Saturday, December 31, 2016

Time Passages

“Time is an illusion” – Albert Einstein.  I might add that all good illusions could be considered puzzles, and derive that time is a puzzle.  Which is quite literally true this time.  Kelly Snache, the puzzle box philosopher and spiritual guide, has created a unique play on time which spans the generations.  One of his favorite ways of expressing his art is by re-purposing old wooden objects into new puzzles and giving them new life.  This “time” he has taken a vintage mantel clock case which was merely an old shell, and built it full of surprises and adventure.  Time waits for no man, so let’s explore his timely creation.

The Gates of Time by Kelly Snache

The clock case has a wonderful provenance.  It was originally from the Seth Thomas clock company, one of the preeminent clock makers of the 19th century.  Seth Thomas himself was born in 1785 and established his own clock making brand in 1813 in the town of Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut.  After his death in 1859, the town was renamed Thomaston.  His sons continued the business and introduced modern clockworks, mechanisms and materials to stay current and compete with the French.  One of their most famous inventions was the “Adamantine Clock” from 1880, which incorporated a veneer developed by the Celluloid Manufacturing Company.  The patented finish, according to the original label inside the back cover of the clock case, “is very desirable, will not chip, and cannot be scratched or dented in any ordinary usage.”  Indeed, the original finish remains bright and lustrous to this day, over 100 years later.

Lustrous "Adamantine" finish withstands the test of time

Starting with that illustrious, albeit empty and hollow, clock case, Kelly rebuilt the entire internal compartment, filling it from “stem to stern” as he likes to say.  He even added the front glass bezel and clock face, which were long gone.  Visible from the front, back and insides are an impressive assortment of exotic hardwoods and other materials including zebrawood, snakewood, walnut, ash, purpleheart, paduk, bloodwood, curly maple, ebony, wenge, American holly, cocobolo, pau amarello, brass, steel, metal gears, red coral, and Falcon’s eye gemstone.   The clock face on front is set to 1:50 or thereabouts.  The back of the case has been replaced with a gate, which of course does not open.  Through the gate the internal workings of the “clock” can be viewed – a wild array of colorful wooden gears, levers and knobs.  There is more going on in there that can’t be viewed, yet, as well.  The goal of the puzzle is to, in Kelly’s own words, “Transcend the Gates of Time so that you may manipulate the gears of The Universe and make it 5 o’clock within your time stream and usher in Happy Hour! … you will be justly rewarded!”

What secrets lay beyond the gates?

A few words about the puzzle itself are in order, but will be abbreviated as we are on the clock. The first task is obvious, you must open the gate to gain access to the internal workings.  Once accomplished you are met with layer upon layer of mechanical wooden gears.  Some will move, others, not so much or at all.  There is a bit of fiddling in the dark as well.  Sometimes, if you are paying attention, you may find that the time is changing.  If you aren’t paying attention, you may well get lost in time, which is no bad thing with this beautiful work of art.  Will you succeed in setting the clock to the desired time?  Or perhaps fall into a trap?  If you are a master horologist you will unlock the final secret, a hidden compartment which is yet again locked tight, biding its time.  An apropos triumph awaits the tenacious time smith.

A glimpse of the Gears of the Universe

One last bit of provenance deserves mention.  Kelly Snache is friends with another North American puzzle box maestro, Robert Yarger, and the two often trade stories, secrets and schemes.  Such was the case with this clock as well.  Robert happened to have a few vintage 1930’s functional clock mechanisms he discovered in his grandmother’s attic many years ago.  Kel was interested and Robert sent them along.  Time ensued, so to speak, and along with the bespoke wooden gears and mechanisms Kel built inside the case, he also scattered about some of these authentic vintage clock parts as well, for decorative whimsy and added beauty.  There is so much loving attention to the most “minute” detail.

Thyme Passages

And now it’s time for a drink, don’t you think? Kel turned something classic and timeless into something new (and timely), which seems like a good theme for a special drink to toast this masterpiece.  I love a good classic cocktail, as you may be aware, and there’s nothing more classic than the drink which likely started it all – the “Old Fashioned”.  This combination of spirit, sugar and bitters was the father of all cocktails.  But it’s a new year, and the theme requires something new from this old classic.  I’ll include the lessons learned over time - a little bitter, a little sweet, as we look to the future to create something new.  I’ve also played some word games with the flavors, but it’s forgivable – it tastes really good.  So let me offer this sage advice with my limited wisdom: take your time to laugh and love a lot this year. Thanks for reading my ramblings and from me and my family to you and yours, Happy New Year!

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” – J. R.R. Tolkien


Time to enjoy the new year - cheers!

Thyme Passages

2 oz thyme infused bourbon
½ oz Averna
½ oz sage agave syrup

Stir ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass with a large cube.  Garnish with lots of time to enjoy it.

For prior puzzles by Kelly Snache see:

For more opening photos of the Gates of Time see the solutions pages:
WARNING: spoilers: Messing with Time

Friday, December 23, 2016

Keys to the Kingdom

Happy Holidays!  The next winter themed installment evokes the Christmas “spirit” both figuratively and literally.  I’ll keep this one short and sweet so we can all get back to the holiday cheer.  Kanae Saito, an occasional contributor to the Karakuri Creation Group, is an artist whose work I wish we had more of to enjoy.  She created the Brothers, one of my favorite Karakuri boxes, which I wrote about for the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  

Mouse Kingdom by Kanae Saito

One of the other very few boxes she has designed is “Mouse Kingdom”, which always reminds me of the Nutcracker story, so it seemed appropriate for this Christmas post.  Mouse Kingdom depicts a brave and clever little mouse who is hoisting the mouse flag over his (or her) dominion in triumph while the sleepy cat snoozes unaware on the other side of the wall.  Maybe the cat is dreaming of sugar plum fairies or cat nip laced eggnog, or merely trying to figure out how to open this box.  Meanwhile, the clever mouse has already learned the secret.  Let’s toast his victory with something apropos.

Sleeping cats dream while clever mice scheme

I’ve steered clear of the rich and decadent dessert cocktails synonymous with winter and the holidays for long enough.  It’s time to bring on the heavy cream.  Of course egg nog deserves a mention right now as well, but perhaps I’ll save that for next year.  If you are dying to add an egg, or perhaps I should say “flipping” over it, try the Flipped Life cocktail I paired with Kamei’s egg puzzle.  For the Mouse Kingdom, I felt the classic Brandy Alexander would be in order.  The Alexander was originally a gin drink, dating back to the turn of the twentieth century when it was likely created as part of a railroad add campaign by New York bartender Troy Alexander.  It first appears in Hugo Ensslin’s “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” (1915) as a combination of gin, crème de cacao and cream.  The brandy version showed up later, with many possible references as to why and for whom it was changed.  John Lennon famously enjoyed these “milkshakes” as well. 

Sugar Plum Brandy Alexander

I added a little sugar plum goodness to the mix as well for this version, which uses Jeff Morgenthaler’s equal proportions.  Interestingly, sugar plums originally referred to comfits, or candy coated seeds, nuts or bits of spice such as anise, and had nothing at all to do with plums.  Modern sugar plums are merely sugar hard candies.  So when history leaves us wanting, we can rewrite it and add plum jam instead.  The mouse won’t tell - just don’t wake the cat.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and good “cheers” to all.

Happy Holidays!

Sugar Plum Brandy Alexander

1 oz brandy
1 oz Crème de Cacao
1 oz heavy cream
1 barspoon sugar plum jam

Shake together well over ice and strain into a favorite glass. Grate fresh nutmeg over top.

For more about Kanae Saito:

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Duke of Burl

The winter wonderland theme continues with an extra special toasty treat.  Just in time to combat the chilly weather is something to warm the spirit - the long awaited Stickman No. 30 Puzzle Box, the “Burl Tile Box”.  Crafted from leopardwood and walnut, it features exotic tamo burl along the sides.  It’s extremely solid and quite rugged, with heavily framed edges all around, and little crenellation accents on the sides, giving it an almost medieval appearance.  Hmmm.  The top and bottom are composed of 15 separate tiles and there appear to be two different shades of burl, one lighter and one darker.  You notice that the burl pattern on each side is jumbled, and the colors are mixed up, and realize you must correct that and restore the tiles to their proper positions on each side.  Finally there is a distinct and ingenious feature (naturally) which allows you to trade tiles from the top and bottom – the entire end on one side rotates like a wheel.  As if that wasn’t enough (it was, trust me, it was), you soon realize (or hopefully read the instructions) that some tiles are also rotated in orientation, and to complete the burl patterns properly must be rotated back to their proper orientation as well as position in the pattern.  There is a secret trick (naturally) which must be discovered that allows the tiles to be rotated in orientation, which is a separate mechanism from the side wheel which allows tiles to trade from top and bottom.  Whew!

The Burl Tile Box by Robert Yarger

As far as sliding tile puzzles are concerned, this one proves to be infuriatingly difficult for various reasons, many of which I have just elucidated.  To make matters worse, the mid-section of the rotating end is blocked so tiles can not be moved directly from the middle and you must plan a circular path all around this section.  But the hardest part of the puzzle for me is the simplest – to arrange the burl patterns properly on each side.  It is an enormous challenge to visualize exactly where each tile should properly fit, working only with a burl pattern.  So many swirls and eddies seem to look fine next to each other, or almost fine … until you realize they do not, in fact, match correctly.  At least it was not too difficult to figure out which tiles were probably disoriented, based on the burl pattern.  That didn’t necessarily make the proper orientation obvious, though.  Finding the trick to rotate them was another story, but “turns” out to be an exceptionally cool aspect to the box once found. 

Putting a new spin on the old sliding tile puzzle

Robert Yarger, the mastermind behind this madness, is not such a cruel guy after all.  He has thoughtfully placed subtle but extremely helpful clues which can be used to guide the tile placement, if you are mortal, like me.  In the end, even using the clues (after figuring them out), I had to resort to labeled pieces of sticky notes in order to keep track of all the tiles! And they kept falling off.  If you are successful in recreating the beautiful burl patterns on each side, locking “logic” bars can be removed which allow the secret chamber to be revealed.  Lastly, since this is a Stickman, the logic bars can be replaced in a different configuration (naturally), which causes certain tiles to be locked in place at times, to create an entirely new and more difficult solving process.  When configured in this alternate way, it is known as the “Burl Tile Torture Chamber”.  If you have solved one of these boxes, and have reconfigured it in this alternate way, “for fun”, I don’t like you anymore. Ahem. Sniff.

“Torture Chamber” is not as far fetched as it sounds – it wouldn’t be a true castle without a dungeon, would it?  The crenellations along the sides of the box (also known as battlements) are meant to conjur that very image – Robert envisioned this box to resemble a castle.  His original concept was in fact to make the sliding tile puzzle solution a bit more obvious by having silhouette images form when the tiles were in proper position – on one side there was to be a dragon, and on the other, a castle.  The whole form of the box appears in a new perspective knowing this design intent.  The dragon and castle reliefs were not to be – after many iterations and attempts with stains and gold leaf, the beauty of the burl wood alone won out.   But there are no losers in this beautiful battle of burls.

The Burl Ives by Tuxedo No. 2

Pairing this box with a wintery cocktail proved incredible easy, which was a huge relief after losing my mind trying to match up those bothersome burls.  Robert Yarger actually gave me the idea, and it was much too good to pass up.  The “Burl Ives” is a modern holiday classic with blended scotch created by the talented team behind Tuxedo No. 2, a cocktail collection.  Evoking the Bobby Burns (that bonnie sip previously paired with another Yarger creation), the Burl Ives adds crème de cacao, a rich and indulgent chocolate liqueur.  History traces chocolate liqueur in some form back to as early as the mid to late 16oo’s. Here I am using Tempis Fugit’s brilliant offering, which is crafted from 19th century French and English recipes. One unique feature of this luscious liqueur is how the cacao is sourced from Venezuela and the vanilla from Mexico, as in the old recipes.  It’s sweet and rich and nuanced in cocktails. In other words, crème de cacao brings the party. In the Burl Ives it creates a wonderful wintry nightcap to savor by the fire, while fiddling, flailing, or finessing this fine puzzle box.  Robert also mentioned that he prefers his Burl Ives with dry vermouth, instead of the original sweet version called for by the recipe.  Either way, have too many of these, and you may be dancing burl-esque.  Cheers!

The holidays came burly this year

The Burl Ives by Tuxedo No. 2

2 oz blended scotch
½ oz sweet vermouth
½ oz creme de cacao
4 dashes angostura bitters
orange peel for garnish

Stir ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with expressed orange peel and enjoy while humming “Silver Bells”.

For more information about Robert Yarger see:


For prior Stickman puzzle box reviews see:

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Pleasant Porters

Now for a taste of Texas.  We’ll continue our winter theme with a treat from the Lone Star State.  West of Houston in the Texas Hill Country resides the Real Ale Brewing Co., an independent outfit which only sells its awesome beer in Texas.  One of the reasons they limit their product sales regionally is to avoid quality issues with shipping over long distances.  I think they could use a little help from this trusty porter of mine, Ronaporthe.  

Ronaporthe by Yoh Kakuda

This handsome fellow is a beast of burden created by Karakuri Creation Group artist Yoh Kakuda, who is known for his magical menagerie of puzzle box designs.  Ronaporthe “is a good worker” who is always carrying his beautiful bags around.  The yosegi design on the saddle bags is particularly pretty here, with five different brightly colored exotic hardwoods featured in an alternating herringbone pattern. There is a lot more movement with this box than you might expect and Ronaporthe nods his approval  as you proceed– he seems glad to be relieved of some of his burden.  I won’t give away any more of the secret mechanism, lest I make an ass of myself.  Suffice it to say this is another beautiful Kakuda creation.

Got baggage?

Lending out this stoic sidekick to the Real Ale Brewing Co., at least this time of year, would actually make some sense.  They produce a seasonal porter which uses fair trade cold brewed coffee from Houston’s own Katz Coffee.  They’ve got to get that coffee from Houston out to the Hill Country somehow, don’t they?  It’s not impossible that they just haven’t considered using a wooden puzzle box donkey – yet. However they do get it there, they put it to really good use.  

The Good Cheer by Casey Barber

Porter is a dark style beer made with brown malt which originated in 1700’s London as a fully mature, strong dark beer which was very popular with the river porters (thus the name).  Stout beer, such as Guinness, developed from extra strong porters (“stout” porter).  Real Ale Brewing Co. adds java to their seasonal porter just prior to bottling and the resulting coffee porter is a popular holiday treat which disappears off the shelves pretty fast.  I’ve used it in a fantastic cocktail called the “Good Cheer” from Casey Barber, who edits “Good. Food. Stories.” online magazine.  She combines a rich coffee porter with amaretto and cherry liqueur for a sweet spin on the after dinner coffee drink.  Of course, the coffee porter is damn tasty all on its own so you really can’t go wrong.  Unload your bags and pop the cap on this night cap for a puzzling good treat. Cheers!

These porters will transport you

The Good Cheer by Casey Barber
1 ½ oz Cherry liqueur (Barber suggests Cherry Heering)
1 ½ oz amaretto
6 oz coffee porter
Fill your glass with ice, add the liqueurs, then pout the beer over top to fill the glass.  Leave your baggage with the porter and enjoy.

For more about Yoh Kakuda see:


For a prior puzzle from Yoh Kakuda see:

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Festive Flannels

Happy Holidays!  This time of year I turn to cold weather comforts in all things cocktail and otherwise.  Therefore over the next few weeks I’ll be featuring some cozy concoctions which go great by the fireside.  Of course we’ll have some beautiful boxes to boot.  Let’s start by brushing off and bundling up with some soft woven fabric which evokes the season – I’m talking about flannel, of course.  Kyoko Hoshino of the Karakuri Creation Group makes her puzzle boxes distinct with her use of cloth and other materials in and on her boxes.  Her “BB” (I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that this stands for “Button Box”) is no exception.  Presented as a Christmas gift a few years ago, the BB is a cute little cubic box with a lid made from magnolia and birch woods.  On top of the lid is a soft plaid square of flannel-like cloth in seasonal stripes of green and red.  The lid is also adorned with a little red leather button sewn to the cloth. 

BB by Kyoko Hoshino

Hoshino promises in her description of the puzzle that “This is an ordinary button. But, a button is a button.”  It’s a perfect description and needs no embellishment.  This one is a bit easier to solve than her Wrapping Box, another seasonal gift themed cloth covered puzzle box of hers which I featured last year around this time, although none of her puzzles are all that difficult.  It is certainly much simpler than Stephen Kirk’s Button Box which I reviewed in the past, not to mention Eric Fuller’s new Small Button Box which I have yet to review.  One thing’s for sure: all of these puzzle makers really know how to press our buttons.

A festive fun-loving flannel friend

I’ve paired Hoshino’s BB with a cozy comfort cocktail known fondly as “The Flannel”.  You probably saw that coming.  I found this modern mix online last year and have no idea who invented it, so there goes all my usual history lessons through cocktail lore.  But wait!  There’s more!  The Flannel appears to be a modified version of The Flannel Shirt, created by celebrity mixologist Jeffrey Morganthaler for the StarChefs Portland Rising Star Awards in 2011 to highlight Highland Park Scotch. 

