Contemporary drinkers may find it hard to believe there was a time when vodka was not the king of the white spirits. In fact, for most of cocktail history, vodka was a non-participant - it's popularity came with tsunami-like force only in the late 1960s. Before then, gin was the white spirit of choice. Why? For one thing, it has flavor, which vodka does not.
Gin's herbal and citrus-tinged profile allows it great versatility in cocktails, including this one celebrated beginning today with its own week, The Bee's Knees. In the 1920s and '30s, to say something was "the bee's knees" was akin to calling it "fire" today, or "terrific" anytime. I guess no one say "nec plus ultra" anymore.
As the name implies, The Bee's Knees is a cocktail that has honey as a focal ingredient. Honey's distinctly sweet and floral character overwhelms more delicate flavors in many cocktails, but in this one it really shines. You'll want a gin with plenty of character, and I like Barr Hill from Scotland - it's well balanced and not as aggressively floral at Scotland's great Hendrick's Gin. Another gin that works really well in a Bee's Knees is The Botanist from the island of Islay from whose locally sourced botanicals it gets a lovely green, almost basil note (what is it with Scottish gin?). Gin drinkers have strong preferences in their botanicals - all gins must have juniper as the dominant component, but beyond that the rules are increasingly vague. The aforementioned Hendricks has clear nuances of Turkish rose petal and cucumber and I find in Aviation gin a strong lavender note. Feel free to play around with whatever gins you like, but definitely give Barr Hill a try is you can find it - it's definitely worth a sniff and a sip.
Gin, lemon juice and honey - sheer magic.
The Bee's Knees
- 2 oz (60ml) Barr Hill Gin
- 3/4 oz (22ml) honey syrup*
- 1/2 oz (15ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
*To make your own honey syrup warm 4 oz (120ml) water, add an equal part of clover honey, stir to dissolve and let come to room temperature before using. Store up to a week in the refrigerator
Shake with ice, strain into a martini or, to be more authentic, a Nick and Nora glass, garnish with a bit of lemon peel and you are good to go. Conversely, you can serve it over the rocks if you prefer.
September 25 to October 30 has been designated "Bee's Knees Week," by the good folks at Barr Hill Gin. I don't need that much of an excuse to celebrate a great cocktail, and this one is particularly appealing now as a bridge from summer to autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. However it is worth noting that the world's honeybee population is in jeopardy and concern about that goes far beyond our supply of honey - bees are essential pollinators on which much of the agricultural community depends and we cannot afford to keep losing bee populations at the rate presently seen.
Many bars and restaurants have joined a push to save honeybee populations - you can learn more about bees, and about where to find a Bee's Knees cocktail near you, by visiting