THE BEE’S KNEES COCKTAIL
“You’re the bee’s knees” was a popular idiom in the 1920’s lexicon. It was a time when similar phrases, such as “you’re the cat’s meow,” meant you were peachy, extraordinary or the best.
Do bees even have knees? Actually, they do. Imagine honey bees flitting from flower to flower. In addition to the nectar they collect from flowers, their tiny, hair-covered bodies also collect pollen. They move all the collected pollen to the inner surfaces of their hind legs next to their knees. Then they compress the pollen into tiny pellets. The outer surface of their hind legs is concave, creating a pollen basket where they store the pellets. These pollen bits are the main protein source that feeds a honey bee colony.
We don’t know who named the Prohibition-era cocktail, but Bee’s Knees seems fitting for the balanced sweet and citrusy cocktail that has remained a classic for 100 years. It’s the perfect drink to sip in the new decade of the ’20s.
Basically a gin sour, a Bee’s Knees traditionally combines gin, lemon juice and honey. The three-part harmony is shaken and chilled, poured into a cocktail glass and typically topped with a lemon twist, but it is an easy classic for variations. At home, switch the lemon for lime, try different honeys or switch the base alcohol.
Bartenders around town stir them up in textbook form and show how easily and deliciously they can be modified.
At Buckhead’s upscale boutique bar and vintage game outpost, The Painted Pin, Beverage Director Trip Sandifer keeps 20 classic cocktails on the menu at all times. That’s one for every bowling lane. The Bee’s Knees is always on the menu, listed simply as “gin, honey, lemon,” and its simple perfection will leave you buzzing.
The Southern Gentleman’s bartenders add to the archetype recipe to create a bright and vegetal version they call Nick’s Garden. Botanical gin and lemon juice get a hit of subtle anise with tarragon- infused honey. It’s further flavored and colored by the sweet addition of blackberry and beets. The brilliant hue would certainly draw honey bees.
How about a Bee’s Knees with a smoky kick? Casi Cielo boasts Atlanta’s largest selection of mezcal. Next time you’re sipping their Oaxacan-inspired cocktails, ask for a Mezcal Bee’s Knees. It’s still citrusy and refreshing, but the mezcal’s wood-fired pit method of roasting the agave plant after harvest imparts the flavor of smoke.
Ray’s on the River is extraordinarily scenic, a place that seems to bring nature inside. It’s a location where bees can thrive. This year, newly installed beehives began buzzing with tiny new tenants. Named for them is The Apiary, a whiskey-laced spin on the Bee’s Knees with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, honey syrup and lemon bitters. Once the first batch is harvested, bartenders will use their own honey in the cocktail.
You can add local flavor to your home version of a Bee’s Knees with Honey Next Door, made from 150 hives in 15 different Atlanta neighborhoods. Pick it up at Sandy Springs Farmers Market, Tower Wine and Spirits, Brookhaven Wines or at honeynextdoor.com.
Bee’s Knees recipe
2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce honey syrup
Lemon twist for garnish
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, shake together gin, lemon juice and honey syrup. Garnish with lemon twist.
*To make honey syrup: Add ½ cup honey and ½ cup water to a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until blended. Strain into a jar and seal tightly with a lid. Will keep for 1 month in the refrigerator.
Ray’s on the River
6700 Powers Ferry Rd. NW.
Sandy Springs 30339
The Southern Gentleman
3035 Peachtree Rd. NE
6125 Roswell Rd.
The Painted Pin
727 Miami Circle NE
Drinks columnist at Simply Buckhead. Food, spirits, and culture writer.