The Bees Knees
Story and photography by Cheré Coen
You don’t need bathtub gin to make this Prohibition-era cocktail, but the sweet taste of honey and the tanginess of lemon may have you dancing the Charleston.
In the 1920s, the sale and enjoyment of alcohol was outlawed by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But that didn’t stop Americans from sneaking in bottles of various spirits from other countries or secretly distilling gin or grain alcohol in their homes. Since Southerners were no stranger to moonshine, illegal spirits from stills found their way into speakeasies and residences, as well.
Since whiskey required aging for an optimal product, the preferred home choice was bathtub gin, not necessarily made in a bathtub, but created by mixing grain alcohol, water, lemon, and dried juniper berries. Folks tried to mask the smell and taste of these inferior homemade spirits by adding sweet and tangy ingredients. Honey and citrus were regularly used, much the same way fruit punch enhances harsh grain alcohol in the “Jungle Juice” enjoyed at frat parties and other college get-togethers.
When the Lost Generation added honey and lemon to their gin, the Bees Knees cocktail was invented. Named after a popular expression of the time which means “the best,” as in “This cocktail’s the Bees Knees!”
The drink consists of three simple ingredients: 2 ounces of gin, about an ounce of lemon juice and an ounce of honey. The combination is shaken with ice and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. To add a bit of finesse, garnish the glass with a lemon peel or a sprig of basil.
The Bees Knees may have been a quick fix to a temporary restriction on alcohol 100 years ago, but the cocktail endures today, partly thanks to the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition. It remains a delicious, refreshing drink and — dare we say it? — a healthy concoction due to its citrus and honey ingredients.
The following is a Bees Knees cocktail created by Kate Dowdle at Savannah Bee Company. She adds the company’s lavender honey to the mix by creating a honey syrup. Dowdle suggests incorporating Barr Hill gin into the Jazz Age cocktail, a spirit infused with juniper and raw honey. Savannah Bee Company products may be purchased at two Tennessee locations and several in Georgia, among other states, plus online. Barr Hill, produced by Caledonia Spirits, is available at many Mississippi locations and other outlets throughout the South.
Savannah Bee Company’s Bees Knees
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
3⁄4-ounce Lavender Honey syrup”
2 ounces Barr Hill Gin
For the Lavender honey syrup:
1 cup lavender honey (or your favorite Savannah Bee varietal)
1⁄3 cup hot water
Directions: Mix the lavender honey with the hot water for the honey syrup. Combine the lemon juice, honey syrup, and gin and shake, then pour into a chilled cocktail glass.