Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tis the Season ...

Tis the season, as they say.  I’m taking a little holiday break but wanted to share a quick pairing with you using the magic of auto posting.  Many of us are either enjoying the gifts we received during Hannukah a few weeks ago or have just cleaned up the wrapping paper from Christmas.  The luckiest among us may have received a seasonal treat from Japan as well, known as the Karakuri Christmas presents.  This annual delivery arrives at the end of the year (customs issues aside) from the workshops of the amazing Karakuri Creation Group, whose artisans are often featured here.   Many members of the group have a clever sense of humor which they impart into their puzzle box designs.  

Wrapping Box by Kyoko Hoshino

A great example of one of these annual puzzle box treats with a sense of humor is the “Wrapping Box” by Kyoko Hoshino.  It was created to resemble an actual present, wrapping paper and all, complete with a ribbon and little bells.  Hoshino likes to incorporate cloth and other unusual materials into her designs.  In this case, the puzzle box is all wrapped up in festive cloth.  You can feel the box inside, but you can’t unwrap it.  How will you open it?  Using your sense of touch and a basic understanding of how many Japanese puzzle boxes work will help you open this present.  Hoshino thought it would be fun to design something in which all the elements were literally hidden, rather than hidden in plain sight.  It was a great idea, and this box is a lot of fun to solve, despite the fact that you can’t see what you are doing!

Simple flavors combine perfectly for a light winter sipper

Keeping with the festive spirit I present a light, refreshing and colorful holiday smash created by David Kwiatkowski from Detroit’s Sugar House.  This Cranberry Smash muddles together fresh cranberries with lemons, fresh rosemary sprigs and demerara sugar, then shakes it all up with cranberry infused gin.  The result is bright, merry and cheerful.  I added more sugar to mine, you can adjust for yourself as well.  Mash and mix, there’s nothing to it.  Now go enjoy the rest of the holidays – that shouldn't be too puzzling.  Cheers!

Cranberry Smash by David Kwiatkowski

For more about Kyoko Hoshino:

For the Cranberry Smash by David Kwiatkowski:


Some presents are meant to stay wrapped up

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Swayed by the Dark Side

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a seven year old boy went to the movies with his grandparents on his birthday.  He was just as thrilled as everyone else, watching what would become one of the icons of popular culture in our time.  I still remember my little R2D2 figurine, with its state of the art clicking noise generated by turning its head around.  It was also a thrill to watch the movies over again with my children, and carefully teach them about the merits of the original films over the “new ones”.  Now at last we have another trilogy coming, and the “new ones” will no doubt change in meaning.  While we all get in line for this momentous occasion, let’s contemplate a metaphorical puzzle box from the karakuri Jedi master himself, Akio Kamei. Kamei likes to revisit his concepts at times with series, and has made a number of follow ups to many of his boxes.  In this case, the “Rotary Box II” is quite different from the first version, in appearance, mechanism, and even size.

Rotary Box II by Akio Kamei

For comparison, let me explain about the first version.  Rotary Box I is a “spin” on the traditional Japanese puzzle box design, in which side panels slide in different longitudinal directions.  Kamei likes to turn things around, literally, with his designs, and designed Rotary Box I so the panels each twist instead.  But this is not the droid we are looking for.  The “RB2” is composed of two large halves, joined together to create a perfect, universal whole.  One half is entirely dark, while the other half is light.  Any motion created on one side can theoretically be seen as happening in the opposite direction on the other side.  It just depends on your perspective, relatively speaking.  There is a balance between the two halves.  They hold each other together, and are each required to reveal the potential space inside one another.  The question is, which side will you choose? Don’t get angry – or you might end up on the dark side.  Like most puzzle boxes, no “force” is required to open this one … or is it?

Almost as if they were perfectly cleaved with a light saber

The opening of another installment in the Jedi universe certainly calls for a good drink.  This one comes from Adam Bernbach, a Washington, D.C. area mixology Jedi, and relies heavily on a delicious fortified wine called Barolo Chinato.  Barolo is a sweet red wine from the Piedmont region of Italy.  Like many other vermouths, aperitifs and digestifs we have discussed, Barolo Chinato is created with a secret family recipe of herbs, plants and spices infused into the Barolo wine, including quinine, the same tree bark used to prevent malaria and make tonic water.  

The Darkside by Adam Bernbach. The gin is light and the Barolo is dark ... hmmm

In the “Darkside” cocktail, Bernbach combines the bittersweet wine with a subtle juniper gin and Peychaud bitters.  The gin complements the quinine flavors of the wine (as in a gin and tonic), while the Peychaud (a medicinal tonic developed in New Orleans in 1830 and used in the classic “Sazerac”) adds anise flavors to the mix.  The result is just right, with a blend of flavors reminiscent of the Negroni.  Perhaps you've already tried this cocktail, on a pit stop at the Mos Eisley Cantina, en route to Dagoba?  If not, go ahead and mix one up for yourself – this is one time it’s okay to be swayed by the Darkside.  And don’t forget to try a different pairing with the Barolo Chinato as well – many experts agree it is the perfect drink to enjoy with a piece of fine dark chocolate.  Cheers – and may the force be with you!

