Saturday, July 4, 2020

Over a Barrel

Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 2
"Over a Barrel"

Barrel and Ball by John Berkeley for Donay

Small wooden household and domestic objects were referred to as “treen” in the nineteenth century and earlier, a word derived literally from “of a tree”. Tableware, plates, bowls, snuff boxes, needle cases, handles and the like were all “treen”, created mostly through carving and turning techniques. Small treen containers shaped like barrels with simple lids were quite popular and commonly made to hold all manner of things such as tobacco, string or other knick knacks. 

African Blackwood with Boxwood stopper

It’s no wonder that a treen barrel which did not open simply, as expected, would be an amusing diversion in those days. The Barrel and Ball Puzzle, described by Hoffman (1893), was one of the most recognizable and original puzzles of the Victorian era, consisting of a typically appearing treen barrel with a ball inside. The object was, of course, to get the ball out.

Rosewood with Ebony stopper

When Donald Goddard met John Berkeley, it was the start of something special. Appropriately enough, the first Hoffman puzzle that Donald requested from John was the Barrel and Ball.  He sent a photo of a vintage piece, and John reproduced it in a number of beautiful woods. Boxwood is a typical light tan wood that is easy to turn, and what most treen objects were made from in the nineteenth century, but John used African Blackwood in most of the barrels he made. These were dark and lustrous, and had light colored boxwood stoppers that came out of the top of the barrels. People tended to lose the stoppers, so in later versions, he added an internal screw to the end of the stopper on the inside of the barrel, so they couldn’t fall out. 

Miniature in Pink Ivory with Ebony stopper

Another project that Donald and John embarked upon was a series of miniatures. They intended to reproduce twelve of the Hoffman puzzles in tiny versions, but in 2003 Donald sadly died before some of their ideas were complete. Nonetheless, John did finish some tiny barrels, the nicest of which were done in Pink Ivory wood.

Barrel Aged Spiced Negroni

I thought that a “barrel-aged” cocktail would be appropriate to pair with these puzzles. Barrel aging should be a fairly familiar concept to most people, since even people who don’t drink alcohol have often heard about how wine or spirits are typically stored and aged. The process of placing wine or spirits into a wooden barrel is fairly straightforward and can easily be understood in historical context for storage and transport purposes (the earliest vessels for wine were made of clay). However the chemical process of barrel aging is highly scientific and interesting. Barrel aging slowly imparts oxygen, adds flavor, aroma and finish, and reduces the harsh ethanol content over time, resulting in smoother and more desirable characteristics. Depending on the spirit, there may be rules in play as well for barrel aging. For example, bourbon is by law only supposed to be aged in newly charred American Oak barrels. These are then used to age and flavor other spirits after, like cognac, sherry, or even wine.

Like so many things, it gets better with age

Barrel aging cocktails is another creative way to change the flavor and texture of a drink. There are plenty of examples of technically barrel aged cocktails in the archives, such as the “Swedish Punsch” mixture of Batavia Arak mixed with tea and spices that Swedish merchants would enjoy on the long sea journey home in the seventeenth century. But the modern concept of a barrel aged cocktail can be traced to Jeff Morgenthaler, the creative force behind many modern classics cocktails. He took an idea he saw in 2010 at a high concept bar in London, and modified it in a truly American way. The result, his Clyde Common barrel aged Negroni, was an instant success and ignited a global trend. I’ve created a spiced Negroni, adding a touch of ginger liqueur and allspice dram to the mix, and aging it for about 3 weeks to let things soften. Small barrels for home creativity will age drinks faster so you don’t have to wait as long. There’s also nothing quite as convenient as a premade cocktail. Class dismissed – cheers!

Having a ball with these barrels

Barrel Aged Spiced Negroni

(For a 750 ml barrel)
200 ml Bombay Sapphire or other juniper forward gin
200 ml Aperol amaro
200 ml Cocchi di Torino vermouth
 50 ml Barrows Intense or other ginger liqueur
25 ml Besamim or other aromatic spiced liqueur such as allspice dram

Pour all ingredients into a cured oak barrel and wait approximately 3 weeks before decanting to a clean bottle. Enjoy over ice.

For Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 1:
Heir Appearent

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Heir Appearent

Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 1
"The Heir Appearent"

The Donay Pear (She Oak) by John Berkeley

We’re taking a sabbatical abroad this summer at Boxes and Booze to visit England and shine the spotlight on a very special wood turner named John Berkeley. Many will know his work as the best modern example of Victorian era wood turned puzzles. The original creations, produced in England in the late 1800’s, were marvels of lathe wood turning and featured finely carved “hand-chased” threads, hidden layers, and other secret devices. They required exceptional skill to create but sadly the original artists took no public credit. We know about these puzzles thanks to an English lawyer and avid magician who published a number of books on magic and one seminal work on puzzles of the day. “Professor Louis Hoffman” was the nom de plume and stage name of Angelo John Lewis, (1839 – 1919) who disguised his identity to protect his daily law practice, perhaps surmising that people might not want a lawyer who was also well practiced in the deceptive arts. His compendium “Puzzles Old and New”, F. Warne & Co., 1893, cataloged most of the known puzzles of the 1890’s London Victoria era, and remains the definitive source for these historical items today.

More than meets the eye - three separate compartments with unique locking mechanisms

John Berkeley tried his hand at many trades before finding his true calling later in life. He was a farm laborer, an insurance agent, a Police Constable, and a salesman of many things, including electronics, cigars, tobacco, pipes, fancy goods, jewelry, and even baby chicks. Eventually he settled as a restorer of metal antiques, which is where our story really begins. He was asked by a friend, who had a vintage cribbage board which was missing its pieces, if he could make a set of crib pegs for it out of bone. John’s outlook on life is that “if you do not know you cannot do something, then you probably can” so he took up the challenge. These lathe turned bone pegs led him to working with wood, which he found much more versatile and beautiful. At some point fate and a friend led him to a little antique game shop along the Camden Passage in Islington called “Donay”, where he discovered many vintage cribbage boards in need of sets of pegs. The owners, Donald Goddard and his wife Carol, were delighted to find someone with this skill. A year of cribbage peg making led to chess pieces (“can you make them?” I didn’t know that I couldn’t, so, “Yes, of course”), and one day, to a question about cutting threads in wood.

What's this Napoleonic coin doing inside a Victorian puzzle?

Donald Goddard, an antiques puzzle and games dealer, of course knew all about Professor Hoffman’s catalog of Victorian puzzles, and had already worked with a wood turner named Bob Jones (one of Berkeley's mentors) to re-create some classic Cannons. In John Berkeley, he found the artisan he had been searching for all along. When John said, “Of course I can” to the question of cutting threads in wood (which he had of course only read about) Donald sent him a photo of a Hoffman puzzle. The perfectly turned puzzle John created led to an initial series of six vintage puzzle reproductions, which led to an entire set of twenty-four, all based on photographs of original Victorian era creations that were compiled by collector Edward Hordern in his updated and revised edition of Hoffman’s classic book. 

Extra credit for the Jubilee Penny

These exceptional hand made puzzles were produced by John in various exotic hardwood upgrades (which would have been unavailable in Hoffman’s time) and marketed under the label “Donay Hoffman Puzzles”. After the set of Hoffman puzzles was complete, they undertook another project – creating a series of novel wood turned puzzles in the style of Hoffman but of their own design, to add to the “canon”. Donald Goddard would suggest the ideas, and John Berkeley would “turn” them over in his mind and figure out how to bring the ideas to life in wood. Their first effort, the Donay Apple, won an honorable mention at the inaugural International Puzzle Design Competition in Tokyo, Japan, 2001 and cemented John’s reputation as the world’s “master turner”.

The Spotlight by Jeff Lyons

A follow up to the Apple was another fruit, the Donay Pear. One hundred Apples were made, but only a very few Pears were ever created. These fruit puzzles were actually three puzzles in one, using classic Hoffman era puzzle mechanisms in new ways (and one that Donald and John invented) to create three distinct chambers which hold little vintage coins. John went through many iterations and shapes for the pear before settling on the final version. He relates that “most other turner’s pears were shaped like a light bulb rather than a pear. My first attempt … was only a little less like one. I eventually modeled mine on a Rocha pear, which involved quite a bit of carving and great care to allow space for everything inside.” The pear’s internal mechanics were also refined over a number of attempts. Initial prototypes included a maze-like opening for the two halves, which later evolved into a simpler gravity pin design. Those familiar with the Hoffman “Invisible gift” puzzle would have found something similar in an early prototype, which later changed to a device that Donald and John devised themselves. Finally the spinning bottom chamber initially used a restrictive “washer” system that John ultimately replaced with a brilliant ball-bearing mechanism. The production Pears were made from Ebony (which featured a silver stem) or Pink Ivory (with an Ebony stem). John also loved to use lustrous She Oak wood for his puzzles, and made a single Pear in this wood as his final pre-production piece, identical to the others except for the unique wood.

A drink that pears nicely

Shining the spotlight on this master artisan has never tasted so good. Here’s a wonderful drink with which to toast one of his masterpieces from San Francisco Bay area bartender Jeff Lyons. It has the prerequisite pear ingredient, in this case in the form of a potent pear brandy from Clear Creek Distillery. The pear brandy is a modifier here, however, meant to offset the base of very dry Manzanilla sherry. Rounding it all out is a little sweetener, provided by spicy ginger liqueur, and finally the perfect balance is achieved with a few dashes of savory bitters. It’s an elegant cocktail for an elegant piece of puzzle history. Class dismissed - Cheers!

Almost a full house

The Spotlight by Jeff Lyons

2 oz Manzanilla sherry
½ oz pear brandy
½ oz ginger liqueur
2 dashes celery bitters
Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass over a large cube. Garnish with a thin slice of fresh pear.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Beware the Stare

There’s a fantastic origin story behind this award winning puzzle maker (it's appropriate that he has an origin story, given his almost supernatural abilities). American artist Lee Krasnow, who hails from the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest, relates that when he was around twelve years old he watched a Sixties era movie called “The Village of the Damned”. It’s a campy sci-fi thriller featuring a strange cohort of Aryan-esque children from a remote town, all born on the same day, who have eyes that glow brightly as they harness their strange powers of mind control. “Beware the Stare”, warns the movie trailer, or it might spell your doom. But what Krasnow found most interesting in this movie was a brief scene depicting a Japanese sliding puzzle box opening to reveal a hidden drawer. He played this scene back, over and over on his VHS tape, reverse engineering it until he had worked out a way to create one for himself. Talk about powers of mind control.

Clutch Box by Lee Krasnow

Lee has come a long way from the humble box he made when he was twelve. He is renown in the puzzle world for the impeccable precision he can achieve in his wood craft. Interlocking puzzles simply feel different if pieces are off by as much as one thousandth of an inch, and creating things with that degree of perfection is what Lee enjoys most about puzzle making. He also has a mathematical mind, which lends itself to designing brilliant puzzles like the Barcode Burr, which won an honorable mention at the 4th Annual International Puzzle Design Competition in 2004. But I’d like to talk about the puzzle box he created the year before that, when he was just starting out as a new puzzle maker, which won the coveted Puzzler’s Award, and became one of the most sought after puzzle boxes of all time. It’s a little box to hold onto rather tightly - perhaps you might even be inclined to “clutch” it.

spalted tamarindo, palisander rosewood, olivewood, koa and copper

The origins of the Clutch Box go back to the beginning of 2003, when collector and wood crafting hobbyist Dave Rossetti expressed an observation to Lee about a certain type of mechanism that many puzzles shared, and noted that there really wasn't anything he knew of that used the very opposite concept. Lee turned that spark of an idea over in his mind, and it eventually evolved into the central locking mechanism of the Clutch Box. Another component of the final box came from an idea Lee got after admiring a particularly rare puzzle box from Japanese artist and Karakuri Creation Group master Yoshiyuki Ninomiya. In fact, all puzzle boxes owe a debt to the Japanese masters who originated the art, but it’s particularly nice that this one has a direct link to one of the greats. The initial run of three boxes Lee made had hinged lids. The boxes have a beautiful stellate pattern in contrasting exotic woods on each side that is distinct from the main body of the cube, and on the very first box this pattern was applied on every side. On subsequent boxes, Lee decided to highlight the lid by creating a swirling spiral of the inlayed wood on that side, as if he had twisted the stellate pattern at the center. Lee relates that this was a bit of a “flex” at the time, some bravado showmanship of his meticulous and enviable woodworking skills. He was submitting these boxes for the International Puzzle Design competition, after all. Over time, along with age, he has developed enough satisfaction with his own reputation that he no longer feels this is necessary. In fact he prefers the perfect symmetry of having all sides the same, which also makes the puzzle just a bit more difficult.

Golden Handcuffs by Stuart Humphries

Lee made a few more changes to the design of the second and third box as well (besides the spiral lid pattern), including one suggested by Nick Baxter, which better protects certain components while simultaneously making other things easier to manipulate. It’s quite possible that Lee would have continued to make changes and additions to the box, but he was rushing to complete the project in time for the competition, and he also had to vacate his overpriced workspace and move to a new location among the redwoods of Santa Cruz. Another story for another time tells the tale of how the Barcode Burr came to be invented in that new workshop due to a chance observation. After Lee had resettled, he produced six more copies of a third iteration to the Clutch Box design which saw the hinged lid gone, replaced by one that can be removed completely, allowing for a larger internal space. The puzzle has a simple elegance to it, with three distinct phases that complement each other perfectly. Once the central mechanism had been perfected, Lee added the additional components in order to seemlessly hide each subsequent step. The initial secret is well hidden, clever, and unique, and is really only there to disguise the next step (the homage to Ninomiya), which is there to disguise the next (the namesake mechanism). I could say he did an admirable job of this, creating a scarce set of very beautiful boxes with a wonderful sequence of secrets, but I don’t have to say anything – the Puzzler’s Award really says it all.

A little one-two punsch

Here’s a toast to the Clutch Box, a drink I’ve been waiting to have for a long time. I’m sure Lee would approve – he knows how to enjoy a classic cocktail seasoned with a dash or two of fine bitters. This one comes from Houston native and local cocktail star Stuart Humphries, who got his start at Anvil Bar and Refuge, and has worked at notable bar programs here including Pass and Provision, Tongue Cut Sparrow, and Rosie Cannonball. During his time as head bartender at the now defunct Pass and Provisions, he created this delicious riff on a rum Negroni (or Manhattan - it’s rather hard to classify this drink, and it doesn’t really matter), using Plantation’s fabulous pineapple rum as the base spirit, and the soft amaro Aperol in place of a vermouth. For even more complexity, he turned to Swedish Punsch, itself a complex mix of spirits. Swedish Punsch originated in the 1600’s, when Indonesian rum known as Arak was commonly imported from Batavia (Jakarta) by sea merchants. The Swedish traders were fond of mixing the savory rum with other flavors of the Indies, such as dark sugar, tea and Java spices, into a “punsch” they would enjoy on the long sea trips back home. The punch became a social pastime and eventually a national obsession which found its way into many of the old classic cocktails. The modern day version, recreated by Swedish master blender Henrik Facile, is a blend of Batavia Arak with Demerara and Jamaican rums and spices. Like one of the classics of old that utilized this evocative historical spirit, Humphries modern take captures the essence in a way that will keep you coming back for one more sip. It’s definitely worth holding onto. Cheers!

A pair I'd like to clutch

Golden Handcuffs by Stuart Humphries
1 oz Plantation Pineapple Rum
1 oz Aperol
½ oz Swedish punsch
1 dash Angostura bitters
Garnish: Aleppo dusted orange wheel (or a namesake lemon twist)

For more from Lee Krasnow:

N.B. Special thanks to Lee Krasnow for his insights and reminiscence on the history of this special puzzle box. For those interested, keep an eye on Lee's Etsy shop and Instagram for future puzzles and plans Lee has been working on ... the Clutch Box might just be on the horizon.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Monkeying Around

“The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his behind.” – General Joseph Stilwell

Feed the Monkey by Two Brass Monkeys

Fresh off the heels of the most recent non-box brass puzzle (Felix Ure’s Hip-Flask) we’ve got another (NBBP) gem to occupy the long summer days. Well, the dynamic duo behind Two Brass Monkeys are at it again, climbing even higher it seems, and we are certainly getting an interesting view. Their latest offering has generated a decent amount of buzz, mostly thanks to the creative packaging they invented for this clever and very tricky packing puzzle. Ali Morris and Steve Nicholls have produced yet another fantastic diversion, this time in the shape of a rectangular cuboid, with a black oxidized aluminum body (blasted, acid etched, polyester powder coated) handsomely capped in brass on each end (fondly referred to as the head and bum). The puzzle fits neatly in the hand and has a very solid weight to it. The object is to pack sixteen brass rods inside flush; the catch is that the final rod is twice as long and won’t go all the way in once the other pieces are in place. No matter how hard you try. Lets just say this is one fussy monkey.

