Saturday, April 22, 2017

Pyramid Scheme

Here at Boxes and Booze we seldom get boxed in, and certainly not into a corner.  Take a standard cube, for example, with its six faces, eight vertices and twelve edges.  If we cut off all the corners, we have an entirely different object – a cube octahedron or a vector equilibrium, to name a few names.  The inherent “cube-ness” of the object remains, though, depending on how you slice it, and the six “sides” that make up this cube take on their own interesting polyhedral shapes.  So it’s not much of a stretch (is it?) to consider a perfect pentagonal  dodecahedron which is named “Pyramid”.  What I mean is, consider the dodecahedron – a polyhedron with twelve perfect pentagonal faces (and twenty vertices and thirty edges).  It would be possible, depending on how you sliced it, to reveal the inherent “cube-ness” in such an object.  Just imagine an actual cube sitting perfectly inside the docdecahedron.  Now separate each piece of the dodecahedron along the planes of the cube faces.  Slide one of the sections off entirely and you will be holding a pyramid.

Pyramid Box by Hideaki Kawashima

The Pyramid Box by Hideaki Kawashima represents a full circle of craft, creation, invention, reflection, and recreation by this Karakuri Creation Group artist.  His very first puzzle box for the group was the “Regular dodecahedron box”, consisting of six turning sides built in the shape of a dodecahedron, with a minimum of six moves required to open.  It took over 8 years and over thirty puzzle box designs for him to develop the skills and insight to finally create the box he had originally envisioned.  Pyramid box is that achievement, an homage to his first box and a realization of his vision.  The mechanism for Pyramid is identical to his POD box, which takes its name from the design on its surface plates.  This was so that no hint was given from the name itself.  That concept is taken even further in the Pyramid version, which does away with any visual clues on the puzzle itself as well.  Pyramid is elegant, brilliant, extremely challenging and so easy to get lost in as you navigate the many moves needed for it to open.  It is a masterwork of design, a worthy compliment to this artist’s achievements, and a fitting tribute to his beginnings.  You might say it’s his apex.  His capstone.  His pinnacle.  Or the top of his pyramid.

Twelve pentagons ... or six pyramids?

 From Kawashima’s golden pyramid we head back in time to the second half of the nineteenth century, when gold discovered in San Francisco created a mad rush to the west coast in search of more.   Panning was hard, dirty and dangerous work, which called for a well-earned beverage at the end of a hot day (or at the beginning, too, I’m sure).  Everyone headed to the legendary Bank Exchange bar, situated where the Transamerica pyramid building now stands, for its world renowned Pisco Punch.  Pisco, a type of funky clear brandy, had been brought up from South America by Peruvian and Chilean prospectors, and found glory in the tightly held, secret recipe for the punch made famous at the Bank Exchange.  The bar’s owners took the recipe to their graves, but the bar manager eventually revealed it, and the California Historical Society published it in 1973.   

Pyramid Punch by Simon Difford

In Rudyard Kipling's 1889 epic From Sea to Sea, he immortalized Pisco Punch as being "compounded of the shavings of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters".  Indeed.  The spirits writer Simon Difford, who started the very first spirits trade journal, “CLASS” in the late 1990’s, created this variation of the classic in 2006, which he called “Pyramid Punch” in reference to the site of the former Bank Exchange bar where Pisco Punch was born.  Here’s to striking gold, celebrating the present with a nod to the past, and finding the peaks on the pyramid of life.  Cheers!

These pyramids pack a punch

Pyramid Punch by Simon Difford

2 oz pisco (BarSol Mosto Verde Italia)
1 oz elderflower liqueur (St. Germain)
2 oz fresh pressed pineapple juice
½ oz fresh grapefruit juice
2 cloves

Muddle cloves in a mixing tin. Shake together with all other ingredients and ice to chill, strain into a tall glass.  Pineapple garnish.  Enjoy with a mouth guard if you can’t take a punch.

For more about Hideaki Kawashima see:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

What's Knot to Love?

This is not a typical box and booze review.  I should actually say that this is knot.  First of all, I’m going to take us back in history to the ancient Greeks and the time of Alexander the Great.  Second of all, I’m going to cut through all that nonsense with a mighty stroke of the pen.  Just go with it, it will all make sense in a moment.

Gordian Knot by Robert Yarger and Rick Jenkins

The legend of the Gordian Knot dates back to ancient Macedonia, when a prophecy telling of a man driving an oxcart into the capital city of Phrygia came true and Gordia became king.  His son, Midas (a touchy fellow), offered the famed oxcart to the god Zeus in gratitude and secured it in the town square with an intricate, complicated knot which could never be untied.  The rope was made from Cornel bark of the Cornelian cherry tree, a flowering species of dogwood which produces little red fruits.  In 333 B.C., Alexander of Macedonia, the great conqueror of ancient Greece, entered the city of Gordium and learned of the prophesy that whoever could unravel the knot was destined to rule all of Asia.  Truth be told, he could not untie it, but he had better idea.  The “Alexandrian Solution” ensued, whereby he cleaved the great knot in two with a swift stroke of his sword.