Don't be angry ... you can have one too

The Darkside by Adam Bernbach:
2 ½ oz Plymouth gin
1 oz Barolo Chinato
3 dashes Peychaud bitters
Twist of lime peel
1 whole star anise
Stir gin, Barolo Chinato and bitters together with ice. Strain into a glass.  Express the lime peel into the drink and garnish with it and the star anise. 

Balance has been restored to the galaxy

For more about Akio Kamei:

For Allard Walker’s review of the Rotary Box II:

For more about Adam Bernbach:


May the Force be with you!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

I'll Tell You a Secret

Would you like to hear a secret?  Who doesn’t like to be in on a good secret?  Mysteries, codes, hidden treasures, all excite because in part they hold a secret which we might be able to access, if we are clever enough.  The allure of the puzzle box relies on the secret, on knowing there is a hidden way in, and on finding it if we can.  Cocktails, on the other hand, are hardly mysterious.  Their allure lies in the stories inside the glass, the swirling history of one of humankind’s earliest inventions and all the people who have left fingerprints on it ever since.  There are so many great stories, it’s usually easy to find a cocktail to pair up with a puzzle box, or to modify one slightly.  In this case, the cocktail came first, practically begging for inclusion in this quirky endeavor of mine.  The holiday cocktail called “The Secret Catch” could easily be paired with almost any puzzle box, which, by definition, always holds a secret catch which must be discovered.  

Secret Base by Hiroshi Iwahara

But we have to pick one, so I have chosen the popular “Secret Base” by Hiroshi Iwahara of the Karakuri Creation Group.  Secret Base, originally created in 2007, is an incredibly fun puzzle box which has been so popular that Iwahara developed 13 official design versions over the years, using different wood inlays on the top and modifying the mechanisms and center piece for stability.  The box has a simple but surprising and elegant motion which reveals the first space inside.  The real challenge is to find your way into the second space, the secret base.  Iwahara mentions that he was inspired by Japanese animations which featured an underground, secret base, containing a robot hero.  To save the day, the base would swivel its shutters open and the hero would fly out.  This should give you some idea of how this box works, initially.

The Secret Catch by Ivy Mix
 
Just in time for the holiday season arrives “The Secret Catch”, a delicious cocktail to enjoy while sneaking your way into the Secret Base or just sitting by the fire.  This decadent egg nog evokes a dense and nutty fruit cake, as intended by its creator Ivy Mix of Brooklyn’s Leyenda by incorporating sweet sherry.  Mix was nominated this year for Best American Bartender of the Year.  

Aged rum works incredibly well, too. Don't forget the fresh nutmeg!

The original recipe calls for aged cachaça, a sugar cane based spirit popular in such cocktails as the Brazilian Caiphirinia. I substituted an aged rum, another sugar cane based spirit which keeps the recipe close to its intentions.  After all, you well know I am quite fond of aged rum.  The Secret Catch is rich, warm, spiced and luscious.  It may be the best egg nog I’ve ever had.  These could be quite dangerous on a cold night by the fire or at your next holiday gathering.  To be entirely safe, you should test them out ahead of time.  A few times.  Here’s to a cozy fire, a sumptuous cocktail (you deserve it), a lovely puzzle box and the start of the holiday season.  Cheers.

These are two secrets you should not keep to yourself

The Secret Catch by Ivy Mix:
11/2 oz aged cachaça
½ oz Pedro Ximenez sherry
¾ oz heavy cream
½ orgeat
¼ oz cinnamon syrup
1 fresh egg yolk (pasteurized if preferred)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Dry shake (no ice) all ingredients then shake with ice. Strain into a glass and garnish with grated nutmeg

For more about Hiroshi Iwahara:

For more about Ivy Mix:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Monkey Business

It’s hard to imagine how a simple wooden box can surprise you.  Most of the time, it's just a box, with a lid that comes off, just like you would expect.  But you still want to open it.  The fact that it is a box implies its opening function, and something inside you is compelled by that function.  So you try to open it, lift the lid, turn the latch, swing the hinges.  If it won't open, you look around, you wonder why, still trying to find the way.  What happens if it starts to become clear that there is not an obvious way to open it?  Do you give up?  Or do you keep looking, still driven by the knowledge that it does open, after all.  A box should be opened ... and that is exactly what is so enjoyable about a great puzzle box.  Like a perfect game of hide and seek, you don’t actually want to discover the people you are looking for right away, and you don’t want to find them in the most obvious hiding places.  It’s much more satisfying if it takes a little while, if your opponents are clever, and well hidden.  The best opponents love it when you walk right past them, over and over again, without noticing or realizing.  The game gets harder each time you play, since you have already been all over the house and think you know all of its nooks and crannies.  This is where a really clever designer can surprise you with a puzzle box as well.  There shouldn't be too many places to hide in a little wooden box, should there?

