On the eve of its 150th anniversary, Fee Brothers is busier than ever. In fact, Joe Fee, who owns and runs the company with his sister Ellen, says 2013 was the best year they've ever had, and things aren't slowing down. "Growing isn't even the word for it. I prefer exploding before my very eyes," he said during my recent visit to the company's Rochester, NY headquarters. "The last several years have been very, very good." Things are so good that at the time of my visit, a new building was under construction, to be used just for holding finished product.
What started in 1864 as a grocery and liquor store is now one of the most popular cocktail ingredient brands in the world. Best known for its cocktail bitters, Fee Brothers actually makes almost 100 products, all with a staff of only 13 employees, in a surprisingly compact factory.
On the production floor, ingredients are mixed in giant pots that hold up to 1,500 gallons, before they're bottled, sealed, labeled, and boxed for shipment. When it comes to bitters, for example, flavor extracts are mixed with glycerin in huge quantities. "My grandfather started making bitters during Prohibition. He couldn't get alcohol," said Joe Fee. "He got extracts; people who were making flavors could get alcohol, very tightly controlled, but they needed it to continue making flavors. So his next best thing as a base was glycerin, and we've continued using glycerin as a base ever since." The alcohol-based flavor extracts do give the bitters some proof: "If you absolutely gotta get a buzz on," jokes Fee, "and all you have is bitters, grab for the lemon. It's like 45% alcohol. And when that bottle's done, grab the mint, which is like 35% alcohol. And your breath will be minty fresh when you're done." (Don't try this at home, kids.)
Many of the processes at Fee Brothers are mechanized. The finished bitters are piped from the pots to a 12-nozzle bottle filler, which automatically puts the right amount of liquid into each container. Then a dasher is added, care of a vibrating machine that makes sure the plastic piece is facing the right way before being forced into place. Another machine screws on a cap and a tamper-evident seal, which shrinks around the neck of the bottle when run through a heat sealer.
But there's still a necessary human element to the whole thing. From unloading boxes of empty bottles onto the line, to removing them when they're full and capped, to pressing the big red button when something goes wrong, the Fee Brothers crew takes an active part in the operation. Each bottle is hand-labeled, including the bitters, which are wrapped in a paper sleeve.
I asked Joe Fee if he's open to adding new flavors to the lineup. "We are not against the idea of doing anything new—in fact we have something in the works," he said, although he wouldn't get into details for fear of a competitor beating him it. Normally Ellen Fee is in charge of developing new flavors, but it was Joe who came up with Black Walnut, the most recent bitters addition. He said it took about 10 or 12 attempts. Says Joe, "When you've made 50 syrups, when you've made 15 bitters, their bases are essentially the same, so now it's a matter of playing around with flavors."
New flavor ideas come from a few places. "It's a combination of things. Listening to bartenders talk, that's what I do most of," says Joe. "The rhubarb was a good example. Looking behind the bar (we asked) what flavor is not represented back there? What flavor don't they have readily available to them? At that time, there weren't any rhubarb spirits at all."
When asked about the ingredients that go into Fee Brother's products, Joe says they try to use natural components as much as possible. "Not everything releases its flavor well, like strawberries. You don't get a particularly strong flavor, so we augment with artificial. I'll use the natural flavors if I can, if it's going to taste great. If not, I'm going to use a little bit of artificial." The flavor is the most important thing, he says. "I don't want to put out a bland product."