Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Path

Let’s take a walk.  The path for this is a bit unclear, but I have been assured that if we keep an open mind we will find our way.  Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion, is hard to fathom for most of us who prefer concrete definitions.  It’s hard to define by nature – there is no easily explainable definition of what it means.  The idea is to experience it, to walk the path, and find the understanding.  Anyone who takes life as it comes and accepts themselves for who they are might be considered to be practicing this philosophy quite well.  I’m of course no expert, so don’t take it from me.  I just happen to have a few puzzle boxes which have Taoist themes!

The TAO by Kim Klobucher

The most recent, The TAO by Kim Klobucher, is a beautiful representation of the idea.  Klobucher crafts his unique boxes from reclaimed and exotic wood species and adorns them with artistic inlays using brass and precious stone accents.  His sequential movement boxes rely on a pin and groove system of mazes and at times dead ends which can be incredibly complex.  Many of his creations have a “solution phrase” which assigns a letter to each moving part such that the sequence spells out a word, a set of names or a phrase.  The TAO box is incredibly beautiful using cocobola with sap wood, pau ferro, tulip wood, zebra wood, wenge, gaboon ebony, and brass inlay in the shape of the Chinese character for “TAO”. Kim explains that the box, like the philosophy, has a true path and a false path.  Each move might allow you to continue on the true path, or divert you to the false one.  This should not upset you, though, as walking the false path will simply lead you back to the beginning, where you can start again.  No one gets it right the first time, as in life, as in all worthwhile puzzles. Twenty-five moves along the correct path will reward you with a symbolic prize waiting inside.

Which path will you travel?

We will toast this fine philosophy with a drink, as per the custom around here.  I had an initial idea for a three part cocktail along the lines of the Negroni, which has a base spirit (e.g. gin), a fortified wine (e.g. vermouth) and something bitter (e.g. Campari).  What I had in mind would include Tequila (T), Aperol (A) and Oloroso (O).  Aperol is a similar bitter liqueur to Campari, only a bit milder, with a more orange color and with stronger grapefruit flavors.  It’s a common substitution for the bitter component.  Oloroso is one of the styles of Sherry, the fortified wine from Spain’s Jerez region.  There are many styles of Sherry ranging from very dry to very sweet, depending on the grapes and the process known as “flor”, which is a blanket of fermenting yeast which lies on top of the liquid. Oloroso is towards the sweeter end of the spectrum, but not the sweetest.  These three ingredients technically satisfy the three parts required to make a good “Negroni” variation, and on paper they sounded potentially good together.


In fact they are not bad together, but there was something missing.  If any drink needed to have proper balance, this one certainly did.  All good drinks should be well balanced, of course, but I was calling this one the “TAO” for goodness sake.  As fate would have it, my path led me in the right direction, where I had the fortune to chat with a few of Houston’s best creative cocktail minds.  Sarah Troxell, this year’s Southwest region Speed Rack champion, suggested the initial proportions, and Lindsay Schmitt adjusted things and really made the drink fabulous with the addition of some dry vermouth and falernum, a sweet liqueur usually found in tiki drinks.  That’s not too surprising, since the pair have been working on drink ideas for their upcoming new tiki bar, Toasted Coconut.  But it was surprising in this drink, and allowed the nutty sherry notes to really shine.  The drink finally had the balance it needed to go from interesting to amazing.  Here’s to the path, let it take you where you were meant to go.  Cheers!

Tequila, Aperol and Oloroso, balanced by a few more friends

The TAO by Steve Canfield and Lindsay Schmitt

1 ½ oz Reposado Tequila
1 oz Oloroso Sherry
¾ oz Aperol
½ oz Cocchi Americano
½ oz velvet falernum

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with an expressed orange peel, or something equally well balanced.

This pair knows the way ...

For prior meditations on the path see:
Moment of ZN

Saturday, February 16, 2019

That's Amore!

Heart Case by Juno

This year’s Valentine’s Day theme comes with another in the card suit series from Juno, the Heart Case.  The idea for this puzzle was in Juno’s mind for more than twenty years, fully formed, but was far too difficult and time consuming to produce even as a prototype.  However, once he had created the Diamond Case, and decided he would make a whole “trump card” series, he revisited the idea.  Since he now owns a CNC router it became possible after all those years, but even with this advanced tool he notes that the second white layer was quite tricky.  The milling of that white part was done from the back (the bottom of the case) leaving the last 0.2 mm to keep it together and then, after gluing the white layer to the main layer, the remaining 0.2 mm was sanded out.  Juno enjoys thinking about how to produce his puzzles in the most efficient ways, and the Heart Case provided an interesting challenge. 

Like love, it's more complicated than you think!

It’s the only puzzle in the card suit series which actually takes the shape of the suit, which is in this case, a heart.  The other boxes in the series have their distinguishing shapes either mounted on the box (Diamond) or carved in relief as a window (Club and Spade).  The heart seems to lend itself to boxes – there are so many from different artists.  Juno’s is quite beautiful, in contrasting Rosewood, Jarrah and Koto woods.  The initial movements of the puzzle are fun and surprising, and not too complicated.  Knowing Juno’s penchant for complexity, this is certainly by design.  Love shouldn’t be too complicated.  The puzzle yields up a gift fairly quickly, and it comes with a disclaimer that Juno is not proposing his love for you, although I’m sure he does love you in a platonic sort of way.  Don’t discount the objects you find as you open the Heart Case, these are likely tools you will need to fully solve the puzzle.  There’s more than meets the eye here, and like love, there are multiple layers.  But he lays them all out for you to see – Juno gives you hints and glimpses of what is required in all of his boxes. It’s another wonderful, heartfelt offering in the series.

Mon Sherry Amour by Sahil Mehta

This year’s Valentine’s Day toast comes from Sahil Mehta, a well respected mixologist who can be found shaking things up at Boston’s South End tapas restaurant, Estragon.  Mehta has a self admitted love affair with sherry, the complex fortified wine made with grapes from the Jerez region of Spain, and has created all manner of sweet, savory, salty and bitter drinks with his favorite ingredient.  Here he offers a wonderful chocolate Negroni variation, which is absolutely my favorite type of Valentine’s day drink.  I’ve made my own versions over the years with bourbon, but Mehta relies on mezcal as a base to bring interesting rich and sultry flavors to the party.  Of course, sherry is the real star here, and lends a dry and nuanced counterpart to the mezcal. The Campari and crème de cacao balance things out with some bitter and sweet components, and the result is sensational. Give this a try, or check out some of the previous Valentine’s Day toasts we’ve made in past years.  Here’s to love, in a box, in a glass, or simply in your heart.  Cheers!

Time for a heart to heart with this pair

Mon Sherry Amour by Sahil Mehta

• 1oz mezcal
• 1oz manzanilla or fino sherry
• .5oz Campari
• .5oz Creme de Cacao
• 2 dashes of chocolate bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Share with someone you heart.

For prior Valentine's Day offerings:

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Diamonds are Forever

“No pressure, no diamonds.” – Thomas Carlyle
Diamond Case by Juno

Junichi Yananose is a well-known puzzle designer and crafter who for many years collaborated with Brian Young in Australia.  His forte was in creating beautifully complex interlocking burr type puzzles.  In 2016 he started his own business, Pluredro, with his wife Yukari, and the puzzle community rejoiced.  The following year he began to introduce puzzle boxes unlike anything seen before.  Naturally his mathematical mind and skill with complex interlocking mechanics lent themselves to some seriously interesting creations.  His first box was a very complicated interlocking burr puzzle with a compartment, the Framed Burr Box.  The follow up to that was purposefully more understated, a small case with simpler mechanics which everyone could approach comfortably.  Simpler does not mean easier though – one must never underestimate Juno.

Only for expert skiers

His Diamond Case became the first in a wonderful series of card suit puzzle boxes.  The box is small and comfortable to hold in one hand, featuring two prominent diamonds and crafted from Silver Ash, Bubinga, Queensland Maple, and Jarrah woods native to Australia.  Yukari relates that they had a lot of Silver Ash timber stock on hand at the time which was about the right size for the main compartment, so Juno began designing the puzzle based on that element. There is a little notch on one side which plays an important role in opening the box, a fact that becomes obvious the moment you pick up the box.  A little exploration reveals what needs to be done, but it takes more than a little to accomplish it.  Eventually, you may also come to the realization that there may be more to discover as well, because despite your best efforts, the box remains closed.  Juno actually came up with the final “Aha” moment first, and added the initial sequence after, both to make the puzzle more interesting and to distract from the final solution. Diamond Case is a wonderful little box with a few great surprises and sets the stage well for the other boxes in the series.

Diamondback c. 1950

The Diamondback cocktail hearkens back to the era of boozy stirred drinks. Which doesn’t really mean much anymore, since we are living in the era of boozy stirred drinks once again. This one, with a hefty dose of rye whiskey, a bit of apple brandy, and the key ingredient, herbal Chartreuse, to round it all out and give it some balance and character, functions as a surprising variation of the Old Fashioned.  Chartreuse, it turns out, adds both herbal bitterness and sweetness to a drink, so here it works as both the sugar and the bitters.  

Boozy classic

The drink was named after the Diamondback lounge, and was the house cocktail there at the Lord Baltimore Hotel in Maryland, where it was invented by a bartender now lost to the fog of time.  The drink makes its print debut in Ted Saucier’s “Bottoms Up”, a racy cocktail book from 1951 with a great title edited by the former publicist for the Waldorf-Astoria. This cocktail has a wonderful comeback story.  Bottom’s Up, out of print for decades, was republished in 2011 with reproductions of the original 12 art plates from well-known artists of the day.  And the Lord Baltimore Hotel, a historic landmark in the city built in 1928, was purchased by an international hotel group and renovated to new glory in 2013.  If you’re in the mood for something truly classic with a bit of panache, this one’s ready for prime time again.

This pair has some sparkle

Diamondback c. 1951

1 ½ oz rye whiskey
¾ oz apple brandy
¾ oz Chartreuse

Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  No garnish necessary unless you’re feeling dangerous.  In which case, make a Diamondback snake lime twist.  Which, it turns out, is completely misguided.  You see, the Diamondback cocktail was not named after the venomous snake, but rather the friendly terrapin, which anyone from Maryland would have known.  I am from Texas, by way of New Jersey, and stand corrected. Cheers!

For more about Junichi Yananose:

Four Goodness Sake
Feeling Corny

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Home Sweet Home

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home – John Howard Payne

I'm Home by Kyoko Hoshino

Originally from the 1823 opera Clari (The Maid of Milan) by John Howard Payne, the song “Home, Sweet Home” was also adapted for popular release and became an instant hit.  The ubiquitous expression used to evoke that warm and welcoming sentiment we feel when we are “home” came from this song.  The melody was adopted in many more operas in the 1800’s and eventually found its way into movies as well, including The Wizard of OZ, where it can be heard behind Dorothy’s plaintive assertions that “There’s no place like home!”

Something puzzling going on here ...

Japanese Karakuri Group artist Kyoko Hoshino must know the old tune as well, or at least the expression.  It’s popular there too, where it is known as “Hanyu no Yado”, or “My Humble Cottage”.  She created her “I’m Home” to represent the sentiment of returning home after a busy day.  She opens the door, goes inside, and can relax.  Her adorable house is made from American black cherry, shiuri cherry, katsura, and purple heart woods.  It’s a modest house, with a simple front door and a sturdy chimney.  Opening the door won’t gain you access inside, though - it’s not so simple after all.  Hoshino’s works are often charmingly straightforward and it's usually not difficult to deduce how to open them.  I’m Home has a few more tricks than usual, but you should be cozying up to the fire soon enough.  It’s another lovely work from this sentimental artist.

Home for the Holidays

I’ve paired it with a sentimental toast of my own, a drink I’ve named “Home for the Holidays”.  Of course the drink is another variation on the classic Negroni, a three part cocktail with gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari.  It’s the ultimate comfort cocktail, once you’ve acquired a taste for it.  Variations on the formula are easy enough, by simply substituting any or all of the three components within their class of spirit.  For example, apple brandy is a nice change in the winter months, and adds a delicious flavor as the base spirit.  We’ll use it in place of the gin here.  Campari is one of the most easily recognized Italian Amari, the bitter liquors enjoyed as appetite stimulants (aperitifs) and digestive aids (digestifs).  There are literally hundreds of Amaris, from different regions, with different profiles.  

A warm and toasty winter treat

Here I am using something rather unusual, for Americans at any rate – it’s been in the Trentino region of Italy for over a century.  A rabarbaro is a class of amaro which uses Chinese rhubarb root, which imparts a deep earthy smokiness without any actual smoke.  It brings the warmth of the toasty fireside into the drink.  Finally the vermouth here is a Barolo Chinato, a rich and potent fortified wine from the Piedmont region of Italy.  The name refers to the cinchona bark which imparts quinine flavors, like tonic.  Rounding things out are a few dashes of cardamom and cranberry bitters.  The result is a warm and wonderful winter experience  I’d love to share with you at my own home.  Cheers!

Welcome Home!

Home for the Holidays

1 oz Laird’s apple brandy
1 oz Capeletti Sfumato Rubarbaro
1 oz Borolo Chinato
2 dashes Bittermen’s spiced cranberry bitters
1 dash Scrappy’s cardamom bitters
Expressed orange twist

Stir, strain, sip and sigh

For more about Kyoko Hoshino:

Festive Flannels
Tis the Season
Pillows and Potions