The Monkey's Palanquin by Shiro Tajima

The origins of the Japanese puzzle box date back to around 1894, when two defining movements were created to trick the opener of what appeared to be a normal wooden keepsake box.  These “personal secret” boxes (himitsu-bako) had a side panel which either moved down or to the side, which then allowed the top panel to slide off.  For a century all subsequent Japanese puzzle boxes utilized these two types of movements in different ways and combinations to add difficulty to the secret opening, from two to over one hundred movements required.  As the number of moves needed increased, the challenge increased, but there were still only a few movement types needed to experiment with in order to open the box, eventually.  Like looking for someone in a bigger house, but one with the same layout.  Check the closet, look under the bed.  And don’t get me wrong – hide and seek in a mansion is incredibly fun.

It seems like such a traditional puzzle box ...

But setting expectations about how something should work is also a great way to fool someone, by changing the formula completely.  The Monkey’s Palanquin by Shiro Tajima of the Karakuri Creation Group, which is named after characters from a Japanese nursery rhyme, is a great example of this idea.  Tajima created this box in 2004 and applied his work in pure yosegi, the traditional marquetry inlay technique of the region.  There is a zig zag inlay design along the top of the box, which gives it the appearance of a traditional type of Japanese puzzle box.  I suspect this is all part of his plan to set your expectations, in order to fool you all the better.  He brings a fresh perspective to the puzzle box group and all of his designs have something unorthodox and unique.  The palanquin is an incredibly fun design, especially if you are familiar with traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, since that may confuse you.  I thought there must be something wrong with the box for a long time, as nothing seemed to happen no matter what I did or where I pushed and prodded.  Once the mechanism of opening is deduced, you can appreciate how clever the design is, how unique, and how Tajima plays with your expectations.  Don’t take my word for it – this box won First Prize in the Nob Yoshigahara Design Competition in 2004.

The Monkey Gland cocktail by Harry McElhone, c 1927

To prepare for this advanced level game of hide and seek, we need to invigorate ourselves with some adrenaline.  Perhaps with a “Monkey Gland” cocktail?  This prohibition era cocktail was created at the famous “Harry’s New York Bar” in the Ritz hotel in 1920’s Paris, and originally published in “Barflies and Cocktails” by Harry McElhone in 1927.  At the time, “male enhancements” were the rage (can you imagine? How ridiculous …) and the particularly odd practice of implanting tissue from monkey testicles into people, for longevity, had been created by a surgeon named Serge Voronoff.  The Monkey Gland was surely named as a marketing ploy based on this, and was probably akin to more modern cocktails you can think of with silly and racy names.  It consists of the simple combination of gin and orange juice, with some sweet raspberry syrup or grenadine and a splash or rinse of absinthe or other anise flavored liqueur.  It’s a variation of other gin cocktails such as the classic Clover Club, the Pink Lady, or my own creation, the “Pandora”.  The key here is fresh squeezed juices and natural or homemade syrups, for a subtle and tasty gin cocktail treat.  You can “monkey around” with the proportions and ingredients depending on your tastes, if you like it sweeter, or want the gin to shine through more, as examples.  Here’s to changing the formula, playing with expectations, hidden surprises and a little hide-and-seek.  Cheers.

Looks like a good time for some monkeying around

For more about Shiro Tajima:

For the Monkey Gland recipe:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Relatively Speaking

Let’s take a moment, relatively speaking, to ponder the physical concepts proposed 100 years ago which reshaped our understanding of the universe.  Einstein first presented his theory of general relativity on November 25, 1915, in front of the Prussian Academy of Science, which makes this Thanksgiving season one with some serious gravity.  General relativity upped the ante from “special relativity”, which he introduced 10 years earlier, by adding acceleration to the mix.  One of the many insights his theories provide is that there is no “fixed frame” of reference, meaning that everything in the universe is moving relative to everything else.  As a result, both time and space can appear differently depending on your point of view, and how fast you are moving.  One of the most fascinating aspects to this phenomenon, for me, has always been time dilation, which refers to how time appears to pass more slowly for a fast moving observer than for a (relatively) slower moving observer.  

