Alex Fries, the Bavarian Immigrant responsible Cincinnati’s Flavor Industry.
While Cincinnati is known for its brewing heritage, it’s really the whiskey industry that’s consistently provided major economic dividends to our city, and has made us the number one flavor city in the United States. If you’ve ever smelled those fruity or savory smells driving on I-75 through Lockland, you’ve smelled this legacy – from the Givaudan flavors plant. We can thank one Bavarian immigrant from Furth, Alexander Fries, for this. The company that he started became three separate multinational flavor companies, two of which are still thriving today. The flavoring industry is nearly a $6 billion dollar industry in the U.S.
Licensed whiskey rectifiers, who often were liquor wholesalers, were permitted to blend neutral spirits with aged whiskey or rye, to produce a swill that was often cheaper, but better in some regards to the straight goods. Whiskey rectifiers could also add flavoring, coloring, and other additives to the neutral spirits to give it the desired taste, aroma, and appearance. A great resource giving insight into these early whisky rectifiers in Cincinnati is the Whiskey Merchant’s Diary, which is the first hand accounts of a Joseph Mersman who worked in Cincinnati in the 1840s and 50s.
Alex Fries was born in 1821 in Furth, Bavaria, into a well-educated family, son of Moritz Fries, a professor of mathematics, and grandson of a famous rabbi. Alex was educated in chemistry at the Universities of Erlangen and Paris. In 1843 he entered into service of the King of Spain, on a project to survey and economically develop the Sierra Morenas region of Spain, with the help of the Germans to colonize it. After feeling the project was proceeding too slowly, Alex, immigrated to Cincinnati to join his sister Antoine, and her husband, Lemuel Springer, in 1855, in a business to distill cannel oil, a cheap fuel oil for lamps, from bituminous slate or mineral wax. But, the untimely death of Lemuel, and the discovery of cheaper fuel, petroleum in 1859, made the cannel oil business a bad venture. So, Alex employed his two other brothers, Gustave and Charles, to supply flavoring oils to the food and whiskey industries. Thus, formed Alex Fries and Brothers Chemical Works. They started in small factory on Avery Alley, between Mill and Stone Streets, but quickly outgrew this space and built a multi-story brick building at East Second Street.
Youngest brother Charles would move in the 1860s to New York to open that office of the Alex Fries company, but his sons, Harold and Albert Fries, would separate the company from their Uncle’s and run into litigation on patents with them. When Alex died in 1907, his brother Gustave would take over the company, with his nephew, Dr. Alfred Springer.
By 1893, Fries and Fries listed seven variation of flavors for Bourbon Essence: Bourbon Essence number E, Bourbon Essence no. 2, Cynthiana, Harrison County, Kentucky, Paris, and Sour Mash. The same catalogue lists a similar number for Rye Essences: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Monongahela, and Robertson County. Similar were flavors for various gins (Old Tom, Holland Gin, Schiedam Schnapps, London Dock), rums, brandies, and for fortified wines. These flavors indicate the wide variety of liquors available and the flavors that held market significance. Because these flavorings claimed to reproduce the particular sensory qualities that distinguished each of these varieties, they allowed whisky rectifiers and wholesalers to tailor their offerings to local tastes and to quickly shift their inventory when necessary. The might hold one whiskey stock and flavor it per order – creating a mix-on-demand operation that didn’t have to distill to each taste.
Along with each of the numerous whiskey distillers and rectifiers were many brands of Cincinnati made bitters. Bitters, now used as cocktail mixers, were originally devised as medicinal remedies for digestive issues like acid reflux, indigestion, cholic, cramps, and diarrhea. It was the Haitian Creole pharmacist in New Orleans, Antoine Amedie Peychaud, who devised mixing his own Peychaud bitters with spirits to form the first cocktail, the Sazerac. Fries supplied the flavors to these bitters producers, who were often also whiskey distillers or rectifiers. One celebrated Cincinnati brand was Hoffheimer Bavarian bitters, which was flavored with essence of cherry, blackberry, plum and currents. The Hoffheimer Brothers were one of the largest whiskey distillers and wholesalers in Cincinnati. The founder’s grandson, Herbert Hoffheimer, Jr., was president of the Alex Fries company in the 1950s.
In the 1880s Alex Fries helped to standardize the syrup of an unknown beverage company known as Coca-Cola. In the 2000s, the descendant company of Fries and Fries, Givaudan, would produce the flavor for vanilla coke, devised by one of its most respected flavorists, Joe Enderle.
In 1900, after the death of their father Gustave, his children, Robert, George, and Eugene Harriet , sold their father’s interest in Alex Fries and Brothers, and opened their own business, Fries and Fries, in January of 1915. This business sold flavors to the cigarette industry, namely a licorice essence, LICO, whose sales surged when licorice root became scarce in the 1916. This business passed to Robert Jr. and then his son Jon, who sold the business to Mallinkrodt in 1970. Jon ran the business under Mallinkrodt from 1978 to 1985. Fries and Fries became Tastemaker in 1992, a joint venture between the Mallinkrodt Specialty Chemicals Division of IMCERCA Group, and the PFW Flavor and Fragrance division of Hercules Chemical Inc. Then, in 1997, Tastemaker was bought by Swiss based Givaudan Roure, and now the company is called Givaudan, with their plant in Reading and beautiful U.S. headquarters in Bond Hill.
In 1986, Jon Fries and his father Robert bought Cin-Co, a flavoring company that was formed when Bloom left Alex Fries, and started the business in 1924. They renamed it F & C. The Wild Group in Heidelberg, Germany acquired the company in 1994. The group is now called Wild Flavors and is in Erlanger, Kentucky, owned by ADM since 2014.
The original Alex Fries Brothers specialized in flavors for the beverage, candy and dairy/ice cream industries. They went through a series of buyouts and mergers – Degussa AG, then Land-O-Lakes in 1996, Cargill Flavor Systems in 2001, and finally, Kerry, which closed the Woodlawn plant in 2012, ending nearly a 160 year legacy.
It’s a shame we don’t have our own local bitters like New Orleans Peychaud. And the antebellum bars of Cincinnati must have had a great variety for craft cocktailing, with all the bitters, flavors, and whiskey distillers in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. More important is that the snack, beverage and whiskey industries in America have grown significantly through the contributions of our flavor companies started by one Bavarian immigrant.