The Bee’s Knees cocktail — a simple sour composed of gin, lemon juice and honey that is one of the few enduring drinks to come out of the Prohibition era — is having a busy time of it.
In New York City, the classic drink, or a variation on it, appears on menus at Valerie in the theater district; Ploume, a new cocktail bar in NoMad; the Bar at Moynihan Hall, in Pennsylvania Station; and the Parlour, the lobby bar at the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel in Midtown. On the other side of the East River, the Bee’s Knees Cocktail Bar recently opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (It sports a mural of beekeeping and a smattering of bee pollen on the glass for the signature cocktail.)
The drink’s appeal goes beyond New York: Versions can also be found at the Little Cat Lodge in Hillsdale, N.Y., and Speak of the Devil, a bar in Lorain, Ohio, where it is one of the most popular orders. At Rococo Steak in St. Petersburg, Fla., it’s called the Hive, and at Kingfisher in Durham, N.C., it goes by the name Bee Durham. But they’re all plays on the Jazz Age favorite, named for the popular phrase for something wonderful. (See also: the cat’s pajamas.).
“It’s fresh, it’s simple, it’s accessible,” said Sean Umstead, an owner of Kingfisher. “It showcases the ingredients that are in it.” Kingfisher’s version is made with high-proof gin and infused with beeswax.
Some drinks historians believe that the honey in the classic cocktail was used to mask the rather poor quality of Prohibition-era gin.
If it’s possible to trace the cocktail’s resurgence, it might start with Barr Hill, a Vermont distillery that finishes its gin with honey, thanks to the founder, who is also a beekeeper. In 2017, Barr Hill introduced Bee’s Knees Week, an annual event that encourages bars to put the drink on their menu. Last year, nearly 2,500 bars around the country participated.
The cocktail’s simple combination of sweet and sour makes it an ideal starting point for creativity. Want a period-correct Bee’s Knees? Go to Velvet in London, where the bar consultant Salvatore Calabrese offers the cocktail with a gin (either Beefeater or Booth’s) distilled in the 1930s. What about a Bee’s Knees royale? Nazar Hrab, the beverage director at Bee’s Knees in Brooklyn, tops his version with sparkling mead.
Sean Patrick McClure, the beverage director of Ploume — where the cocktail is called the Killer Bee and made with yellow Chartreuse and five-spice honey — believes that the drink appeals to both cocktail geeks and novice drinkers. “I think it’s a little column A and column B,” he said. “The cocktail enthusiasts, they know it for sure. Then there are those people who are like, ‘Oh, gin and honey!’”
This time of year, it also helps that people mentally connect honey and lemon with winter remedies, said Marshall Minaya, the beverage director of Valerie, noting that sales of the drink picked up beginning in the fall.
“Your mind kind of wants those things,” he added. “It’s like a cold hot toddy.”