The Bee’s Knees cocktail offered as one of the King Bee Lounge’s signature drinks isn’t afraid to let a bold burst of honey act as the reigning ingredient in the concoction of gin, honey and lemon that the bar serves with one distinctive twist: the Bees’ Knees comes from a frozen drinks machine. That medium and the cold, slush-like texture it delivers might be the most ingenious way of serving up the Bee’s Knees, a classic cocktail, to make it fresh and new again. (The menu will also ask if you want to “sting” the drink with the addition of Ancho Reyes liqueur. If you want the gentle bite of ancho chili softening the sweetness of the honey, then, yes, sting away.)
Delivering the cocktail to patrons frozen was a deliberate decision by owner Billy Hankey, who took over the old Legendary White Swan space at 12th and Chicon Streets from his half-brother Randall Stockton over the summer and opened it as King Bee Lounge on Aug. 1. He said he and his girlfriend Colette Dein will offer frozen drinks (currently there is also a frozen Tequila Sunrise on the menu) year-round.
“It’s hot and the idea of frozen classic cocktails just sounded like a lot of fun,” he said.
Making the Bee’s Knees almost brand-new again with the frozen machine is a little like what has happened with the bar itself. A club that’s been around since the 1960s, the Legendary White Swan went under the ownership of Stockton — who also owns other nightlife spots like the Grackle, Rio Rita and Beerland — in 2011. He was unable to keep it profitable in an area that’s slowly becoming safer and not as known for drug deals and other shady dealings in the past few years and passed it on to Hankey, whose previous bar experience includes working as bar manager at Bar Congress.
Hankey decided to make craft cocktails, local beer and freshly made pizza the focal point of King Bee Lounge, and it’s already becoming a place, he said, “where regulars from the neighborhood as well as friends and fans… have followed us here from other neighborhoods.”
He said Aug. 1, the day King Bee officially opened, was “one of the happiest days” he and Dein had shared thus far because opening the bar had been a dream of theirs for a long time.
“Colette and I have lived in the area for a long while and in the past have had a hard time finding food and drink later in the evening,” Hankey said. “It just made sense when we found out the space was available.”
But for fans of the live music the Legendary White Swan was known for during Stockton’s tenure, don’t worry — some of those tunes will continue to play on at King Bee. The couple has kept the Monday night of blues intact with the weekly residency of Little Elmore Reed Blues Band. That was an important holdover for Hankey: “Weekly, the band evokes memories of being a teenager listening to Larry Monroe on KUT and easily makes for some of the most enjoyable evenings around,” he said.
Among the $7 to $9 craft cocktails that Hankey will whip up for you (he was behind the bar on the recent evening I stopped by) is a gin and jam drink. The floral, sweet and spicy notes of the gin and strawberry-hatch jam all play nicely together ; just make sure that you stir well so that the jam fully mixes with the gin. There’s also a sangria with red and white wine, Cognac and fruit; a Vieux Carre with rye whiskey, Cognac, Benedictine and bitters; and a Ti’ Punch with rum, syrup and lime. They’re all simple, well-crafted examples of King Bee’s strength at delivering quality at inexpensive prices and in a laidback, easygoing atmosphere.
Plus, the handful of beer taps carrying the likes of Live Oak and Circle Brewing will always carry local offerings. “Our goal is to carry only beers brewed within the Austin city limits,” Hankey said.
Something else distinct from the Legendary White Swan is that the King Bee serves $8-$12 pizza and paninis, along with salads and a couple of bar snacks, after Hankey and Dein installed an oven and kitchen in the front, near the bar, and moved the stage to the back. I recommend the Green and White Grocer pie with pesto, goat cheese and diced tomatoes.
But it’s the sweet frozen elixir of the Bee’s Knees that you’ll remember. With nothing quite like it anywhere else, you might find yourself making a return trip to the King Bee.