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: