Saturday, January 18, 2020

Here Comes the Boom

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – Bhagavad-Gita

La Boomba! by Stephen Chin

This quote from the ancient Hindu text is often associated with Robert Oppenheimer, who proclaimed it upon witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear weapon and seeing what his handiwork had brought upon the earth. Which is an ominous segue to a favorite puzzle maker, artist and friend, the devious dentist from Down Under, Stephen Chin. Ominous, but fitting, for better or worse. Chin has unleashed another terror on the world, his endearingly explosive ticking time bomb, “La Boomba”!

Things that go Boom

I’m a huge fan of wood turned puzzles with hand chased threads, a tricky art form perfected in the nineteenth century. Very few artists are currently making hand threaded objects now, and even fewer are making puzzles with threaded elements. Chin is one of the very few, and one of the best. His puzzles often “turn” classic shapes and polyhedral dissections into spheres and eggs. He has even done this with puzzles which most said could not be made spherical, like another bomb I recall. But getting back to La Boomba, his explosive Eureka moment was actually eleven years ago, when he made a set of his “Newton’s Egg” puzzles. That clever little wooden egg employs friction and force according to certain physical laws. At the same time, he copied his design and made a single bomb, rather than an egg, which opened more simply and contained a little ticking time bomb madman inside. He had run out of wood - so, for the first time, used colored pencils to create the bomb. He named it, “La Bomba”.

How to Kill a Friend by Paul Shanrock

This cute little bomb kept ticking away in his brain. He went on to use colored pencils in many of his subsequent designs, and fast forwarding to last year, he revisited La Bomba again. A few more locking mechanism, some mechanical design tweaks, and fifty wasted dust piles later, he had another design competition entry: “La Boomba”! It’s an adorable, brightly colored bomb, with a shoelace wick and a telltale Chinnymoto jagged crack running the circumference. Careful exploration will reveal a few clues, perhaps a tool, and eventually the bomb may be defused. Except there’s that madman inside again, with an unmistakable tic tic tic …. BOOM! Ouch! My face! Does anyone know a good dentist?

Tik ... Tik ... Tik ....... Tiki!

Here’s a toast to the man, the myth, the maimer himself, with a cocktail from Seattle mixologist Paul Shanrock of the Stampede Cocktail Club. I thought it was rather appropriate. The drink is seriously smoky, like the aftermath of a big explosion, thanks to a hefty dose of mezcal. It’s a tropical drink, full of pineapple and lime, which bring all the tiki vibes to the party. There’s some dessert sherry as well, the ultra rich and delicious Pedro Ximenez, which is almost too decadent. But the big surprise is from Campari, the classic red bitter amaro, which adds a dose of balanced bitterness to the drink, and makes it amazing. Here’s to the things that go boom. Cheers!

This pair is getting bombed

How to Kill a Friend by Paul Shanrock

1 ½ oz mezcal
¾ oz Campari
½ PX sherry
¼ oz triple sec
1 ½ oz pineapple juice
½ oz lime juice
4 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass filled with crushed ice. Mint garnish or something more explosive.

For more from Stephen Chin:
Fruits of Labor
Things that Go Boom
Pure Genie-us

Saturday, January 11, 2020


“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa

Ripple out by Osamu Kasho

One of my favorite Karakuri Creation Group productions from last year was a surprising box from the artist Osamu Kasho, whose work I have featured a few times before. Kasho typically applies his whimsy and imagination to create adorable boxes that do not have a classic “box-like” appearance. Whether it is a vehicle, like a rocket ship or tricycle, or an animal, such as a wolf or a lion, his creations are usually playful and cute. They are also usually quite clever in execution, a feature that belies their toy-like appearance. I always look forward to seeing what he will come up with next.

Every detail has meaning

For last year’s Karakuri exhibition theme, “WA”, he created “Ripple out”. Wa translates in English roughly as “harmony”, referring more specifically to a harmonious, peaceful community. Physically, this concept can be represented in many ways, but the seamless unity of a circle is often the perfect symbol. Kasho’s creation deviates from his usual style, in that it is an actual box this time, with an obvious drawer to open. His handiwork can still be recognized in the undulating curves of wood carved into the top, and the perfectly turned little drawer knob. The pattern on top moves back and forth with satisfying clicks, and while the objective may seem clear, getting there is much harder than it looks.

Stunning glass art by Kristin Newton

Kasho collaborated on a special edition of Ripple out with glass artist Kristin Newton. Newton, who is originally from California and studied and apprenticed in glass art in Los Angeles, moved to Japan in 1980 for an exchange program and has mostly lived there ever since. She has taught at the Stained Glass Professional School in Tokyo, and subsequently worked at Mayfair Stained Glass Studio, which has since become Stained Glass Supply Japan. She is also a fan of the Karakuri Creation Group, and attended their last two conferences and their exhibition in Ginza, where she met Osamu Kasho. While talking about life as artists, she suggested it might be wonderful to create a glass and wood karakuri box one day. Kasho and his family went to visit her at her studio, where she showed him how to make glass. After a few ideas and experiments, they settled on the current design.
Newton's current work is focused on smaller fused glass objects of art, such as the unique individual pieces she created for the Ripple out. Kasho designed these versions with additional wood accents, and open bottomed drawers to fit each glass piece and allow the light to shine through, resulting in absolutely stunning displays once the drawers are opened. Newton created ten pieces in total for the project, of which five have now been sold. The collaboration is a contemporary cross pollination of art forms that pushes boundaries and is exactly in keeping with the ultimate mission of the Karakuri Creation Group, to revitalize this art form and keep it relevant in the modern era.

“Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.” - Gene Wilder

Word Gets Around

I’ve created another variation on the classic Last Word cocktail to toast the beautiful Ripple out puzzle box. From the many versions I have offered here in the past, you may be familiar with the traditional formula of gin, lime, Green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur. The cocktail was invented in the years before Prohibition at the Detroit Athletic Club, resurrected in 2005 at the Zig Zag Club in Seattle, and remains a popular template for creative riffs today.

Not your typical gin and juice

An interesting modification to the classic is the omission of the lime juice. Sother Teague, the well known mixologist and drinks pioneer who owns the bitter spirits mecca Amor y Amargo in New York City, created a drink based on this idea called “Oh My Word” which substitutes Amaro Montenegro (a citrus forward amaro) and lime bitters for the lime juice. I’ve created an homage to his drink with a slight modification, using the herbal alpine liqueur Genepy in place of the Chartreuse. It’s a lighter, more delicate, and sweeter version of the former, and a common apres-ski aperitif in the region where the flowering namesake herb grows. I’ve also switched the gin for tequila and mezcal for a completely different spin. Like a chaotic game of telephone, Last Word variations can twist and turn, sending ripples into the world, but always coming back full circle in the end. Cheers!

Ripple effects

Word Gets Around

¾ oz reposado tequila
¼ oz blanco mezcal
¾ oz Genepy des Alps
¾ oz Amaro Montenegro
½ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
Dash of grapefruit bitters
Dash of lime bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Lemon twist.

For more from Osamu Kasho:
Wolves at the Door
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Blast Off
The Lion Sleeps Tonight

For more about Kristin Newton:

N.B. Special thanks to Kristin Newton for the information and insight into their collaboration, and for these wonderful additional photos.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Two’s Company

I’d like to start this year off with a favorite box. I feel like this should be an auspicious year, so why not improve the odds by starting with something auspicious. We will step back in time approximately eighteen years to the beginnings of what would become the Stickman Puzzlebox Company. The first Stickman box, the Oak Wood Slide Box, was not truly “No. 1” in the series until there was a second, naturally. I wrote about that one, another favorite, a few years ago as a nice year end tribute, so let’s focus on No. 2 now, a box that launched an empire. Ok, ok, a box that launched a bunch of other boxes, at any rate.

Stickman No. 2 Puzzlebox ("55-Move Box")

Back then Robert Yarger only had an old radial arm saw to work with, a dangerous and somewhat crude machine on which he created all of his work. He had to get pretty creative with it to produce such fine and complex looking works of mechanical art, which is a true testament to his skill and particular form of genius. On the other hand, he notes that there are certain design aspects, such as the carved feet found on his second puzzle box, that can only be created using this type of overhead table saw. Such saws were deemed too unsafe (especially how Rob uses them) and were discontinued from the market years ago. Which is why he has obviously purchased a few more second hand over the years to always have one in working order.

