Saturday, July 22, 2017

Side Notes

I’ve been meaning to feature this little box for a while, as a way to say thanks.  The box in turn was a thank you gift from the maker, Tracy Clemons, who sent it as a companion piece to the original “Writer’s Block”.  I wrote about that incredible box quite a while ago now, calling it the ultimate “Boxes and Booze” box (an honor also bestowed on Kamei’s Whiskey Bottle, of course).  The Writer’s Block is a seriously large and sturdy piece from Clemons which resembles a hefty chest. On the front it has an imposing wooden padlock keeping it all closed up tight.  To start, you must discover hidden tools which are helpful in picking that lock.  Once released, the box opens along a diagonal hinge to reveal that it is a functional writing desk, with two separate compartments which are, of course, locked.  There’s a lot more to discover and the erstwhile writer is eventually rewarded with something to help loosen his tongue – there are two whiskey glasses and a bottle compartment (yes with a bottle stashed – did you seriously have to ask) secreted away inside.

Writer's Block 2 by Tracy Clemons

One detail I never mentioned about that box was how it arrived the first time I received it from Tracy.  As stated, it’s very large and heavy.  The contents had shifted significantly and there was some damage to the box and internal contents. The padlock had snapped right off and the box was in two pieces.  A few other pieces had broken. One of the glasses had shattered.  Needless to say I was a bit disappointed.  The box was sent back and eventually returned, better than before and with some new improvements.  A few months later, something else arrived from Tracy - a little “Thanks for your patience, sorry that happened, and here’s a side piece to go with the original” gift.  

A traveling kit for when inspiration strikes while on the road ... or for when it fails to strike ...

Formally known as the “Writer’s Block 2”, this little wonder is also fondly called, at various times, the “ink blot”, the “traveler’s kit” and the “sidecar”.  It's small relative to its parent box, more the size of a standard puzzle box, and quite handsome.  With matching details and a similar design sense, the sidekick sidecar fits right in alongside the original.  On top sits a fountain pen, complete with metal nib.  The ink must be inside, obviously.  Only this is another Writer’s Block, so maybe not.  In fact there is a set of shot glasses hiding inside this clever companion piece.  The secret mechanism is wonderful as well, and perfectly ironic for the puzzle’s name.  No case of Writer’s Block would be complete now without this little bonus.

If only I could make this situation right ... err, write

I’ve also been meaning to write about another classic from the dawn of cocktails called the “Sidecar”, and this puzzle box has given me the perfect pairing opportunity.  The Sidecar is the fancy, evolved version of a prior original drink, the Brandy Crusta, which was invented in New Orleans in the mid nineteenth century by Joseph Santini.  It was then made famous by the “Professor” Jerry Thomas when he published the recipe in his 1868 cocktail book.  The Crusta elevated the cocktail game, which was typically a mix of spirits, sugar, water (ice) and bitters (i.e. the Old Fashioned), by adding some lemon juice and a sugared rim to a glass of brandy, curacao and bitters.  This was a turning point for cocktails and a leap forward, believe it or not.  If the Crusta was an evolved cocktail, the Sidecar was the refined finale.  Unlike the typical sidecar, which rides alongside the more prominent primary vehicle, the cocktail Sidecar stole the show.  The drink is of course almost identical, but as it came to life in Paris during the American Prohibition, it took on a more elegant and mystical air.  There, at the famous Harry’s New York Bar, it was made with cognac, and sweet orange Cointreau, along with the lemon juice.  The sugared rim acted as more than a flourish, providing an important additional component of sweetness essential to each sip.  The name, so the story goes, was for the Army captain who it was created for, who reportedly arrived to receive the tasty tipple in a motorcycle sidecar.  True story? Who knows.  It’s clear the drink existed as the Crusta long before the Sidecar showed up, but that’s the way the crusta crumbles.

Tantris Sidecar by Audrey Saunders

A classic sidecar would have been just fine for this pairing, but I felt like it needed, well, a little extra.  So I continued following the evolution and refinement of this drink into the current era.  Which brings us to one of the pioneering figures of the modern cocktail revival, a woman named Audrey Saunders.  Her Pegu Club bar set new standards when it opened in New York.  Through her exacting creative process she invented a handful of well known modern classics, including the “Tantris Sidecar”, an innovative and delicious update to the original.  This Sidecar once again improves on the original and takes center stage.

Calvados and Chartreuse plus a little pineapple make this sidecar take center stage 

Another apropos aside about the perfect pairing of the Writer’s Block 2 with the Sidecar pertains to the alternate meaning of the term sidecar in libation lingo.  The term was adopted by bartenders who would misjudge the amount of cocktail they were mixing, and have too much for the glass.  The extra would be poured into a shot glass and served alongside the main drink as a little bonus, a sidecar.  Some even suspect that this term is truly how the Sidecar cocktail got its name, too.  How perfect that the Writer’s Block 2, a true sidecar of a puzzle box, contains a set of shot glasses, just in case there’s a little extra liquid inspiration overflowing from the original box.  Here’s to the little extras in life – cheers!

These Sidecars are the main attraction

Tantris Sidecar by Audrey Saunders

1 ¼ oz. Cognac
½ oz. calvados
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup (1:1)
¼ oz. pineapple juice
¼ oz. green Chartreuse

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a sugar rimmed glass. Lemon peel garnish is traditional.  Make extra and add a little sidecar to your sidecar.

For more about Tracy Clemons:

For another Audrey Saunders modern classic cocktail:

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Born Again

Back from the Victorian Age where he got lost in a good book, returns American craftsman Jesse Born to his workshop in upstate New York.  You may recall his Victorian Book puzzle box, a beautiful and mysteriously ornate work full of secrets and surprises.  Emerging from that ancient era he has produced something rather logical – the “Sequence Logic” box.  A beautiful, polished box crafted from gorgeous exotic hardwoods including Katalox (Mexican Ebony), Tulip Poplar, Cherry, Maple and Bird’s Eye Maple, the Sequence Logic box is full of wonderful details both outside and in.  Most striking are the colorful banded dovetailed bars on the front, which are quickly determined to slide back and forth.  These seem to interact with the two sets of vertical bars which appear to be locking things in place.  Things start to happen as the various bars are moved, but it’s not so simple – as the name suggests, there’s a specific sequence to this logic which is required.  

Sequence Logic Box by Jesse Born

It’s all complex and confusing enough that once you have cracked this code and revealed the beautiful interior of the box, set it aside for some time and returned, you may struggle again to determine the sequence.  Even better, once the box is opened, there is a lovely mechanism inside which allows you to reset the bars however you would like to create a completely different sequence.  It’s a really nice touch and adds an additional element of enjoyment and layer of complexity to this incredible piece.  Jesse spends a long time designing his boxes and often goes through numerous prototypes before he is satisfied.  For the Sequence Logic box he created no fewer than six prototypes, for example, before settling on the final mechanism and design.  All that effort and attention to detail clearly show. 

Beautiful details and exotic woods with a polished finish

To toast this fine box I’ll stick to the sequence and offer something equally special.  The “Exit Strategy” comes via Natasha David of New York’s Nightcap, who took her inspiration from the classic Manhattan but left it far behind.  At Nightcap, Co-owners David Kaplan, Alex Day (both from Death and Co.) and David focus on simple, elegant drinks which would be great for a last call – even if the night is still young. The Exit Strategy embraces this idea right down to the name.  

Exit Strategy by Natasha David

Originally based around the unique American craft brandy Germain-Robin, I substituted another incredible American craft brandy from Nappa Valley Distillery.  The “Grand California” is an infusion of their wonderful Sauvignon grape brandy with locally sourced orange peels, which is then aged to perfection in oak barrels.  The mixture of Amaro Nonino, with flavors of thyme, menthol and orange, and Amaro Meletti, with its delightful saffron, caramel and burnt orange flavors, create something truly spectacular with this brandy.  I added a few drops of Beehive Bitters’ incredible spiced orange bitters to seal the deal.  The drink is sophisticated, sweet and sultry, perfect for a little late night logic.  This is one exit strategy that will keep you coming, just so you have an excuse for going.  It might not help you find the exit to the Sequence Logic box, but you won’t mind.  Cheers!

The logical way to plan your exit

Exit Strategy by Natasha David

1 ½ oz Amaro Nonino
¾ oz Germain-Robin Craft Method Brandy (I used Grand Californian from Nappa Valley Distillery)
¼ oz Meletti Amaro
6 drops salt solution (I substituted Beehive Bitters Spiced Orange)
orange twist garnish

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange twist and start working on the exit strategy - for the liquid in your glass.

For more about Jesse Born:

To see the internals and logic bars of the Sequence Logic Box, click (SPOILERS) here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Pennies From Heaven

Who doesn't have fond memories of strolling along the boardwalk as a child?  If you were deprived of that wonderful experience, I can tell you it was a place full of magic, excitement, sweet delicacies and adventure.  If not, then you know what I mean.  One of the most enjoyable sections was the arcade, where skee ball and air rifles tested your skill.  Thomas Cummings, who makes wonderful puzzle boxes from his home workshop in Georgia, recalls the boardwalk fondly – especially the old ‘penny arcade’ games of his youth.  His “Eden Workx” puzzle boxes are like little arcade games as well, each requiring a different sort of puzzle to be solved before allowing the box to be opened.  Cummings also likes a bit of misdirection and foul play, which is all fair in my book.  

Penny Arcade by Thomas Cummings

His “Penny Arcade” continues his series with a nod to the nostalgia of the vintage boardwalk games he recalls.  The box is unique in that it features a small see-through window on top, with a dial visible through the window.  The dial and surrounding knob have odd notations, numbers and symbols all around them, which don’t immediately appear to make any coherent sense. Hmmm – cryptic clues, a viewport and a test of skill and wits?  Take my penny, I'd like to play!  And the fun begins.  Cummings has channeled his fond penny arcade memories into another great box which will test your cunning with a smile.  If you’re lucky, it might even read your fortune!

Step right up, turn the dial, and test your skill

To toast this nostalgic number we will reference another boardwalk favorite, the carousel.  Last seen whirling its way around Kelly Snache’s Carousel Box, the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone is famous for the Vieux Carre, an old New Orleans classic.  This update to that old classic swaps the cognac for pear brandy and the Drambuie for apricot jam.  Adding preserves to cocktails is a wonderful way to bring new flavors and textures to the drink, and no one does it better than star mixologist Jeff Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in Portland Oregon.  His “Copper Penny” ode to the Vieux Carre hits all the right targets and wins the prize.  Here’s to old times, new times, and fond memories both old and new.  Cheers!

Copper Penny by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Copper Penny by Jeff Morgenthaler

¾ oz. rye whiskey
¾ oz. pear brandy, preferably Clear Creek
¾ oz. sweet vermouth, preferably Punt e Mes
1 ½ tsp. apricot preserves
¼ tsp. Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together well with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Lemon peel garnish. Take aim and set your sights on sipping.

That's my two cents, for what it's worth

For more about Thomas Cummings:

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Small Things

Good things come in small packages.  Following on the heels of the Wizard of Awes we have another treat from the “Wizard of Wood”, North Carolina craftsman Eric Fuller.  Well known for his precision in crafting complex interlocking mechanical wooden puzzles, Eric has also created some of the most unique and beautiful puzzle boxes in existence.  His recent effort is a series of what he calls “button boxes”.  The idea came to him from another puzzle he created called the Reactor Box, a fantastically tricky little puzzle box which waits patiently inside another fantastically tricky box, the B-Box.  I’ve written about this dynamic duo before, an amazing combined double challenge.  The Reactor Box actually holds an even tinier box inside of it – making this puzzle a triple threat and the stuff of legends.  The tiny internal box floats in place due to strong magnets, and pushing on it feels a bit like pushing a springy button.  That feeling, and that mechanism, sent a few novel ideas bouncing through Eric’s brilliant brain and the button box series was hatched.

Small Button Box by Eric Fuller

The other thing about the idea of a button that appealed to Eric was how it could be used to exploit our natural human tendencies.  He likes to create puzzles which play with expectations and abuse them – I mean, fool them.  Reactor box was a perfect example of how he used expectations and misdirection to keep the solver stumped.  Small button box takes this game to a pure and simple level, with its single large button.  The box is small, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it is simple. It has a single red protrusion sticking out of it – the button.  Made from beautiful tan striped zebrawood (for the main box) and bold red Paduak (for the button), it uses the natural woods in perfect contrast. The game here is obvious – no one could avoid trying - it’s inevitable, and although nothing happens when you do it (i.e. the box does not open, and you didn’t really think it would), you can’t help yourself from repeating the effort over, and over, and over again.  Maybe somewhere, someplace in the world, like the old Stephen Wright joke, a light is turning on and off, on and off, and someone is yelling, “Knock it off!”

Go on ... push it!!!

The Small Button Box is a truly amazing little marvel. It’s difficult to fathom the level of precise complexity that is packed inside this tiny puzzle.  Every detail, and every specific movement, matter when opening it – in fact, ten extremely specific moves are needed.  These moves are not the standard slide this side down then this side over type, but rather the stand on your head while humming the Star Spangled Banner type.  I hope I didn’t just give anything away.  Suffice it to say that random moves won’t help and there’s a lot more going on here than what one typically expects from a puzzle box.  Eric has even devised a way, in his infinite mischievousness, to force you to fight against yourself in the final stage.  Small Button Box is a rather ironic name for this huge challenge.

Midnight Train by Lucinda Sterling

A while back Eric Fuller let me know that one of his favorite drinks is an Old Fashioned.  If you’ve been following along with me you will know that I am partial to this drink myself, and have featured a number of great versions, including the classic original along with its origin story.  For Eric’s Button Box series I thought I would do a series of Old Fashioneds as well, pairing each box with a nice variation.  Let’s start out small, with a simple and delicious summer twist on the old favorite.

Four Roses single barrel, one of my favorites, works quite nicely

This one comes via Lucinda Sterling, an acclaimed New York bartender who came from Denver to Manhattan and landed at the famed Milk and Honey bar in Soho.  The owner and originator of Milk and Honey was the legendary Sasha Petraske, a pivotal figure in the nineties cocktail revival and a mentor to many modern mixologists like Sterling.  She moved on to Petraske’s second bar, Little Branch, before becoming managing partner at Middle Branch, his third effort, where she has become a leading female figure in the industry.  Her Midnight Train is a simple, elegant riff on the Old Fashioned, which substitutes peach liqueur for the standard sugar cube.  With the right bourbon, this brings out flavors of vanilla and baked dough, and you might just think you are enjoying a warm summer peach pie.  Which sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Here’s to the small pleasures in life – cheers!

This pair push all the right buttons

Midnight Train by Lucinda Sterling

2 oz Bourbon (Sterling recommends Elijah Craig Small Batch)
½ oz Peach liqueur (Sterling uses Combier)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Lemon twist garnish and a smile.

For more about Eric Fuller:
Sabotage! (B-Box / Reactor Box)

For prior Old Fashioneds:

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Wizard of Awes

We’re off to see the wizard this week as we get slightly sentimental.  Created as part of the Karakuri Creation Group’s “Story” exhibition, the Tin Woodman from Japanese artist Yoh Kakuda might just melt your heart.  As with most of the Karakuri group’s offerings, Kakuda offers a few words about the creation, stating that this Woodman went off to see the wizard (I can’t believe you don’t know this story) to get a heart, the thing he wants most in the world.  Only he never really lost his heart – he just forgot how to use it.  

Tin Woodman by Yoh Kakuda

The sentiment is sweet and fitting and the puzzle is a lovely work, one of Kakuda’s best.  The wood turning is expertly done, the little details are perfect and the tricks are nicely clever.  I felt like the scarecrow with my head all full of stuffin’ for a little while, but I wasn’t a cowardly lion – I had courage to persevere and everything worked out fine.  There are two secret chambers to discover and you will need to use your heart and your head if you hope to find them both.  This charming box will send you over the rainbow.

This Woodman will steal your heart

Here’s another story: A dance teacher with dreams of greatness suffers a terrible fall and becomes crippled.  Her hopes are lifted and love blooms with the help of a good-natured ice cream salesman who doesn’t initially realize she can’t walk.  Sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster, no?  Well, maybe in 1934, when “Have a Heart” debuted with stars Sally Moore, Jean Parker and James Dunn.  It was popular enough at the time to merit its very own cocktail!  

Have a Heart c. 1934

The “Heave a Heart” was published in Patrick Duffy’s “Official Mixer’s Manuel” and featured an obscure Scandinavian spirit known as “Swedish Punsch” which was popular during the turn of the twentieth century before Prohibition hit.  Swedish Punsch was based with Battavia Arrack, a sugar cane spirit imported from the East Indies in the mid eighteenth century, and infused with sugar and spices.  In recent years it has again become readily available, such as the popular Kronan brand which is self-described as having “a rich, full-bodied rum palate with complex notes of toffee, smoke, molasses and leather.”  Mmmmmm.  So Have a Heart – go on, have one – after all, it’s been there all along.  And where is the best place for you to enjoy these delights? Well, there’s no place like home.  Cheers!

These two are having a heart to heart

Have A Heart – Patrick Duffy c. 1934

1 1/2 oz Gin
3/4 oz Swedish Punsch
3/4 oz Lime Juice
1/4 oz Grenadine

Shake together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  A little lemon peel oil will get the stiff joints moving as well.

For more about Yoh Kakuda:

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Feeling Sheepish

I'm feeling a little sheepish this week as the summer sun sets in with serious intent over Texas.  One sheep in particular caught my attention as the temperature rose.  The fluffy and fun “Sheep?” by Karakuri Creation Group artist Kanae Saito is notable for being one of the very few puzzle boxes she has created with the group and for its, well, fluffiness.  The adorable sheep is literally covered in soft wool and looks like it desperately needs to be shorn.  

Sheep? by Kanae Saito

Saito, one of the rare female puzzle box artists both in Japan and the world, introduces this puzzle by hinting that a “kid-goat and a sheep are playing hide-and-seek”.  Interesting!  But what puzzle box isn’t a game of hide and seek?  Just like her other wonderful boxes which I have described before – the Mouse Kingdom, with its clever hero tiptoeing around the sleeping cat, and the Brothers, that inseparable time traveling duo. Sheep? is a beautiful box and a unique treat. It’s unusually soft to hold, charming to behold and provides a pleasant challenge with a surprise ending.

If you can't solve it you can always make a sweater

To celebrate this shaggy conundrum your cocktail shepherd heads to the Basque region of the US.  Immigrants from Spain and France’s Basque regions were making their living as shepherds in the Pampas plains of South America when the San Francisco Gold Rush hit California in 1849.  They joined the throng and headed north, eventually settling in the high deserts of the American West where they established a new American Basque region and continued the shepherding traditions.  In addition to the distinctive sheep herds, they introduced a favorite drink made from a bitter orange flavored French aperitif called Amer Picon.  Picon Punch, known as “the Basque cocktail”, is a mix of this obscure liqueur (Amer Picon), brandy, grenadine and soda water (and sometimes lemon). 

Picon Punch c. 1850's

Modern day Basque shepherds (those few who still exist) lament the state of affairs with current Picon Punch, because, alas, Amer Picon has not been imported to the US from France since some time after 1908. I’ve picked that specific date because Amer Picon was the featured ingredient in a classic cocktail from that era (published on that date) called the Brooklyn (their answer to the Manhattan).  Since that time it has still been produced in France, but the recipe has changed and the alcohol content has steadily declined from the original 78 proof down to around 19 in its modern iteration (consider that most spirits are around 80 proof).  Of course, because of the scarcity and unobtainable nature, Amer Picon has become something of a cult beverage in the US, and there are a few do-it-yourself recipes floating about which strive to recreate the exact flavor profile of the original, a mix of oranges, quinine, cinchona and gentian root.  So having a true, original Picon Punch is also like a game of hide-and-seek.  With a sheep.  Cheers!

A taste of the shepherding life ...

Picon Punch c. late 1850’s

2 oz Amer Picon (or suitable substitute / homemade)
½ oz Grenadine
½ oz brandy
½ oz Lemon juice
Soda water

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Top with soda water. Lemon peel garnish is traditional.

If you're feeling sheepish, these might help
Special thanks to Anders, the "cocktail guru", who sent me a little of his precious Amer Picon for this recipe.  Check out his amazing creations and follow him on instagram 

For more about Kanae Saito see:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Roundabout View

I’ve been gearing up for this pairing for a few weeks, and like others which have made their way around these pages, this one puts a new spin on things once again.  This time we will reach for the golden ring as we sit astride a painted pony.  The fairground carousel has an interesting origin story, having derived from training exercises of Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the twelfth century.  In the middle ages jousters would ride in circles practicing while tossing balls to one another.  This skill training tradition evolved into entertainment with cavalry riders spearing tiny rings on tall poles for the crowd.  At the end of the eighteenth century amusement park carousels emerged and a menagerie of wild animals was soon added to the pretty horses.

Carousel Box by Kelly Snache

From the creative mind of Canadian puzzle box maker Kelly Snache comes the Carousel Box.  Kel produced this as an homage to another fine box full of gears, the Stickman No. 3 Puzzle Box by his friend Robert Yarger.  Like any good reference, the similarity is superficial and Kel has placed his own brand of puzzling on this work.  He set out to create a brightly colored spectacle with fully rotating gears which interacted together and recall an old time carousel – and he succeeded!  Kel is known for his clever retrofits of old wooden boxes, in which he places hidden locking mechanisms crafted from fine woods.  He built the carousel box entirely from scratch with Walnut, Bloodwood, Curly Maple, Rosewood, Pau Ammarello, Purpleheart, Wenge, Oak, Cedar, and Lacewood.  The detail is exquisite and the hand carved gears are a sight to behold.  They function as described, interacting and spinning with full rotations.  

Bold bright bands of color adorn this festive work

The boxes are striking with bold striped wood across the tops and a contrasting band of color along the sides, and the gears are brilliantly striped as well.  Inside this puzzle is a marvelous mechanism which is equally as beautiful as the outer gears.  There are actually four locks which need to be manipulated in order to access the inner compartment, which is quite large.  Two of these are controlled in a rather magical way, using two distinct methods that Kel has cleverly engineered.  All of this is hidden from site (sadly!) and knowing this is not helpful in the least, but it is so ingenious that I wanted to mention it without giving more away.  A few of the boxes have an extra hidden move as well for one more layer of complexity.  Inside, Kel has lined the box with old theater and carnival tickets to continue the carousel theme, a rather nice added touch.  Opening this box will make you feel like you have indeed grabbed the golden ring, after going round and round and round!


If you don’t feel dizzy enough already, you will soon enough.  We head to storied New Orleans next, to the Hotel Monteleone where we will toast the “Old Square” in the historic French Quarter.  Inside the Monteleone we find the famous “Carousel Bar”, which is literally a rotating carousel.  Each of the twenty five seats at the bar make a complete revolution once every fifteen minutes.  While that may sound lovely and charming, try it while actually having a drink or two … The bar is also famous for being the birthplace of one of New Orleans’ most iconic cocktails, the Vieux Carre (Old Square).

Vieux Carre by Walter Bergeron c 1938

Local lore has it that in 1938, head bartender Walter Bergeron created the drink as a tribute to the multicultural flavor of his city.  He added Cognac and Benedictine for the French, Rye whiskey for the Americans, sweet vermouth for the Italians, and spiced Angostura bitters for the Caribbeans.  Of course there’s a drop of Peychaud’s bitters too, to set it uniquely in the French Quarter.  The Vieux Carre is a boozy delight and has stood the test of time as a true classic.  Next time you are in New Orleans, stop at the Carousel Bar to have one – and hold on tight as you toast this tradition.

Full of the flavors of New Orleans

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
-                                   - Joni Mitchell

Treat yourself to a carousel ride

Vieux Carre c. 1938

3/4 oz. rye whiskey
3/4 oz. Cognac
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1 barspoon Bénédictine
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Lemon peel garnish is traditional.

For prior puzzle boxes by Kel Snache see:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Appropriately Knot

I’ve got myself all tied up this week. I’ll try knot to make things worse as I untangle the situation, but you’ve been forewarned.  The Try-Knot Box (Puzzlebox No. 17) from Robert Yarger is another wonderful creation by the mechanical maestro.  One of his more unusually designed pieces, the Try-Knot Box has all the puzzling mechanisms on full display, outside the box.  Three striking looped bands encircle the inner box in three directions, one nested within the other.  The bold bands are crafted in contrasting yellowheart and wenge wood, and have little purpleheart buttons which slide along a track inside each band.  

Try-Knot Box by Robert Yarger

At the heart of this knot is a rectangular box made from shimmering leapardwood.  The box has a maze etched into three of its sides, which must be navigated in coordinated fashion requiring alignment of multiple bands at a time. Careful planning must be made to free the box inside enough to allow each of the two compartments to open.  In classic fashion, Robert has arranged the mazes to require going all the way back in the opposite direction to open each compartment, making the challenge twice as hard.  Like a true knot, even with everything on display, picking this one apart is not as simple as it might appear.  If you get the chance, give this knot a try – it’s another impressive piece of puzzling art from the versatile man of sticks.

Bold bands of exotic wood encircle the central box

To toast this knotty situation I searched for a suitable tipple to tie to the theme.  I tried knot to get tangled up in all the rather risqué cocktails I discovered out there along the way.  You might not be surprised to find out that there are many, many variations on the theme of “Thai” cocktails including the “All Thai’d Up”, “Thai Me to the Bedposts” and both the “Thai Me Up” and “Thai Me Down”.  I tried knot to … but I couldn’t help myself.  Which is acceptable, since this post is all about “try not”.  Not do not.  Yoda would not be pleased.  

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down by Gabriella Mlynarczyk

I settled on the “Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down”, a Thai infused masterpiece from bartender Gabriella Mlynarczyk who writes the LA Loving Cup cocktail blog.  The cocktail may have a tongue in cheek name, but has serious sophistication, balance and depth which is worthy of this pairing.  For the cocktail, I used Hayman’s Old Tom Gin for a softer, sweeter gin base, and Sayuri “course-filtered” Nigori sake infused with thai basil.  Nigori sake (“cloudy”) is distinguished by its cloudy appearance, due to the retained, unfermented and unfiltered rice particles. It tends to be creamier and sweeter, and lends a wonderful texture to a cocktail.  The Sayuri is delightful in this drink for both flavor and context, as “yuri” in Japanese translates to “lily” but connotes “innocence” and “chastity” - rather ironic in the “Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down”.  Try-knot to get your knickers in a knot as you tie one on – this drink is delicious.  Here’s to enchanted entanglements, lovely loops, heavenly hitches, and talented ties.  Cheers!

Try knot to get all Thai'd up with these ...

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down by Gabriella Mlynarczyk

1 1/2 oz gin
1 1/2 oz thai basil infused saki
1 oz lime juice
1 oz kaffir lime leaf simple syrup

2 dashes Miracle Mile Yuzu bitters (sub orange or lemon)

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with anything that's knot tied down.

For more about Robert Yarger:

For prior Stickman puzzles see:

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Here's To Good Ole' College

A toast this week to my alma mater and the class of 1992 who are gathering back on campus for our twenty-fifth year reunion.  Haverford College is a special place set in the beatific landscape of the Philadelphia suburbs on a unique arboretum campus.  Founded in 1833 by Quakers who wished to provide education equaled by respect, tolerance, and attention to the whole human experience, Haverford is now a highly regarded non-sectarian co-ed liberal arts college. Amidst the four hundred plus species of trees and shrubs, students embrace academic and artistic achievements under the umbrella of the honor code, which was originally written by students, remains governed by students, and guides the lives of all in the pursuit of mutual respect and trust.  Decisions on campus are made by consensus, not majority, a process which has left an indelible mark on all who are fortunate enough to have participated in it. 

Haverford Harmony

To my classmates who are new to Boxes and Booze, the premise is simple.  A puzzle box is paired with a cocktail and each is described in some detail.  Why is this fascinating and worth your time?  A puzzle box is a metaphor for life itself, and for all of our searches for meaning and solutions.  Each one is unique, and beautiful, and different, each with a story to tell.  Some are simple, some complex, some have never been opened, some are damaged, some stuck.  Some are so familiar and we know just how to move them.  And some we simply marvel at and admire the way they work.  Cocktails, meanwhile, can tell us where we’ve been, and maybe where we are going.  The history of the world is written in spirits, after all, and they are how we mark life’s journeys when we raise our glass.  So here’s to boxes and booze, a celebration of ourselves.

Acorn Box by Hiroshi Iwahara

For the Haverford reunion, I selected a box which symbolizes a few things uniquely Haverfordian.  The acorn box, by Japanese artist Hiroshi Iwahara of the Karakuri Creation Group, is a simple affair, unassuming with a little wooden acorn adorning the top.  Simple in appearance and with only one secret move required to open, it embraces the Quaker philosophy of simplicity.  The Friends, as Quakers are known colloquially, try to uphold the expression “live simply, so others may simply live” in their daily lives.  Their tenets include pacifism, social equality, stewardship of the planet and integrity.  The acorn box is crafted of wood from oak, ginkgo, katsura, enjyu, and pao rosa trees – a few of which have representation on Haverford’s arboretum campus.  Finally the acorn is symbolic of Haverford’s beloved mascot, the black squirrel.  These unusually pigmented animals have the run of the grounds and enjoy an impassioned fan club.

The Bitter Ford

For the booze I teamed up with former suite – mates Jason Goldstein and Michael Haley Goldman to create the unofficial class of 1992 reunion cocktails. The first is a variation on the Negroni, that incredible, classic cocktail of which I am so fond.  It’s just in time for Negroni Week, too (June 5-11).  We present the “Bitter Ford”, a toast to alums not coming to the reunion.  It’s bitter, of course, thanks to the Campari, but tempered by the Luxardo liqueur evoking the sweet memory of campus life and the illusion that the honor code existed in real life. 

Founder's Green

If you’re not feeling it, though, have something much more classic, and head back to 1833 where it all started, on the steps of Founder’s Hall (the only building that existed back then).  Stretch out on the grass and recall a time when you were still impressionable, had dreams, had undyed hair (or hair at all), and maybe hadn’t figured it all out just yet. Of course this drink has to be an Old Fashioned, with a little nuance to make it special.  From Michael: “Remember that feeling of warm sunshine on Founder’s green, when you were supposed to be in Organic Chem (insert most daunting class from your major here)? And then when you get to class (late) and feel like Professor Wintner has smashed your brain with the hammer in his left hand while wiping your memory of all useful information with the wire brush in his right hand? This drink gives you all those feeling in one glass.”  Sip the “Founder’s Green” while you recall those fond days and don’t despair – your kids can go to Haverford and relive it all for you.  Here’s to the class of ’92, may you all be happy, healthy and loved.  Cheers!

Cheers, Friends

The Bitter Ford:

1 oz Ford’s Gin
1 oz Campari
1 oz Maraschino liqueur

Stir together with ice and strain into a favorite glass (or plastic party cup). Garnish with bitter romantic failures of freshman year.

Founder’s Green

2 oz bourbon
½ oz Green Chartreuse
¼ oz maple syrup

Stir together with ice and strain into a favorite glass over unrelenting dreams of being unprepared for finals.

For more about Haverford College:

For more about Hiroshi Iwahara:

For the Haverford College cocktail:

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Call Me Old Fashioned

Happy World Whisky Day!  This holiday really takes me back.  All the way to Babylon and Mesopotamia in 2000 BC! Evidence of fermented, distilled grain (whisky!) exists from archaeological sites in the middle east dating all the way back to those ancient times.  There’s a rich history which follows, but let’s fast forward three thousand years to about 1000 AD when Irish and Scottish monks began to ferment grain mash and introduced what we know today as “modern” whisky – and gave us the name we now use as well.  

Whisky Bottle by Akio Kamei

It's no wonder some experience “whisky” as a holy experience, considering the name is derived from the Gaelic (the Celtic language spoken in the Scottish Highlands) “uisge beatha” – the “water of life”.  Drink enough of that water and it’ll kill you.  Ironies aside, a thousand years ago getting drunk might have been as close to heaven on earth as you got. Early American pioneers brought the water with them and adopted the Irish spelling, with an “e”: whiskey.  In the mid nineteenth century, a corn whiskey using the Kentucky style of fermentation and distillation was first labeled “Bourbon whiskey”.  Some suggest this American term came from New Orleans, where Bourbon Street was the place to get your whiskey fix – but the street might well have been named for the spirit, like the chicken and the egg.

Keeping its secrets bottled up

What better puzzle to celebrate World Whisky Day than Akio Kamei’s Whisky Bottle.  One of his earlier creations, the Whisky Bottle doesn’t need much in the way of explanation.  It’s a wooden bottle, of course, and hides two secret compartments.  The first should not be hard to find, but the second is trickier and requires some thinking outside the bottle.  This is classic Kamei in the way he creates puzzles which challenge your basic assumptions.  It’s also a gloriously perfect Boxes and Booze puzzle box, and of course I love it.  Let’s have a whisky cocktail, shall we?

The Old Fashioned c. 1800

For this old fashioned spirit we will have an Old Fashioned cocktail.  I’ve discussed this one before a few times, but here’s the original, in its purest original form, and how it got there.  Cocktails in general evolved from the medicinal tonics created by old time pharmacists and known in general as “bitters”. These were the miracle elixirs which would work wonders.  You could stop by for a shot of these herbal, bitter concoctions, perhaps diluted with some water to make them more palatable.  Add a little sugar, more palatable.  It didn’t take long for someone to throw in a bit of spirit too, and viola, the first cocktail was likely consumed in America sometime in the very early 1800s, as the precursor to the “Old Fashioned”. 

Never handle another man's muddler (or go right ahead, whatever you prefer)

While the cocktail is arguably an American invention, its origins existed a century earlier in England. The concept of the cocktail was present in London in the early 1700’s already, where bitter elixirs where being mixed with sweet wine or brandy.  And the name, “cocktail” was likely derived from Britain as well.  The cocktail historian David Wondrich, who has searched for the term’s provenance for decades, explains this bit of wacky parlance, which was discovered in a satirical political cartoon from a 1798 London newspaper.  Cocktail was slang for “ginger”, which in turn referred to a stimulant added to a drink in order to lift ones spirit and energy.  Ginger or hot pepper usually did the trick.  The term “cocktail” came from the practice, by horse dealers of the day, to place a bit of ginger up the horse’s rear, thus making it cock its tail and appear spirited, which made it appear more valuable.  Drink recipes adapted the term, suggesting the addition of a pinch or two of “cock-tail”, and that term replaced “ginger” over time.  And there you have it, the too absurd to not be true story of why we call it a “cocktail.”  Cheers?

These two are quite old fashioned

The Old Fashioned

2 oz of your favorite whisk(e)y
1 brown sugar cube
Angostura bitters

Place the sugar cube into a mixing glass and saturate with the bitters.  Muddle together, then add the whiskey and ice. Stir to dilute and chill, then strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a brandied cherry, an orange wedge, or just keep it plain and simple.

For prior Old Fashioned variations see:

For more about Akio Kamei see: