A Little Fortitude in Every BottleFeb 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Ann Duckett
Failure is common among small businesses—nearly 65 percent close within the first ten years. Yet, through ingenuity and grit, Fee Brothers has navigated the financial hardships it’s met with a surplus of positivity. From Prohibition to the pandemic, perseverance has paid off for 160 years.
Founded in the heart of Rochester, the company established itself as a leader in the world of wine and spirits early on. Converting the original business started by patriarch Owen Fee in 1847 (it was a butcher shop, then turned saloon and delicatessen around 1863), widowed Margaret relied on eldest son James to assist with the daily operations. At the age of twenty-five, James opened a grocery-liquor store nearby, named James Fee & Company.
The year was 1864, and the cornerstone for success was placed. James soon began making wine, and then, within a decade, relocated to a larger space near the Genesee River. Brothers Owen Jr., John, and Joseph joined him, assisting with the winery. Expanding into a liquor import business, they added California and European wines to their portfolio. In 1883 the name was officially changed to Fee Brothers. Each decade thereafter is capped with significant challenges and milestones.
Five generations later, brothers and owners Jon Spacher, CEO, and Benn Spacher, COO, are shaking things up in the cocktail industry. The archives provide a view of past paths taken. As a consumer-driven business, Jon emphasizes, “You need to keep reinventing yourself…What does the market want that we can legally provide to them?”
Fee Brothers has built a mighty empire distributed in four- and five-ounce bottles. Its top-shelf bitters doled out in dashes and drops are stocked in the finest restaurants, cocktail lounges, and bars on every continent but Antarctica. From sophisticated cocktails to nuanced mocktails, it’s all about quality ingredients—the better the bitters, the better the beverage. These potent concentrates enhance the structure, add depth, and bring complexity to drinks (and food) across the board.
Regarding alcohol levels, the bitter truth is, Jon says, “A unique detail from the past that provides for an interesting present-day fact: most bitters are made with alcohol spirits as the base. Since the base for our bitters is vegetable glycerin, we were the only US bitters company to survive the Prohibition.
“As we kept to the same recipe, we are now the favorite bitters of those who enjoy non-alcohol drinks. There is a little bit of alcohol essence (not alcohol spirits) in the flavorings, just like vanilla extract has alcohol essence.”
Not to muddle matters, but bitters were first used as digestive aides for various stomach ailments, a hangover cure, and added to wine or brandy to soothe aches and pains. Extracted from flowers, seeds, herbs, roots, bark, leaves, and more, you’ll find both digestive and cocktail bitters available today. And bitters are used as flavoring agents in dressings, marinades, and sauces.
Over the decades, Fee Brothers has diversified products to include cordial syrups (developed during Prohibition, it’s one of the most sustainable revenue producers, now with fifty-one to choose from) and cocktail mixes. Brines like zesty deli dill pickle and olive, botanical waters (concentrated aromatics like elderberry, rose, lavender, jasmine, hibiscus, and orange designed to elevate cocktails), and a separate line of coffee flavoring (cordials) have been added, too.
Reflecting on the most recent global health crisis and how the pandemic affected business, Jon remarks, “We were lucky to keep our employees working, as we’re a food manufacturer. Home mixology became a big deal, so sales increased in that channel. Ready to drink—RTDs—and pre-made cocktail mixes became a thing, and we have been fortunate to be an ingredient in a number of them.”
Today’s market has been a slow evolution of consumer appreciation coupled with the education of consumer palates. When asked about the impact of the cocktail revival versus the bitters boom on sales, and which came first, Jon explains, “I think they feed on each other. Bitters are a part of the incredible mixology art that continues to evolve, but it’s so much more than bitters. The events that celebrate the art of mixology are so wonderful to spread education and enthusiasm.”
No matter your preferences, you can likely find them via a bottle of Fee Brothers—sweet, savory, herbal, citrusy are just a few options. Jon says fan favorites among the twenty-two bitters offered include orange, aromatic, black walnut, and Aztec chocolate.
“Our new  flavors are climbing the charts quickly, which include Turkish tobacco, habañero, and mole. One difference worth mentioning is that plum sells much more in Europe than it does in the US.”
Should you have a surplus, get creative. Use them to the bitter end in myriad ways, depending on what you’ve got on hand. Fold into ice cream or milkshakes, whip into heavy cream, swirl into coffee or hot chocolate. Add a couple dashes to fruit salad, substitute for extracts like vanilla or almond in your baking recipes (frostings, too), or lavish liberally as you like to enhance dishes.
Remaining true to its city roots as it grew to meet shifting cultural and consumer trends, Fee Brothers stands in its fifth location in the downtown area, a historic hallmark honoring a 160-year-old spirits business. Production, distribution, offices, a small retail space, and a quirky museum are housed in a vast 25,000-square-foot building. “We produce millions of bottles of bitters annually,” says Jon.
A notable verse, “The House of Fee by the Genesee since eighteen hundred and sixty-three,” reminds us that dreams do stand the test of time. By expanding and contracting to meet countless demands over the decades, Fee Brothers proudly honors its history and heritage as one of the country’s oldest family businesses. I’ll toast to that.
Visit Fee Brothers retail space (and museum) at 453 Portland Avenue, Rochester, or call (585) 544-9530. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Find them on Facebook and at feebrothers.com.
Here’s a great cocktail suggestion from Jon, who says, “My current favorite drink is the Oaxaca Old Fashioned with Fee Brothers Turkish tobacco bitters.”
1.5 oz. reposado tequila
.5 oz. mezcal
1 tsp. agave nectar
2 dashes Fee Brothers Turkish Tobacco Bitters
Combine in a shaker and stir with ice until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass with a large cube and garnish with a flamed orange peel.