Relatively few cocktails use honey as a sweetener. I suspect honey’s assertive and variable flavor is the likely reason—cane sugar’s simplicity and predictability make it a more attractive standard for amending cocktails.

But honey is one of Summer’s great delights, and there are some cocktails that include it.

The best known is the Prohibition-era’s Bee’s Knees.

Modern listings for the Bee’s Knees typically include just gin, lemon, and a heavy dose of honey—an unremarkable, over-sweetened gin sour that sometimes is more about honey than gin.

…honey is one of Summer’s great delights…

The original formulation was more carefully crafted. The earliest published version seems to be William Boothby’s 1934 recipe in World Drinks and How to Mix Them: an ounce of gin, plus a barspoon each of honey, lemon and orange—about an 8:1 sour, much drier than most current recipes.

The Bee's Knees, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Bee’s Knees

I really like the gin-forward emphasis, but the more striking difference from modern listings, and the thing that elevates the original recipe above its successors, is that little dose of orange juice. It’s missing from nearly all later recipes, and would come as a great surprise to most bartenders, I suspect.

Bee’s Knees
Based on Boothby, 1934

  • 2 oz London Dry gin (Beefeater 24, Tanqueray)
  • ½ oz 1:1 honey syrup
  • ¼ oz fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ oz fresh orange juice (optional)

Shake all ingredients with ice until cold; strain into a chilled cocktail stem. Optionally, express and garnish with lemon twist.

Orange juice adds the pleasing complexity of non-lemon citrus notes without a lot of extra tartness or noticeable dilution.

High-quality local or regional honeys are important, and not just because quality always matters. One of the joys of the Bee’s Knees is that the drink you make will almost certainly taste different from the one I make, mostly due to the seasonal and regional variability of the honey component.

I prefer to mix honey as a 1:1 syrup. It’s easier to use, stays liquid in the refrigerator, and mixes more readily than straight honey. It also makes it easier to adjust the drink according to the honey’s characteristics.

The classic citrus and honey pairing and the unpredictable uniqueness of honey sweeteners are the characteristics that make the Bee’s Knees special, and worth adding to your summer cocktail repertoire.

Next time, more lemon and honey—and rum: The Honey Bee.