If you’re looking for a new cocktail to enjoy this spring and summer, then say hello to the Bee’s Knees, a simple but elegant combo of gin, lemon juice, and honey syrup that’s easy to make and even easier to drink. Popping with flavor and with enough of an alcoholic kick to get the party started, it’s a must-try. Like many cocktails, its name is as curious as its contents are delicious. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how the Bee’s Knees cocktail got its name, here’s everything you need to know about its origins, its history, and its name.
Who Invented the Bee’s Knees Cocktail?
Nine times out of ten, the person who invents a drink gets the privilege of naming it. Does that apply to the Bee’s Knees? Actually, your guess is as good as ours. As traveldistilled.com points out, the history of the Bee’s Knees cocktail is shrouded in mystery. Some people seem to think the tipple was the brainchild of an Austrian named Frank Meier. According to legend, Meier stumbled on the idea for the Bee’s Knees during his time as the first head bartender at the Café Parisian at the Ritz Hotel in the early 1920s. If he did, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise – the multi-talented Meier created many cocktails in his time (check them out in the beautiful The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, a wonderfully eclectic book that’s full of recipes, cleaning tips, first aid advice, and even a history of horse racing) and was generally a hugely inspiring, hugely enterprising figure who complimented his bartending duties with playing a crucial role in the French Resistance during the war, helping dozens of Jews escape the Vichy government’s clutches by providing them with false documents. Another version of the story gives Margaret Tobin Brown credit for the invention. Widely known as the ‘the unsinkable Molly Brown’ after she managed to dodge the iceberg and become one of the 712 people to survive the Titanic disaster, Brown, a rich socialite with a dead husband and a penchant for booze, is said to have invented the drink in the ’20s during one of her frequent bar hops around Paris’ women-only clubs.
How Did the Bee’s Knees Cocktail Get its Name?
While most people seem to think that Frank Meier and the unsinkable Molly Brown are the main suspects in the Bee’s Knees creation, certain other people have suggested a whole other version of the story. According to them, the Bee’s Knees was invented during Prohibition in the United States. As the only gin available in those days was cheap, made in bathtubs, and blessed with a flavor even the most hardened drinker would balk at, the lemon juice and honey syrup would have been added to mask the smell and taste. It was essentially an updated variant on the gin sour, replacing the sugar traditionally added to the cocktail with honey to better hide the less than ideal quality of the gin. Although there’s no more evidence to support that version of the story than any of the others, it makes sense when you consider the name. As phrases.org.uk explains, the phrase ‘the bee’s knees’ was first coined in the 18th century as short-hand for something that didn’t exist. It was typically used as a way of pranking naive young apprentices, who’d be sent off to stores to buy imaginary things like tartan paint, left-handed hammers, or bee’s knees. In the 1920s, bright young things in America decided to repurpose the expression. At the time, calling something ‘excellent’ was akin to social suicide – if you wanted to praise something, the only way to do it was to use a phrase like ‘the cat’s pajamas’, ‘the cat’s whiskers,’ ‘the snake’s hips,’ or something similar. Obviously, the bee’s knees fit the requirements perfectly. It would make sense that anyone searching for a name for a new cocktail at the time wouldn’t think twice about using it as a clever marketing ploy to highlight just how spiffing their creation was.
How to Make a Bee’s Knees Cocktail
Maybe no one will ever know exactly who invented the first Bee’s Knees cocktail or who christened it. Maybe it doesnt really matter anyway. Ultimately, the story behind the drink is secondary to the drink itself, which is the very definition of the bee’s knees. Gin might have a reputation for making people cry, but there’s nothing about this delectable concoction that’s going to bring you to tears. If you want to try one for yourself, you’re going to need…
- 2 oz gin
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 oz honey syrup (to make, combine 2 or 3 parts honey to 1 part water)
- Lemon twist to garnish
To make, add all of the ingredients except the lemon twist to a cocktail shaker, throw in a handful of ice, shake vigorously, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the lemon twist to finish. As a word to the wise, don’t swap the fresh lemon juice for a bottled version – as most pre-made options have been sweetened, you’ll upset the delicate sweet-sour balance of the cocktail.
Considering no one really knows who invented the Bee’s Knees cocktail, there’s no one around to take umbrage if you decide to get creative with the recipe. As thespruceeats.com points out, with the huge variety of gins now available, each with its own blend of botanicals that will play against the lemon and honey in a slightly different way, the Bee’s Knees is a cocktail with endless possibilities. Try it with different gins to see which suits your palate the best. But don’t stop there. The honey you use in the honey syrup will also have a huge impact on the final product, so play around with different varieties to find your ideal level of sweetness. You could even try infusing the syrup with flavors such as lemongrass, or replacing some of the honey syrup with elderflower liquor. If you want to throw caution to the wind (or just really don’t like gin), try substituting the gin with vodka.