Warning! Dangerous Cocktail Geekery Ahead!
The other day I got a text from Erik Adkins, “What do you know about the Bee’s Knees?”
I responded: I know it isn’t a Savoy Cocktail, most people say it is a Prohibition Era Cocktail, and the earliest recipe I know of is from the 1947 “Bartender’s Guide…by Trader Vic”.
Bee’s Knee (sic)
1 oz Gin
Juice 1/4 Lemon
1 tsp. Honey
Shake with crushed ice; strain into cocktail glass.
I said I’d check further and see what I could come up with.
Now my general assumption has always been that the 1947 “Bartender’s Guide…by Trader Vic” used Patrick Gavin Duffy’s 1934 “Official Mixer’s Manual” as it’s source for prohibition and pre-prohibition cocktails.
So I checked P.G. Duffy, but it had no Bee’s Knee. Or Bee’s Knees for that matter.
Well, thinking about it, there were actually 3 big cocktail compendiums published just prior to prohibition in America: “Savoy Cocktail Book”, PG Duffy’s “Official Mixer’s Manual”, and “Cocktail” Bill Boothby’s “World Drinks and How to Mix Them”.
San Francisco Bartender William Boothby is interesting, in that he was a cocktail author that spanned pre-prohibition and post-prohibition cocktail publishing. His first books were published before 1900 and his magnum pre-prohbition opus published in 1908.
Unfortunately, the plates, and most of the original copies of his pre-prohibition publications were destroyed in the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
After Prohibition, in 1930 he again got into the publishing business with his “World Drinks and How to Mix Them”.
As with other author’s, his goal was to compile as many of the the pre-prohibition and prohibition era cocktail recipes as he could find into the same book. Concentrate all the knowledge in one big book.
On a practical level, I imagine all these authors walking into a publishing office with a big stack of pre-prohibition cocktail manuals and saying, “Here’s my book, just transcribe these. I’ll write the introduction. Thanks for the check, I prefer cash. Have you heard of a little something called the Depression?”
Or, well, in Craddock’s case, not even that. “Here’s a quote for your introduction. You’re the writer, make me sound good.”
So I checked my 1934 edition of home-boy Boothby’s recipe book for the Bee’s Knees Cocktail.
Shake well with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve.
Huh, wow, could it be that the Bee’s Knees, one of the signature cocktails of the modern craft cocktail movement, originated on the West Coast? Well, either that, or it was in some unknown book in Boothby’s collection, which neither Craddock nor PG Duffy had access to. I guess it is worth noting that Boothby was a West Coast bartender, while both Duffy and Craddock plied their trade in the metropolitan areas of the East Coast. I also sent a note to Greg Boehm, and he confirmed Boothby was the earliest Bee’s Knees recipe he knew of.
Interestingly, this seems to indicate that Trader Vic, instead of using PG Duffy for his source for pre-prohibition cocktails, was actually using Boothby’s “World Drinks and How to Mix Them”. West Coast represent!
Boy, an interesting exercise would be to find out which cocktails were unique to all three of these classic cocktail compendiums.
It might give us more insight into which cocktails were actually Craddock’s, which cocktails were Boothby’s, and which were rightly claimed by PG Duffy.
Now, the prohibition era Bee’s Knees is often excoriated as being a disgustingly sweet concoction, only created to hide the flavor of bathtub booze with honey and lemon.
These early recipes both seem to give lie to that theory; they are heavy on the gin and far lighter on the honey and lemon that any modern cocktail would be.
Here’s a modern recipe for the Bee’s Knees from a website:
2 oz Gin
3/4 oz Honey Syrup
1/2 oz Lemon Juice
Shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and serve.
Seems like modern cocktail makers, not prohibition era bartenders, are the ones playing, “Hide the Gin”.
Update with even more cocktail geekery!
I was chatting with Camper English in the Mixo Bar and he mentioned that he also had recently been researching the Bee’s Knees Cocktail.
He mentioned that Jared and Anistasia Miller (of Mixellany, Slow Drinks, and EUVS fame) had claimed that the oldest recipe for the Bee’s Knees was from Frank Meier’s “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks”.
It’s not a book I am super familiar with, so I dug out my Cocktail Kingdom reprint and checked. Indeed there is a Bee’s Knees in Mr. Meier’s Book.
Frank Meier was the head bartender at the Ritz Paris during Prohibition and published his book, “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” in 1936. A very influential man in the circles of European Bartending.
His recipe for the Bee’s Knees is as follows:
In shaker: the juice of one-quarter Lemon, a teaspoon of Honey, one-half glass of Gin; shake well and serve.
As this is nearly the Trader Vic recipe verbatim, I think I am going to have to rescind my previous assumption that Mr. Bergeron was using Boothby for a source. Bummer for West Coast Solidarity. He was probably having Meier transcribed, not Boothby, and it was probably Vic’s plagiarizing of the Meier recipe that went on to launch a thousand gin sours sweetened with honey.
On the other hand, Boothby did beat Meier to the punch by publishing a Bee’s Knees recipe in 1930 and again in 1934.
Half right, half wrong. Not bad.
Now I’m gonna have to do a taste test between Bee’s Knees with Orange Juice and without.