Joe Fee, whose family has been in the liquor business in one way or another since 1863, paid a sales call on customers in Philadelphia a week ago, cutting it short to drive back to Rochester, N.Y. - home base of Fee Brothers - before another snowstorm shut down the Northeast.
The Fee Brothers' line has been sold in the city for years, currently consisting of dozens of sour mixes and flavoring syrups. But its hot product du jour is its list of offbeat bitters.
Can you say "great timing"? By late last year the Big Daddy of bitters, Angostura, was busy committing brand suicide. Nothing wrong with the product, particularly, made since the early 1800s when a Prussian army surgeon headed off to Venezuela, and developed (probably with botanic lore borrowed from the native Indians) the aromatic herbal concentrate.
Angostura's secret-recipe production eventually moved to Trinidad, where it continues to this day. But shipments came to a halt in November, due to (probably) a shortage of bottles: Alternative explanations involve financial woes, and crop shortages of the herbs, roots, and barks said to confer its exotic flavor.
Whatever, while the cat has been away, the mice have had a field day: "I'm sorry Angostura is having problems," Joe Fee said, not sounding sorry at all when I reached him by phone. "But meanwhile, I've got to make hay."
And make hay he has. After a couple of bad years - 2007 and 2008 were bummers, with Katrina and recession-inspired staycations depressing sales. (Yes, people drank, he says, but it was often homebound "misery drinking," not the "celebratory drinking" that requires the fancy drinks that employ Fee's special bitters.)
Last year, on the other hand, was gangbusters. And 2010 is shaping up very nicely. "I've got nine bottles of Fee Brothers behind the bar right now," said Ryan Davis, the beverage man at R2L, the cocktail-themed eatery 37 floors up in Two Liberty Place.
That's one of each of Fee's inventory, which to date comprises its "old fashioned" shaped for old-school manhattans, orange, peach, mint, lemon, grapefruit, cherry, whiskey barrel-aged, and - Joe Fee admits this was a stretch - rhubarb.
Angostura's stumble came at the very peak of the city's spiraling cocktail craze, propelling a new wave of bartenders to seek out small-batch booze and, it was just a matter of time, to hunt down artisanal bitters to pair with drinks to add that mysterious depth and note of complexity, a silky roundness and identity.
Davis said that by making it harder to get, Angostura made it easier to look around. He uses Fee in some drinks. But he has bartenders reach for Regan's Orange Bitters No. 6 (and a tropical, ginger-almond-clove-lime syrup called falernum) for a "Velvet Rope" rye cocktail; and for a perfect manhattan he loves a pristine newcomer from Vermont called Urban Moonshine, whose maple bitters wowed him at a trade show in New Orleans (home of another old-time bitters standby, Peychaud's).
Has anyone latched on to Fee's rhubarb bitters? Glad you asked. Guy Smith, the mixologist at Fork bistro in Old City, has created a sturdy yet fanciful cocktail called "Live and Let Rye," involving Sazerac rye, muddled blood orange, Campari, a flamed blood orange peel, and a curious, earthy, fruity something. Ah, that's the whisper of Fee's rhubarb bitters!
Cocktail-forward haunts on the order of Chick's, Southwark, Franklin Mortgage, APO, and Rum Bar have their own combos, mixing and matching bitters - peach and grapefruit, for instance - to create particular flavor profiles. And some, including Jose Garces' Village Whiskey, are making their own stuff. The bar crew steeps cinnamon bark, clove, nutmeg, birch bark, licorice roots, and wormwood for weeks until it's an intense tea. Then orange and lemon peel are added and, finally, rye whiskey. (And that's just for the bitters used in the bar's old-fashioned and manhattan.)
Alas, the word from a receptionist at Angostura's 20-acre Trinidad complex last week was that seven containers had finally just shipped out, with three more teed up.
Better late than never. But something tells me Joe Fee and his upstart brothers in the business are unlikely, after such a heady taste of victory, to surrender the hard-won beaches without one heck of a bitters fight.