A handsomely surprising next act

His second puzzle box has a striking design, appearing like a handsome lidded chest raised up on four ornately carved legs and feet. Incidentally, those legs were an accident - Rob had mismatched the cuts for these corner pieces to the side pieces, resulting in them extending beyond the sides. He liked the look and rather than waste wood, he turned them into feet. Each box bears a decorative carved tree with leaves engraved on the top. This is, according to Rob, because a tree was the only artistic thing he could manage to draw. Somehow I doubt that but it’s funny. He drilled holes at odd angles and inserted dowels, which initially looked like something from a horror movie, until he trimmed, sanded and smoothed them down to form leaves (all with the radial arm saw!) There are a few cross bars present on the front, and once things start to move, prepare to be surprised by the unexpected. There is a nice symmetry to the movements, which total at least 55 in all before all four internal hidden compartments are revealed. Rob describes this as a rhythmic exercise which can be done very rapidly with practice, and difficult to repeat even if an uninitiated observer is watching closely. The boxes were made from very old oak and other wood he picked up from an estate sale, extra lumber the owner had kept from his years of working on the railroad. Rob notes how hard the wood was, almost too hard for his saw blade, which spit out smoke as he made the cuts. Some boxes still the bear burn marks he could not sand out. He relates a funny story about that time, when he lived in his father-in-laws farm house and used the den, with sheets hung on the doors to block the smoke, as his workshop. His father-in-law was not amused.

What started the Stickman Puzzle Box numbered series was a stroke of innocent logic by his young son, who wandered into his workshop one day to see all the colorful wooden boxes with feet. They reminded him of his favorite Pokemon characters, and he began to give the boxes individual names. Thinking it would be an opportune way to find a creative name for his new box, Rob asked his son to name the box design itself. Thus, No. 2 was born. Second box, No. 2, very logical after all. Rob was amused by the irony of his son’s name choice, exactly opposite to what he had expected. But his son had stumbled upon the essence of collecting – after all, you’ve “got to catch them all” - as in Pokemon, as in Stickman Boxes. It proved a smart marketing ploy for Rob’s fledgling business and has served him well, especially on the secondary market, where he still reaps the publicity and accolades if not the financial rewards. It’s amusing to note that at that time, it took Rob over two years to sell out of his second puzzle, and he even had many of his No. 1 remaining.

Brooklyn Bridge

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a cocktail competition, having placed in the “finals” for the prestigious “home bartender of the year” award. I created many cocktails for the challenge, and paired up some of them with puzzle boxes too, as I am apt to do. More often than not for this blog I will take an old (or new) classic from the history books (or interwebs) to pair with a box, especially if something perfect already exists. But I don’t hesitate to make something new if need or mood move me to it. One of my favorite personal cocktail creations, the “Bon Iver”, was created to pair up with another Stickman, the “Traditional Box”. It’s still one of my favorite pairings of all time. So toasting this favorite Stickman box, the No. 2, with an original was an easy decision. The drink is one of my favorites from the cocktail competition, and the garnish I created for it was also the most complex. Somehow I found that all very fitting as a backdrop to this toast.

Fresh squeezed citrus, juice not included

The competition had a few broad requirements. Specifically, the drink had to include tequila, it had to include some bitter amaro, and it could not have any juice at all. The cocktail I created is a deconstructed Paloma, a classic Mexican cocktail made from tequila and grapefruit soda. I used a balance of light and strongly bitter citrus aperitifs with a sweet grapefruit vermouth to recreate the drink according to the rules. Since the bar that hosted the competition is located in Brooklyn, I envisioned the drink as a bridge from New York to Mexico. It’s a deliciously complex cocktail and an ideal toast for another historic Stickman Box. Cheers!

A Winning Pair

Brooklyn Bridge

2 oz Altos Reposado
¾ oz Mommenpop D’Pampe (or other grapefruit forward vermouth)
½ oz Cocchi Americano
¼ oz Bittermen’s Amere Nouvelle
1 dash Scrappy’s Lime Bitters
1 dash salt tincture

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a glass. Single cube, lemon twist.

For more from Stickman:
Traditions Old and New
Favorite Things
Construction Zone

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Reeling in the Years

Happy New Year! Another year gone by and this time, another decade as well. I’m reflecting back over the past ten years from a beautiful porch overlooking Lake Travis outside of Austin Texas. I’ve just had emergency surgery for appendicitis (and am doing fine), which is a great way to put things into perspective and cap an incredibly interesting decade. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, as I’m sure there are other ways to put things into perspective, but it was effective. I’ve got an amazing family and a satisfying career, not to mention the most enjoyable hobby I could have imagined. Things could be worse. A decade ago, I wasn’t writing this blog each week. I wasn’t even collecting puzzle boxes, and was only just starting to make cocktails. It hasn’t all been martinis and roses but I certainly can’t complain.

Art Deco Clock Box by Bill Sheckels

Reflecting on time has been a preoccupation since at least the ancient Greeks, whose original god of time, Chronos, personified the concept. Chronos, which literally means “time”, pre-dates the more famous Greek gods and got mixed up with the later Titan Kronos, god of agriculture, who famously ate his children (including his son Zeus, who didn’t like being eaten). The god of agriculture was often portrayed as an old bearded man with a harvesting scythe, and because of the similarities in names, the idea of “time” and this persona merged. He became the god Saturn to the Romans, and their end of year winter festival “Saturnalia” was the original holiday that has now been replaced by Christmas, and why images of Father Christmas and Father Time are tangled up in it.

Time is full of secrets

To commemorate the year’s end, the passage of time, and the New Year ahead, I traditionally try to find an appropriate puzzle box to offer. I’ve featured a box with soba noodles, which are a Japanese New Year’s tradition, and a pineapple, a common symbol of welcome. I’ve presented an origin story for a favorite artist, by way of referencing a new beginning. And I’ve featured an incredible clock, perhaps the ultimate symbol of time. This year I’ve got another clock, it so happens, and time waits for no man, so let’s get to it. This handsome mantel clock is crafted in the classic Art Deco style by master furniture maker Bill Sheckels. It sits 9 ½ inches high, is made from thermally modified Ash, and contains a functioning quartz clockwork which has been beautifully lettered in Art Deco font. The bottom of the clock face bears Sheckel’s name, which is a nice touch. The clock, a perfectly pretty piece all in its own right, hides a cleverly disguised hidden compartment locked with multiple steps. Sheckels has helpfully installed access to the clock inside the secret compartment, so that the puzzle must be solved before the clock can become functional. It’s a very handsome puzzle with a solution that only time will tell.

Clockwork Orange by Taylor Hall

Here’s a toast to the decade with something delicious. It will awaken the senses and stimulate the brain. It comes from “down under”, a place ahead of its time, if you live where I do, at any rate. Mixologist Taylor Hall, from Sydney’s Tandem Bar, was inspired by the flavors of one of his favorite cookies, the Jaffa Cake, a delicious McVitie’s biscuit covered in bitter orange jam and dark chocolate. These are often dipped into hot coffee, as if they weren’t tasty enough already. Hall recreates all of these flavors into a wonderful after dinner drink which is perfect to help you stay awake with while awaiting the New Year. 

Time for a treat

It features a spicy Scandinavian spirit, aquavit, which also makes it an ideal cocktail with which to toast the Art Deco Clock Box, as Sheckel’s originally hails from Scandinavia, and his design sensibilities are heavily influenced by his home. To that base spirit is added fresh strong coffee and the lightly bitter and citrusy amaro Aperol. Some choice cocktail bitters round things out and a good shake produces some wonderfully festive foam. After that, it’s up to you to take the time to enjoy it. Here’s a toast to the decade – thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my writings each week, and to the wonderful friendships I have been gifted as a result. Cheers!

Enjoying this pair in double time

Clockwork Orange

1 oz aquavit
1 oz French press coffee (chilled)
1 oz Aperol
½ oz simple syrup
2 dashes chocolate bitters
6 dashes orange bitters

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Flame an orange peel over the glass and add for garnish.

For prior New Year’s offerings see:
Happy New Year!
Time Passages
Favorite Things
A Warm Welcome

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Desperately Seeking Santa

Happy Holidays! I enjoy holiday themed offerings, and often delve into an exploration of the origins of many Western traditions, a delightful and enlightening pursuit. I’ve expounded upon the fascinating and gruesome history of Valentine’s Day, for example, and I’ve eluded to the introduction of the festive tree this time of year before.  Evergreens have been used in reverent worship since the time of the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Druids. It’s not hard to understand how a vibrant green plant might have inspired awe in the dead of winter long ago. Notwithstanding its Pagan origins, the tree took on new meaning thanks to the Germans in the sixteenth century, who brought trees into their homes during Christmas.

Santa's Workshop by Kelly Snache

What about Santa Claus? St. Nicholas was a Greek monk from the third century, born near modern day Turkey. He was famed for his generosity and kindness, especially to children, and his life was celebrated. Many countries developed their own versions of this gift giving saint, such as the Dutch who called him Sint Nikolaas, and gave him the more famous nickname Sinter Klaus. The celebration of his death on December 6, marked with gifts and wishes for prosperity, slowly became tangled with the Christian celebration of Christmas around the same time. The Swiss even called their holiday benefactor “Christkind”, meaning Christ Child, for example. The English were much more pragmatic, naming him “Father Christmas”. But ultimately we find ourselves in America, where the Dutch brought their Sinter Klaus to town in the late eighteenth century. Over the next hundred years, the media, in the form of poet Clement Clarke Moore (Twas the Night Before Christmas, 1822) and cartoonist Thomas Nast (Harper’s Weekly,1881), reshaped the jolly old soul into the guy we know today.

My Tea Tricky ... 

Ok, I know I’m supposed to present a puzzle box here at some point, too. How about this one, fresh from Santa’s Workshop? Another seasonal creation from our puzzling friend up North, Santa’s Workshop is a holiday themed chapter in the Tea Box series from Kelly Snache. Kelly describes these in this way: “The Granny’s Tea Box puzzle design pays homage to my Granny. She introduced me to the joy of puzzles at a very young age (probably to keep me out of trouble for 5 minutes), and of course loved drinking tea herself. Serendipitously, the pint-sized tea boxes, my love of recycling and my passion for wood puzzle boxes has steeped much like the tea, to blend the varied ingredients into a delightful enigma. I see oodles of charm in these teensy weensy tea boxes and the potential for an intriguing puzzle experience.” Kelly plans a total of ten tea boxes over time. Santa is number seven in the series so far, and the most recent, made from a vintage soft wood tea box modified with Pau Amarello, Walnut, Bloodwood, American Cherry, Wenge and Maple into a five moves to open puzzle box. It’s definitely on the nice list!
Sleigh Pilot

Typically one would leave some cookies and milk out by the fireplace for Santa, which is why he got so fat, incidentally. You would be forgiven for thinking that Santa's drink of choice is a cold glass of milk. A little known fact is that Santa actually loves a few cocktails on Christmas Eve. His sleigh is magic anyway, he doesn’t really need to stay sober. Rudolph is his designating driver. A lover of all things kitschy, Santa really goes for an over-the-top tiki style drink. This entire class of cocktails (tiki) is an oeuvre meant to evoke a generic Polynesian vibe and transport one to an ambiguously tropical locale. It was “invented” by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt when he opened Don the Beachcomber, the very first tiki style bar in Hollywood, 1934. A few years later, “Trader Vic” Bergeron remodeled his place up the road, copying Gantt, and sealing the fate of tiki, which became immensely popular thanks to war veterans returning from the South Pacific and the folly of the Hollywood elite. In modern times tiki styling might have been considered cultural appropriation, but tiki cocktail culture was always acknowledged to be a fabrication, not a true representation of authentic Polynesian culture. In this light, it’s simply an art form all on its own.
This year we dive back into the history books for one of Don the Beachcomber’s originals, the Test Pilot. Like many of his classic recipes, it has evolved over time, but should include overproof rum, Puerto Rican rum, Jamaican rum, lime juice, and Don’s signature mix of Angostura Bitters and Pernod (or other anise flavored liqueur such as Herbsaint or Absinthe). Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, new versions of the drink popped up quickly at other bars, with a notable version being the “Jet Pilot”, which added grapefruit juice and cinnamon syrup to the mix. These drinks captured the imagination of the public in the Forties and Fifties, during the “Jet Age” of air speed development, with Edwards Air Force in Southern California host to Chuck Yeager’s 1948 air speed record in an X-1 jet. His record would be surpassed in 1967 by the X-15 rocket plane, which inspired its own cocktail.
Santa's being a little naughty

For Santa’s version of the Jet Pilot, I’ve simply swapped out the Jamaican rum for Becherovka, the Czech spirit I wrote about last winter made with flavors of cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger and cardamom. It retains the spirit of the rum while adding something festive for the holidays, and works perfectly. Of course, any decent tiki drink needs an outrageous, over-the-top garnish, so here is one made from citrus peels that ought to hit the mark, straight from Santa’s Texas Workshop. Here's wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season. Cheers!
Naughty and Nice

Sleigh Pilot

1 oz Becherovka
¾ oz Puerto Rican aged rum
¾ oz overproof dark rum
½ oz lime
½ oz grapefruit
½ oz Falernum liqueur
½ oz cinnamon syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
6 dashes absinthe
4 oz crushed ice

Flash mix ingredients together in a blender and serve ala tiki style in a favorite mug.

For more from Kelly Snache:
Time Passages

Saturday, December 14, 2019

French Kiss

“All confined things die” – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Moulin Rouge by Stephan Baumegger

With a stroke of his pencil and paintbrush, the famous French painter released his art on the world so that it might live. His philosophy might also give insight into the driving force behind the desire to solve a puzzle box – as an inherent act of life itself, perhaps.

We find ourselves on the Boulevard de Clichy, in the Parisian district of Pigalle, close to Montmarte, staring up at a windmill adorned on its top by a set of famous red blades. This red windmill, the Moulin Rouge, was the home of the original French can-can dance and the site where cabaret was born in 1889. It epitomized the Belle Epoque, the period of optimism and prosperity during the turn of the nineteenth century immortalized by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec.

I know you can-can do it!

Austrian social worker and highly regarded wood craftsman Stephan Baumegger has now immortalized the famous landmark in his own way, by creating a fabulous puzzle homage. Baumegger began making wooden puzzles at a young age, having seen one during a school trip and deciding to make it himself when he got home. His puzzle making has been a journey of self-motivation ever since, and he has gone on to create many well recognized, challenging and iconing interlocking puzzle designs. For the 37th International Puzzle Party he was commissioned to create an exchange for one of the participants. The result, his Moulin Rouge, is a tiny replica of the original, made from Amarant, Merbau and Beech woods. He entered a special version into the 17th International Puzzle Design Competition, where it won a Top Ten Vote award. The lovely windmill comes with an explanation from Baumegger, that "Colette, one of the beautiful dancers at Moulin Rouge was trapped at night when the theater closed. Please help her to escape as quickly as you can." Should you be wise (and sober) enough to navigate the hidden alleyways of Pigalle, you will ultimately be met by a tiny, colorful, zinc figurine dancer. If you’re lucky, she might even give you a kick. Colette was crafted especially for this puzzle, and in the design competition versions she is brightly hand painted in the classic French colors of red, white and blue. I'm partial to those colors as well in my neck of the woods. 

Moulin Rouge c. 1930

“Of course, one should not drink much, but often” – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

For the toast, we don’t need to ponder about a pairing very hard, as it turns out there is a classic, if obscure, cocktail already, called the Moulin Rouge. The earliest record of it exists in Harry Craddock’s famous and swanky Art Deco offering from 1930, The Savoy Cocktail Book. The originator is unknown, so it can best be ascribed now to Craddock who set it down in print. It may well have existed a few decades earlier, perhaps even known to those original patrons of the dance hall. One of the main ingredients, “orange gin”, was no longer produced after a time, suggesting a likely explanation for the cocktails subsequent obscurity. But no matter, these details are elementary to today’s intrepid mixologists, who are just an orange peel away from such delicacies.

A few simple ingredients make a timeless classic

I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer rush out to procure a specific bottle of something unusual, such as orange gin (Tanqueray and Malfy make nice ones now), if I can simply make it myself. A little infusion of various orange peels, from sweet to bitter, and some spices, overnight, does the trick quite nicely. The other homemade ingredient which is an absolute must is grenadine, no matter how easy it seems to purchase. There is simply no substitute for homemade in this category, so you will only ever be getting close if you purchase something good. Grenadine, from the French word “grenade”, is pomegranate. It is not the bright red sugar syrup in a Shirley Temple. To make it properly at home, you need a pomegranate, some sugar, and if you want it really fancy, some pomegranate molasses and orange flower water. I use Jeff Morganthaler’s recipe, it is the best in the world. Try it, and you will never use anything else again. Here’s to homegrown inspiration, setting pencil to paper, and keeping up that can-can do attitude. Cheers!

I get a kick out of this pair

Moulin Rouge from The Savoy Cocktail Book c. 1930

1 ½ oz Apricot Brandy
¾ oz orange gin
¾ oz lemon juice
¼ oz homemade grenadine

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Can-Can Garnish.

For Jeff Morganthaler’s grenadine recipe:

For Stephan Baumegger's page:

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Measuring Up

Let’s talk about sake for a moment. For goodness sake, it’s one of the oldest known spirit distillates on historical record, dating at least to the eighth century and possibly earlier. Sake is a spirit made from fermented rice, in which a brewing process similar to that used for beer converts starch into sugar, which is then converted to alcohol. Unlike with beer, where these two processes occur separately, they occur simultaneously during sake brewing. Like most unique spirits there are numerous styles and flavor profiles. Sake is traditionally served in different types of vessels, from the flat saucer sakazuki, to the small cup ochoko, to the wooden box masu. Sake is also served at many different temperatures, with warm sake typically reserved for winter, and for lower quality spirit. Most high quality sake is served chilled, like a fine white wine.

Japanese Measuring Cup by Tatsuo Miyamoto

The masu, traditionally made from Japanese cypress wood, is a simple cubic box made to a very specific measurement. These were originally used to measure exactly 1 serving of rice, known in Japanese as “go”, a Japanese “cup”, which in modern equivalents equals 180ml or approximately 6.1 US fluid oz. This has also become the traditional serving size for an order of sake, which is often presented with an overflowing cup or glass, to symbolize generosity and prosperity. 

Will you measure up to the challenge?

Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyamoto of the Karakuri Creation Group has created a beautiful puzzle box which perfectly captures the “spirit” of this traditional form. Crafted from Japanese cypress, naturally, his “Measuring Cup” is a polished and larger reproduction of the classic masu. The closed lid on top mimics a cup perfectly full to the brim. There is even the Japanese kanji symbol for “go” etched on the side. The puzzle box is elegantly appointed with a few hidden moves that may play on assumptions to fool the solver, and even includes two distinct compartments. It’s another fine creation from this master craftsman. It also now belongs in the small and select group of puzzle boxes that meet the criteria for perfect “boxes and booze” boxes. Another such box that I have mentioned in the past is Spring Night from Yoh Kakuda, in which a tiny masu can be found in the hands of the happy frog.

The Aki

Here's a sake cocktail to toast this fine box. Of course a masu full of sake alone would have been enough here, but Miyamoto went the extra ri and so shall we. For this drink I used a favorite of mine, nigori sake, often referred to as “cloud” sake because, well, it’s cloudy. That’s what nigori means in English. After fermentation sake is filtered to remove the remaining grain solids, with resulting clear spirit. Nigori sake is coarsely filtered, using a broad mesh, so that fine rice particles remain and impart a cloudy appearance. It is generally sweeter and milder in flavor.

A Japanese Vesper cocktail

I’ve used it to create a Japanese version of the classic James Bond drink, the Vesper. You are likely familiar with his famous shaken martini, which appears time and again in the novels and movies along with the catchphrase “shaken, not stirred”. The drink he originally orders in the very first Ian Fleming novel, Casino Royal, 1953, is one of his own invention, composed of 3 parts gin, 1 part vodka, and ½ part Kina Lillet, shaken until ice cold and served with a lemon twist. The drink is unnamed until later, when he settles on “Vesper”, the name of his original love interest, Vesper Lynd. The Vesper differs greatly from a traditional martini, which is made with gin and vermouth, and classically, stirred. Bond’s version adds some vodka, and switches the vermouth for Kina Lillet in a very dry proportion. Kina Lillet is a French aromatized aperitif wine flavored with quinine that was popular at that time. Since then it has gone through a few formula changes, such that it was impossible to create a true Vesper for a long time. The “Kina” component is back again now in Lillet, however, so Bond fans can rejoice. For even more robust quinquina flavor Cocchi Americano can be added as well. In this version of the Vesper, I’ve swapped out the vodka for sake, and therefore adjusted the drink’s name to reflect Bond’s love interest from the 1967 film version of You Only Live Twice. Kampei!

Taking the measure of this pair

The Aki

3 oz gin
1 oz sake
½ oz Kina Lillet
½ oz Cocchi Americano

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a masu cup. Lemon twist.

For more about Tatsuo Miyamoto:
A Heart Shaped Box
A Game of Thrones