On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy dives into the Bee’s Knees cocktail with Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill beverage director, Sam Nelis. The two look into the pre-Prohibition cocktail’s history and discuss how to incorporate honey into the drink, how to approach shaken cocktails, and how to perfect the “Bee’s Freeze.” Tune in to learn more.
Sam Nelis’ Bee’s Knees
- 2 ounces gin, such as Barr Hill
- ¾ ounce honey syrup (2:1 honey to water by weight)
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice.
- Shake until cold and double strain into a chilled coupe glass.
- Garnish with an expressed lemon twist.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy. Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” Sam Nelis is on the podcast. Welcome, Sam. How’s it going?
Sam Nelis: It’s going great. I am happy to be here.
T: Thank you so much for joining us today. Looking forward to getting into all things Bee’s Knees today.
S: Absolutely. It’s a delicious cocktail.
T: Sure is. We’re talking about a pre-Prohibition Cocktail here, and also pre-Prohibition idiom for the name; the Bee’s Knees. What a name it is.
S: Yes, it’s a funny name that means “the best.” It is a pretty tasty cocktail, so the name does live up to it, which is great. It was found with a handful of other animal-related, relatively nonsense phrases, like the Eel’s Hips or the Cat’s Pajamas.
T: Are you familiar with the one that we use across the Atlantic, across the pond in the U.K.?
S: Which one is that?
T: Slightly more vulgar, I will warn folks here, but the Dog’s Bollocks is a popular one there. I also used to work for a chef from North London who made it slightly more PG, he used to go with the Dog’s Danglers. So there you go.
S: That is perfect.
T: I don’t think anyone wants to drink that cocktail, though.
S: It’s doesn’t sound as appealing,
The History Behind the Bee’s Knees
T: But we are talking about a pre-Prohibition cocktail here. And this is one of those drinks with a remarkable history, specifically tied to the person who invented the drink. Let’s dive into that. What can you tell us about the backstory of the Bee’s Knees?
S: Sure. The inventor was a man by the name of Frank Meier. He was Austrian-born and part Jewish, and he got very well known for working at The Ritz in Paris, which is still open today. The bar used to have a different name, but in the ’90s, they changed it to the Hemingway Bar because he frequented it quite frequently. I feel like there are a lot of bars around the world that can claim that. But Frank apparently got his start in New York at a bar near Madison Square and then left, probably because Prohibition had started and he wanted to continue his craft. He left for Paris and opened up that bar as the bar manager. He was very focused on great cocktails as well as the hospitality. I think head bartender was actually his title, and he said that as the head bartender, he really wants to be at the front of the bar, hosting guests and greeting them. He was known for meeting some of his regulars at the front door and helping them with their luggage. He was an all-around hospitality man. He wrote a little book called “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks” a little bit later than the Bee’s Knees was invented. But it includes the Bee’s Knees, and he’s got a little symbol next to it that says it’s the creation of the author. It’s just great. I’d love to read it to you if you’d like.
T: Yeah, please.
S: It’s one of these really vintage books where it’s hard to decipher the exact amounts. But it says, “In a shaker, the juice of one-quarter lemon, a teaspoon of honey, one-half glass of gin, shake well, and serve.” So it’s a very simple cocktail, and that kind of sums it up. It’s gin, lemon juice, and honey. It’s a classic sour. But there’s something about the botanicals naturally in gin and honey and the brightness of the lemon paired with juniper and gin. It’s just an overall delicious three-ingredient cocktail.
T: We’ve adopted measurements, and we will get into a more modern day iteration in a little while. But yeah, the formula remains the same, right? The three ingredients there continue to work so well together.
T: There are a couple of other things that I’ve seen, too. I don’t know whether you want to mention any of the other things that you’ve seen in Meier’s background. I know he has ties to helping the French Resistance during World War II, because this would have been a popular spot with some very high-level Nazis at the time. Is that correct?
S: Yes, it was. Some people call him the bartender spy, which is pretty great because, as bartenders, we a little bit become the mayor of the community in the sense that you hear a little bit of everything. It’s not that we’re eavesdropping on purpose, but there’s people that open up to you at the bar and they’ve had a couple of drinks and they’re talking to each other, etc. The story goes that it was a popular spot because it was a fancy nice bar in Paris. It was a popular spot with the Germans. Frank Meier was doing his hospitality thing and being polite and would serve them. But he was always making sure to take some notes and eavesdrop on conversations. The story goes that he was able to help the French resistance a little bit with some information because of that, which I think is kind of cool.
T: I think that’s incredible. There’s an alternate universe where Quentin Tarantino makes “Inglourious Basterds” around Frank Meier’s bar instead of maybe Shoshana and the movie theater. I want to see that one. Also, Meier eventually kind of fades away. People say that he maybe escaped, or other people think other things. We ultimately don’t know what happened to him in the end of his life. But I think Quentin would also have some fun with that, just kind of coming up with his own alternative endings. I want to see that one, but maybe we’ll never get that.
S: That would be a pretty good movie to watch, for sure. It’s possible that they found out what he was doing, that they found that he was part Jewish or something and he had to flee. I’m not exactly sure. It’s also possible that the only reason they were keeping him around was because the drinks were so good. We have priorities here, even in war.
The Ingredients Used in the Bee’s Knees
T: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of this cocktail itself, you’ve spoken about the ingredients. I was wondering if there’s anything else that you think makes this a notable drink from the get-go. Anything that stands out to you as the calling card of the Bee’s Knees? What makes this a real notable cocktail?
S: Sure. I should mention that I work for Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Gin; it’s a gin made with raw honey. So we’re very familiar with the Bee’s Knees here. Sometimes, the small amount of ingredients makes you really have to get it right. I talk a lot about the ingredients when I talk to people. A quality gin, of course, the juice is as fresh as possible, and honey that’s ideally raw to begin with. We’ll talk about turning it into syrup. But honey is a really incredible ingredient and there is a huge array of styles of honey from commercially produced industrial stuff — that’s really simple syrup with a little bit of coloring — to the really pure, unfiltered, unpasteurized rich botanical depth of wildflower foraged honey. I’ve made some Bee’s Knees with honey from West Africa, with honey from Tanzania, with honey from South America, and it’s a vastly different cocktail. The honey that you’re using is really huge. It just adds to the flavor and really adds the texture, too. So the three ingredients are important. And then, of course, the technique. Since it is a simple sour, we do classics here. It’s shaken and served up in a coup with a lemon twist. But because of that, it’s the same thing. It’s such a simple presentation that if not done correctly, it can fall very flat. If it’s shaken really nicely and vigorously, and you can create some really nice foam through the use of a nice honey and fresh lemon juice. So when you serve that coupe and it’s got that nice level of foam without the use of egg white or anything, it just really craves that brightness. It really wakes up everything in the drink when the texture has those small, tiny bubbles within the citrus and honey.
T: That’s something that really stands out to me, just fast-forwarding up to today and modern mixology and cocktails. Because I think of a drink like the Gold Rush, that I love, and oftentimes, we hear this described as a Whiskey Sour with honey simple rather than simple syrup and no egg. Ultimately, this is pointless, but there’s an argument to be made that the Gold Rush shares a lot more in common with the Bee’s Knees than it does the Whiskey Sour. Maybe if we’re talking about modern day relevance, though.
S: Sure. I would agree with that because honey is so powerful. I forget the one with a rum variation. I think it’s called the Honey Bee. It’s a similar drink. I think it’s three ingredients: rum, lime, and honey.
T: That’s amazing. You’ve hinted upon this, but when you’re making this cocktail, what are you looking for for the perfectly executed version of the Bee’s Knees? Are we really talking about the balance of flavors and texture? What are you looking for from the texture specifically here?
S: Sure. For the texture, that’s based on technique of how the drink is made, how it’s shaken, or if it’s a different drink, how it’s stirred. To me, one of the backbones of a real cocktail program is people executing the technique to make the drinks before the ingredients and everything like that. For example, a Bee’s Knees with the perfect specs, poured over ice and served to you, would just feel very flat. The sweetness would come out in a different way. It would be kind of clingy to you. It’s just not as exciting as one that’s shaken really nicely. So for the texture, I’m looking for that foamy texture when I’m sipping that because I think it really accentuates the flavors. In terms of the ratios, it depends on what spirit, sweetener, and everything we’re using. When I’m doing a Cocktail 101 class with folks, I like to say that for any sour cocktail, we start with a two-one-one-ish ratio; 2 ounces of spirit, 1 of something sour, 1 of something sweet. It might not be perfect, but it’s a good place to start, especially for folks at home and stuff. Where the “science” and “mixology” comes into play is to really think about the spirit you’re using and how you adjust accordingly. So with Barr Hill Gin, it has a little bit of richness in it. There’s a little bit of residual sugar in the gin. It’s raw honey, which is our botanical note. The honey that’s used has about 100-150 wildflowers in there.
T: Can you explain the influence of raw honey there? This is a gin I’ve been a fan of for a long time, and it’s one that where that honey hops on the nose straight away, it’s there on the palate. My personal interpretation of it is that the juniper and some of those other botanicals really come through, perhaps even slightly more in the palate. But it’s really well balanced. What do you mean when you’re saying that this is a gin made with raw honey?
S: That’s a good question. As we know, a gin needs to have juniper in it to be called gin. Any distillery is allowed to make any sort of botanical blend they want with juniper, and usually a grain alcohol or neutral spirit re-distill it. What we’re doing at Barr Hill, is we are using just a single botanical organic juniper to make a very simple single, no-dried-juniper spirit, technically gin. And then we’re blending in a little bit of raw honey. The idea with the raw honey is to not make it sweetened with raw honey. It’s a very small, single-digit percentage that’s going in there. The raw honey that we’re using, which all comes from 200-250 miles around the distillery and is really regional, terroir-driven, has about 100 or 150 botanicals. So on the one hand, we have one botanical juniper. But on the other hand, we have countless because of the honey. It’s a creative way to bring about local botanicals through the gin by using that raw honey. We were founded by a beekeeper originally who was very passionate about bringing raw honey back to the world. The definition of raw honey is that it has never been heated up upwards of a certain degree. I think it’s 95 degrees. Did you know that the inside of a beehive is actually 95 degrees in the winter?
T: Oh really? Wow.
S: Even in the winter here in Vermont, that’s very impressive. So that’s how ours is associated with using Barr Hill Gin in the Bee’s Knees, since it has a little bit more richness. Instead of using a full ounce of honey syrups, we do three-quarter ounce. Honey is an interesting thing to incorporate in cocktails. And I was surprised to see that in Meier’s book, he says a teaspoon, but maybe because it’s such a small amount, he is able to work with it. Usually adding honey directly into a cold drink doesn’t work so well. It doesn’t dissolve. You’ll be left with a bunch left in your shaker at the bottom of the glass or something.
T: Even in your jigger.
S: Exactly. When we’re working with raw honey, we open up the jar and we could turn it completely upside down, and nothing comes out. It’s very thick stuff. In Vermont, it’s always a little bit chilly, so it’s definitely even harder.
T: You want to stick that back in the beehive for a couple minutes, bring up the temperature.
S: We do that by weight, so a two-part by weight honey-to-water ratio. And we try to cook it on a very, very low temperature, just enough to incorporate the water. If we start going too high, and it comes to a boil, we start to lose a lot of lighter floral notes from the honey. So we try to be very careful when making our honey syrup, and then we’re just trying to dilute it enough so that we can incorporate it in. Barr Hill Gin does have a heavy dose of juniper, which is very citrusy. So instead of a full ounce of the lemon juice, we will do three quarters. Our ratio has been 2 ounces of gin, three-quarter lemon, three-quarter honey syrup. Which, with bar gin, is perhaps on the richer, rounder side. But I like it for this cocktail because it also means it’s bringing out more of those botanical notes. A really nice raw honey has the ability to add a lot of good flavor. Since it’s such a natural sugar, it doesn’t feel the same as too much simple syrup or something else.
T: To take two steps back there, looking at gin as a category itself. This is something that’s been very exciting for me — I’ve just done a lot of tasting for VinePair’s annual gin roundup, which just came out recently. I’ve been exploring that category and how it’s evolved so much these days. It’s this ability by producers to really highlight a sense of place, much like you’re doing there at Barr Hill. But if we’re going to break gin down into maybe two categories, you can look at the London Dry style and the New Western or American style. Or New American, it’s got a lot of different names. They’re not specific to America. If you’re approaching this cocktail using London Dry first, what are your considerations there, in terms of the ratios and what you’re looking for? What is that gin adding to the drink itself?
