A Visit to Fee Brothers Yields A Humble, Yet Expanding Business
While in Rochester this summer, my father-in-law suggested we visit a company that manufactures bitters. I jumped at the opportunity, since I was curious to learn more about bitters and their manufacturing. The company is Fee Brothers, one of the largest bitters companies in America, offering a few dozen different bitters, as well as other products. For those less familiar with bitters, they usually (but not always) alcohol and are frequently used in cocktails. Fee Brothers’ bitters do not contain alcohol, unlike, for instance, Angostura bitters, which are perhaps the most recognizable such brand.
While the building is not in the nicest of areas of Rochester (the area is somewhat industrial), when one walks in, one is pleasantly greeted by the sight of neatly arranged bottles of bitters and, far off in the distance, one notices neatly arranged oak barrels. Since we had signed up for a tour, we experienced the tour with a couple of other smaller groups merged into one. Led by one of the descendants of the original “Fee Brothers”, Ellen Fee knowledgeably guided the tour and did so with an enchantingly calm excitement about the products, the process, and the facility. As participants in the tour, it was great to hear from her with her intimate knowledge of not only the products, but also having grown up around the facility, which has been in the family, with her institutional history of the place, as well.
One cute touch of the tour was visiting a room that served as the museum for Fee Brothers, with the initial space an introduction to the family and how the company got started in the latter half of the 19th century. From there, we were introduced to some more history, including a discussion of how the company, which had been primarily a wine producer, survived Prohibition. Apparently, during Prohibition, households were allowed to produce up to a certain quantity of their own wine, so what Fee Brothers offered was not only equipment to help people make their own wine, but even offered to help make it for them in their homes (since a lot of people’s own wine was not particularly good). This led to other workarounds and loopholes (not unlike the homebrewing of the era), especially since many people were involved in the production (and consumption) of wine, not to mention the laxness with which the laws were policed.
While the name Fee Brothers conjures up a family atmosphere, one who notices how ubiquitous their bitters are in bars, store shelves, and elsewhere would be surprised to find that the company retains somewhat of a homey feel. Between Ellen Fee and her brother, Joe Fee, who spoke to the group towards the end of the tour, one gets a sense that this is still a family business. It was surprising to me when I asked Joe Fee about the growth of the company, how mystified by this explosion of sales had occurred. While they still see themselves as running a family business, they have experienced a massive growth in the company’s sales in the last decade or so. They expressed how happily surprised they were when they see their bitters in various cocktails magazines, which was endearing.
This expansion in sales has not only led to an increase in production, but also the physical space for the manufacturing of their products. Early on in the tour, we were led into a room with a very different flooring and decor, which turned out to have been a separate business space, which they had acquired and knocked down the wall interceding between their part of the building and this space. They were then going through the process of having inspectors coming in and needing to redo the flooring, amongst other aspects. This newly acquired space was not the only new space for Fee Brothers. On the exact opposite side of the building, there was a massive storage space which was noticeably new, that had been built within the year. Serving as a storage space, it contained shelves for massive containers, with many shelves ready to hold new containers.
On the tour, we saw some of the bottling taking place, as well as even the labels being placed on the bottles. While the bottling is done by machine, the labels really are placed on by hand, which is shocking to see nowadays, but we saw it happening! We also got to smell some bitters being processed, which were pleasant, as well as some deliciously smelling bitters aging in oak barrels at the outset of the tour. We also got to see, while walking, a lot of the ingredients in their packaging that goes into their products, especially the bitters, which was neat to see.
However, for kosher consumers, such as myself, it was furthermore fascinating to see with my own eyes which ingredients are going into their bitters. When one looks at a container of their bitters and reads their ingredients, the big issue concerning kashrut is that of glycerin, since it is frequently made from animals. However, we were told on the tour that while they used to use glycerin coming from animals, they now use a vegetable-based glycerin. When I looked at the packaging for their glycerin, I discovered that it was certified as kosher by the OU(!). When we saw a very nice-looking storage room for ingredients, almost all of the products had kosher certification, mostly by the OU and Circle K. As we continued to walk along, almost every ingredient had kosher certification. With the ascendance in the market for kosher-certified products in the last decade or so, not to mention the rise in consumption of cocktails by those who keep kosher (somewhat similarly to the rise of the consumption of cocktails in the larger culture), one wonders why Fee Brothers’ bitters do not have kosher certification. Angostura bitters, for instance, has kosher certification (the OU), so why doesn’t Fee Brothers?
When I asked this question, I got a peculiar response from Joe Fee: They don’t think that those who keep kosher really drink that much. I was stunned. Moreover, he said that even if perhaps they do drink alcohol, they’re not going to care about the kosher issues. Wow. My father-in-law asked what about consumers in Israel and possibly distributing there? The response was that they had been in conversation with someone there, although it was being worked out, but that people who were consuming it didn’t care about having kosher certification. I remain somewhat still baffled by the responses as to their lack of interest in gaining kosher certification. However, perhaps they did not see it as a worthwhile expense to pay for such supervision, since they do not think there is enough of a market out there waiting to be tapped for those who would now by their products if they were to be certified as kosher. (I also sensed that there may also have been a naïveté of what the supervision would entail for their factory.) As to what the future beholds, who knows? Maybe if enough people ask about kosher certification, it could get the ball rolling and those kosher consumers who are into cocktails could comfortably buy and consume Fee Brothers bitters.
Besides the baffling conclusion to the tour, it was pleasant and entertaining, as well as enjoyable to experience the infectious joy for the products and the company. It was wonderful to have that intimate attention, especially from those who have a significant stake in the company.