Many cocktail origins are lost to history, but perhaps only the origin of the Bee’s Knees is lost because everyone was too blitzed to remember it. This was the 1920s, possibly the booziest decade of the 20th century. With Prohibition in full swing, American drinkers went to increasingly elaborate, illegal, and dangerous lengths to get a taste. Remember, before the speakeasy aesthetic came to dominate modern cocktail culture—finally giving hipsters a legitimate reason to wear sleeve garters—it served a practical purpose. Though then, as now, monocles are utterly pointless.
The Bee’s Knees is a classic Prohibition cocktail. Even the name evokes the era. You can hear a flapper ordering it up with a Continental accent: “I’ll take a Bee’s Knees, Mack. And step on it before the bulls show up.”
The phrase “bee’s knees,” which initially was used to indicate something small or insignificant, predates the cocktail by more than a century. Usage later evolved, as it does, and the idiom was applied to people or things that were considered the best or “height of excellence.”
There were a number of similar ironic or nonsensical phrases floating around at the time. “The cat’s whiskers/pajamas,” “the eel’s ankle,” the elephant’s instep,” “the snake’s hip,” and “the capybara’s spats” were all, apparently, things people said—presumably after too much hooch. (Lately, I’ve been trying to revive “the capybara’s spats” to no avail. Who’s with me?)
A gin-based cocktail, honey and lemon were added to mask the odor and often-unpleasant taste of the bathtub gins being turned out at speakeasies, or obtained via other clandestine backchannels. Today, appreciators of fine bathtub gins still must go to great lengths to enjoy them, having to seek out obscure venues and endure harsh conditions, often with undesirable types (see video).
Digging into the history of the Bee’s Knees doesn’t turn up much in the way of a definitive origin, though a couple solid theories do exist. The recipe allegedly appears in a 1930 edition of San Francisco bartender and author Bill Boothby’s cocktail compendium World Drinks and How to Mix Them. However, other evidence suggests Frank Meier, a bartender at the Ritz Paris, was the cocktail’s original creator. It appears in Meier’s 1936 edition of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks. So even if this story is true, Boothby still beat Meier to print by a few years.
Whoever invented it, the Bee’s Knees is a classic to be enjoyed. At first blush, it sounds too sweet to be taken seriously, but when made properly with a quality spirit and fresh ingredients, it is a bright, refreshing treat. The honey is a natural sweetener that doesn’t overpower. Here it lingers in the background blending with the citrus from the lemon juice to bring out the full flavor of the gin. Rather than hide the gin, this recipe puts it on full display. The result is a crisp, satisfying cocktail that still packs a punch.
Bee’s Knees Recipe
2 oz. Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin*
3/4 oz. honey syrup (prepare just like simple syrup)
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 lemon twist
*Any quality gin will do, but this Vermont-made spirit uses raw honey and juniper to produce a smooth, not overly floral gin that is a perfect match for this recipe.
Combine the gin, honey syrup, and lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake for 20 seconds or so, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Enjoy within the safe confines of your local speakeasy while listening to this: