As we mentioned few times now, we were in Berlin on BCB, and got the opportunity to talk to a man behind Fee Brothers Bitters. It was a great day.
Here we have Mr. Joe Fee, who runs the Fee Brothers Bitters. Can you tell me more about your predecessor, your grand-grand-grand-grandparent?
Well, my sister and I are fourth generation. The original four brothers were Owen, John, James, and Joseph. And John is my great-grandfather. So, as I said, now it’s my sister and me. My parents passed away last year, but they were ready, a 138 days apart from each other after nearly 68 year of marriage, they left us a good legacy. Each generation has done a little something different with the business.
You are the son of one of the Fee brothers. What about the rest the of brothers? Do they have kids that cooperate with you now?
No, I have nine nieces and nephews and none of them appear to be interested in the business. We are still hopeful, but at the moment it’s my sister Ellen and me.
Nice, that is the insurance that Fee Brothers will have the same consistent quality in the future period.
Well, whatever happens to the company, I hope that whoever is running it, wants to have consistency.
What makes the Fee Brothers bitter different than the others?
Well, a lot of people ask me if my bitters are non-alcoholic? No, they are not, but they’re a different sort of product. When my grandfather started to make bitters, it was during prohibition, the dark period in my country’s history. He could not get alcohol. His next best idea was to get glycerine. Glycerine is a form of alcohol. It’s just a form of alcohol that doesn’t get you drunk but the flavours and the extracts that we use, some of them are very alcoholic. I don’t care what the alcohol content is. I don’t even think about it until we’re done with the formula. So, depending on which flavour and which extract we use, the alcohol content is all over the board. But as I said I don’t care, I want to put flavour in the drink. Some of the bitters out there are so concentrated that if you use a drop too much you kill the drink and you can’t taste the flavour. I want to be able to taste the flavour. Celery bitters should taste like celery. Chocolate bitters should taste like chocolate but if you concentrate it way too much, it doesn’t taste like chocolate any more.
How many formulas did you receive in your legacy before you started to be Master Bitter man?
I’m not the Master bitter man, my sister is. I’m just a family pretty boy. I only did one, black walnut bitters, that was me. My father, after his father died (kind of suddenly and kind of young), was a chemist at Eastman Kodak. He came back because my grandmother was trying to run the business, but she wasn’t much of a business woman. He found my grandfather’s recipe book, but unfortunately all of the recipes were written in code! So instead of normal recipe, there were things like “take a scoop of Xmas”. Well, what the hell is Xmas?! And which scoop, is it level or is it mounted?
My old man was like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory TV series. You can imagine that kind of thing made him twitch. So he was able to save about 6 or 7 products out of I don’t know, 25 or 30. My grandfather made a lot of products to dress up illegal liquor at that time of prohibition. Since there was a lot of illegal liquor being sold, he had a Bacardi type flavour, a Benedictine type, Cognac type, he had a Creme de Menthe syrup because Creme de Menthe was a very popular at that time so he did a lot of that stuff. Ok, as I said, my dad was able to save maybe 5 or 6 products, and he went to develop another 50-some more. My sister developed 50-55, some of them went away, they just weren’t good but we’re at about 96 products now. We only present 17 in Europe. Syrups are pretty heavy so we would be priced out of the market if we started to distribute it to Europe, but bitters are something that we can compete with. I have something other planed for Europe, but I’m having it tested first, to see if it will survive the journey….
Where are you from originally?
Rochester, New York which is western New York state, it’s about a 7-hour drive Northwest of New York City.
Was that the origin of all Fee Brothers or?
Well, that’s where we got started, actually we’re Irish. The original 4 brothers parents were Owen and Margaret McMahon-Fee. They came over from Ireland and then these guys got it started.
How do you see the bitters market in the bar industry in the next few years?
At the moment, all I’m seeing is growth. I mean, the last 12 years have been staggering. Ridiculous growth. It was so big that my sister told me “STOP selling!” and my answer was “Make it faster!!” I’m a sales guy, I handle the world, I cover about 6 continents. If I thought there was a cocktail scene on Antarctica, I would go there, but for the moment I’m not aware of one. I would still go though. She handles all the research and development and she makes sure that we have product to sell.
Have you ever been to Croatia?
Not yet. But I’m looking forward to a visit.
I would be glad to be your host next year!
Sounds good to me!