Beautiful interwoven strands of exotic wood

Fast forward two thousand plus years and we have the “Yarger Solution”, which definitely frowns upon the use of any sharp object to untie this knot.  The Gordian Knot is Number 22 in the Stickman puzzlebox series, and like its legendary ancestor, has cords of wood which wrap around the box in an intricately interwoven pattern.  The inspiration for this box came from the idea of making a sliding tile puzzle which literally wrapped itself all around the sides of a box and was not merely limited to a single flat surface.  Add to that the interlocking nature of these 130 intertwined pieces, crafted from leftover bits of exotic wood from prior puzzle boxes, and you have the visually stunning and deceptively difficult Gordian Knot puzzlebox.  There are a minimum of 36 steps to discover along the way, including a few pieces which are released completely from the box as it untangles itself.  Most moves are quite difficult to determine and may be found on another side of the box entirely from the move prior.  Some moves are incredibly well disguised due to the shape of the piece, or the solver’s (misguided) expectations. Eventually, if you are as wise as Alexander, a keyhole will be revealed.  Ah, but where is the key? It’s likely that you have it already, waiting to be reconfigured from the pieces you have removed off of the box.  The finale of this box, which is a true joy to solve up to this point already, is absolutely outstanding. The Gordian Knot is one of the most satisfying puzzle boxes I have experienced and is easily one of my all time favorites from Robert Yarger.

The Alexandrian Solution

For such a special box I have an equally special toast which also hearkens back to ancient days.  The cornelian cherry tree, whose bark was used to make the original Gordian Knot, produces little red berries as mentioned.  The flavor of this fruit has been described as a cross between cranberry and sour cherry.  Of course, there is a long history of using this fruit in the making of various regional liqueurs and spirits in parts of the Middle East and Europe.  For example, “kornelkirsch” is found in the Austrian and German Alps.  Since it’s not readily available in the US, I created my own cornel berry kirsch by infusing cranberry liqueur with sour amarena cherries.  Mmmmmm. Not content with just the delicious liqueur, I created a variation of a classic cocktail called “The Last Word”.  The history of this pre-prohibition era drink places it as early as 1916, where it was featured for 35 cents as the most expensive cocktail on the menu at the Detroit Athletic Club.  The Last Word is a perfectly balanced cocktail using equal portions of gin, green Chartreuse,  maraschino liqueur and lime juice.  There are literally hundreds of variations using this basic template, although not all are as perfect.  I love the combination of smoky mezcal with cherries, so in my version, “The Alexandrian Solution”, mezcal meets cornel kirsch and the rest is history.  Cheers!

It's the Last Word in Macedonian Cocktails ...

The Alexandrian Solution

¾ oz mezcal
¾ oz sour cherry infused cranberry liqueur
¾ oz green Chartreuse
¾ oz fresh lime juice

Shake together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Commence dispensing with complex problems brilliantly.

Complexity knotwithstanding, these solutions are elegant

For more about Robert Yarger:

For prior Stickman puzzles see:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

What Has Life Tortoise?

It’s sakura (cherry blossom) season and the lovely pink blossoms are resplendent across Japan and in Washington DC here in the US.  The blossoms call to mind the beauty and magic in the world, as does this charming puzzle box from Yoh Kakuda of the Karakuri Creation Group.  Kakuda is known for creating whimsical and nostalgic pieces which take the form of animals and evoke an emotional sentimentality.  “POH” is a giant tortoise with a prominent shell and a bemused expression.  Kakuda has created a few versions of POH, including this one with a striking yosegi checkered pattern on the shell created by yosegi artist Yuta Shimizu.  The details are lovely, including the colorful checkered shell and the green hued wood used for POH’s body.  There’s a lot more to POH than meets the eye.  There are a few nice tricks which are required to open the shell, but the story of Poh is the most interesting of all.

POH by Yoh Kakuda

The Japanese novelist Shinji Ishii published his first book, Once Upon a Swing, in 2000.  In that novel, there is another story, written by one of the main characters when he was four years old. This story in a story is called “Typhoon”, and is about a fisherman who braves a storm, only to survive and live alone after his entire village is wiped out.  It’s fatalistic and alarming, and surreal as part of the larger story.  It’s hard to believe it was written by a four year old child, but this is a fictional story, after all.  Amazingly, it actually was written, exactly as published, by Shinji Ishii when he was four years old.  He has been writing this way since he could write.  His style has been described as “Gabriel García Márquez and a splash [of] John Irving and Roald Dahl under the direction of Tim Burton”.1

What lessons have you learned, Poh?

In addition to the fable-like quality and emotional sweep of his novels, Ishii tries to remove time from his stories, so that someone living hundreds of years from now, or hundreds of years in the past, could understand and enjoy them equally.  “The Story of Po” (Po No Hanashi) was published in 2005 and is set in an unnamed town in an unnamed land.  One day, one of the “eel-women” who work along the river bank collecting eels from the river, notices something lumpy in the water.  She pulls it out and realizes it is connected to her by a cord – she has just given birth to it!  Doves take flight shouting “Peauuuuux! Peauuuuux!” and all the eel-women name the baby “Poh”.  The story follows Poh on his life journey.  He initially learns lessons of guilt, atonement, right and wrong in the little village, and is then swept down the river by a flood.  He lands in a fishing village and befriends a kind man named “Doggone Old” who cares for a sick grandchild and has a dog named “Child”.  Here, Poh learns the meaning of life.  The novel traces the life themes of love and loss, and of correcting the mistakes we make along the way.

Doggone Old Fashioned

Hopefully this brief glimpse into the world of Shinji Ishii and the Story of Po has given you new insight into this lovely, evocative piece by Yoh Kakuda, and into the stories which inspire Kakuda’s charming works of art.  To continue the theme I’ve paired POH with a special Japanese themed twist on the classic Old Fashioned cocktail.  The Old Fashioned is essentially the original cocktail, an American invention from the early 1800’s. The first description appeared in an 1806 newspaper describing a “cocktail” as a combination of spirits, bitters, water and sugar.  It was finally referred to as the “Old Fashioned” in 1881 at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky.  Nowadays, a proper “classic” Old Fashioned has bourbon, ice, and a bitters soaked sugar cube, just like the original.  

Doggone it, this is delicious

For the “Doggone Old Fashioned”, this special Japanese themed version named after another character from the Story of Po, I’ve used an exquisite Japanese whisky, the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve.  The Yamazaki was named best whisky in the world in 2015. For the sugar I created a special Umeshu Plum Wine syrup which is incredibly delicious.  The bitters are replaced with cherry blossom oil essence, aromatized across the top of the glass. One sip and you’ll be transported directly to Tokyo.  Here’s to the timeless beauty of life and all its lessons.  Kampai!

A timeless pair

Doggone Old Fashioned

2 oz Yamazaki whisky
¼ oz umeshu plum wine syrup
Cherry blossom essence

In a mixing glass, stir the whiskey and syrup with ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass with a large cube. Spray the cherry blossom oil over the drink or add a few drops directly.  Enjoy while contemplating the meaning of life.

Special thanks to Hideaki Kawashima who helped me track down the Story of Poh.

For more about Yoh Kakuda:
For prior puzzles by Yoh Kakuda:

For prior variation of the Old Fashioned:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Roll with it

Happy April, everyone! I can’t believe it has been a year already since I foolishly dabbled in the twisty arts and mentioned I was changing the name of this blog to “Twisties and Tonics”.  That was a fun pairing, Oskar’s Treasure chest (puzzle box hiding inside a Rubik’s Cube) with an “apple martini” which was actually nothing of the sort.  I’m all through with fooling around now. This year’s pairing of potion and puzzle is strictly professional.  Promise.

Roll Box by Fumio Tsuburai

I’d actually like to talk about an original Karakuri Creation Group craftsman with a long history in the group, whose work I have never featured before.  Fumio Tsuburai has been crafting his unusual boxes since the start of the group back in 2000 and has 35 pieces in his portfolio.  He mentions that he has worked in electronics, machinery and painting as well as woodcraft, and brings those skills to his creations.  He also tries to balance his ability to incorporate “high tech” in his puzzles with the understanding that “low tech” may be more calming to the soul.  

Lovely contrasting wood details

This balance can be seen in one of his earlier puzzles, the “Roll Box”.  At first glance, it appears to be a handsomely made chest with a wooden-hinged lid, locked shut at the front.  There is a prominent bar on the front decorated in a contrasting, directional wood pattern which seems to be telling you something.  Indeed this is a sliding bar with a little keyhole.  Next you quickly realize that something is rolling around inside the box – a ball of some sort - and now the name of the box makes sense.  There is a calm, almost meditative sense which overtakes you as you gently roll the ball back and forth.  Of course, none of this rolling seems to make the lid open.  Don't let that frustrate you - I say just roll with it.

Meditate on the soothing sounds of the Roll Box

I’d also like to roll back in history for the potion to pair with this puzzle.  The weather is getting warmer, especially in Houston, and one of the all-time classic beat the heat cocktails is the Gin Rickey.  Often thought of as the official drink of Washington DC, the Rickey recalls a time in American politics when disputes and deals were settled at the bar, and no issue was so partisan it couldn’t be resolved over a few friendly drinks and a handshake.  To cool things off both figuratively and literally, a base spirit such as bourbon or gin was often diluted in an ice cold tall glass filled with seltzer – a classic “highball”. 

The Gin Rickey c. 1883

“Colonel” Joe Rickey was a well known lobbyist and campaign strategist in the late 1800’s.  His favorite watering hole and the place to politic was Shoomaker’s bar next to the National Theater.  It was there at “Shoo’s” that Rickey invented his famous drink, in 1883, with rye whiskey, lime juice and soda, although soon after the drink became more famous with gin.  Rickey even went on to buy Shoomaker's bar in the 1890s, which has since been demolished.  The drink stands the test of time as a refreshing, cool gin and tonic alternative for those sweltering days in the swamp. Perhaps Washington should order a few now – seems everyone could use a drink.  Here’s to the Rickey, rolling up our sleeves, and having a good old fashioned sense of humor. Cheers!

"Dry Rye" gin captures the original flavors quite well

Gin Rickey circa 1883

2 oz London Dry gin (I used St. George’s Dry Rye gin to capture the spirit of the original as well)
¾ oz fresh lime
Soda water

Combine the gin and lime juice in an ice filled highball glass.  Add the soda water and stir. Garnish with a wedge of lime and let the good times roll.

Rickey Roll ... cheers! 

For more information about Fumio Tsuburai:

For last year's Twisties and Tonics amusement see:
Feeling Foolish

For a peek at the creation of this citrus peel garnish see:
Boxes and Booze Unboxed: The "Shoomaker"

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Unconventionally Dimensionally

I hope the boxes and booze creations I present each week are full of life.  I try to paint a picture of them as they appear in real life, with backgrounds, stories, and details. I make an effort to infuse them with tangible edges, colors, flavors and feeling.  I’d hate to think they came across as two-dimensional … or would I?

Two-dimensional Secret Box by Hiroshi Iwahara

 One of the Japanese Karakuri Creation Group artists who has delighted in pushing the boundaries of what is possible is Hiroshi Iwahara.  He created the “Two-dimensional Secret Box” for an exhibition with the theme “Two”.   Not satisfied to merely select a pair, or a double of some sort, such as with Kakuda’s “Two Traps” for that same exhibit,  Iwahara delved into dimensional space.  How could a three-dimensional object reflect a two-dimensional one?  Or in fact how could a two-dimensional object be represented in three?  He notes that a truly two-dimensional object would have no inner space, which would defeat the purpose of a puzzle box.  Yet a classic three-dimensional puzzle box is clearly not two-dimensional.  He expertly plays with this concept and captures it just right, in this brilliant box.  He has transformed the classic yosegi covered Japanese puzzle box onto this flattened surface to create a two-dimensional / three-dimensional hybrid.  The result is elegant, surprising and fun, and well worth spending some of the fourth dimension.

Beautiful yosegi box ... er, hexagon

I’ve paired this dimension defying delight with the “Take Two” by Tyson Buhler from Death and Company.  The drink is a variation on the classic daiquiri, which I have extolled time and again.  This one combines a nicely aged rum with lime juice, cane syrup, a touch of absinthe, and “Bergerac Mix”, which deserves some explaining.  Bergerac Mix began life with a novelty name dreamed up by another Death and Company team member, Brad Farran.  He wanted to create a cocktail called “Cynaro De Bergerac” which used the artichoke based Italian amaro, Cynar, and a rich red wine from France’s Bergerac region.  To these two ingredients he added Black Strap rum and Demerara syrup, which became known as “Bergerac Mix”.  

Take Two by Tyson Buhler

The Cynaro De Bergerac cocktail which uses this mix is delicious and full of flair – you might even say it has “panache”.  The mix was too tasty to be limited to one specialty cocktail, so Buhler included it in his daiquiri drink for a second take.  The resulting Take Two is full of richly satisfying layered flavors which absolutely pop in three-dimensions.  Here’s to surprising depths, interdimensional secrets, new perspectives and double-takes.  Cheers!

So good you might need to take more than one

Take Two by Tyson Buhler

1 oz aged rum (Ron Del Barrilito 3-Star)
1 oz Bergerac Mix (equal parts Cynar, Bergerac red wine, Black Strap rum and Demerera syrup)
1 dash absinthe (Vieux Pontarlier)
¾ oz lime juice
½ oz cane sugar syrup

Shake well with ice and strain into a favorite three-dimensional vessel.  Garnish with lime.

Seeing double ... twice

For more information about Hiroshi Iwahara:

For more daiquiri variations see:

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Tolkien of Appreciation

 “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R.Tolkien

I started this little adventure on a whim, thinking it might be a nice way to share my puzzle box collection with others who also enjoy that sort of thing, and to write about cocktails and cocktail history, another hobby of mine.  It was admittedly an odd combination, and probably ended up alienating many enthusiasts from both groups (those who prefer boxes, and those who prefer booze).  But there are quite a few similarities between these groups.  Both puzzle box and cocktail enthusiasts love to know all about the fine ingredients that go into the making – the exact types of exotic woods or specialty liqueurs used.  They like to know the history and provenance of the creations.  They like the obscure, the fragile, the limited or extinct.  They celebrate the creators, the inventors, and look to old books to point out that something had its roots long before or is based on a historical design.  They marvel at new creations, using techniques never before seen, and enjoy awarding prizes for the best in class.  It turns out, I haven’t met a puzzle box collector who doesn’t like a good drink, now and then, or a mixologist who wasn’t at least intrigued by one of my puzzle boxes.

