From Liquors to Bitters-The History of the Fee Brothers, Pt. 1

If you’ve ever scanned the bottles behind your favorite local bar, chances are you’ve come across the name “Fee Brothers.”


Photo: Daniel J. Deutsch

The 155-year-old Rochester-based company has earned international renown for its line of non-alcoholic products (bitters, cordials, and mixers), but its origins lie with liquor.

The original Fee Brothers were the sons of Owen and Margaret Fee, Irish immigrants who settled in Rochester in the 1830s. Owen had worked as a butcher prior to his untimely death in 1855, leaving Margaret to support the couple’s five children.

Eldest son James Fee, who had been working since he was a boy, was quick to help out his mother. For a time, he sold sandwiches to train passengers coming through Rochester’s railroad station. He also held a job with James McMannis, a local grocer and liquor dealer who ran a shop at the southwest corner of South St Paul (now South Ave) and Main Streets.


From: City of Rochester Directory, 1861.

The young man excelled in the business, and, joined by his mother and brothers Owen and John Fee (Stephen Colbert’s great-grandfather), assumed ownership of the store in 1864 when McMannis moved to a new location.

fee_1870 ad

From: City of Rochester Directory, 1870.

Fee shifted from his multi-pronged grocery business (which for a time included a saloon and cigar manufacturing) to focus solely on liquor the following decade.

fee_1875 ad

From: City of Rochester Directory, 1875

In 1874, James and his brothers, Owen, John and Joseph moved to 26-32 North Water Street, then four years later relocated to a sizeable structure directly across the street.

There, the Fee Brothers dominated the import game, stocking British gins, Jamaican rums, Irish and Scottish whiskies, and the finest wines and cognacs from Continental Europe. The Fees also became the local distilling agents for major Pennsylvania and Kentucky firms, offering colorfully-named products like Mountain Dew Rye and Blue Grass Bourbon.

Fee_1900 map

The Fee Brothers building stood on the west side of North Water Street, above Main Street. From: City of Rochester Plat map, 1900.

fee_2019 map

The Rochester Riverside Hotel (formerly the Radisson) now stands on the former site of the Fee Building. From: City of Rochester Map, 2019.

The family business, which rebranded itself as Fee Brothers in 1883, boasted that their six-story headquarters at 21-27 North Water Street was “The Largest Wine and Liquor House in America.”

fee_1899 ad

From: City of Rochester Directory, 1899

Having such an immense facility allowed the brothers to expand their rectifying efforts. Using grapes from their Genesee Valley Vineyard and Winery, they blended and bottled wine in the basement of the building, and stored it in their sub-basement cellar.

While the Fee Brothers’ wine wares proved a boon for business, the wine cellar itself became a source of misfortune.

Shortly before 8 p.m. on June 19, 1903, a fire broke out at the Fee Building. Originating in the well-stocked wine cellar, the flames rose through the basement and the ground floor where the bulk of the company’s barreled whiskey and bottled liquors lay. The first floor then crashed into the basement, taking with it a cascade of potent potables.

Fee_Fire 1_DC_Jun_20__1903_

From: Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, June 20, 1903.

Dense smoke swarmed through the blocks surrounding the burning building, overcoming a number of firemen in its wake. By the time the firefighters managed to quell the conflagration, the Fee Brothers were left with over 85,000 dollars in damages and a temporarily uninhabitable storefront.

The company survived the disaster only to be hit with another massive fire five years later in February 1908. This time beginning on the building’s top floor (then occupied by a paper box company), the fire wound its way down to the ground level, destroying the entire edifice in the process.

Fee Fire 2_DC__Feb_6__1908_

From Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, February 6, 1908.

The conflagration caused a quarter of a million dollars-worth of losses, but the Fee Brothers miraculously managed to salvage much of the liquor stock housed in their two basements.

Removing and relocating the bottles and barrels to a warehouse on South Water Street nevertheless proved a tricky task requiring close supervision. One of the hired hands brazenly attempted to pocket a bottle of whiskey and was swiftly arrested and carted off to the 2nd Precinct Station. The next worker caught in the act promptly dropped the pilfered bottle to avoid penalization.

Though the Fee Brothers rebuilt their headquarters on the site of their ill-fated edifice in 1908, the wholesale liquor company would encounter a setback of a different sort the following decade.

To be continued…

-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 22, 2019 at 4:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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