History
History

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Five generations of Fee Brothers

The original Fee Brothers, as depicted on the labels of their products, were named Owen, John, James and Joseph: the four sons of Owen Fee, an Irish immigrant who reached America in 1835, and his wife, Margaret.

Owen was a butcher, yet by 1863, his widow and children were running a saloon and delicatessen in Rochester, New York – hence the company's motto, 'The House of Fee by the Genesee since eighteen hundred and sixty-three'.

Soon after, James, the oldest brother, opened his own grocery cum liquor store, which he grew with his brothers into a winery and import business under the name James Fee and Brothers. In 1883, after Owen and Margaret's deaths, the remaining three brothers ran the company as Fee Brothers: James and John continued the business alone after Joseph died in 1895 and survived one of the worst fires in Rochester history in 1908, which caused $400,000 damage to their building on North Water Street.

Prohibition

John died in 1912 and James in 1920, and the company passed to the next generation just as Prohibition began. Fee Brothers survived the Volstead Act by making altar wine, helping homeowners to make their own wine at home (which was legal in limited amounts) and producing a non-alcoholic malt extract beer labelled 'It's a bear' and marketed with the warning 'Do not add yeast to this product as it is likely to ferment'. They also produced flavourings – including Chartreuse, brandy and cordial syrups – to be added to bathtub alcohol.

Post repeal

With repeal, Fee Brothers returned to the sale of liquor, but the aftermath of Prohibition and the economic disaster of the Great Depression forced the company to downsize, leaving John's son, John II, to run the business with his wife, Blanche. They focused on wine and cordial syrup alongside a concentrated premix called Frothy Mixer, marketed under the strapline 'Don't Squeeze, Use Fees' and used in Whiskey Sours and Tom Collins.

John died in 1951, midway through selling the building on North Water Street to refocus the business on non-alcoholic drinks. His widow completed the sale and, with their daughter Nancy, continued to run the business for a year and a half, renting space from the building's new owner, the Daily Record newspaper. The intentions of the family to discontinue alcoholic products had to be declared to the government, which informed them that they would be taxed on any unsold wine they had left. The Internal Revenue Service then came and dumped thousands of gallons of wine into the Genesee. In 1951, their son John 'Jack" III, who had no previous experience in the industry, began to research and redevelop his father's indecipherable recipes. By 1953, he gave up his job at Eastman Kodak and began working for the family business which moved to a new site at 114 Field Street.

Building on the success of their established Frothy Mixer, Jack and his wife Margaret began to develop new products, including grenadine and the company's now-famous bitters. Margaret's father, Joseph Benn, was a valued employee and helped the business to grow. In 1964, Fee Brothers expanded from their 3,000 sq. ft. site on Field Street to a new 12,000 sq. ft. building on Portland Avenue, and Margaret gave birth to the couple's eighth child. During the 1960s and 1970s, Fee Brothers modernised and expanded further, becoming a national name – although John II's widow Blanche would label bitters bottles by hand until her death in 1974. By this time, the fourth John Fee was already working full time for the company, and in 1979, his sister Ellen joined him – in 1980, the building to the south of their site was purchased to house the shipping department and allow a loading bay. Joseph, the youngest brother, would join the company in 1991. In 1992, the company expanded into the building to the north, doubling its warehouse space and creating a Fee Brothers Museum.

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ency 70 imageSurprisingly, the instantly recognizable design on the label dates back only to 1995, when the company felt that label design had become outdated. The signature was first written by James O'Rorke, the bookkeeper for John and James in the 1890s.



Fourth generation

In 2012, it was time for the fourth generation to take over. Jack's children, Joe and Ellen, took over the business and grew it further by travelling, making connections and expanding the site with a new warehouse.

It was Joe Fee who truly turned Fee Brothers into an international cocktail brand, and if his towering stature and personality were not standout enough, he was unmissable at cocktail conferences and festivals due to his wide-brimmed hat and cargo pants. He resembled an overgrown boy scout and had the accompanying cheeky personality. And wherever he went, so did Fee Brothers bitters.

Jack passed away at 94 in 2015, and sadly, in 2020, Joe passed away aged just 55 from complications of a respiratory infection, leaving Ellen to run the family business on her own. During her time at Fee Brothers, Ellen added 67 new products.

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Fifth generation

Happily, a fifth generation was set to steer Fee Brother towards its 160th anniversary and by 2021, Ellen had trained her nephews, Benjamin Fee Spacher and Jon F Spacher, to run the business. They are now the recognisable faces of Fee Brothers, representing and building this family brand worldwide while also bolstering the range with three new bitters launched in 2023.

Fee Brothers

Status: Operational
Established: 1863
Visitor Policy: Visitors welcome throughout the year
Tel: +1 585 544 9530
Website: Fee Brothers
Address: 453 Portland Avenue, Rochester, New York, 14605
Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters image

Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters

Packaged in Fee's familiar 118ml hand paper-wrapped bottle with flip-open cap and dash dispensing top.

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Fee Brothers Orange Bitters

As the name suggests, the main flavour of these bitters comes principally from the skins of oranges grown in the West Indies. Fee Brothers Orange Bitters

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Fee Brothers Toasted Almond Bitters

Fee Brothers Toasted Almond bitters are bittersweet and add a complex nutty flavour to cocktails such as Mai Tais Old Fashioneds and Sours.

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Fee Brothers Turkish Tobacco Bitters

Low-alcoholic tobacco cocktails flavouring bitters by Fee Brothers, presented in their distinctive hand-wrapped bottle.

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Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters

Fee Brothers use charred oak Tennessee whiskey barrels, freshly emptied so the wood is still soaked with aged whiskey, to produce these particular bitters.

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Fee Brothers Peach Bitters

Packaged in Fee's familiar 118ml hand paper-wrapped bottle with flip-open cap and dash dispensing top.

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Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters

This grapefruit addition to Fee Brothers' growing range of bitters was launched in July 2007 at Tales of the Cocktail.

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Fee Brothers Plum Bitters

Fee Brothers say their Plum Bitters is a fruity blend of plum and spices, reminiscent of the flavour of British plum pudding.

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Fee Brothers Cranberry Bitters

Fee Brothers launched these Cranberry Bitters in 2010.

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Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters

To quote the back label, Using flavors available in 1800's America, Fee Brothers developed Rhubarb Bitters for that authentic historical taste.

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Fee Brothers Habanero Bitters

The 21st flavour of bitters from Fee Brothers, Habanero Bitters, was launched in August 2024. Spicy without burning, and elevates cocktails while allowing

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Fee Brothers Cherry Bitters

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Fee Brothers Celery Bitters

Launched early in February 2011, Fee Brothers Celery Bitters are made with water, glycerin, flavours, natural celery flavour and other natural spice extracts

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Fee Brothers Cardamom Bitters

A Cardamom Bitters packaged in Fee's familiar 118ml hand paper-wrapped bottle with flip-open cap and dash dispensing top.

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Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters

These Black Walnut Bitters were blended by Joe Fee himself. Joe normally operates on the marketing side of the business leaving production to his sister.

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