It’s time to dust off your dancing shoes, put on some Duke Ellington and shake a leg, as we make the ultimate Jazz Age gin cocktail, the Bee’s Knees. It’s the business.
There’s an easy way to spot a cocktail that was created or popularised during Prohibition, look for sugar and fruit juice. Cocktails like the Bronx, the Southside (apparently Al Capone’s favourite) and our Cocktail of the Week, the Bee’s Knees, contained lots of both mainly to hide the fact that the gin you were drinking wasn’t exactly Tanqueray. It might not even be gin. David A. Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, first published in 1948 when Prohibition was still a recent memory, refers to such concoctions as ‘pernicious recipes.’
It’s the cat’s pyjamas
Don’t listen to old grumbles Embury, however, as the Bee’s Knees is actually delicious. The name is a bit of Jazz Age slang that was popular among bright young things of the time. Much, one imagines, to the disapproval of their parents. There’s a story that the phrase was inspired by Bee Jackson, aka Miss Fancy Feet or the Charleston Queen. A New Yorker, she helped bring the dance to London with a series of shows at the Piccadilly Hotel and the Kit Kat club. Or the bee’s knees might just be a hip way of saying ‘the business’. It was one such phrase along with the ‘cat’s pyjamas’, ‘monkey’s eyebrows’ or ‘badger’s whiskers’ which all mean absolutely spiffing. You’d say them while dancing the Charleston to your new Duke Ellington 78 while assuring your friends that there would never be a war like the last one.
To keep it true to the spirit of the roaring ‘20s, we’re using Bathtub gin. Bathtub gin originally got its name as it was usually made from industrial alcohol (hopefully not containing too much methanol or customers would go blind) which would be dumped in a large container, such as a bathtub, and flavours added. If you were lucky this might be juniper essence and sugar, if not turpentine or even sulphuric acid. Mmmm, tangy!
How to make the Bee’s Knees
I should hasten to add that the only thing this Bathtub Gin has in common with the illicit stuff is that the botanicals, including juniper, orange peel, coriander, cassia, cloves and cardamom, are added to the spirit post-distillation in a technique known as cold-compounding where they slowly give up their aromas. The result is something richer, heavier and more intensely-flavoured than a London dry, and also very lightly tinted from the botanicals. It’s a gin for all seasons but it’s particularly good when paired with strong flavours like lemon juice and honey because it’s not going to get drowned out. In short, it’s a gin that means business.
This brings us back to our cocktail. Made using Bathtub gin, fresh lemon juice and a nice drop of honey, it really is the cat’s pyjamas.
Right, let’s get shaking!
60ml Bathtub Gin
30ml fresh lemon juice
Add all the ingredients to an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and double strain into a chilled Coupette glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.