For our latest edition of Around the World in 50 Classic Cocktails, we’re taking a trip back in time to American Prohibition.
We don’t need to tell you that, for cocktail sippers like ourselves, American Prohibition – which lasted from 1920 all the way to 1933 – was a difficult period. Poor quality, bootleg alcohol was commonplace, the delicious stuff was confiscated and destroyed by the government, and the resulting black market fuelled the rise of Al Capone-style gangsters and booze barons. A pretty grim picture, in other words.
And yet: this was also the Jazz Age, the era of Great Gatsby-style freewheeling decadence – and, paradoxically, something of a golden age for cocktail innovation. Faced with the difficulty of procuring and serving quality spirits, bartenders were forced to get creative, and the result is an entire stable of now-classic cocktail recipes that we still enjoy today – think the French 75, the Sidecar, and the Last Word.
But one of the most timeless Prohibition cocktail recipes is the Bee’s Knees, which comprises just three ingredients: honey, lemon juice, and gin. This cocktail is a member of the “greater than the sum of its parts” school; while gin and citrus have always gotten along smashingly, the honey adds a complex, floral note that goes well beyond what sugar alone would contribute.
The honey adds a complex, floral note that goes well beyond what sugar alone would contribute.
That complexity of flavour is just what made the Bee’s Knees such a success in its time, back when homemade “bathtub gin” was often a bad proposition that tasted even worse. Masking the off-flavours that typified home-distilled spirits was one of the primary jobs of the Prohibition-era bartender. In more dire cases, many of the spirits that were used contained toxic methanol or jake (a high-proof Jamaican ginger extract), which sometimes resulted in blindness, paralysis…even death. Even honey didn’t help in those cases.
Happily, we’re now enjoying a cocktail and spirits golden age of our own – one where high-quality, small-batch distilled spirits are amply available, sans the negative side effects.
What better excuse, then, to make yourself a Sipsmith Bee’s Knees? While many recipes for the cocktail suggest adding honey directly to the shaker, chilled honey takes a very long time to blend. Instead, we recommend quickly making your own honey simple syrup – recipe below – for even simpler shaking. (Do as we do and prepare a large batch to refrigerate for later; being minutes away from a Bee’s Knees is never a bad thing.)
This was the Jazz Age, the era of Great Gatsby-style freewheeling decadence.
The Bee’s Knees
20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
15ml 1:1 honey simple syrup*
In a cocktail shaker filled with very cold ice, add all three ingredients and shake well. Strain into a chilled coupette glass. Garnish with a lemon twist, if you wish.
*To make the honey syrup, combine equal parts honey and water in a small saucepan. Over medium-low heat, cook, stirring occasionally, until the honey has fully dissolved and the mixture is syrupy. Let cool before using.