Brothers by Kanae Saito

I always love the example of the two young brothers who are approximately the same age.  One jets off on a rocket ship which travels near the speed of light for a year before he returns home.  He is one year older, but his brother back on earth is now an old man, because time has passed differently for each due to the rate of speed they were moving relative to one another.  To commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of this cosmic conundrum I present the “Brothers” by Kanae Saito of the Karakuri Creation Group.  This whimsical puzzle box pair is one of my all time favorite karakuri box works.  The two brothers are adorable with their silly expressions, dapper duds and flapping arms.  The older, who obviously stayed behind on earth, sports a seriously respectable moustache.  His younger brother, who hasn’t aged much after his year in space, has an impish “I just defied space-time” grin.  But even after all those light year(s) apart, they are still inseparable.  Saito says they are “thick as thieves”.  Like the ambidextrous hexduos, these two will need to work together to reveal their hidden secrets.  The “Brothers” are a lot of fun to explore, right here on Earth. 

Saito's hanko (signature) wins the cutest award

I would think that a particularly special new cocktail should be in order for the 100th anniversary of general relativity as well, wouldn't you?  I've taken a cue from the astrophysicist Katherine Freese, who describes the ingredients in her book “The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter.”  According to Dr. Freese, the cosmic cocktail is made with 3 parts dark matter and ½ part helium and hydrogen.  I’m taking a bit of mixological license here in assuming that actual dark matter doesn't taste very good.  It’s also impossible to measure precisely – terrible for true craft cocktails.  Therefore, representing the “dark matter” here will be a special bourbon infused with browned butter, some Madeira, and some apple cider.  Add to that the half part “helium and hydrogen” – represented here by Hum liqueur – and you've got the space-time continuum calming “Theory of Relativity” cocktail.  

Theory of Relativity cocktail - 3 parts dark matter plus a half part HeH 

The drink is delicious as is, but if you find yourself sitting patiently by the fireside, waiting for your long lost sibling to return from his interstellar pub crawl, you just might want to add some hot water to this cocktail in a big mug, and enjoy it as the “Toddy of Relativity”, which is arguably an even better version, if I do say so, relatively speaking.  The cocktail may appear to be longer or shorter, depending on how fast you may be moving.  It may also appear to be heavier.  If you place it behind a massive galaxy, you might be able to see two of it due to gravitational lensing.  It should taste the same, however, although we really don’t know much about dark matter, so I can’t be sure.  At any rate (of speed), here’s hoping we all experience some time dilation on this Thanksgiving weekend as we enjoy family, friends, food and fun.  Cheers!

The Brothers sharing a Hot Toddy of Relativity

The Theory of Relativity:
1 oz brown butter infused bourbon (or regular bourbon, of course)
1 oz madeira
1 oz apple cider
½ oz Hum liqeuer (the drink still tastes good without this …)
 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

For the Toddy:
Add above to a mug and top with 3 oz hot water.  Stir in 3/4 oz maple or demerara syrup.

For more about Einstein’s Theory:

For The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese:

For more about Kanae Saito:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Two Hands

Get ready to exercise both sides of your brain for this installment.  You’ll need the logical left side and the artistic right side to fully appreciate this particular puzzle pair pairing and potion pair pairing, and puzzle and potion pairing.  Hmmm, perhaps I should explain myself.

A puzzling friend of mine, who also hails from Houston, Texas, has been quite successful developing his unique ideas into reality, with the help of many different artists.  Matt Dawson has contributed designs and concepts behind the scenes on many well known works.  His collaboration with Yasutoshi Makishi on the Pagoda puzzle series even spawned his own puzzle moniker, “MakDaw”.   Another of his highly successful collaborations was with the brilliant puzzle maker Robert Yarger, who has his own well known moniker, “Stickman”.  This pair of puzzlers did not, thankfully, lead to any more monikers, such as “DawMan” or “StickDaw”, but you never know.  

The Ambidextrous Hexduos by Matt Dawson and Robert Yarger

Matt worked with Robert in preparation for IPP 30 in Japan to prepare his exchange puzzle that year, the “Ambidextrous Hexduos”, which he designed and which Robert brought to life.  The “ambis” are a pair of small cubes, which have a secret opening mechanism, of course, but with quite a twist.  As the name might suggest, the trick involves a bit of ambidextrous dexterity with this duo of right rhombohedrons.  In fact, neither box can be opened without the other, simultaneously.  The majority of the puzzles were made from basswood for the exchange; however, Robert also created a limited set of pairs made with exotic wood inlays left over from prior Stickman designs.   These inlayed versions have strikingly colorful, contrasting angled stripes around each box which make for a very distinctive look.  The boxes are moderately difficult to solve and present a unique challenge, and a great aha moment once you understand how they work.  Your artistic and logical brain will enjoy the beauty and mechanics at work by this pair of puzzler’s puzzles.

One box opened ... ?

Of course, we need a well crafted cocktail to compliment these dynamic duos, says the right brain.  Actually we need two cocktails, replies the left brain – one for me and one for you.  How creative of you, compliments the right brain.  It’s only logical, demurs the left.  The left brain then reaches for the “Right Hand” cocktail, a combination of aged rum, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Campari, and 2 dashes of chocolate bitters.  This tasty treat was created by Michael McIlroy from Milk and Honey and Little Branch in New York City.  The left brain analyzes these ingredients and suggests that the combination of a base spirit (rum here), vermouth and Campari makes this a variation of the classic Negroni cocktail.  The right simply enjoys this incredible variation, which balances the rich flavors so well, and calls it, “just right.”  

The Right Hand by Michael McIlroy

On the other hand, Sam Ross, also from Milk and Honey and Little Branch in NYC, suggests using a fine bourbon as the base spirit here instead of rum (or gin, as in a classic Negroni).  His variation, featured in Jim Meehan’s fantastic PDT Cocktail Book, is known as the “Left Hand” cocktail.  He describes it as a marriage of a Manhattan (rye and sweet vermouth) and a Negroni.  Of course, a bourbon based negroni is also known as a “Boulevardier”, a drink we have discussed in detail previously for the “Red, White and Bourbon” cocktail.  The right brain thinks that it is acceptable artistic license to rename the drink after the simple addition of some chocolate bitters, as it reaches for the “Left Hand” cocktail.

The Left Hand by Sam Ross

While comparing these two different but so similar cocktails, the brains have a hard time deciding which they like better.  The fine aged rum tastes almost like aged whiskey, but smoother (and you know how I love aged rum), while the bourbon adds a spicy kick which is so nice.  Whether you prefer yours with gin, aged rum, bourbon, or an altogether different base, this cocktail platform always seems to work out.  Now, as you contemplate these excellent offerings, you are left (right?) with the age old drinking problem of two hands, one mouth.  If you’ve solved the ambidextrous hexduos, however, you can probably work this one out as well.  Cheers.

Right Hands and Left Hands required ... Cheers!

Right Hand by Michael McIlroy:
1 ¾ oz aged rum
¾ oz Carpano Antica (sweet vermouth)
¾ Campari
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Stir with ice to chill / strain into a cocktail glass

Left Hand by Sam Ross:
1 ¾ oz bourbon
¾ oz Carpano Antica (sweet vermouth)
¾ Campari
2 dashes Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Stir with ice to chill / strain

For more information on the Right Hand Cocktail:

For more information on the Left Hand Cocktail:
http://www.thespeakista.com/2012/04/negroni-nirvana-southpaw-magic/

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Writer's Block

At the risk of becoming boxed in, I present a box which turns things inside out for me, as I find myself inside of it.  The creative woodworker Tracy Woods Clemons, from Rochester, New York, has been making her designs in wood for many years.  Recently, she began to produce personalized puzzle boxes for a few collectors.  Her “Aurand” box, created for Jeffrey Aurand, had a few seasoned puzzlers quite entertained at the Rochester Puzzle Party earlier this year.  There were so many pieces I wonder if they got it all back together again properly.  Jim Strayer shared some nice photos of the “key” box she made for him as well, with its many, many drawers.  Otis Cheng discussed the box she created for him on Kevin Sadler’s blog, which is worth a read

The Writer's Block (aka "Into the Drink") by Tracy Woods Clemons

Tracy recently sent me a box as well.  The box is very impressive and has her signature style of wood contrasts and rustic details.  It has the appearance of a typical box, or even a chest of some sort, with an imposing wooden padlock keeping things well secured.  There is no name or announcement across the top, as in some of her work, but only a decorative frame about the top.  Tracy has named this the “Into the Drink” box, and I have taken the liberty of giving it a second name as well, “The Writer’s Block”.  Both names reflect the functioning and concepts hidden within.

First we will need to unlock it!

A hinge at the back suggests how things might open up, but that padlock will have to be reckoned with first.  Perusing the box reveals some lovely details which may or may not be helpful.  If you have seen her work before you might have some thoughts on this, but I will keep things semi cryptic here.  Taking a cue from Puzzlemad, I have placed some more revealing photos on a separate page, linked to at the end, if you are curious for spoilers.  Suffice it to say that a bit of exploration leads to the discovery of a few tools which are required to open that padlock.

Unlocked!

Once removed, the box swings open and you discover that this is an old fashioned writing box.  Unfortunately, the internal sections are still securely fastened, of course.

An old fashioned writing desk!

The lower portion has an inviting keyhole ... but where is the key?

Hmmm, a keyhole, but no key ...

Persistent searching pays off eventually and an old fashioned metal key is discovered which fits the lock. 

The key fits ....

Lifting the lid reveals a surprise!