There’s also the Japanese connection.  The puzzle box was invented in Japan and the cocktail in America, but there is a rich and distinct heritage of cocktails in Japan, where the drinks are made with acute precision and attention to detail, much like a traditional tea ceremony.  There is a specific method to everything – how the ice is added, how the shaker is maneuvered, how many times the drink is stirred.  Stepping into a Japanese cocktail bar is like stepping back in time, and new ideas pay homage to the old, just like the work of the new wave of Japanese puzzle box artisans.

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

I decided to write about these things, with some of my time, and now find that time has taken me to my one-hundredth puzzle and potion pairing.  For this milestone I offer something special, a tribute to a literary hero of mine whose writing inspired me in my youth and whose messages continue to live on.

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.” _ J.R.R.Tolkien

One Ring Box by Kim Klobucher

I recently acquired the perfect puzzle box for this tribute, from an elusive designer whose work is highly sought after and sadly scarce.  His occasional releases sell out immediately.  Kim Klobucher crafts his beautiful boxes in Washington state on Bainbridge Island from a myriad of exotic hardwoods, brass and other materials.  Each typically appears as a patchwork quilt of colors forming a cube or rectangular box and is often adorned with decorative brass or stone inlay.  The boxes rely on an internal pin and groove system which allows the sides and pieces to slide in a maze-like configuration.  Some are incredibly complex, requiring a mind boggling number of moves to open, such as his 3546 move box.  Some tell a story as they open.  When providing the solution to his puzzles, Kim originally would indicate the sequence of moves by piece number, with many numbers repeating over and over.  He developed the idea to assign letters to each piece instead, and then went further to design the puzzles so the letters would actually spell out a phrase in sequence based on the order of the moves needed – a “solution phrase”.  These phrases then became the name of each puzzle.  He has designed these for friends, or couples, based on their names, as well as for other specific phrases.  For example, he once created a puzzle called “antidisestablishmentarianism” which required 28 moves to open – one for each letter in the phrase.  Pieces are assigned two different letters each, indicating the back and forth direction of the piece’s movement.  

In case of emergency, break glass ...

He also appears to have a fondness for The Lord of the Rings, as do I.  His “One Ring Box” has now fallen into my hands, and I find it to be … precious.   Crafted from ziricote, maple, kingwood, canary wood, jatoba, black limba, and brass inlay with gaboon ebony, the box is stunning and elegant.  It has a lustrous shine and polish and emits a dangerous calling which lures the feeble minded.  If you heed the call, and deduce the solution phrase, you will eventually be met with a tantalizing view of the One Ring, faintly inscribed with its nefarious message: “One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”  The ring sits protected behind glass, still unreachable.  Continue the solution and find a way to release the ring from its protection – or is it you who needs protecting?
Isildur's Bane ...

“It's the job that's never started as takes longest to finish.” – J. R.R.Tolkien

Luckily we have started, and just need one more item to complete this celebration – a special cocktail, of course.  Don’t doubt for a moment that there are more Lord of the Rings cocktail creations out there to choose from than you could ever drink – maybe a hobbit could, but now is the age of men and women.  Perhaps a pint of Barlimans Best ale, a barrel of Lake-town’s finest wine or a flagon of Dwarvish mead might hit the spot?  I’ve put together something slightly more sinister and integrally linked to the One Ring, based on the classic Americano cocktail.  In the late 1800’s in Milan, Gaspare Campari, the creator of the celebrated vibrant Italian aperitif, served a combination of his namesake Campari with sweet vermouth from Torino.  The “Milano-Torino” cocktail was such a huge hit with American tourists that in the 1920’s the drink was renamed the “Americano”.  James Bond even ordered one in his debut Casino Royale, before a different drink took his fancy. I’ve created a special version using a saffron-infused Cocchi Aperitivo Americano (a fortified Moscato wine flavored with cinchona, citrus, spices and botanicals) and a saffron-infused ice sphere for extra effect.  The resulting “Eye of Saffron” cocktail, reminiscent of the Eye of Sauron, might just lure you in, too – you won’t be able to take your eye off it until it consumes your soul.  Or you consume it, one of those, anyway.

Americano with a saffron-infused vermouth

100 boxes and 100 cocktails - it’s a satisfying milestone.  I am thankful for everyone who has taken the time to read my writings. I’m afraid there’s plenty more to go, so perhaps you will stay with me on the continued journey forward.  I hope so!  In fellowship and friendship, this One’s for you.  Cheers.

“Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.”
- J.R.R.Tolkien

The Eye of Saffron

The Eye of Saffron

1 ½ oz Campari
1 ½ oz saffron-infused Cocchi Americano
Club soda
Saffron ice ball

Combine the Campari and Cocchi in a mixing glass and stir well with ice. Strain into a glass containing the special ice ball, top with club soda and enjoy.  Ring of power optional.

Tolkiens of my affection

For more about Kim Klobucher’s KCubes:

For prior Campari cocktails see: 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Playing with Fire

Things are really heating up at Boxes and Booze headquarters.  The kindling is ready, the wood and whiskey set out.  Yes, it’s getting warmer here in Houston, but the rain has been putting a damper on that. Looks like we’ll need something to help get it all started … does anyone have a match?

Stickman No. 29 (Matchbox)

Ahhh, I found one.  Here’s a beautiful little matchbook which should help.  It looks like it’s been crafted from gorgeous exotic hardwoods, including redheart, yellowheart, wenge and maple. The matchsticks tucked away inside are also very pretty, painstakingly carved from purpleheart , walnut and maple.  There seems to be another compartment, secretly hidden away inside, but it’s so tricky to access.  A few parts of the matchbox move and slide, sometimes, and sometimes they don’t …. I wish I knew what was going on here, it’s all very tricky and I just need a match.

Exquisite detail and a baffling secret

The Stickman Matchbox (No.29) is a really lovely creation by Robert Yarger, the puzzle box artisan and master woodworker from Edmond, Oklahoma.  The interplay between the sliding components in the box has an irregular and odd logic and determining the proper sequence of moves is anything but easy.  To create this logic Robert needed an irregularly shaped internal component which would have been difficult, fragile and expensive or impossible to manufacture from wood.  For the first time in one of his designs he used a 3D printed plastic part for this instead, which hides inside and is never seen.  At one time he felt that 3D printing for complex internal parts might open up a world of new possibilities and allow the incredible ideas in his mind to become reality. The matchbox would be just the spark of flame which would get it all ignited.  This may be an idea ahead of its time right now, but time will tell, as it always does.

Tinder Box by Chris Frankel

The fire is getting started thanks to the wood … perhaps we should add a little whiskey now to stoke the flames higher.  A well matched cocktail conflagration is this classically styled whiskey stunner from Houston’s Chris Frankel, who created it for Spare Key, his bartender’s choice little gem which showcased his creative talents during its brief but brilliant lifespan in midtown.  Named for a private joke about the social media dating app, his “Tinder Box” proved immensely popular at his bar.  Combining bourbon, Bual Madeira, Pimm’s #1, maraschino liqueur and orange biters, the Tinder Box is a seriously savory sipper which might just light your fire. Here’s to fanning the flames of inspiration.  Cheers!

Go on, swipe right ...

Tinder Box by Chris Frankel
1 ½  oz bourbon
¼ oz maraschino liqueur
¾ oz Bual Madeira
½ oz Pimm’s #1
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a lemon peel and get the fire started.

A match made in Houston

Fire and love different as night is to day
But none the less….
Both consume and may warm a being
Or leave one with nothing but ashes   
 -  Patricia Gale

For more information about Robert Yarger:

For prior puzzles by Robert Yarger:

For other cocktails by Chris Frankel see:
Key Secrets (with a tribute to Randal Gatewood)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inside Out

I’m feeling very close to everyone lately, so I’m going to really open up.  You might even say I’m going to turn my insides out to you.  I’ve written a lot about traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, and their typical opening movements.  Traditional Japanese puzzle boxes have sliding panels on the sides which are manipulated in sequence to open the top.  Some boxes also have “kuniki”, or embedded sliding bars within the side panels as well.  Imagine if all of these typical mechanisms were somehow inverted and placed inside, rather than outside, the box…. 

Byways Secret 3 by Hiroshi Iwahara

One of the most prolific and creative modern puzzle box artists from the Karakuri Creation Group, Hiroshi Iwahara, decided he would turn the tradition inside out with his “Byways Secret” box set.  I’ve also written about traditional Japanese marquetry and the technique of creating paper thin veneers by planing blocks of multicolored wood arranged into geometric shapes, known as yosegi.  The technique and tradition from the Hakone region of Japan goes back a thousand years.  The distinctive artwork can be seen covering all manner of wooden hand crafts from Japan, including traditional puzzle boxes.  Not satisfied to stop after merely turning the traditional puzzle box mechanisms inside out, Iwahara (whose name literally translates as “rock field”) decided to include the decorative element as well in his third Byways Box. On the outside, the box appears plain, with no detail at all. But the inside of the box is another story.  Exquisite yosegi work lines the inner chambers.  It is truly, incredibly, inside-out, and marks the culmination of the artist’s ideas about this concept, including a complex series of 21 inside-out steps needed to access the second secret chamber. 

This box is inside-out!

Although they are known as the “byways” boxes, the name is likely imperfectly translated. The Japanese character “ura” translates roughly as “back” – as in “backwards” box, which may be closer to the intended name in Japanese.   Iwahara also suggested an alternate name for the third box in the set, which he called the “wrong side secret”.  However they are named, these unconventional boxes secretly turn tradition inside-out.

The Inside Job by Jared Schubert

I’ve selected an apropos cocktail to toast these clever creations.  The “Inside Job” is a bold bourbon sipper which was created to promote Heaven Hill Brands Larceny Bourbon by Louisville mixologist Jared Schubert.  Playing off the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac classics, the Inside Job adds maraschino (cherry) liqueur to the mix.  As in an Old Fashioned, the bourbon is sweetened with a bit of sugar and in this case, the cherry liqueur lends a new layer of flavor. The touch of absinthe also gives just a hint of extra complexity to the drink, as with a Sazerac.  It’s an elegant, spirit forward and bold cocktail with a nice balance. Enjoy it neat or with a large chunk of ice to chill it – or perhaps we should turn things inside-out?  I’ve inverted the format in homage to the backwards secret box, and placed the cocktail inside the ice – in this case, a hollowed out ice sphere.  I think this is the way the Inside Job was always meant to be served.  Here’s to turning tradition inside-out, flipping the script, and beholding the beauty on the inside.  Cheers!

Something good on the inside

The Inside Job

2 oz bourbon (originally Larceny)
¼ oz maraschino liqueur
½ oz simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash absinthe

Stir together with ice and strain into a favorite glass (or turn things inside out!). Garnish with orange and a brandied cherry.

This set is inside-out!

For more information about Hiroshi Iwahara:

For prior Iwahara puzzles see:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Top Shelf

We’re celebrating a few luminaries this week at boxes and booze. Going all the way back to the origins of the Karakuri Creation Group, we have another puzzle box by the legendary Japanese artist Akio Kamei. In the early 1980’s Kamei began creating his unusual style of puzzle boxes, which pushed the boundaries of what had been done by the classically trained artisans for the past century. His designs often reflect the everyday form and function of common objects, with opening mechanisms which rely on how these objects would naturally be utilized in real life.  The results showcase his virtuoso skill as a woodworker and his clever mechanical mind.  

Top Box 3 by Akio Kamei

One of his earliest original designs was the “Top Box”, which he created in 1983.  This unassuming box was merely a square wooden box with a top – a two toned lid which would not come off. The top box was revolutionary in its design and mechanism, the likes of which had never before been seen.  Kamei said of his creation, “You can’t imagine the movement, because [it] has a common shape. If you can’t understand how to open it, you’ll never open it, even by chance.” He goes even further to say that trial and error won’t help – to open it requires “a flash of genius”. Over the years Kamei recreated a few of his boxes as “popular” editions.  In this case, Top Box 3, released in 2001, was a smaller version of the original (Top Box 2 was a companion to number 1, with a completely different opening mechanism).  Like the original, Top Box 3 is a square box with a lid, crafted in contrasting light and dark walnut and shina woods. It resembles a little “candy jar”, which is the name it was given in a subsequent mass produced reproduction run by the “Bits and Pieces” company.  There are a few classic moves which all puzzlers usually attempt when trying to open a new box. We have the Top Box to thank for one of those moves – his “flash of genius” remains as brilliant today and reminds us why he is the "top” man.

How do you open the top?!?

To toast this Top Box I need to take you on a little journey back to the turn of the twentieth century, when cocktails were still in their original, pre-prohibition heyday.  Harry Johnson, a legendary barman of historic significance, is cited as the inventor of the Bijou, a thoroughly modern creation at that time which first appeared in Johnson’s 1900 edition of his Bartender’s Manual.  Swanky clientele who frequented the posh hotel bars of New York and Boston wanted sophisticated European flavors, and the Bijou provided with Italian vermouth and herbal Chartreuse combined with gin and a dash of orange bitters. Johnson was quite literally expanding the “color palette” of his cocktails in appearance and flavors, and created the Bijou to reflect these new tastes with three “gems”: gin for diamonds, sweet vermouth for rubies, and green Chartreuse for emeralds. He named it the Bijou, which is French for “jewel”.  The drink was immensely popular at the time and might be considered the “cosmopolitan” of the day.  

The Tailspin circa 1930

A very similar cocktail (practically identical) emerged a few decades later, named the “Tailspin”.  It first appears (as far as one can tell) in the 1936 edition of Mr. Boston’s DeLuxe Official Bartender’s Guide, and was essentially the Bijou with a different name.  This nonsense went on for some time, but eventually the Tailspin distinguished itself with the addition of a little Campari.  Two more luminaries merit mention ere we’re through with this tale.  Dale DeGroff, known fondly as “King Cocktail”, resurrected the Bijou in the 1980’s, around the time that Akio Kamei was creating his Top Box, for the newly reopened Rainbow Room in New York City, where the modern cocktail renaissance was reborn.  Not to be outdone, his friend and fellow vintage cocktail fanatic, Robert Hess, ensured the Tailspin’s survival with a contemporary spin – a rinse of Campari in the glass prior to adding the other ingredients.  Thus both classics survive today.  Here’s to new spins on old designs and keeping our passions on top – cheers!

A couple of classics


1 oz dry gin
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz green Chartreuse
1 barspoon Campari
Lemon peel

Coat a favorite glass with the Campari.  Stir the gin, vermouth and Chartreuse with ice and strain into the glass.  Express the lemon peel over the drink and garnish.

For more about Akio Kamei:

For prior Kamei puzzles see:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fangs Alot

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  An old saying which means, of course, appreciate what you were given, don’t be rude, be polite, say thank you.  Don’t pry open that old mare’s jaw and confirm your suspicion that this lovely looking stallion may not be what it appears – at least not right in front of the giver.  For example, let’s just suppose, hypothetically speaking, that you are thrilled and excited to have received an exclusive hand crafted wooden box from a puzzle maker who only makes a few of each design and only gives them to lucky recipients as gifts. It would be very rude, don’t you think, to appear anything but thankful, even if, hypothetically speaking, you have this nagging, sinking suspicion that maybe, just possibly, you aren’t completely, exactly “lucky” – maybe that wouldn’t necessarily be the perfect word. But it would be impolite to look that gift horse in the mouth, I know. In the case of the “Viper”, a new box from Shane Hales, you can’t really look inside anyway – he’s gone and covered the openings with a brush curtain which blocks the view.  

Viper by Shane Hales

Viper is an unassuming little rectangular box with a hole in each end and a dark provenance which forces one to contemplate the depths of one’s own puzzle psychology. How badly do you really need to solve this?  Why not just leave it alone? Haven’t you heard about the prior lives this has claimed?  But it seems so gentle, a little box with some holes. What could be the harm? Of course, the holes are covered, so you can’t see inside.  There’s some notion that something opens, but there’s nothing to be done outside the box besides rattle whatever it is inside making the noise. Doing this seems to upset the Viper, which makes a sort of hissing sound at this point. Definitely not an inviting sort of situation which would make you particularly excited about sticking your body parts into the holes, although this seems to be the direction things are going. The only other really good option is to leave the puzzle sitting out for your spouse and let her take the bait – unfortunately she’s not interested in puzzles. Hmmm, what about the children? Yes, they’re resilient, and not paying rent … Not a bad idea, but what if one of them died? She would never forgive you. 

Face the dark hole of destiny

Damn it, ultimately there’s nothing left to do but follow Shane’s hale advice (see what I did there?) and stick your fingers inside the holes. He points this out in the letter which accompanies the box. In fact he says that you have to stick your fingers in the box, and that you should stop being a wimp. Yes, but of course he’s going to say that – he wants you to suffer! Perhaps I should have taken the “caution”, “live cargo” and “this end up” warning stickers on the international packaging more seriously.  But I’m so trusting.  At least I’ve lived to tell the tale. So none of you has to suffer the same bloody finger fate.  Unless you’re all fools. Beware. What’s worse, Shane leaves an extra surprise inside “to help” you – only, it’s an empty, empty promise.  I’m typing with one hand, by the way. Shane. So now it’s my turn to get you back. I’m curious to know why you seem to be obsessed with sticking things into dark holes, hmmm? Yes, you say you were inspired by Stephen Chin’s Mouse House, or at least you hint at it, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say something scandalous. You got stuck in a Chinese finger torture toy as a child, didn’t you?

Lest you forget your tormentor

Bravery rewards you and eventually, after losing a few fingers and some other pointy bits, you might even manage to open this dangerously clever puzzle box. You probably could use a drink, and possibly a transfusion.  I took some inspiration for this toast from a classic concoction called the Snakebite, which you may know is half lager, half hard cider.  Go ahead and pour yourself one of those while I get some bandages.  

The Viper

There’s also a lesser known Snakebite combination of honey whiskey plus Rose’s lime cordial which is served as a shot in finer establishments.  I turned that into a bona fide cocktail, using bourbon and honey-lime cordial.  I added a splash of blood orange juice for good measure (it was actual blood the first time I made it, thank you Shane).  I call it, the Viper.  It’s dangerously delicious.  Here’s to clever bastards, crafty craftsmen, dangerous delights, and bloody good gifts.  Thank you Shane, I raise my glass to you (with 3 fingers). Cheers!

This pair is bloody good 

The Viper
2 oz bourbon
1/2 oz honey-lime cordial
¾ oz fresh lime juice
1/4 of blood orange juice
Orange peel viper garnish

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Twirl the viper around the glass and hang the head over the side.  Blood (orange) drops for extra gruesome effect.

For more about Shane Hales:

For prior Halespuzzles reviews: