Saturday, March 30, 2019

Top Brass

And now for something completely different …

It seems apropos to be channeling Monty Python for this change of pace. The creators are British, after all, and I suspect they may know a thing or two about the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. So without further ado may I present the first ever episode of “Burrs and Booze”.

The burr, for the uninitiated, is an ancient mechanical puzzle likely dating back centuries. There is correlation with the classic six piece interlocked burr, a fusion of six sticks with internal notches that fit together in a specific way, and Chinese joinery techniques from the fourth century B.C.E. The first known depiction of a burr is from the 1698 engraving “L'Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts” by Sébastien Leclerc, one of the most famous French engravers of the seventeenth century. See if you can find it. Since then the world has seen innumerable modifications and expansions to this puzzle. For a comprehensive history of the burr see this excerpt from “The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissections” by Stewart Coffin, courtesy of John Rausch.

Brass Monkey 1 & 2 by Two Brass Monkeys

The story of these two burrs, however, takes us into much more modern times.  Ali Morris and Steve Nicholls, fresh off their success with the brilliant HoKey CoKey lock (which starred in its own sweet edition of “Locks and Libations”), decided that what the world really needed was more high quality, incredibly heavy brass puzzles. They set out to form a little business venture, and had a few ideas about the classic six piece burr.  These would be cylindrical, with a nice shine. They made the first as a standard interlocking cylinder burr. It is beautifully crafted, nicely puzzling, and can be disassembled and put back together within a few minutes. Even a novice can manage it fairly well. It’s the ultimate executive desk toy.

Looks can be deceiving

But I think the real reason they created the first, was to properly lull people into picking up the second. The second cylinder burr is not so simple. In fact, most people (at least, with no prior exposure to Ali and Steve’s devious ways) who pick it up, put it down in disgust after twenty minutes of getting absolutely nowhere. Many people can’t seem to get it to come apart at all. It’s the perfect compliment to the ultimate executive desk toy, ready to wipe the smug look off of someone's face at a moment's notice. It’s another very clever achievement from this devilish pair of tricksters.

Blue Ball prototype courtesy of Ali Morris

A little detail about these puzzles which may not be known is the story of how they got their name (which subsequently became the name of the joint business endeavor as well). When the first brass prototype of puzzle 1 was complete, Ali and Steve noted something which obviously stood out and was less than desirable. To keep the puzzle all together once assembled, there is a little sprung ball bearing on the final key piece. The casing around this initial bearing was bright blue. Naturally (Disturbingly?) Steve immediately thought of the Vervet Monkey (see here, if you dare).  Ali and Steve realized they would need to rid themselves of their "blue balls". They felt that calling their puzzles "blue monkey balls" might not be the best idea. And again, naturally (doubly disturbing?), the idea of removing these blue balls from the brass eventually led them to the expression, “To freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Viola, both the puzzles and the business had a name. From such auspicious beginnings comes the stuff of legends, or so I’ve been told.

The Diki-Diki Cocktail by Robert Vermiere

Right then. On to the cocktail. My first effort was not as well received by the critics as I had hoped. They said, ““Have you got anything without spam?” “Well, spam, egg, sausage, and spam – that’s not got much spam in it,” I replied. Or perhaps that was from the Flying Circus. No matter, I’ve got something even better to pair with a pair of Blue Balled Brass Monkeys. It’s the Diki-Diki cocktail, of course. No, that’s not a typo. It’s a real, and quite classic cocktail created sometime prior to 1922 by Robert Vermiere, who then set it down for posterity in his book “Cocktails: How to Make Them”. Vermiere was a Dutch bartender plying his trade in London, and is considered one of the most influential cocktail personalities of the twentieth century. His book has the first known record of the classic “sidecar”, among many others, and includes a wealth of knowledge about the inventors of each drink.

A marvelous marriage of unusual flavors

He is credited with inventing the Diki-Diki, which is actually a delicious and simple drink (albeit with a few unusual ingredients) featuring French apple brandy (Calvados), fresh grapefruit juice, and the wonderfully weird Swedish Punsch. This was a ubiquitous spirit in the 1920’s but only more recently resurfaced in modern times and became readily available again. Swedish Punsch is like a funky spiced herbal liqueur. It dates to 1733 when the Swedish East India Company imported a red rice and sugarcane spirit known as arrack from Southeast Asia. This would be mixed with sugar and rum to make a punch. Eventually the punch was bottled and sold on its own merit. It works remarkably well in the Diki-Diki. Vermiere claims that the drink was named after the impressively diminutive chief monarch of the Ubian Islands in the Philippines. Reports suggest that Diki-Diki was a real person, a datu chief from Zamboanga, who was indeed only 32-33 inches tall. I could find no mention of a brass monkey, however. All good things must come to a close. So ends this silly offering. You have my apologies if you have found it to be burr-densome. Cheers!

Two Brass Monkeys and a Diki-Diki. Best caption ever?

Diki-Diki Cockail by Robert Vermiere c. 1922

¼ gill (1 oz) Calvados
⅛ gill (½ oz) Caloric Punch (Kronan Swedish Punsch)
⅛ gill (½ oz) Grapefruit juice

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel, or give it the royal treatment. 

For more from the Two Brass Monkeys:
Two Brass Monkeys - Etsy Shop

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