The Flannel

The original uses scotch, as mentioned, along with Averna amaro and fresh cider.  It’s incredibly delicious, in case you were wondering.  The Flannel (no shirt, which in this case still gets you service) uses cognac, skips the amaro, uses the cider as a syrup and swaps lemon for orange juice.  There’s some tinkering going on here with almost all of the original ingredients but the intent is the same and the result is also an incredibly delicious drink.  Either way, you can’t go wrong.  So stoke the fire, get out your softest flannels and pull up a comfy chair to set your butt-on.  Cheers!

What chilly December looks like in Houston

The Flannel Shirt by Jeffrey Morgenthaler
1 ¾ oz Scotch
1 ½ oz fresh apple cider
½ oz Averna amaro
¼ oz fresh lemon juice
1 tsp rich Demerara syrup
½ tsp St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Shake with ice cubes and strain into old-fashioned glass with cracked ice. Twist an orange peel over the surface of the cocktail and drop in the drink to serve.

The Flannel
1 oz Cognac
.5 oz Apple cider syrup
.25 oz Allspice dram
.25 oz Orange juice
For the apple cider syrup simple reduce by boiling fresh apple cider down to about ¼ volume.  Shake the ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange twist.

For more about Kyoko Hoshino see:

For Stephen Kirk’s Button Box see:


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Business as Usual

There’s a flat little box I keep on my office desk at work.  It sits innocuously at an angle in the corner, minding its own business.  If you look more closely you will notice that it has a lid, with an indented finger hold on each side, where you can conveniently grasp it to take the lid off.  Crafted from walnut, it has dowel joint accents at each corner and a pleasant wax and lacquer finish.  On the lid there are a few grooved lines which complete the simple details.  It’s a handsome desk piece and appears right at home.  Mostly the box remains ignored, biding its time.  Mostly.  Once in a while, however, at the end of a meeting, or an interview, someone will ask for my business card.  And I will smile, nod and reach over to pass them the box.  Of course, the lid won’t come off.

Open for Business by Peter Wiltshire

The “Open for Business” box was created by Peter Wiltshire, a cinematographer who resides in Canada.  Usually busy directing the shots with his massive cameras and video equipment, Peter occasionally turns his considerable talents to woodworking.  He has designed a number of award winning and sought after puzzle boxes over the past few years, and the Open for Business box is his most recent offering which he made for the International Puzzle Party in 2015.  He created the box specifically to hold business cards and designed it to fool the unsuspecting non-puzzler.  This box also has one of the better names out there, and who doesn’t like a clever name?  There are only two moves required to access the cards inside, but they are cleverly hidden and once discovered will bring a smile to your face even if you are a seasoned puzzler.

Just open it for business (cards) ... simple, right?

The name and purpose of this puzzle box got the creative cocktail wheels in my brain turning.  Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to have an “Open for Cocktail” which needed to be “opened” to access it somehow, just like this box.  It couldn’t just be a bottled cocktail, open and pour - that would obviously be much too simple.  The challenge reminded me of another cocktail I once created, which changed from one thing to another over time – I called it a “sequential discovery” cocktail which “solved itself”.  That was the London Calling which celebrated Brian Young’s IPP Grand Prize for the Big Ben puzzle in 2015.  The drink transforms from a Gin and Tonic into a Pimm’s Cup as the ice melts.  Working from that idea, I present the Open for Business cocktail.  It starts out as the classic business person’s drink – the dry martini.  Inside the glass resides a purist’s ratio of mostly gin to a hint of vermouth.  Sitting prominently amidst this impeccable potion is an impressive ice ball.  Even more impressive is the fact that this sphere is not solid, and holds another cocktail inside.  That’s right – a combination of bourbon, lime, ginger beer and bitters are housed inside the hollow ice.  This is a mule variation (as in Moscow mule) which uses bourbon rather than vodka.  It’s often referred to as a Kentucky Mule or a Beacon Mule.  So now we have two cocktails.  But we should make it a true “Businessman’s Special” (three drinks), right?  We’ll have to … drumroll please … Open for Business.  Crack the ice ball and allow the drinks to mingle and you will have another classic from the tiki canon, a cocktail perfect for anyone unfortunate enough to be faced with this bothersome business card box: the Suffering Bastard.

The Open for Business cocktail

The story behind the Suffering Bastard cocktail dates back to World War II when in 1942 Allied and German forces were locked in the battle of El Alamein to determine control of Egypt on the North African continent.  After the long and hard fought defeat of Rommel’s forces by the British Army, Churchill declared the battle to be the turning point in the war for the Allies.  The height of elegance in the capital city of Cairo was the Shepheard Hotel, where officers and the likes of Charles de Gaulle, King Farouk and Churchill himself were known to gather at its Long Bar.  Head barman Joe Scialom invented a strong drink which masked the low quality booze available with limes and ginger beer and dubbed it the “Suffering Bastard” (the Allies were losing at the time).  It proved immensely popular, to the point that Scialom once received a telegram from the front lines requesting he deliver eight gallons to the soldiers right away. Rommel was quoted saying he would be “drinking champagne in the master suite at Shepheard’s soon”.  Perhaps he should have ordered the Suffering Bastard instead.

A Dry Martini plus a Kentucky Mule makes you a Suffering Bastard!

So beware next time you request someone’s business card – they just might present you with the Open for Business puzzle box.  You can politely puzzle your way through it while drinking these three cocktails at once – a martini as you get down to business, a mule since the box stubbornly refuses to open, and as it takes you longer and longer, and the ice in your glass melts, a suffering bastard.  I hope I’m not the only one who thinks this is hysterical.  Cheers!

Time to get down to business!