There is storage space for papers, pens, maybe a tablet for the modern wordsmith?  The two side compartments are locked up tight.  In the center is an odd, mostly hidden assortment of puzzle-like pieces, covered with sliding panels which only reveal a bit at a time.  You also discover that one of the tools you have found fits into these puzzle pieces perfectly.  The side panels are linked to this clever puzzle, which must be solved twice, once for each side, in order to open them.   

Now, what's in this top section?

The top of the lid has two sections.  A hidden keyhole admits the same trusty key to get you halfway there, revealing a space for storing some ... liquid inspiration.

The muse is calling ...

But should we imbibe straight from the bottle or be a bit more civilized?  A final trick with the versatile tool pops open the last compartment, where two old fashioned rocks glasses are stored and waiting.  The box reveals itself as the ultimate puzzle box and spirit lover's secretary - a true box and booze box.  Let's have a proper toast to this beautifully crafted, perfectly puzzling writing box and its creative designer.

Now, we are talking, as the saying goes.  Anyone care to join me?

Along with the bourbon, I present a delicious treat made with gin, green Chartreuse, simple syrup and egg white, created by Andrew Volk of Maine's Portland Hunt and Alpine Club.  Egg whites can add exceptional depth and texture to cocktails, as I have explained previously (including in the inauguralpost).  Chartreuse is an herbal liqueur from France with a long and colorful history.  As the story goes, the order of Chartreuse monks was already over 500 years old when an ancient manuscript was given to them in 1605, containing the secret recipe of 130 herbs and plants needed to create the “Elixir of Long Life”.  It wasn’t until 1737 that the manuscript was completely understood and the elixir was finally created.  A milder version, the green Chartreuse of today, was developed in 1764.  

The "Green Eyes" Cocktail by Andrew Volk

There’s more to the story, of course, but rumor has it that even today, the ancient recipe is known to only two old monks who initiate the complicated process in secret, each aware of only half the recipe, who have both taken a vow of silence.  Shhhhh.  They may even be the very same monks since 1605 ….  Here’s a toast to long life, secret recipes, ancient monks, modern marvels, writer’s block and puzzling pursuits.  Cheers.

This writer's block has the cure right on top.  And the inspirational solution hidden inside!

Green Eyes by Andrew Volk:

1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz green Chartreuse
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz egg white

Dry shake (no ice) then shake with ice, strain and garnish with a lime wheel.

For "spoiler" photos of the opening mechanisms see here.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Little Things

To acknowledge that the days are getting smaller now, I’d like to reflect a bit on the very small puzzle box.  Small boxes are not uncommon.  In fact, the Karakuri Creation Group has a whole series of small boxes, each with a unique and often unexpected mechanism.  The diminutive size can add to the difficulty of finding the right movement, as your fingers try to get out the way.  Small boxes are also remarkable for their craftsmanship, as they often spare no detail despite their stature.  For many designers, the small box may be an aside, an experiment, or a “small” addition to their portfolio.  For puzzle crafter Allan Boardman, the small size defines his entire style.  His professional education was in aeronautical engineering, and he enjoyed a long career in the aerospace industry.  As a hobby, he also had a passion for woodworking and puzzling.  From the infinite vastness of space, his mind settled on creating the tiniest of puzzles out of wood, using traditional techniques on a microscopic scale.  Puzzlers are fondly known as metagrobologists (a puzzling word, indeed).  Allan describes himself, a designer and maker of tiny wooden puzzles, as a microxylometagrobologist.

The AHA Box by Allan Boardman

Allan has made all sorts of tiny puzzles throughout his life, most designed by others and recreated at a fraction of the original size, and some which he designed himself as well.  His smallest wooden puzzle is a 3-piece burr which comes apart and fits back together again, all at 1.5 millimeters in size.  As if that were not impressive enough, he once created “The World’s Smallest Puzzle”, which was a 2x2 crossword puzzle etched onto the head of a pin, only visible with a scanning electron microscope!  

With a quarter for scale reference

Alan’s “AHA” puzzle box is easily visible with the naked eye, on the other hand.  It is a beautifully crafted little box made from figured maple wood with simple but elegant attention to the small (!) details.  The box is 2 ¾ inches long and has a lovely contrasting stripe running around the top and precise splines along the corners.  Depending on the level of puzzler acumen, the box might remain a small wonder for quite some time as you move it this way and that, generating a puzzling noise from some internal moving component.  This little box provides a large amount of puzzling satisfaction.

The perfect box in which to store a little something

In honor of this tiny treasure I will raise a tiny toast with Allan’s favorite tipple, the “dirty martini”.  The martini is considered to be an American classic, dating back to the late 1800’s when it was known as the “Martinez” and included gum (sugar) syrup, orange curacao and bitters along with the gin and vermouth.  It is also possible that it got its name from the Italian vermouth “Martini & Rossi”, which was available and in use at the same time period.  The first printed mention of the martini is in the 1888 “New and Improved (Illustrated) Bartenders Manual” by Harry Johnson, where it is identical to the Martinez.  Original martinis were quite a bit different than some modern day counterparts, due to the use of an older style of gin called “Old Tom” or even Dutch genever, the heavily malt wine based precursor to what we know today as London style gin, and a larger proportion of vermouth (up to 50% of the drink).  Notice there is no mention of the “V” word there, and we will keep it that way.  

A minuscule martini

The concept of the “dry” martini is also old, from the turn of the 19th century, when it meant the drink had a 2:1 ration of gin to vermouth.  In more recent times “dry” has often been interpreted as a drink which is almost entirely gin.  That reminds me of an old joke my father told me long ago: A man walks into a bar and requests a very dry martini.  The bartender nods knowingly, pours a glass full of gin and gently whispers “vermouth” across the rim.  The man takes a sip, puts the glass down, and disapprovingly comments, “Loud mouth.”  Another common but misguided modern myth of the martini is in its preparation.  Ordering a martini “shaken, not stirred” may make you feel dashing, but this drink was meant to be stirred.  Many modern bars have now returned to the original recipes and offer a martini much like what you would have enjoyed during its inception days.  Allan Boardman enjoys his martini with Bombay Saphire and olive juice (aka “dirty”).  However you like yours, I offer you a small toast to the small wonders in the world.  Cheers!

Does this make me a metagrobolomixologist?

For more information about Allan Boardman, see this excellent interview by Saul Symonds:

For more martini history and some variations:

For an inspired dirty martini recipe try:

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Trick and Treat

It’s time to brew up a frighteningly fiendish puzzle and potion pairing. It is Halloween, after all.  It turns out that October 31 is also National “Knock-Knock” joke day, which calls to mind the classic Halloween gem: Knock knock … Who’s there? … Boo! … Boo who? … Oh, don’t cry!  It’s just me!  Hooo, give me a minute, that’s just too funny.  Hmmm, you’re groaning?  Excellent, groans are good on Halloween.  What’s that you say?  You want another?  Something specifically puzzle box related?  Well, sure, if you insist.  Knock knock… Who’s there?... Wooden Box Fan… Wooden Box Fan who?... Wooden Box Fan-tasia sound lovely right now?  Yes, but I much prefer the Brandenberg concertos.  Ba-dum!  

The Always Empty Box by Phil Tomlinson

If that awful joke didn't scare you off already, you may be a zombie.  On this All Hallows Eve, I present a puzzle box which is “all hollow”, or as its maker, Phil Tomlinson describes it, “always empty”.  Phil Tomlinson is a fine cabinet and puzzle box maker from Cincinnati Ohio, who created the “Always Empty” box out of Black Walnut, Curly Maple, Bloodwood, Rock Maple and Pawlownia woods.  The box has lovely inlaid arcs across the top, beautifully contrasting colors on the top (?) and bottom (?), and fine edge details.  It has a satiny polished finish which makes it a pleasure to handle.  The puzzle box has a surprising, unique first step movement to open it, and a couple more surprises in store after that as well.  There is nothing inside the box.  Nothing.  It’s … always empty.  It’s quite frightening, especially on Halloween.  But don’t shout – that’s a different box.

It's so full of beautiful details and fine finishes.  But somehow it leaves you feeling so ... empty

To calm your shaking nerves, and especially if you really are a zombie, I’ll make you the perfect drink.  This potent potion was intended to rejuvenate, reinvigorate and reconstitute the bedraggled bon vivant in Prohibition era London who might have had one too many the evening prior.   Harry Craddock was a cocktail pioneer who left the US and established himself as head bartender at the Savoy Hotel in London during American prohibition.  There he created the “Corpse Reviver #2”, which first appeared in print in his famous “Savoy Cocktail Book” published in 1930, and has since been widely felt to be the best of the “reviver” series.  The drink was intended as a “hair of the dog” remedy, and was best imbibed “before 11 am, or whenever steam and energy are needed,” as Craddock explains.   

The Corpse Reviver #2 by Harry Craddock

The combination of savory gin, Cointreau for a little sweetness, Lillet for a mild bitterness, lemon juice for its tart smack, and a dash of absinthe to pull it all together, make for a perfect cocktail.  The bitterness of Lillet, an aromatized wine aperitif from France, was originally imparted by quinine from cinchona bark (the flavor in tonic water and protector from malaria), back when it was known as “Kina Lillet”.  The recipe was changed in 1986 to the much milder “Lillet Blanc” available today.  The Italian aperitif Cocchi Americano, with its bolder quinine flavor, is now considered to be the closest modern substitute for the defunct Kina Lillet, and is often substituted to recreate the classics.  The Corpse Reviver #2 is a sophisticated sipper which will put the color back in your cheeks, or reanimate your misguided mad scientist grave digging adventure, Dr. Frankenstein.  Just beware of Harry Craddock’s famous warning: “Four of these taken in swift succession will quickly unrevive the corpse again.”  Happy haunting!

