Last year I had an amazing cocktail at a restaurant whose name escapes me now. It might have been in Brooklyn. Or Manhattan. All I remembered is that it was one of those places that served amazing, pitch-perfect cocktails.
I ordered one called The Bee’s Knees without knowing the ingredients except gin. I took a sip and immediately asked the bartender what was in it.
“Gin, lemon juice, and honey,” he replied.
“No, that’s it.”
I was excited to have another gin cocktail to add to the repertoire, without needing to stock up on harder-to-find ingredients.
This was way before I knew much about Prohibition-era cocktails at all. Apparently in the flapper era, “the bee’s knees” was slang for “the best” or “cream of the crop”. That’s a pretty fitting name for this cocktail. The oldest bartending books with recipes date back to early 1930s, though there are speculations that this cocktail existed before then. During Prohibition, this and many other cocktails were made almost sickeningly sweet to mask the awful taste of bathtub gin. Luckily, we now have access to all sorts of great-tasting gin and can make The Bee’s Knees into an elegant, delicious cocktail.
Last month, I was the guest chef at a Chinese New Year dinner hosted by Ted and Amy Supper Club. (See the recipe for shrimp and chive dumplings I served over at Appetite for China.) I needed to come up with a welcome cocktail, even though cocktails aren’t really part of the Chinese New Year tradition. (Heck, guests even came decked out in sparkly clothing as though it was regular New Year’s Eve! All part of the fun.) So I made The Bee’s Knees, and added a little orange juice to fit in with the theme, since oranges symbolize wealth and good fortune in China. The dinner was wonderful, as you can tell by the photos:
A few days ago, I was reading one of my cocktail books before bed (yes, I read cocktail books in bed). I found that what I actually made was called The Beppo, another Prohibition-era cocktail with a worse name, which is really just The Bee’s Knees with orange juice. However, many recipes for The Bee’s Knees, both in print and online, call for orange juice too. So confusing! How do cocktail historians remember the minute difference between all these cocktails? Sometimes it all comes down to 1 ingredient, or 1 ounce of something versus 1/2 ounce of the same thing.
Anyway, I will stop over-thinking this for now and just give you the recipe. This is the wonderful-tasting Bee’s Knees as I remember, from a restaurant whose name I can’t remember.
Bee's Knees Cocktail
- 1 ounce gin
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- 2 ounces honey syrup
- Ice cubes
- Make the honey syrup by stirring together 3 parts hot water with 1 part honey until the honey is dissolved. Make a bigger batch if you are making multiple drinks.
- In a cocktail shaker, combine 2 ounces of the honey syrup, the gin, lemon juice, and ice cubes. Shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass and serve.