Friday, July 12, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Bee’s Knees

Offering multiple uses for every ingredient, no matter how homely, is part of the Cocktail of the Week ethos. Thus we turn again to honey syrup, previously discussed in re: the Brown Derby.

Given its name it should come as no surprise that the Bee’s Knees is a Prohibition era concoction. The common lore holds that the honey concealed the generally poor taste of bathtub gin, with an alternate version claiming that it was used to trick the nose, its scent masking that of the booze on the imbiber’s breath. I don’t buy either theory. The Bee’s Knees is a simple gin sour with honey as a sweetener. No further explanation required. Put maraschino in the same role and you have a violette-less Aviation, but honey’s floral notes blend with the gin in such a fundamentally different way that they’re not close to being the same drink.

The general time period of its creation is the only part of the Bee’s Knees’ history that experts agree on. (Some books refer to it as “The Bees’ Knees,” so even the number of insects involved is unclear.) At least two different cocktail guides from the 1930s contain the recipe, with one including orange juice. There are multiple variations – a Honey Bee is made with Jamaican rum, a Bee’s Kiss with rum, honey and cream – which only compounded the confusion over time. The formula in my edition of the Playboy Bartender’s Guide features five ingredients, and somehow gin, honey and lemon juice are not among them. “A speakeasy heirloom whose orange accent is most mellow,” says Playboy. This is why I only read it for the pictures.

The orange accent is so mellow in the recipe below that you’ll never taste it. Know that a 1930s Bee’s Knees was extremely spirit forward, with only a teaspoon of honey versus a jigger of gin. Know also that contemporary bartenders have been known to make the drink with lavender honey. I haven’t tried that take on it yet, but I badly want to.

The Bee’s Knees

2 oz. gin
¾ oz. honey syrup
¾ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.