Open for Business:

1 oz gin
¼ oz Cocchi Americano
1 oz bourbon
½ oz fresh lime juice
¼ oz demerara syrup
2 oz ginger beer
4-5 dashes Angostura bitters

Add the gin and vermouth to a glass.  Combine the bourbon, lime, syrup, ginger beer and bitters, and inject into a prepared hollow ice sphere.  Carefully place the ice sphere into the glass and plug the hole with a twist.  Crack the ice or allow to melt to complete the cocktail.  Serve with the remaining ginger beer to be added as desired.  Take a bow.

For the London Calling sequential discovery cocktail see: 

To see the Open for Business cocktail in action, watch here:

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Locks and Libations

“My brain is the key that sets me free” – Harry Houdini.  Lest anyone try to lock me into being just a “box” man, I’m pairing this week’s potion with a puzzle lock.  I won’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes again by claiming that I’m changing directions and renaming this endeavor “Locks and Libations”, the way I did last April Fools Day with “Twisties and Tonics”.  You wouldn’t believe me anyway.  I’ve featured a few “boxes” which stretched the limits of that definition before, and even started this whole blog with a non-box puzzle (just so I could fall back on that in times like these!).  But I will digress again for just a moment this week to highlight this wonderful puzzle lock from Shane Hales.

The Haleslock 2

Mr. Hales does so from England, where he spends most of his time running his construction company in London.  He is also a master carpenter and joiner, a locksmith, and an ingenious puzzle designer.   In the past he has created an extremely limited series of wooden puzzles which all reside with a few collectors as his personal gift to them.  He has more recently begun giving life to another passion of his, the “puzzle lock”, a curiosity which has been around in various cultures for centuries.  These locks usually appear to be completely normal on the surface, although many are ornate and unusual.  Opening the lock, however, is a puzzle, and the key, if present at all, seldom works as expected.  Many of these locks are wonders of fine machining with intricate mechanisms hidden inside their metal casings. I had the opportunity, thanks to Shane Hales himself, to enjoy his first lock, the “Haleslock 1”, which I featured along with the How? puzzle box (which also has a rather impressive lock) a few months back.  Now I have the pleasure of presenting the next in his series, the “Haleslock 2”.  As a way of saying thanks I am featuring it all by itself this time.

Nope, the keys don't work ...

The Haleslock 2 presents a striking contrast to its predecessor.  The first lock was created from a standard solid brass ABUS padlock and had a single key attached to the shackle by a tamper proof ring.  The key could not reach the keyhole, so that wasn’t very helpful.  Lock #2 is a stout and sturdy (dare I say “Hale” and hearty?) fellow created from a Squire Stronglock of solid laminated steel.  This time there are two different keys secured by a long metal chain with plenty of length to allow the keys to reach the keyhole.  Not that it does any good, so again, that isn’t very helpful.  The little lock is well secured with a double deadlock and bolts all around.  I’m no puzzle lock aficionado and this little gem had me hoodwinked for a while.  It has a particularly nice “A-Ha” moment of discovery which leads you along your way to solving the puzzle and a bit more experimentation (or should I say, lock-picking) will ultimately leave you unlocked.  I’ve heard some say this one is a bit too easy but I found it to be just right.

The Tampered Lock

If this beastly bolt has got you bamboozled you may well need what helps when anything gets stuck – a little lubrication.   An apropos cocktail, called the “Lock Pick”, was originally created with “Larceny” Kentucky bourbon as an ice-tea filled long sipper.  I admit I may have “tampered” with the lock a bit to create this hale riff which (if I do say so) really sets the drink free.  Try one when you need a little liquid libation inspiration.  Thank you, Shane Hales – as I said before, should you be so clever as to tackle this shackle, you will marvel at the brain in Shane.   Cheers!

I'd pick these two locks if I were you

The Tampered Lock:

1 ½ oz bourbon
¾ oz Hum (or other hibiscus) liqueur
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz Earl Grey tea syrup (or substitute Chai syrup for a delicious variation)

Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a tamper proof glass.  Lock down tight before someone else purloins your potion.

For more information about Shane Hales puzzles:

For the previous Hale’s Lock #1 review please see:
How to Hale a Billionaire


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Wish You Were Here

Close your eyes and make a wish.  The world could use some good wishes right now, so this pairing seems timely.  The “Wish Cube” is the product of two friends, two continents and some time to let the wish grow.  Originally slated for the Stickman “Apothecary Chest” project, which I (and many others) have described previously, the Wish Cube was to be one of 12 puzzles inside that massive meta-puzzle box.  Johan Heyns, the main man with the wish, decided the original design wasn’t up to snuff for that project and let it lapse but never really let it go.  As fate would have it, Johan, who hails from South Africa, had a visit from his friend Jack Krijnen, a mathematically minded puzzle master from the Netherlands who is known for designing incredibly complicated, high level interlocking puzzles.  They revisited the Wish design together, and the puzzle box was finally born anew.

The Wish Cube by Johan Heyns and Jack Krijnen

The Wish Cube is many things.  It starts out as a puzzle box, with a secret drawer that unlocks via a very satisfying and symmetrical series of movements.  This first step, which requires 26 moves, was perfected by Jack Krijnen to be far more complex, rhythmic and elegant.  Once you discover the initial moves required it becomes easy to understand and predict the next steps.  It really is a satisfying set of movements, and the crowning touch is that you must go back to the beginning to get to the end.  It’s quite lovely.  The many colorful blocks of wood which compose the box (made of Mansonia, Pau Marfim and Rhodesian Teak) make the sequence discovery incredibly fun as you press and prod around the box.  Inside the drawer is a pentomino packing puzzle, with a 3x4x5 shape and 3940 possible configurations! Keeping the pieces in place is a stabilizing stick of Tambotie, which Johan describes as “an indigenous wood to South Africa which has a lovely spicy aroma.”  After removing the drawer, the 14 sliding (burr) pieces can be removed with another 29 moves, and finally the entire frame can be disassembled into 24 separate pieces.  Whew! What a wonderful puzzle – it’s a wish come true.

Stunning South African Exotic Wood

The Wish Cube will likely enter the puzzle box history books, due to its designer provenance, complexity, beauty and rarity.  So here’s an apropos toast with a cocktail originally created for the Smithsonian’s “Raise a Glass to History” gala, which celebrated the bicentennial of a famous American flag.  The “A Wish for Grace” is a modern classic from mixologist Steven Liles of San Francisco’s landmark rum paradise, Smuggler’s Cove.  It’s named after Grace Wisher, the 13 year-old indentured African American servant who helped Mary Pickersgill sew the Great Garrison Flag in 1813, which is better known as the “Star-Spangled Banner” – the flag which inspired the U.S. National Anthem and now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  The cocktail features a New England style pot still rum and Madeira which would have been prominent and popular at that time in history.  History never tasted so good.  It’s particularly poignant right now to recall this historic symbol of the freedom that America has stood and fought for throughout its history.  So close your eyes, raise your glass, and make a wish, wherever you may be in the world.  Here’s hoping all your wishes come true.  Cheers! 

A Wish for Grace by Steven Liles

A Wish for Grace by Steven Liles:

1 ½ oz New England style amber rum
¾ oz Blandy’s 5 Yr Verdelho Medeira
½ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz rich simple syrup
2 dashes aromatic bitters

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a lemon twist.

Puzzle box, puzzle bright, solving you will take all night
I wish I may, I wish I might, have this cocktail ease my plight.

Nota Bene: Johan Heyns made two early prototypes of the Wish Cube.  The original was sized to fit as an Apothecary Box drawer (its original intention), and a second prototype of similar design was made as a larger working copy to help develop the more complex final product.  There were only 15 final copies of the Wish Cube ever made.  Johan will be placing the original two prototypes up for auction in the near future,

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Socratic Method

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates.  I don’t know what he was talking about, which makes me extremely knowledgeable on the subject.  Famous for his “Socratic Method” of bringing about learning and understanding through perceptive, deductive questioning, Socrates has become a historical symbol for logical reasoning.  “What does this have to do with a puzzle box?” Puzzle boxes utilize a logical sequence of movements. “What is the purpose of a box?” To hold something inside.  “How does one begin to enable this purpose?” By opening the lid. “And what is the purpose of the lid?” To open and close, of course. “How does one open a lid?” Simply by lifting it up or off.  “If the lid on a box does not open as expected, it does not follow its purpose. Is this logical?” Umm, no?  Ahhh Socrates, you clever rogue, trapping me in my own argument.  

Illogical Box by Robert Yarger

This brings me to the “Illogical Box” by Robert Yarger, who recognizes that, of course, puzzle boxes are not logical.  Although we could continue our Socratic discussion along the lines that the purpose of a puzzle box is in fact to be illogical, in that it should not open as expected, at least insofar as it appears to be a non-puzzle box.  This argument circles around to suggest that being illogical is in fact logical, for a puzzle box.  If you’re still with me, you might appreciate the brilliance of Mr. Yarger’s design for his “Illogical Box”, which embraces all of these arguments at once.  Crafted from wenge, cherry, and walnut, with maple and ebony inlays, this beautiful square box features strange decorative symbols all around and includes four triangular pieces which attach magnetically to the sides and top.  There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason to the dots, grooves, lines and holes which adorn the box and triangular attachments.  They appear, for all intents and purposes, to be an illogical assortment of details.  Indeed, they are, and by embracing that line of “reasoning” you may well deduce the logic behind them.  For this illogical box requires a logic all its own to yield its secrets.  It’s no secret, however, that this is yet another of Mr. Yarger’s brilliant and beautiful designs.  The triangular tiles are keys which must be properly placed to unlock one section of the box at a time.  With 180 possible combinations, it would be illogical to imagine solving this by chance.  Rather, deducing the cryptic cipher would be the logical thing to do. 

Where's the logic here?

Socrates was also known to enjoy a good cocktail, believe it or not.  I personally have seen the French painter David’s famous tribute to the great Greek, in which Socrates is holding aloft his delicious cocktail, about to savor the first sip.  I’m not too sure why the painting is called “The Death of Socrates”, but you know these neoclassical painters, so dramatic all the time.  Anyway, I’m sure it was tasty.  (What, too soon for a hemlock joke? It was 2400 years ago, for goodness sake.)  I think we’ll pass on the poison as we ponder this pensive puzzle pairing.  Luckily, the logic in this one is obvious.  

Socrates surrounded by his philosophers

The “Socrates” cocktail appeared in Australian mixologist, journalist and author Jane Rocca’s 2005 book, “The Cocktail – 200 Fabulous Drinks”.  Some modifications to it have occurred since, such as swapping in Canadian whisky and Cointreau, and changing the proportions, so feel free to argue for your own philosophy on how to best perfect this recipe, or why it might have been named after our erstwhile Athenian. I don’t propose to know, which again, makes me wise, right?  In other words (those of the “modern” day philosopher Mark Twain), “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  Of course, apparently, Twain never said that.  Cheers!  

The logical conclusion

Socrates (as originally published by Jane Rocca)

2 oz Scotch whiskey
1 oz apricot brandy
1 tsp triple sec
1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients well with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with intellect, wit and well-reasoned arguments – although the garnish is debatable.

For more about Robert Yarger see:


For prior Robert Yarger puzzles see:

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Separation Anxiety

One of the charming things about most Japanese puzzle boxes is that in general, they are usually not very difficult to solve.   They provide just enough mystery to be entertaining but not frustrating.  There is great pleasure in discovering the secret mechanism, and these boxes indulge that feeling by providing the right amount of deception to keep you guessing briefly and then rewarding you. They are like puzzle box candy. Naturally, if this is the expectation, there is always the exception, at least with Japanese puzzle boxes.  Eric Fuller is not Japanese, so these rules don’t apply to him – he prefers to make the exception the rule.  Which is to say, he delights in making his puzzle boxes extremely difficult to open.  And of course, we puzzle box partisans rejoice.   

