying that a prophet is never accepted in his own hometown,” says Fee. “For a lot of years I think people thought we were just some little local company that was mixing stuff up in trash cans in our garage. Well, guess what? We are a national brand. In fact, we’re an international brand. We’re getting a lot more love in Rochester these days.”
When Joe Fee was a kid, his father made the entire year’s supply of aromatic bitters in a five-gallon bucket. Today, Fee Brothers is expanding just to keep up with the demand. And when Rochester came back into entrepreneurial vogue, the Brothers Fee had been here for over a century, waiting for their moment.
In a red-covered book of Prohibition-era priests endorsing their product, when the future of refined drinking seemed darkest, Fee Brothers printed a statement that seems more salient than ever:
“We are confident that a trial order will place you among the most enthusiastic of our patrons. Thank you for past patronage and with the assurance that your future orders will have our prompt and careful attention. We are, very respectfully yours, Fee Brothers.”