S: That’s where really getting to know the products you’re working with is important in tasting your honey and seeing how it affects each gin. But with London Drys, they tend to be a little more on the citrusy side, in my opinion. Not going too high on the citrus is good, depending on which one you’re using. I think those clock in at about 46 percent.
T: It’s a lot. That’s a good sweet spot right there.
S: Perhaps you would play around with upping the honey. It’s one of those cocktails that is very hard to say, “This is the amount you need because honey varies so much.” Even in brix, and even in the sweetness. When we get our honey, it’s about 87 percent — or 87 brix — then it can really change. You can get one that’s just a little bit less sweet. It’s hard to put a blanket statement over it, like a simple syrup or something that’s much more consistent, or even Demerara syrup or something like that. But I think it works really well with many different types of gins. The Western styles are so drastically different in their own right. I think it’s a fun drink to maybe play around with. You can mix different styles of gins, like you see with a lot of tropical cocktails with rum. Think about how honey and botanica, which are always somewhat floral, work. I’ve tasted a gin made up in Quebec that’s made with mushrooms, for example. It’s a very savory gin, but maybe not the best for Bee’s Knees variation. Maybe some other direction works better. Frank Meier was likely working with a London Dry. I think that the richness of the honey works well with the London Dry for sure. With the raw honey already present in the Barr Hill, or other Old Tom-style gins, sometimes really just make everything pop that much more.
How to Make a Bee’s Knees
T: Therefore, working with that philosophy, maybe start with two-one-one and go from there. Try it out using those ratios. and adapt to that with the rest of the ingredients that you have.
S: Do some research on whatever gin you’re using and see what the botanical blend is. Try to make an educated guess on if they’re using a lot of juniper or other herbs that have a lot of citrus. Maybe you don’t need the full ounce of lemon. You can go a little bit lower.
T: That’s a good point to note as well, that like this is information that a lot of distillers are putting out there. It’s on their websites. You can check it out. It might even be on the bottle. It’s not always. But I think there is an understanding these days that among consumers, especially across the pond in the U.K. where I think gin is even bigger than it is here in the U.S., that botanicals matter. And people are keen to discover what’s inside, what’s giving their gin that unique flavor.
S: Absolutely. We play around with other spirits with the lemon and the honey. We have our aged version here of our Hill Gin, that’s called Tom Cat. It sits in new American oak. So when we do a Bee’s Knees with that, of course, we call it the Cat’s Pajamas. That’s a vastly different cocktail, because we’ve now added the flavors of vanilla and caramel and butterscotch from the oak. But it still works incredibly well. The honey and the oak is a really nice pairing.
T: That’s interesting. When it comes to preparing this drink, do you want to talk us through the build and the shaking? Maybe go into a little bit more detail. You’ve highlighted the ratios that you’ll be using there in the recipe. But what about when it comes to ice for this? Do you have any preference for shakers? And then, ultimately, glassware?
S: It’s ultimately an amazing summer cocktail. It’s very fresh. It’s not a cocktail that’s meant to be pondered over for half an hour while you’re sitting in a dark library. It’s a quick and easy one, but think about it in the sense that every little detail matters. Working backwards and starting with the glass, if you can chill it’s even better. It’s just going to add to the experience. We know those three ingredients added into the shaker with those larger tubes gives you the ability to shake it really well and really long. And you add as much texture as possible without over diluting it, which is really important. We’re already adding lemon juice, we’ve already added honey syrup. It doesn’t need too much dilution, but it needs as much chilling and froth creation as possible. The bigger ice cubes give you that chance to shake a little bit longer to get a little bit colder, get a little bit frothy, without over-diluting. For the garnish, a big fat lemon twist. I love squeezing that. People started doing this a few years ago, and I love the trend of squeezing the oils all over the glass. From a distance, not necessarily touching the glass, but squeezing the oils on the handle of the glass and everything. It just adds that extra pop of lemon essence that you can only really get from the peel. I think of it as this more intense lemon oil flavor. Once it gets on the handle of the drink, people touch it. They bring the drink to their face and they have more of that experience. So it’s just a fun little way to make it a couple of steps up a few notches. It’s a little bit more thoughtful, of chilling the glass, putting the oils along the glass, shaking really hard. When we’re pouring, too, a lot of bartenders will pour that shaker with their right hand with the shaker and the drink. They’ll pull it up to have those pouring ribbons go higher. It’s beautiful, but it’s not just for show. It’s aerating the drink even more on the way into the glass. Everything you do, once you’re done shaking needs to be quick. It needs to be vigorous, even to the point of the strain not overflowing or splashing the glass. You’re kind of catching it with your fine mesh strainer, if you have one.
T: So you’re double straining? You subscribe to that?
S: Yes, thanks for pointing that out. With double straining, the main Hawthorne spring strainer is just holding back most of the ice and then the little fine mesh strainer is closer to the glass. And really, what that is doing is catching any leftover ice chips. We like to consider ourselves the dilution masters, or at least we’re trying to always think about what dilution is happening while you’re making drinks. Ideally when it’s at the perfect dilution, perfect temperature, I subscribe to that philosophy of taking out the ice chips so that it doesn’t continue to dilute as it’s sitting there. So that the texture of the cocktail doesn’t have to compete with the texture of the little ice chips in your mouth.
T: For the garnish there, you mentioned that motion expressing lemon over the cocktail, in the glass, in different parts of the glass, too. Where do you stand when it comes to that twist? Is that going in the cocktail? I’m seeing a movement these days.
S: Express and discard movement?
S: Yeah, it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful technique for certain things. A lot of egg white cocktails will express and discard, because I don’t want to mess with the foam on top, but I still want that aroma. For the Bee’s Knees, I put the lemon right in there. Twist and drop it in; it’s a visual garnish. It also continues to release its oils slowly, and that keeps it as bright and as fresh as possible for as long as possible. Usually, these drinks are so good, they don’t last too long.
T: Obviously, when we’re preparing that twist, we’re trying to leave as much pith as possible on the fruit. But I don’t think it ever harms having a little bit of that and ultimately adding a bit of complexity to the drink, just with that very small amount, but getting more of the fruit involved in the drink.
S: Sure, I agree. We try to not get as much as the white pith on the peel as possible, it’s bitter. But it happens, of course, and I’m not 100 percent against it. As long as you’re using the outside of the twist to actually touch the rim of the glass with and not using the pith on the rim of the glass. I’ve seen some folks do that, and then you’re actually rubbing the bitter part on the glass, and it’s not ideal. As long as you’re using the surface of the peel to touch the actual glass.
T: What about your ultimate glassware for this drink? Is this a coupe? Is this a Nick & Nora? Or do you have anything wackier?
S: Yeah, that’s a good question. We have a coupe for classic. I tend to lean towards Nick & Noras for stirred cocktails. They have a little bit smaller volume, and are a little bit more sophisticated looking. The coupes are a little bit bigger, so we like them. We have these little glass bear jars. It’s funny because it kind of symbolizes this big industrial honey movement, like the plastic squeezed bears. We have those glass versions that we’re putting it in. We actually put our frozen Bee’s Knees in that, the Bee’s Freeze.
T: Bee’s Freeze? Tell us about that.
S: That’s in the frozen drink machine. We’ve got a frosty factory and frozen drinks are a whole other world of science and complexity and perception of flavor. They come out cold, obviously, very, very cold. So the ratios are actually different from those. We have a batch ratio in my file somewhere. But basically, it’s much more sugar and much more honey and a little bit more citrus, because with the drinks that are that cold, you can’t taste this sugar as much. So the ratio is much more of a “Let’s figure it out and taste it,” rather than just increasing the proportions by the same percent from a regular cocktail. So that’s a whole fascinating world.
T: I like that the name works just so seamlessly to the Bee’s Freeze. If you’ve got a name, if you’ve got an open goal like that, I’m figuring it out. I’m making that work.
S: Exactly, it’s too easy. A couple of years ago, we do our Bee’s Knees week at the end of September. Barr Hill basically plants 10 square feet of pollinator habitat for every Bee’s Knees cocktail that’s made and shared online. The idea is that bees and pollinators are dying at an incredible rate because of monocropping and industrial farming and habitation laws. It’s super bad for us. So about one-third of everything on a restaurant food menu is actually pollinated, so what can we do? I’m bringing this up because the glassware, we’ve got some funky honey dispensers. It was basically a glass bee with a metal head and the wings popped up to be able to serve your honey from. But of course, we put the cocktail in there with a little flower coming out of it, and that was kind of fun. We walked to the table like a flying little bee, almost.
T: That’s very cool. I mean, these bees are something else. They’re the bee’s knees.
T: I was wondering, what is so wonderful about those joints on the legs of this insect? The bees themselves are wonderful creatures.
S: They’re powerful. The first time I was around them in a beehive, in a bee apiary, I got all dressed up, this is a few years ago now. But we were doing a little photoshoot making drinks with the bees and they’re out flying about, and the beekeeper’s there. And the beekeeper has such a powerful relationship with their bees, and they can hear by the pitch of the humming how they’re doing. They would tell me, “OK, back off now a little bit, they’re getting a little aggravated,” or they say, “They’re really calm right now. It’s no problem.” They produce a really meditative experience. I think that humming that happens in the air is really a lifetime memorable thing, spending some time around these bees and how they work all together and just constantly buzzing and moving. It’s really powerful.
T: Yeah, it’s really incredible. My dad, as a quick side note here, he’s winding down when it comes to work these days and slowly approaching that retirement age. Last year, he started beekeeping in our garden back home with a couple of small hives. But some of the things he was telling me about are just incredible. It blew my mind, truly. One final glassware thought: What do we think Meier was using? Would he have gone coupe?
S: That is a great question. I think so, or some sort of Nick & Nora variation-type thing. I haven’t seen any pictures, and there are no drawings of a Bee’s Knees in his book, so it’s hard to know. I’m sure we could probably find some other photos of some other similar-style cocktails from that time. I’ll put that on my research list; thanks for giving me some homework.
T: Last time I was in Vermont, when I was driving back, I noticed that you have a ton of good antique stores along the way. I made a few stops and got some incredible glassware for my home bar. So that was fun.
S: Absolutely. It’s a great, great spot for that.
T: Any final thoughts on the Bee’s Knees here and this cocktail in particular? Or any of the things we’ve covered so far in the episode?
S: I don’t think so. Just for folks to not be afraid to try it at home; it’s very simple. Sometimes, people are afraid of fresh juice. I just keep full lemons at home, and I have a little hand juicer that I’ll juice right into my jigger for fresh juice. And the honey syrup too, if you make a little bit, don’t be afraid to make a little extra. You can keep it in the fridge nicely, cover it for at least a month, and you can play around with the honey syrup as a sweetener for Bee’s Knees and other cocktails.
Getting to Know Sam Nelis
T: That sounds wonderful. Fresh is best guys, come on. This is something we’ve learned along the way at “Cocktail College,” but it never hurts to drive that one home. Well, let’s move into the final part of the show here, where we get to know our guest a little bit more through our five weekly recurring questions. Are you ready for it?
T: Let’s buzz into this one. Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
S: Sure. The cocktail bar is within the distillery of Barr Hill, so we have giant shelves full of Barr Hill spirits, of course. Other than that, what takes up the most real estate is definitely bitter and herbal liqueurs from around the world. I don’t want to say amaros specifically, because it’s not just Italian. Those classic modifying agents, like Chartreuse and Campari, are necessary for classic cocktails. So I’m going to try to call that out as a spirit category.
T: Yeah, definitely. It’s a category that includes distilled spirits. We’re talking higher ABV than, say, a wine or a beer here.
T: Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool do you think is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
S: Undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal. You know what? I’m going to say a muddler, actually. I think when bartending at bars, we tend to make a bunch of fresh syrups and liquefy things as much as possible to put them into cocktails quickly. But I find myself, when home bartending, using my muddler all the time because I don’t want to make a full raspberry syrup at home. I just want to grab a cup of frozen ones from the freezer, throw them in my shaker with my honey syrup, muddle them, and put them away. I’ve been sharing that with a lot more enthusiasts than actual trade bartenders. But I find it to be so great. Sometimes, you see a rosemary syrup or a serrano pepper syrup on menus. Instead of going through the whole thing of trying to make that recipe before you even make your cocktail, you can try just using simple syrup in your shaker and muddling a little bit of the rosemary. I do that a lot.
T: That’s a great tip. And in the freezer, if you can get good-quality frozen fruit like raspberries that are whole, I’m all for that.
T: Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
S: As you know, this industry can get a little dramatic. One of my first mentors, her name’s Leslie, was at the first restaurant I worked at. I was getting all upset about something, I don’t remember at this point. But she said, “You know, Sam, you gotta focus on yourself. Focus on what you’re doing. Try not to compare yourself to anyone else. Focus on your education. Focus on your work ethic.” Eventually, things have a way of weeding themselves out. The folks that are serious about certain things ideally are making their way through what they want to do. Just as importantly, what I try to remind my bartenders here and have written in my manual is, the sign of a real true professional bartender — or anyone — is knowing when to ask for help. It’s hard to see, sometimes, bartenders starting to drown in the well and getting three deep at the bar. All they had to do was lift their head and walk over and ask the manager or a server to come help them or help them go get something. I think it’s easy for folks to get really overwhelmed when they’re doing it as a novice bartender, to get overwhelmed by all the pressure of the guests. Knowing that it feels like you’re alone behind the bar, but you’re not really, we can offer something to help you.
T: Yeah, you might be in your well there, but you have help around. It’s a team effort, guys. Question No. 4, penultimate question right here: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
S: This one is tough. I ended up going more on the sentimental side of things. Inevitably, a bar is about community and about who you’re at the bar with rather than necessarily what you’re drinking. Of course, I like to drink good cocktails anyways. But I know there’s a bar in my little neighborhood here in Vermont in Winooski. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a really community-driven bar. They host Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving, and it’s just consistently open, even in a blizzard. I know that I can walk into that bar alone and always find a friend that I can talk to. It’s called Monkey House in Winooski. It’s not on the 50 Best Bars of America list, but it’s a true, community-driven bar. I’ve gotten into this industry because I’m obsessed with cocktails and passionate about flavors and history of cocktails, and I love all of that. If you can bring that into a community-focused bar, then you have a win-win. I’m going to say that my last bar to visit would likely be the bar where I would find the most community.
T: I’ve just added, walking into a bar during a blizzard, perhaps in Vermont, onto my bucket list. That’s what I’m going to be doing.
S: Even better, you can snowshoe to a bar during a blizzard, or cross-country ski. I’ve seen it happen here.
T: Wow. Maybe you end up stuck in there for a night or two. Who knows what happens? You’ve got the fire roaring. Bring on winter. Final question for you today, Sam: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
S: I thought about this one pretty long, too, and my first instinct is always the best. In my opinion, it’s a gin-heavy Negroni, ideally even a Barr Hill Gin or Tom Cat Gin. Sometimes at home, I like to do a chunk of orange, or even a little squeeze of a couple of drops of orange in there. I feel like in Europe, they do that a little bit more than here with a twist. But I think that’s what I would do, and I would probably make it a double.
T: Absolutely. When you’re saying gin-heavy, what ratio are you using?
S: To make the whole drink overall a little bit bigger, I do one-and-a-half gin to one sweet vermouth to one Campari.
T: Whenever we ask this question, it’s the Gin Martini or the Negroni vying for top spot, in terms of the ongoing tally. So that’s another one for the Negroni here.
S: I figured I wouldn’t be alone in that one. So sorry if it’s not quite as exciting.
T: No, not at all. On the contrary, in fine company, you are. Thank you again for taking the time to hang out with us today at “Cocktail College,” and for an incredible deep dive on the Bee’s Knees, honey, and bees. It’s incredible.
S: Well, it’s always a pleasure, Tim. Hopefully, you can come visit us here in Vermont, and I’ll give you a little tour and make you a cocktail.
T: Sounds wonderful. I’m going to save that one for winter in the blizzard.
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Now for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.