The Spline Box 3 by Eric Fuller

One of his design concepts involves the wood joinery detail known as a “spline”.  These accents can provide stability and strength to joints or simply add a decorative touch.  He has created a few puzzle boxes which incorporate these details in different ways.  Each is a wooden cube adorned with splines at each corner.  The “Spline Box 3”, the third in the series, has been a notoriously difficult puzzle to open.  I spent about a year and a half working on it, off and on, with no luck, convinced that it no longer functioned properly (damned Houston humidity), until very recently it finally yielded up its secrets (humidity be damned).  I had even deduced correctly how it worked and what was required, but even so, a year and a half.  There are plenty of collectors out there who have never opened their copy.  The mechanism is so specific, and the woodworking so precise, that the solution will elude you if you are even a fraction off the mark.  Eric envisioned it would be this way, and perhaps he succeeded better than he imagined.  I believe people have even sent their box back to him thinking it must be defective, only to have him send it back, assuring them that he opened it just fine, and that they are merely deficient.  I added that last part – now that I have opened mine I can poke fun at other people.  So if you really want to torture yourself, give the Spline Box 3 a try.  Just be sure to have a few Japanese puzzle boxes handy to ease your nerves now and then.

Gratuitous interior photo with no spoilers - it really does open!!

This puzzle was so difficult to open, and took so long, you might say it gave me some serious “separation anxiety”.  It tested my motto that “a good cocktail isn’t puzzling, but a good puzzle might just make you need one”.  So let’s indulge that sentiment, shall we?  This time of year is great for bourbon and autumn flavors.  The Lion’s Tail is a perfect classic cocktail for the season.  It features allspice liqueur (also called "pimento dram", because allspice is the dried berry of the pimenta dioica tree, not because it has anything to do with red peppers, of course, but I digress) which evokes flavors of allspice, cinnamon, clove and cardamom in a rum base.  Delicious but potent - a little goes a long way.  Add that to bourbon and lime for a very satisfying sip which first appeared in the "Cafe Royal Cocktail Book" by William J. Tarling in 1937.  To "twist the lion's tail" was to act particularly "British", suggesting this cocktail was the result of a prohibition era London-based expatriate, or so the prevailing theory goes.  

The "Separation Anxiety"

With the Spline 3 taunting us, rather than allspice liqueur, I substituted Besamim, an unusual spirit which is infused with a mixture of similar spice flavors including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.  Besamim (which means “spice”) is associated with the “Havdalah” ceremony which symbolizes “separation” – the word Havdalah translates as “separation”.  How could I not use a liqueur which symbolizes "separation" in a puzzle paired cocktail?  Besamim liqueur is made by the same artisanal distillery (Sukkah Hill Spirits) which created Etrog liqueur, another very unusual flavor that I featured in the Harvest Highball.  Let this Lion's Tail variation, which I call the “Separation Anxiety” cocktail, calm your nerves as you attempt to separate the Spline Box 3, or any other of Eric Fuller’s devious designs! Cheers!

True to my motto, this puzzle deserves its own cocktail

Separation Anxiety: 

2 oz bourbon
½ oz Besamim liqueur (or use Allspice dram)
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz demerara syrup
2 Dashes Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Extremely frustrating puzzle box optional.

For Eric Fuller’s website see:

For prior Eric Fuller puzzles see:

For more information about Sukkah Hill Spirits see:

For the Harvest Highball see:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Harvest Hijinks

I love autumn.  As if you couldn’t tell already, with all the recent autumn themed puzzles and cocktails featured here the past few weeks.   I’ve even been stretching my repertoire a bit with some autumn themed cocktail creations of my own, such as the Autumn Daze and the Waterfall (paired with some seriously amazing puzzle boxes).  We haven’t exactly broken out the sweaters yet here in Houston, but there’s a chill in the air for sure. So here’s one more for good measure, which incorporates the holiday Sukkot as well.  What’s that, you say?  The “Festival of Booths” comes around this time of year to celebrate the harvest season.  Reminiscent of the harvester’s hut, which was set out in the fields of yore during the season, a sukkah is a little outdoor shelter where you can rest, eat, and look at the stars. You’ll also find a strange citrus fruit there called an etrog, or citron. This ancient Mediterranean fruit looks like a fat wrinkled lemon and has an intense citrus and violet fragrance – cocktails, anyone?  

Secret Box House

It turns out that a small distillery in Los Angeles has actually created an Etrog liqueur, which is so unusual that I literally decided to create an entire box and booze pairing around it.  Starting with the cocktail, I thought about other fruit flavors of this seasonal holiday, which include apples, pears, figs, grapes and pomegranates.    Pomegranate equals grenadine, of course, and I’ll use any excuse to break out the apple brandy (or Applejack).  So here’s the “Harvest Highball”, made with Applejack, Etrog, and a fig-pomegranate grenadine.  It’s pretty tasty.

Harvest Highball

Now we need a little hut under which to imbibe this bountiful beverage.  It’s not exactly a hut, I admit, but it is a really cute little house.  It might even be made out of palm, myrtle and willow woods, who knows?  Those are the symbolic branches of Sukkot, by the way, in case anyone wants to make a puzzle box out of them.  The “Secret Box House” was created by the master craftsmen in Hakone, Japan, the cradle of yosegi marquetry woodwork and origin of the “himitsu-bako”, or secret box.  The house is adorned with incredible yosegi details, including the bricks of the house, the chimney, and the shingles on the roof.  Of course, to truly appreciate the beauty of the season we need to be able to see the stars from our hut.  On this little house, it will take 12 secret moves to accomplish that task, and every adorable detail of the house must be used.  There’s a front door, a few windows, a tiny chimney – it’s going to take a bit of home improvement to open the sky light, but you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.  This is a really enjoyable little puzzle box, with plenty of tricks to keep you guessing packed into a charming shape.  So turn on Cannonball Adderly’s “Autumn Leaves” and get up to some harvest hijinks yourself as well.  Cheers!

This cozy couple are ready for the autumn

Harvest Highball
1 ½ Laird’s Applejack
¾ oz fresh lime juice
¾ oz fig grenadine
½ oz Etrog liqueuer (Sukkah Hill Spirits)
3-6 oz club soda to taste
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir all ingredients over ice and enjoy while listening to Autumn Leaves.

For more information about Sukkah Hill Spirits:

For more information about Japanese yosegi marquetry see:

For more information about Applejack see:


For a prior cocktail with grenadine see:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Complimentary Condimentaries

The deviously puzzling Sandfield brothers, Robert and Norman, designed their Salt and Pepper Shakers to exchange at IPP 22 held in Antwerp in 2002.  Like so many of their puzzle designs, the salt and pepper shakers feature impossible dovetails on each end.  They were expertly crafted from oak and walnut by their friend and long-time Sandfield collaborator Perry McDaniel, whose precision expertise is easily seen in this pair of what I have dubbed, “complimentary condimentaries”.  The brothers Sandfield are well known for their “puzzler’s puzzles”, which second guess what many “puzzle experts” would normally try in their attempts to find the solution.  They lay traps which have absolutely nothing to do with solving the puzzles, and thoroughly enjoy when people fall into them.  The salt and pepper shakers were just such a trap which they set for well “seasoned” puzzlers during the exchange. As the story goes, they each went round, exchanging their puzzles separately, to give the illusion that they were independent.  At least they made sure that everyone who got one puzzle, also got the other.  But many fell into the trap, and never realized that in order to open either the salt or the pepper shaker, you need both together. 

Salt and Pepper Shakers by Norman and Robert Sandfield

The shakers are often considered to be one of their greatest designs. They are a “sequential discovery” type puzzle, with the added wrinkle of being interdependent, so that an item or “tool” discovered in one shaker may very well be needed for a step on the other shaker.  They are also perfectly elegant in the way that nothing is wasted in the design, everything has an exact purpose and use, and there is at least one rather beautiful, unique movement which is unforgettable and brilliantly executed.  When every last discovery and compartment is revealed, you do indeed find a bit of salt and some pepper secreted away in two tiny compartments (they are technically puzzle boxes, according to my very broad definition) – but I wouldn’t use these as your go-to table side seasonings.  Unless you like to let your food get cold!

For the "seasoned" puzzler ...

I’ve been playing around with salt and pepper in cocktails as well, so this provided a nice excuse to make a few more.  Salt and pepper in cocktails is nothing new – you are probably familiar with a salted rim on your margarita, or fresh black pepper in your bloody mary.  But these ingredients have been finding their way into all sorts of cocktails as more prominent players over the last few years.  A true cocktail, dating back to the origins of the concept, should always be properly “seasoned”. What distinguished the cocktail of yore from otherwise ordinary booze was the combination of the spirit with sugar and “bitters”, those medicinal elixirs made of bits of bark, spices and seasonings.  Bitters are literally referred to as the “salt and pepper” of cocktails, even though they are usually far more complex.  

Passing Cars by Yours Truly

Let’s keep it simple (not really) and focus on just the salt and the pepper, shall we?
For the salt cocktail, I present one of my own creations, the “Passing Cars”.  This savory and satisfying solution is created with a base of gin created in the “old style”.  Ransom distillery teamed up with cocktail historian David Wondrich to recreate the type of gin found in the mid 1800’s, pre-prohibition cocktail heyday.  Standout features of this gin are a maltiness due to a base wort of malted barley and the infusion of botanicals in corn spirits, which is then aged in barrels – sounds a bit like bourbon, no? This unusual gin is then combined with lemon juice, Cynar (an artichoke(!) based Italian Amaro) and parsley syrup and finished off with, of course, a salt water solution. 

For the pepper cocktail, I borrowed a smoky, peaty and peppery scotch creation from New York’s Up and Up bar.  Inspired by the “Rob Roy” (previously featured here), creator Matt Piacentini describes how his “Peat’s Dragon” flaunts a “super concentrated” black pepper tincture amid a mix of Cutty Sark Prohibition and Talisker 10-year-old scotches, Lillet Blanc, Dolin dry vermouth and Grand Marnier.

Peat's Dragon by Matt Piacentini

So next time you reach for the salt and pepper shaker, it just might be for your cocktail! And don’t blame me if you find this all very puzzling – I blame the Sandfields.  Here’s to savoring the well-seasoned diversions in all our lives.  Cheers!

"Cocktail - Shakers"

Peat’s Dragon adapted from Matt Piacentini (The Up&Up, NYC)

1 oz Cutty Sark Prohibition whisky (I used High West Campfire Whiskey)
½ oz Talisker 10-year whisky (I used Compass Box Peat Monster)
½ oz Lillet Blanc (I used Cocchi Americano)
½ oz Dolin dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat)
½ oz Grand Marnier (I used Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao)
¼ oz black peppercorn tincture

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.

*Black pepper tincture: Steep 4 oz of black peppercorns, then add in a blender with 1 liter of Everclear. Strain through a cheesecloth, and cut with equal parts water.


Passing Cars:

1 ½ oz Ransom Old Tom Gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz Cynar
½ oz parsley syrup*
Few dashes of salt water solution

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a sprig of parsley.


*Parsley syrup: Bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to gentle boil.  Remove from heat and add a few bunches of parsley.  Steep for 5 minutes then strain out parsley before bottling.

For more Sandfield creations see: