Cocktail of the Month: It’s the Bees’ Knees!
By September 14, 2022 0 1182•
One hundred years ago, Washington was wrapped up in the “Roaring Twenties” of post-war prosperity, dazzling decadence and jazz. It was a time of culture milestones marked by the opening the Phillips collection, the founding of the Woman’s National Democratic Club and the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.
On the surface, D.C. may have not appeared to be a party town due to Prohibition, but hidden speakeasies were lurking all around town. Possibly, the most famous was U-Street’s Club Caverns where jazz greats Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway played. Legend has it, the venue served up more than just great music. South of Dupont Circle, the Mayflower Club boasted a 30-foot bar. Capitol Hill’s beloved dive Tune Inn was a candy store where patrons who knew the secret word could purchase adult treats. Things got so wild at the Krazy Kat Club that municipal authorities publicly identified the venue as a den of vice in 1922.
Despite the police raids, drinking culture still managed to thrive and some of the most popular cocktails were invented in this era. Bartenders were required to get creative to cover up the harsh taste of illicit booze. If God gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemon cocktails.
Gin cocktails were common, largely because gin was relatively easy for amateur distillers to make. Their efforts yielded an elixir popularly known as “bathtub gin,” which quickly garnered a reputation for its potency and its astringent flavor. Citrus flavors like lemon and lime were often used to mask the burn. Drinks like the Gin Rickey, the French 75 and the Southside all followed this formula.
But one characteristic cocktail of this time also immortalized the slang of the day — the bees’ knees. Back in flapper days, phrases like “the bee knees,” “the cat’s pajamas” and “ducky” were used to describe something splendid or stylish.
Aside from being a jazzy idiom, the moniker also references the use of honey as a sweetener. Not only did the honey turn inferior gin into a sweet, aromatic concoction, but it also made it difficult for the police at the time to detect any trace of alcohol.
Logic would have it that the bees’ knees was invented in some American juice joint filled with flappers exhaling the virtuous name as they went on a hoot. “Hey daddy-O, this cocktail is the bees’ knees!”
However, it’s claimed that the bees’ knees was invented 100 years ago in 1921. Frank Meier, the first head bartender at the Ritz Hotel’s Parisian café created it when they opened that year. At that time, many Americans, such was F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, fled the U.S. for Paris in search of a more permissive party scene. Perhaps the idiomatic phrase made its way across the pond along with the thirsty expats.
Another story attributes it to Margaret Tobin Brown, also known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” after surviving the Titanic. She lived in both Denver and France and was known to drink the Bee Knees in Paris’s women-only bars of the time.
Even though the three-ingredient recipe of gin, honey and lemon is quite basic, there’s plenty of room for creativity. Try using a floral forward gin such as Hendricks or something a little fruity like Bluecoat elderflower. The type of honey used can also alter the taste. Instead of the basic clover variety, add some wildflower or a buttery-nuanced Tupelo honey.
In the present day, thanks to a worldwide pandemic this decade of the twenties has been more “boring” than “roaring.” It’s time to get the party started. Luckily this time around we won’t have to fly to Paris or sneak in a hidden door to enjoy a cocktail.
The Bee’s Knees
- 2 oz. gin. Try “Tankqueray London Dry” from Reservebar.com.
- 0.75 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 0.5 oz. honey
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds and strain into a coupe or martini glass.