Sometimes, all we want in a drink is some sweet simplicity, which is exactly what the Bee’s Knees has to offer. It is a very customisable cocktail, made with only three ingredients, but it delivers a zesty punch of flavour and will definitely leave you with a happy buzz about you.
Why is it called the Bee’s Knees?
The first recorded usage of the phrase ‘the bee’s knees’ dates back to the 18th century, when it was used to describe something very small or insignificant. Thankfully, modern usage reflects the nature of the cocktail more accurately – since the 1920s, the phrase has been used to refer to something exceptional or outstanding, which we would definitely say this particular drink is.
At the same time as this change of meaning for the well-used phrase, the United States was entering into a period of prohibition, where the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages was outlawed across the nation. This era would go on to last over a decade, driving the ginthusiasts and bootleggers of the day to resort to desperate measures, such as mixing spirits in bathtubs in order to fly under the radar of those enforcing the prohibition laws.
It is thought that a probable origin of the Bee’s Knees cocktail stems from this fascinating period in America’s history. Bathtub gin, for all its rustic rough and ready charm, was a bitter concoction, owing to the lack of enclosed distillation essential for ridding the harsh grain spirit of its impurities and improving the overall taste and texture of the spirit. As such, it is highly probable that consumers would mix readily available honey and lemon into the drink to make it sweeter and more palatable.
In 1929 however, the invention of the drink was credited to Mrs JJ Brown, who you may have heard of under the nickname The Unsinkable Molly Brown. An article in the Standard Union delved into the latest fashion in Parisian nightlife – women’s bars where men were prohibited – and claimed that Mrs Brown had created the concoction. The name ‘Bee’s Knees’ most likely alludes to the use of honey, but may also have been intentioned to celebrate the exceptional flavour given the relative simplicity of the drink.
How do you make the Bee’s Knees?
The earliest written recipe available can be found in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drink (1948), where he combines equal quantities of gin, honey and lemon juice, creating a twist on a classic gin sour, with a thicker mouthfeel and richer taste thanks to the honey. Whilst the addition of honey is delicious, offering new floral and herbal notes to the cocktail, using too much definitely renders the drink a bit too sickly.
Equally, freshly squeezed orange juice can be found in many more modern renditions of the cocktail – the International Bartenders Association’s official recipe calls for equal measures of lemon and orange juice to be used. For us, this is a nice optional twist, but we find it dulls the taste of the honey, which should be the star of the show – or rather the co-star to the gin!
As such, our perfect combination would be to add 10 ml runny honey to a cocktail shaker and stir in a couple of drops of boiling water to loosen it – the thinner consistency will help it combine better into the cocktail, without having to make a honey syrup. Add 50ml London Dry to the shaker and briefly stir to combine with the honey, before adding 30ml fresh lemon juice and filling the shaker with ice. Shake well, then double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass of your choosing and garnish with an optional twist of lemon or sprig of lavender.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this Bee’s Knees is very adaptable – this is our favourite recipe, but if you find it’s not quite to your taste, try altering the quantities to find a blend that you enjoy more. Once you’ve struck gold and found the perfect sweet spot, I can guarantee this will become a firm favourite in your cocktail repertoire.