The glass is all full and the box is all empty ... a trick and a treat.  Happy Halloween!

For the Corpse Reviver #2 recipe:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

High-Brow Hybrids

Puzzle classification has been a puzzling endeavor over the centuries and I will not presume to generalize about it, but will merely quote James Dalgety and Edward Hordern, who defined it this way: "A puzzle is a problem having one or more specific objectives, contrived for the principle purpose of exercising one's ingenuity and/or patience.  A mechanical puzzle is a physical object comprising one or more parts which falls within the above definition."  Additionally, they define 14 separate puzzle classes.  All of the puzzle boxes and even the non-boxes which have been featured here fall into the category “Opening Puzzles (OPN)”.  But puzzles, like people (and blogs) are not always so easily defined, and quite often cross into multiple categories (like people, and blogs).  A beautiful hybrid puzzle, created by Kagen Sound (a man whose very name is a lovely hybrid), is the Cocobolo Maze Burr.  This stunning piece of puzzle art is made with cocobolo, ebony and holly woods, and is an evolved version of his award winning "Maze Burr" puzzle, which was the “puzzle of the year”, winning both the people’s choice and jury grand prize awards in the 2006 NobYoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.  

The Cocobolo Maze Burr by Kagen Sound

That original puzzle was a hybrid itself, functioning as a “burr” puzzle, which is a classic take apart puzzle design comprised of multiple pieces which form a “burr” three dimensional, usually symmetrical, shape.  The maze burr came apart into its multiple components of sticks and panels, but utilized a variable maze on each sliding panel, which could be reprogrammed to increase the complexity of the puzzle, from 7 all the way up to 116 moves.  John Rausch collaborated on the mathematical configuration of possible panel positions and moves.  The maze burr is therefore a sequential movement (maze) / burr hybrid.  Each side consists of two separate panels which shift at right angles to one another, with their motion restricted by a rune like maze carved into the uppermost panel and a peg attached to the lower panel.  As one panel shifts, it blocks or releases the motion of a different panel.  The cocobolo maze burr adds to the hybrid by turning the structure into an actual puzzle box, such that once it is opened, it does not come apart into the individual components but retains its structure as a functional box.  Inside are stored more maze plates which can be swapped to adjust the complexity of the puzzle.  The contrasting colors of the beautiful hardwoods and the pleasing fluid motion of the box as you slide the panels this way and that is a calming experience, enjoyable even if you are totally lost in the myriad movements and never open the box.  This puzzle combines the best of many styles into a masterpiece of form and function.  

The rune-like mazes on each outer panel can be configured to create up to 116 possible moves-to-open

To compliment this modern masterpiece we will craft another modern classic, which owes its origins to a few happy hybrids as well.  The combination of equus asinus and equus caballus is a launching point for this famous cocktail, in a way.  Not so coincidentally, October 26 is also “National Mule Day”.  The Moscow Mule dates to 1941 when two friends, John Martin, the new American owner of the Smirnoff vodka brand, and Jack Morgan, the owner and purveyor of “Cock n’ Bull” ginger beer, came up with a marketing ploy to boost flagging sales of their respective wares.  They dubbed it the “Moscow Mule” in reference to the Russian born vodka and the tart and spicy “kick” it packed from the lime and ginger beer.  They commissioned fancy copper mugs and photographed their creation all about town.  It became an instant hit with the LA Hollywood scene and revived the entire Smirnoff brand.  

The Gin-Gin Mule by Audrey Saunders

The Moscow Mule is a delicious drink, but I’m not a huge fan of vodka, and besides, we need another hybrid / variation before we’re finished.  Audrey Saunders, the famed mixologist behind SoHo’s Pegu Club in Manhattan, (and creator of the amazing "Old Cuban" cocktail) created another modern classic with her “Gin-Gin Mule”, which essentially substitutes gin for the vodka.  The Pegu Club was revolutionary when it opened in 2005, by simply using fresh and homemade ingredients in its classic cocktails.  You might say it helped put the “craft” in craft cocktails.  Imbibe magazine even named the Gin-Gin Mule one of the “25 most influential cocktails of the past century”.   And with its simple combination of gin, mint, lime juice, simple syrup and ginger beer, you shouldn't wait to craft one of these for yourself.  Cheers to these marvelous modern mashups.

A pair of happy high-brow hybrids

For more on puzzle classification:

For more about Kagen Sound:

For more about the Moscow Mule:

For the recipe to Audrey Saunder’s Gin-Gin Mule: