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: