As any regular reader will attest, I am a fan of classic cocktails. It would be hard to write these posts if that were not the case, since even contemporary combinations usually find their roots if not their inspiration from the classics. I especially love it when fantastic flavors result from simple recipes. When such a recipe also happens to be versatile enough to yield multiple delicious variations—the cocktail is, well, the Bee’s Knees.
Tracing this drink’s origin puts it somewhere in the middle of Prohibition. It first appears in print in Bill Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them published in 1934. Sometimes called the Honey Bee, or the Honeysuckle, the basic format is a gin sour that balances the lemon with honey instead of sugar or simple syrup. Boothby’s version also had a spoonful of orange juice, but that disappeared from other references. The extra kick of flavor that the honey brings has led some cocktail historians to suggest this worked nicely to hide the flavors of prohibition “bathtub” gin, and that’s where the fun begins. Despite these earliest references that list gin as the base spirit, the Bee’s Knees works really well as a rum cocktail, or even tequila. You can experiment with anything you think would pair with the honey.
2 oz gin (or white rum, tequila)
1 oz honey syrup
1 oz lemon juice
Add the ingredients to a shaker with ice, shake to chill and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Note: To make honey syrup, combine equal amounts of honey with warm water and stir to fully dissolve.
The honey syrup used here is a 1:1 ratio with water, but I have seen recipes that use 2:1. You can do what you want, but you definitely should dilute the honey so that it mixes with the other ingredients. If you try to use it straight, it will clump together and just stick to the inside of your shaker instead of dissolving into the drink. A 1:1 ratio is also convenient because it tends to balance perfectly with an equal amount of lemon juice, although a lighter pour will brighten up the sour a bit. With the proper balance, some recipes cut back on the amount of both honey and lemon, letting their choice of spirit poke through a little more. It’s hard to go wrong here.
Selecting a base spirit to work with the honey means different things to different people. For some, it’s about choosing something with an edge so that it stands up to the honey’s distinct flavor. Alternatively, you could pick something that already has notes of honey, allowing the syrup to further develop the nuances of the spirit. Obviously, the type of honey you use can also affect the outcome. I used orange blossom honey, but with so many possibilities, it can be fun to experiment.
Try white rum for a simple, charming drink. You can even top it off with chilled champagne to create the Airmail cocktail. If a sharp rum works well, it’s only because bathtub gin paved the way, and other spirits yield equally successful variations. You can get away with just about anything. Like a fresh Collins, chances are good that you can make this cocktail with what you have on hand. You don’t need to track down any obscure Italian ingredients nor any expensive liqueurs made by monks. It’s just another incredible classic that is simple, delicious and versatile.