For all its simplicity, the origin of the Bee's Knees cocktail is murky. It was created some time during Prohibition and appeared in print after the repeal of the eighteenth amendment in 1933. Because of the secretive nature of drinking during Prohibition (in the States at least) it's not likely to pin down a date or creator. I've read that it was created in Paris at the Ritz by Frank Meier, or it was created by the Unsinkable Molly Brown of Titanic infamy, or came to be in an American speakeasy.
Prohibition was ratified as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, it outlawed the manufacturing, sale, import, and export of liquor for drinking purposes in the United States. People could get medicinal alcohol through their physicians, but otherwise they would have to enter a Speakeasy and drink illegally. Prohibition was repelled with the 21st Amendment in 1933.
The first known use of 'The Bee's Knees' was in 1921 as an idiom meaning someone or something excellent, perhaps from the idea that bee's carried honey in sacs on their legs. The actual cocktail is though to have been created in the middle of Prohibition but the first record of it comes from the 1934 Boothby anthology. Bill Boothby wrote a cocktail compendium (that can still be purchased) titled World Drinks and How to Mix Them.
There is a thought from some historians/mixologists that the saccharine aspect to the drink was to hide inferior gin (or "bathtub" spirits). Prohibition meant that any alcohol created had to be industrial (which is used for perfume, inks, fuel, etc.). To deter bootleggers and adventurous dipsomaniacs, the Volstead Act was implemented, this was the impetus to allow enforcement of the 19th Amendment. Deterrents (denaturants) were added to industrial alcohol to make it undrinkable. These initiatives barely slowed bootleggers but it did cause a rise in tainted-alcohol induced death, as at least one third of all industrial alcohol created during Prohibition was thought to have been diverted for personal drink. A 1927 report from New York noted that of the half million gallons confiscated that year contained various forms of toxic additives.
I'm reading a book about the way the New York Coroner's Office detected poisonings, and there is an entire chapter about wood alcohol (and other prohibition era related alcohol deaths). it's called The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum. PBS did a documentary on it as well. It's truly excellent.
Recipe for The Bee's Knees Cocktail
The first step is to make the honey syrup. As you can see...I already messed up. This was mostly because I made the raspberry one (I success) before and I was on semi-auto pilot.
What you should do is to mix the honey with warm water until the honey is dissolved. Stirring gently. You don't even need to do this on the stove/hob, you can boil water and then add to the honey. Like tea.
Eventually the honey will melt, even with the additional sugar. If you really don't like the taste of gin (as I discovered I do not), then having extra sugar works out well because it totally masks the flavor profile.
If you have a more refined palette, than this would be a horrible thing. This mixture would be decent for semi-bitter tea that people keep buying for you (why are people giving me crappy tea?)
Honey can clump up. It needs to be really diluted (which I didn't do with all the additional sugar). If it's not diluted, and you add ice or cold, it will clump together and become solid. It will stick to the sides of the vessel. If you make the honey syrup properly, this will not be an issue. If you're worried that just putting hot water with honey together, do it on the hob and make sure it will never dare to clump.
The clumping! This is what it looks like. I picked most of the ice out (I left one cube) and then I reheated the clump and added water as needed. The ice cube was mostly all I needed. As you can see from the photo, it is undrinkable when it clumps up like that.
So it's fixable! It is! And, luckily I had the pretty raspberry one to sip on while I waited for the honey to dissolve.
Doing it right the first time helps a bit.
Eventually I got it to this -------->
The color is stunning and there's quite a lot of syrup. Following the recipe would only use a tiny bit, but I used it all (for two drinks). It's a lot but I can understand why Boothby added orange juice.
I did read that someone suggested using all the syrup, cut with seltzer, to create a large pitcher of punch. That's another option.
The Frankenstein version I created is very sweet. It is delicious.
Things to remember: There is a time limit on these home made syrups. For the honey syrup specifically, it will begin fermentation (and start turning into mead) after a week or so.
Variation Recipe for the Raspberry bee's Knees Cocktail
I used the basis of the LA Retro Recipe's Blackberry Bee's Knees as inspiration. I used raspberries instead of blackberries and went a little crazy (I used ALL my raspberries) but ended up simplifying the base of it greatly. Mostly because I hate sparkling water and it was the height of Covid and I couldn't find Elderflower/St. Germaine's anywhere. So this is very simplified and can only get better with those editions.
The first step is to make the honey syrup. The recipe calls for about twelve raspberries but I love them so I went hog wild. ALL THE RASPBERRIES!!
So, the number of raspberries of your choice, 1/2 cup honey and 1/2 cup water on the hob. Medium-high heat. We're breaking down the raspberries during all this.
We're gathering supplies for the actual cocktail.
I mixed everything in a mixing glass with ice. I used one ounce lemon juice, one ounce of gin, and then...all the syrup. I'm just not a great gin drinker and when I made it with the original recipe it was too strong.
Tasting as you go is key here, because you can add more of whatever ingredient you'd like to create the perfect mixture.
Citations + More information
Houston Press - Bobby Huegel's weekly cocktail: The Bee's Knees
Saveur - Bee's Knees Cocktail
Garden and Gun - The Bee's Knees Cocktail
Feast Magazine - What We're Drinking: The Bee's Knees
Cold Glass - Mixing with Honey: The Bee's Knees
The Spruce Eats - Bee's Knees Cocktail: A Little Sweet and Sour for Your Gin
Platings and Pairings - Bees Knees Cocktail Recipe
Tori Avey - Prohibition, The Great Gatsby, and The Bees Knees
Gin Foundry - Bee's Knees Cocktail
Jeffrey Morganthaler - The Bee's Knees
Supercall - The Bee's Knees
LA Weekly - The Bees Knees: A Prohibition-era Cocktail you Don’t Have To Hide
Wikipedia - Bee's Knees
PBS - Bee's Knees Cocktails
Caledonia Spirits - Bee's Knee Cocktail and Bees Week
Paste Magazine - Happy Hour History: The Bee's Knees
Tales of the Cocktail - How to Pick the Right Honey for Your Cocktail
Honestly Yum - Lavender Bee's Knees
Simple Seasonal - Lavender Bee's Knees Cocktail
LA Retro Recipe - Blackberry Bee's Knees
Holly and Flora - Pear and Chamomile Bee’s Knees (vegan option)
Beautiful Booze - Blood Orange Bee's Knees
Bon Appetit/Epicurious - Lavender Bee's Knees
National Archives - Amendments 11 through 27
Smithsonian - During Prohibition, Your Doctor Could Write You A Prescription For Booze
The Colorado Sun, Jeffrey Miller - Love Your Fancy Cocktail? You've got Prohibition to Thank
Tori Avey - Prohibition, The Great Gatsby, and The Bees Knees (great resource for history and pictures from the era)
JStor - The Darker Side of Prohibition
National Center for Biotechnology Information - Poison's Legacy
National Center for Biotechnology Information - What's A Poison Got To Do With It?
U.S. Senate - The Senate Overrides the President's Veto of the Volstead Act
Slate - The Chemist's War
U.S. House of Representatives - The Volstead Act
National Archives - The Volstead Act
Prohibition: An Interactive History - Alcohol as Medicine and Poison