Sunday, June 28, 2015

High Standards

Two weeks ago I delved into the traditions and history of Japanese puzzle box making.  Traditional such boxes typically have sliding panels on the sides and top, often on the bottom, and sometimes hidden within the side panels as well.  In that post I presented a “new” type of box in which all 6 side panels moved in coordinated motion.  Today I present a box which at first appears to conform to the “standard” moves found in traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, but holds a secret (!) which turns the convention inside out.  The “Byways Secret” box series by Hiroshi Iwahara present 4 boxes which are not standard at all.  Here is number 2 in the series, in walnut and yellow wood patterned inlay.  Initially the box appears to open fairly easily, in the “standard” fashion, but it will require 10 more moves involving a surprising, non-traditional mechanism, to reveal the second secret compartment.  The design is refreshing and gives a great spin on “thinking outside the box”.

The Byways Secret 2 by Hiroshi Iwahara

To compliment this non-standard puzzle box try the “Standard” cocktail from James Menite, as featured in Brian Van Flandern’s excellent book “Craft Cocktails”.  Both of these mixologists were instrumental to the renaissance of craft cocktails in New York City over the past decade.  Ironically, there appear to be two different recipes for Menite’s “Standard”.  However, both “Standard” recipe incorporates fresh ruby red grapefruit juice, one of my favorite ingredients in just about anything.  Living in Texas has many pros and cons as with anywhere, but our Rio Star Ruby Red grapefruits are the best, most delicious gems in the world.  Forget about cocktails, you should try my ruby red grapefruit sorbet someday, you will be convinced.  In addition to grapefruit, the cocktail includes lemon juice, yellow Chartreuse, and gin.  It’s bright, refreshing and delicious.  It may quickly become your “standard” too.

The Standard Cocktail by James Menite
The Standard (from Craft Cocktails, Brian Van Flandern, Assouline Press)
1 oz fresh ruby red grapefruit juice
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz yellow Chartreuse
1 1/2 oz juniper forward gin (such as Bombay Sapphire)
4 dashes orange bitters
Shake over ice, strain, grapefruit peel garnish

A pair of unusual standards.  Cheers from Houston, the most diverse city in America.

For more about Hiroshi Iwahara:

For the Craft Cocktail version of the Standard:

For an alternate version of James Menite's Standard:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Metaphors of wood and whisky

In the very first post of this blog I suggested that there were many metaphors to be had at the expense of boxes and booze, and that we would explore them all.  There may be a few in this post, so you have been warned.  All puzzles are given a name by their designer.  The names can be interesting, intellectual, playful or mysterious, suggestive of some unknown reference known only to the designer.  Most often the name has to do with the appearance or theme of the puzzle.  Sometimes, the name takes on a life of its own and becomes part of the provenance associated with the box.  The prolific puzzle box master Akio Kamei of the Karakuri Creation Group designed such a box for one of the group’s exhibitions.  Each Karakuri exhibition in recent years has a theme around which the designers create their new puzzles, and this exhibition was themed “nostalgic”.  He wanted to depict the idea of a light switch, which needed to be turned on.  Many of Kamei’s designs involve imaging real life scenarios that he has translated into a puzzle box.  In this case, the translation literally went a little off target.  The box, which is meant to be called the “electric circuit” box, based on the light switch concept, ended up being called the “Erectric Circuit” box on its official listing, certainly by accident(?).  

The "Erectric Circuit" box by Akio Kamei

You also have to understand a bit more about me to know why I found this to be particularly amusing.  When I’m not enjoying well-crafted puzzles and cocktails (or writing about them!) I sometimes have to attend to my other job, which is being a urologist.  You can say I took a professional interest in this puzzle box.  The “Erectric” Circuit box is another beautifully made design by Kamei, and you really can turn the light on.  What you can’t tell from the pictures, which would give away the secret mechanism, but which makes this box live up to its accidental name even more perfectly, is that when you turn it on, the box literally rises to the occasion.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.

How do you turn it on?

It wasn’t hard to decide how to complement this puzzle.  I was certainly up for the challenge. To celebrate this electrifying box I have paired it with “a good stiff drink”, the Yamazaki Distillers Reserve.  Japanese whisky has been around for almost 100 years, and the Yamazaki distillery was Japan’s first, founded in 1923.  Taking ages old classic scotch making techniques and giving them their own eloquent styles, Yamazaki created a world class whisky expression which has to be tasted to be believed.  I had the fortune to do just that a few years ago, when an acquaintance suggested I had to try it.  It was so good (I tried it a few times just to be sure) I resolved to pick up a bottle of my own.  Fast forward to the present, when I wandered into my local spirit shop with the intent of finally making good on that resolution, only to be laughed at by the proprietors.  Unbeknownst to me, one of the Yamazaki whiskies (the 20 year sherry cask) had recently been named “best whisky in the world of 2015” in Jim Murray’s whisky bible, and subsequently all Yamazaki and every other Japanese whisky for that matter quickly became impossible to find anywhere.  They hadn’t had any new shipments in months.  Neither had any other store in the entire city.

The Yamakazi Distiller's Reserve

What was I to do?  I did what most victims of the new whisky craze do and gave up hope of ever buying a bottle of the stuff.  Filed it away right next to Pappy.  I had other concerns anyway, I was leaving soon on a business trip to a tiny seaside resort town in the Netherlands called Noordwijk.  A few days later I was wandering about this tiny town, fighting off the jet lag, and discovered the town’s own tiny spirits shop.  And I don’t make a habit of finding every spirit shop wherever I go, just trust me this one magically appeared, with a bottle of Yamazaki waiting on the shelf inside. The Distillers Reserve is an elegant blend of different caskings from the distillery, including whisky aged in French Bordeaux casks, Japanese Mizunara casks, and the famous 20 year Sherry casks.  And it’s amazing, full of fruit, oak and spice.  There might still be a bottle left in Noordwijk, but I’d hurry if I were you.  Just like the saying goes, a good whisky is hard to find.  Or was it a hard puzzle is good to find?  Anyway this story, about whisky and wood, has a happy ending after all.

Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day everyone!

For more on Akio Kamei:

For more on the Yamazaki:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Improved Japanese

The Japanese puzzle box has its origins in the Hakone – Odawara mountain region of Japan over 100 years ago.  The region is home to numerous species of colorful hard woods, and has been a center for woodwork in Japan for centuries.  The boxes, known as “himitsu-bako” (personal-secret), emerged as a practical way to safeguard personal valuables.  A unique style of marquetry was also invented there, called “yosegi-zaiku”, which involves creating geometric mosaic patterns with the colorful natural woods which are then planed into paper thin layers. These layers are applied to various wooden crafts like wrapping paper, including the traditional puzzle boxes with their distinctive patterned appearance.  Because of the tremendous skill required and unique technical nature of this craft, “Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku” is designated as a national traditional handicraft in Japan. Very few master craftsmen are still creating these boxes today.

New Secret Box III (NS-3) - the colored wood is all natural, not dyed

In an effort to breath new life in to this traditional art form, a group of modern wood artisans living in the Hakone region formed a working group in 1999 and named themselves the “Karakuri Creation Group”.  Karakuri means “trick”, and their mission was to revitalize the old art of trick box making by developing new forms, mechanisms, tricks and techniques, while retaining the heritage and artistry of the region.  Over the past 15 years they have achieved impressive success and acclaim for their works, including hundreds of innovative and beautiful new designs, a school for wooden puzzle box making and a museum to celebrate the region’s history.  They hold yearly exhibitions for new works and have a world-wide following of enthusiasts.

Secrets revealed ... it's the Karakuri logo! Look at the incredibly complex mechanisms

The “New Secret Box” series is an example of the collaborative style of their group.  The master craftsmen in the group develop their own new works each year, but the group also strives to collaborate on mutual projects, often by taking a design from one member and converting it into a more affordable product which can be produced by other members on a larger scale, keeping in mind these all remain hand-made works of art.  The New Secret Box series was originally designed by Akio Kamei, one of the founders of the group and generally considered to be the “father” of the new karakuri puzzle box style.  His original designs are highly prized for their creativity and craftsmanship.  Unlike traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, which usually have 3-4 movable side panels, all 6 sides of the New Secret Box can move and must be coordinated in order to open the box.  Each of the boxes in this collaborative series has one, two or three colorful bands decorating each panel, and each requires a multiple of 6 moves to open.  This version, “III”, requires 18 moves to open the lid.

The Improved Japanese Cocktail (not very Japanese, but tasty!)

What else should be paired with this history of Japanese puzzle boxes other than the Japanese Cocktail?  The drink may be even older than the boxes, having been invented by the father of American cocktails himself, the legendary “Professor” Jerry Thomas.  The storybooks suggest that he created the drink in honor of the first Japanese delegation to the U.S. in 1860 at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City.  There is absolutely nothing Japanese about this drink, by the way.  It’s a combination of brandy, almond syrup (orgeat), and bitters.  Apparently Jerry Thomas used “Bogart’s” bitters, an aromatic type bitter which has fallen to history, but in Hugo Ensslin classic cocktail book from 1917 the drink calls for Angostura bitters, which we have in plenty today.  Modern bartenders have breathed new life into this old classic as well, with suggestions for using Japanese whisky instead of brandy, and adding a hint of lemon peel or fresh lemon juice.  Try one of these incredibly simple and delicious recipes for the “Improved Japanese Cocktail” while puzzling over an improved Japanese puzzle box from the Karakuri Creation Group!  Kampai!


For Fredo Ceraso’s Improved Japanese Cocktail:

For Toby Cecchini’s Improved Japanese Cocktail:

For more on the Karakuri Creation Group:

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Perfect Duets

The “duet” box is a lovely puzzle composed of two interdependent cubes which are fused together, and which require one another for each to open and reveal their individual secret compartments.  It’s an elegant idea brought to life by master craftsman Hideaki Kawashima, a member of the Karakuri Creation Group.  The Karakuri Group is so important to the ancient art of Japanese puzzle box making that it deserves a separate blog post all of its own, so stay tuned.  My copy of the duet box is in beautiful contrasting woods composed of cherry, magnolia, maple and karin.
The two distinct colors add to the balance and interplay of each side and compliment the central theme of the puzzle so well.  In Hideaki’s description, he comments that “Two boxes were connected by the internal structure” and he suggests that the box would be even more interesting if the inner structure connecting the boxes were visible.  He may have only been referring to the actual puzzle, but it's a lovely sentiment.  To open each box, moves must be alternated from one side to the other in a balanced dance.  The boxes are distinct but co-dependent.  This romantic metaphor inspired me to create a duet cocktail and to dedicate it and this blog post to my duet partner in life, my wife.

The Duet Box by Hideaki Kawashima

We spent the early days of our relationship and life together in Manhattan, which provides an incredible launching point for a cocktail.  After all, the Manhattan is one of the greatest cocktails of all time.  A classic Manhattan combines 2 parts rye whiskey with one part Italian (sweet) vermouth and a few dashes (drops) of Angostura bitters.  Bitters are like the seasoning to a good cocktail – you wouldn’t leave out the salt when making soup, would you?  You have to stir the ingredients with ice, which dilutes and combines, and pour into a well selected glass.  This is not a shaken drink.  The Manhattan has uncountable variations which alter the recipe in subtle ways, which is also a sign of a true classic, and each variation has its own name.

To understand where I’m going with this I have to let you know some background information, which is that I attended Haverford College and my wife attended Brown University.  It turns out that a variation exists called the “Brown University” cocktail, in which the rye is changed to bourbon and the sweet vermouth is switched to French (dry) vermouth, with 1:1 proportions rather than 2:1 as in the original, and with the addition of orange bitters instead of angostura.  The drink is lighter and arguably (guess who would argue this) more sophisticated.

The Brown University Cocktail

Depending on how you look at it, the fact that there is no “Haverford College” variation I could find in the history books, is either a sign of an inferior college (guess who) or a fantastic opportunity to coin one (my take).  My version of the “Haverford College” cocktail goes back to the original Manhattan, with 2:1 rye and sweet vermouth, but instead of angostura bitters, uses a barspoon full of Hum liqueur.  Hum is an amazing sugar cane based spirit infused with hibiscus, ginger, cardamom and lime flavors.  It also gives reference to the singing group of my college days, the Haverford Humtones (!).

The Haverford College Cocktail:
Here's to good 'ol college, 'cause it's there we get the knowledge ...

Now for the duet.  Yet another well known variation of the Manhattan exists in which equal parts sweet and dry vermouth are added to the rye, which is known as a “Perfect” Manhattan.  Combining the Brown University (dry vermouth) and the Haverford College (sweet vermouth) cocktails, which have the addition of orange bitters and Hum liqueur, yields the “Perfect Duet” cocktail.  It’s complicated, but it works, and it’s worth the effort every time.  Cheers, sweetheart. 

The Perfect Duet Cocktail

The Brown University:
1 ½ oz bourbon
1 ½ oz dry (white) vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir with ice and pour

The Haverford College:
2 oz rye
1 oz sweet (red) vermouth
Barspoon Hum liqueur
Stir with ice and pour

The Perfect Duet:
1 oz rye
1 oz bourbon
½ oz sweet vermouth
½ oz dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Few drops Hum liqueur
Stir with ice and pour. Best when making two.

A toast to Perfect Duets

For the original Manhattan: 

For more on Hideaki Kawashima: