If a drink's name sounds like something your grandmother might've talked about when she was drunk, it's a pretty reliable indicator that you're dealing with a pre-Prohibition or Prohibition-era cocktail. Take the Hanky Panky, for example. Then there are Knickerbockers and Communists and Aviations (and, of course, what's perhaps my beloved matriarch's favorite, the You've Disappointed Me Yet Again Cocktail). Of these, the Bee's Knees may be the most popular example. Although little is known about the exact origin of the recipe and its enduring rhyming moniker, the phrase "the bee's knees" (which basically translates to "That's badass, dude!" in more modern colloquial terms) was 1920s flapper slang that evolved alongside expressions like "the cat's pajamas." Flappers were like the equivalent of today's hipsters: they were regularly drunk and decked out in weird costumes, and no one knew what the hell they were talking about half the time.
The recipe itself, which calls for a half-ounce of honey syrup, a half-ounce of lemon juice, and two ounces of gin in its original incarnation, was likely born out of an effort to disguise the face-melting horror of the bathtub gin being used during Prohibition. (To make honey syrup, add equal parts honey and boiling water, stir until completely mixed, and refrigerate.) Like many other cocktails that came out of that time, the Bee's Knees utilized sweetening ingredients and fruit juices to make the alcohol palatable. Fortunately, with the high-quality spirits we have available now, it's not necessary to bombard them with sweetness. But the recipe proved to offer such a refreshing charge of summery flavor that it has withstood the test of time, popping up on cocktail menus all over the city as of late.
Since the basic recipe is so simple, it's easy to riff off of. "My whole philosophy is to take something old, keep the integrity, but give it a modern take," says Matt Coughlin of Aquitaine (569 Tremont Street, Boston, 617.424.8577). His version of the Bee's Knees ($10) adds thyme to the honey syrup and is finished with oil from an orange peel. "Thyme adds a whole other herbal note to the gin, and it works really well with the citrus with a little bit of burnt orange peel on top," Coughlin says. "All the flavors are prominent, nothing overpowers, and it's really well-balanced. It's sweet and sour and bitter, and you can definitely taste the booze."
Kai Gagnon of Bergamot (118 Beacon Street, Somerville, 617.576.7700) thinks the cocktail is, well, the bee's knees too. "It's sort of my go-to cocktail when I want something really refreshing and simple," he says. "Lemon and honey has always been a classic combination, like in tea. Here they add additional aromatics to the gin." All of the honey syrups Bergamot's bartenders use in their version ($10) are made with honey purchased from local beekeeper Mike Graney. When it's available, they also incorporate his fermented honey into the recipe. "Fermented honey is a lot earthier and floral," explains Gagnon. "It changes the drink ever so slightly and makes it more interesting."
Then there are variations that use Barenjager, a vodka-based honey liqueur, in the recipe in place of the honey, adding a higher alcohol content and a subtle clove and vanilla component. One such sip is the Interloper ($10) at Lord Hobo (92 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, 617.250.8454), where the bartenders also rinse the brandy glass with scotch before serving, which brings a smokey nose to the cocktail. Other variations use a white rum in place of gin without much of a noticeable flavor discrepancy, or add grapefruit juice into the mix. But Sara Sweet Rabidoux of Chez Henri (1 Shepard Street, Cambridge, 617.354.8980) says that you can't really go wrong with the original recipe and that the quality of the honey is the key. "BŠrenjŠger is an okay substitution taste-wise, but you'd never want to use simple syrup. And really, the natural taste of real honey is what makes this drink so drinkable." Fortunately for you, she lauds the cocktail as one that's practically foolproof for home bartenders looking to entertain guests. "The Bee's Knees is simple to make at your home bar and a truly refreshing summer sipper." In other words, this giggle water is the real McCoy.