Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Bee’s Knees

Bill Norris returns with this refreshing cocktail for the summer months. 

“This man is the bee's knees, Arthur, he is the wasp's nipples. He is, I would go so far as to say, the entire set of erogenous zones of every major flying insect of the Western world.”

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

It is presently molten hot in Austin, and the idea of mucking about with heavy brown liquors, muddlers, complex syrups and the like just seems like far too much work for a weekend. No, what we need now is something bracing, something with enough acidity and punch to revive a heat sapped spirit, something that is easy on the labor, but long on flavor.

We, of course, given the heat, will be turning to gin, and while the gin phobia that permeated the landscape during my long years as a fulltime bartender seems to be abating somewhat of late, there still persists the idea in the eyes of many a tippler that gin is a difficult spirit, full of overpowering, unpleasant flavors. Unenlightened drinkers often turn their noses up at gin, doomed to thinking it unpleasant because of shoddy martinis or dreadful bar gun tonic water.

So, as evangelists for good spirits and better drinking, we will turn to the Bee’s Knees, a delightful, easy to prepare cocktail that is a crowd pleasing introduction to gin for the phobic, but whose three simple, easily accessible ingredients can reveal a deceptive complexity if you play around a bit.

From the Pen of a Cranky Old Lawyer

The Bee’s Knees first appears in print in David Augustus Embury’s 1948 edition, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, but is assumed, due to its name, to be a product of flapper era speakeasy culture when something that today’s kids might call “off the hook,” was commonly referred to as being “The Bee’s Knees.”

Embury is an interesting figure in the accepted mixological canon, as he was not a bartender or bar operator. Instead, when his book was released in 1948, he was a sixty-two year old New York lawyer, and as he writes, without stake in “any of the manifold branches of the liquor business.” He is also, for a complier of drinks recipes and techniques, unusually opinionated and blunt.

He had little truck with “a host of over-sweetened, over-fruit-juiced, over-egged, and over-creamed concoctions customarily found in books of cocktail recipes” and was not shy about commenting on the state of certain cocktails or bartenders. In defining the cocktail, Embury opined that a drink, “must whet the appetite, not dull it… the first thought should be the production of a drink sufficiently dry to wake up and energize the taste buds, yet not so sour or bitter or so aromatic as to be unpalatable.”  Embury also had much to say on how a cocktail should look, decrying, “I have seen Martinis that looked like dishwater just recovering from a bad case of jaundice and Manhattans that resembled nothing else quite so much as rusty sludge from the radiator of a Model T Ford,” and was insistent that his drinks should, “have sufficient alcoholic flavor to be readily distinguishable from papaya” but not “assault the palate with the force of an atomic bomb.”

But, when cocktails are properly made, Embury claims, “Taut nerves relax; taut muscles relax; tired eyes brighten; tongues loosen; friendships deepen; the whole world becomes a better place in which to live.” Difficult to argue with that.

As for the Bee’s Knees, Embury, though seeing fit to publish the recipe for the first time, was apparently not a fan. Early in the book, he deems it “vile,” but when it comes down to the recipes themselves, he changes his tune a bit:

Early in the book I spoke in disparaging terms of the Bee’s Knees. This, however, was because as it originally came out during prohibition days it consisted of equal parts lemon juice, honey, and gin. If made as a variation of the standard Gin Sour, merely substituting honey for the sugar syrup, it is acceptable.

He is right.  Mixed in equal parts, the drinks is a mess, but when looked at from the lens of a sour, in which the base spirit is modified by smaller elements of sour and sweet, the Bee’s Knees starts to shine.  But it is much more than acceptable, it is quite delicious.

Beyond the Bee’s Knees, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is a fantastic read, but just when you start to think about how interesting it would be to use your time machine to spend some time with Mr. Embury, you learn that he was not just opinionated about his liquor choices. In his keynote address at the 1947 National Inter-Fraternity Conference, Embury insisted we should, “stop shivering at the word ‘discrimination’ -- I love the discriminating tongue, the discriminating eye, the discriminating ear, and, above all, the discriminating mind and soul. The person for whom I can find no love and no respect is the indiscriminate person. To be indiscriminate is to be common, to be vulgar.”

The topic of the speech?  “Left wing radicals [using] Soviet semantics” who had the nerve to insist that it was wrong to allow “fraternity membership restrictions based on race, creed, or color.”

A Note on Ingredients: Honey

The modern Bee’s Knees is a simple drink: a couple ounces of gin, a small glug of lemon juice and a small hit of honey. The magic here is in the honey. Use sugar in place of honey, and the drink is merely a gin sour, easygoing and pleasant, but not a whole lot of interesting, the equivalent of a genial, but dull dinner partner. The honey, though, enlivens the whole affair, giving the drink a seductive, deep golden hue, while enhancing and dancing with the flavors of gin and lemon, providing texture and nuance beyond the merely sweet.

The Bee’s Knees most likely came about as an attempt to mask the flavors of prohibition era bathtub gin—the early reports of it calling for equal parts of honey, gin and lemon support this--but it is somewhat unique in that the flavor of the honey—if not the sweetness—still dominates the drink even in its modern form.

This provides endless opportunities for nuance in preparation. Honey from different places carries vastly different flavors depending on the source of the bees’ diet. Simple mass produced honey dispensed from plastic bears will do just fine in this drink, and won’t really have much effect on your other choices, but exotic monofloral honeys can be stunning.

Manuka honey, with its sweet eucalyptus and candied orange notes, can be amazing in a Bee’s Knees, but make sure you’re choosing a gin—say Beefeater—that can stand up to the Manuka’s strong, bold flavors. Acacia Honey, while delicious, has the lowest acidity of any known honey and might require more lemon to balance out the drink. Orange blossom honey, with its lingering citrus notes, cries out for a New American Gin like Bluecoat with a heavy citrus component in the botanical mix.

The possibilities are almost endless. But your gin choice should be guided by your honey, and it is rare indeed in the cocktail world for the sweet modifier to dictate the style of the base spirit. For bog-standard supermarket honey, whatever London Dry or Plymouth style gin you have on hand will be just fine, but if you stray into exotic honeys, taste the honey first, and then pick out a gin that suits it.

But, whatever honey you choose, you are going to have to make a syrup from it before you can use it in your cocktail. If you dump straight honey into the shaker with the gin, lemon and ice, the honey will not mix—turning instead into a clump at the bottom of your shaker. Almost all of the recipes for the Bee’s Knees call for honey syrup to be made from equal parts honey and water, but you might find a syrup of two parts honey to one part water more pleasing. It will be slightly more sweet, but it will also provide a much more full mouth feel in the finished cocktail and the higher ratio lets the nuances of the honey shine if you are using something special.

A Note on Execution

While these are easy to make and quick to assemble, if you are serving a horde of friends, or if you just like to consume a few cocktails without much fuss, the Bee’s Knees takes exceptionally well to batch production. Simply multiply your ingredient ounces by the number of servings, dump the honey syrup, gin and lemon juice into a pitcher, then fill your shaker with ice and batched Bee’s Knees as needed. Just keep a long handled spoon in the pitcher and give the whole mix a little whirl before adding it to the shaker and use fresh ice for each go around, and everything should work out fine over the course of an evening.

A Recipe:

The Bee’s Knees

2 oz. London Dry Gin
¾ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
¾ oz. Honey Syrup*

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until very cold.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a fresh cut lemon twist, expressing the oils over the glass.

*If using 2-1 honey syrup, make this a scant ¾ oz measure.

Substituting white rum for the gin makes this a “Honey Bee.”  Use an aged rum, lime instead of lemon and top the thing off with a glug of champagne for an “Air Mail.”