Go on, feed the monkey

This is one provocative puzzle. Granted, it looks handsome and is made with extremely high quality, as we have come to expect from this highly rated company. Like many of the variations for the puzzle theme that Ali and Steve came up with and discarded, I cycled through a number of choices before ending up with “highly rated company”. In the end they settled on a monkey, whose perpetual pucker will forever be filled with brass bananas. That’s allottalliteration. A few further details deserve mention here. These puzzles come wrapped up in a large silicone zip up banana. Which you can use for other things once you own it. Steve Nicholls has a long list of ideas he will be happy to share on this subject, feel free to reach out to him. But be careful, because Steve also has a large database of puzzle collector preferences now on the subject of what gender monkey they preferred to stuff bananas into, and why. So if you might be in that database, you might not want to provoke him. Personally I think Steve and Ali are fantastic people, kind, generous, good looking and brilliant.

Chow Chika Bow Wow

I’m toasting this amazing anthropoid with an absolutely delicious cocktail that has a fantastic name. What’s in a name? If you know, you know. Of course there had to be bananas in it, because I don’t monkey around with the drinks. It’s important to use a good banana liqueur, or homemade, because bad banana liqueur is just bad. This is a great tropical summer drink, full of zesty citrus, sweet almond syrup and spicy ginger all wrapped around a nicely aged rum. You wouldn’t be bananas for loving it.  Cheers!

You'll go bananas over this one

Chow Chika Bow Wow, Wu Chow, Austin

1 oz aged rum
½ oz banana liqueur
½ oz falernum
1 oz fresh lime juice
2 oz fresh grapefruit juice
½ oz fresh ginger juice
½ oz demerara simple syrup (1:1)

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Grapefruit wedge garnish unless you feel like monkeying around.

An appealing pair

For more about the Two Brass Monkeys:

Saturday, June 6, 2020


It’s summer! Which means I’m going to do things a little differently here for a while. Summer is a time to relax and refresh. I’ll be keeping things short and sweet for a bit, and I’ve got an interesting series planned in a few weeks as well which is a little different.

Hip-Flask by Felix Ure

Here’s a beautiful little object which falls into the category of “perfect boxes and booze” puzzle, since the puzzle itself reflects the theme of the blog. It’s a flask, and while some may simply put water in theirs, that’s probably not the most common “solution” for the problem of what goes into a flask. The puzzle is, lamentably, not a “box”, but that may be its only flaw. The object of this flask is “simply” to remove the cap completely. You might imagine that it actually could have been a “box”, with plenty of space inside, but the space is occupied by a number of clever mechanisms.

A sophisticated sipper

Felix Ure, the creator of the Hip-Flask, is a luxury hardware designer from London.  He has a mechanical engineering mind and he is an expert metal machinist, a wonderful combination for producing world class puzzles. His design sensibilities, which embrace elegant form and function, are on full display with the flask puzzle, which is crafted from a solid block of brass and left unpolished, giving it a handsome appearance that avoids smudging from handling. The puzzle is heavy and while not completely solid, feels significant in the hand. Felix created the flask with the idea of sequential discovery in mind, knowing he wanted to make something with removable pieces that must be used in order to solve the puzzle. As the design took shape in his mind, the form of the flask became an obvious choice based on efficiencies of using a brass block. Felix “weighs” the options of form, function, weight, choice of metal and price point carefully as he designs, balancing the final product with these elements. For example, the flask could have been much more complicated, but costs would have spiraled out of control. In the end, the flask achieves an excellent balance, combining a potentially familiar mechanism with novel sequential discovery elements in an elegant and satisfying way. It’s the ultimate executive desk toy for a box and booze lover.

Sharpie Mustache by Chris Elford

When asked, Felix suggests that gin might be just the thing for this flask. Here’s a modern classic gin cocktail that couldn’t be more perfect to accompany the Ure Hip-Flask. Born at New York’s famed bitter emporium Amor y Amargo, the “Sharpie Mustache” is famous for both how tasty it is and for how stylishly it is served, in a flask.  Bottled cocktails have been around since the golden age of pre-prohibition cocktails, and can be found in the pages of Jerry Thomas’ “How to Mix Drinks” from 1927. Chris Elford channeled this history when he came up with his modern masterpiece at the bar circa 2011. The idea to serve it in a flask was a stroke of marketing genius that confers an element of naughty fun to the experience.

Too many of these and you might end up with one

Of course, the drink can be poured out of the flask, and onto a nice ice cube in a rocks glass, but where’s the fun in that? If you’re going to drink it straight from the flask, though, don’t forget to add some cold water for dilution, which is typically achieved when a drink is stirred with ice before serving. It’s an important step for most drinks. The drink is a Negroni variation, based with gin like a true Negroni, so you know it’s already going to be good. It uses Meletti amaro, famous for its saffron notes, in place of Campari, and adds a second base of rye whiskey (making it a particularly potent drink). Finally, there is Bonal, a quinine heavy bitter aperitif wine. Tying it all together are “tiki” bitters, with subtle flavors of cinnamon and spice. It’s a wonderful drink and dangerously drinkable. In fact, Elford relates how he came up with the name, imagining that having one too many of these drinks while out with friends might end with you waking up sporting some permanent marker on your face. Remind me not to hang out with him! Cheers.

Flask appeal

Sharpie Mustache by Chris Elford

20 ml London dry gin
20 ml rye whiskey 
20 ml water
1 dash of Bittermen’s tiki bitters

Add ingredients to 100ml flask or bottle. Chill and serve with a twist.

For more about Felix Ure:

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Dragon Tales

The following excerpts were taken from a dusty leather-bound journal, recently discovered amidst the stalls of an old bookstore in Ontario.

Feb, 1874

It came to me in a dream. I can’t recall how long ago it was now, it seems like yesterday, but I know that’s impossible. Who is ᛋᚺ? I can’t recall anymore, the dream slips away too quickly. But I know, somehow, that ᛋᚺ was in love with ᛈᚱᛁᛋᚲᛁᛚᛚᚨ. In my heart I’ve known it all along. It was she, the mother of dragons, who inspired it all. She is where everything began.

Who sent me the blood-stained map? I don’t know, although I have my suspicions. It doesn’t matter. Whoever it was knew of my background, my research into dragon lore, my life’s work. I sensed what it was the moment I laid my eyes upon it and my pulse quickened - I had been searching the old libraries for it, for so long. But if I had any uncertainty, the message sent with it left no doubt. It told the tale of Dragos, King of Dragons, whose legend, that once chilled the bones of every living thing, had long ere faded to forgotten realms, a deeply sleeping myth. Was it now safe to speak his name aloud, to whisper of his long lost treasure? Hidden deep in a jungle, built as a sacred shrine to the ancient King, the temple had kept ‘The Treasure of Dragos’ safe and away from human greed for centuries. Perhaps it is best to let sleeping ghosts lie, but that is hardly a choice I can make. I have no choice – I must pursue this dream.

July, 2019

Finding the journal was like waking from a dream. Or maybe like falling into one. Father had told this story to us, passed down from his father's generations, so many times, that it felt like it was a part of me, too. He used to hint about a book, but I never imagined it was real. I kept the story of my family's quest alive in my heart, and promised to never forget it. I know how that odyssey consumed the men who set out with that map, so many years ago. They had discovered so much, but after more than a year away from their families, they had lost so much as well. They would never know how close they had come. When I found the journal, I knew I could not rest until I had tried, at least, to finish what had been started, ages ago. Perhaps father had left it for me to discover, or perhaps, the secrets of old had their own plans.

The three of us will set out tomorrow armed with great-great grandfather's detailed expedition notes and research journal, to pick up the trail where his team ended theirs. If we can succeed in finding the Temple of Dragos, his life’s obsession will be vindicated. I don’t care about the treasures – the many diamonds adorning the temple walls, the silver and gold coins locked tight in the Tomb. If the stories are true, heroes, or raiders of old, may have already claimed those prizes. I just want to prove he was right, and possibly, retrieve the famed sword that slayed the Dragon King.

There is so much information in the journal, but certain pages seemed cryptic. Perhaps this will become clearer as our journey unfolds, although I suspect there will be new riddles to solve, and codes to break, as we get closer to the prize. I hope we are up for these tasks, as navigating the path will be difficult enough. According to father’s calculations, once we reach the ancient temple, we will face no fewer than ninety-two steps barring our way. He is sure there will be discoveries to be made, both false and true, many keys for many locks, and tools that may help us if we are wise enough to understand.

Despite never seeing it, father was able to piece together a rough description of the temple from the old texts and accounts that his ancestor's research had uncovered. Hopefully this knowledge will help us if we make it. He often remarked that the architect of the temple appeared to pay homage to even older wonders of the ancient world, [ref. 1, 2] but that the Temple of Dragos was the artist’s finest masterwork. His notes are unclear but make mention of various details which are difficult to understand: The Steps of Insanity? The Portal of Desolation? The Doors of Wisdom, The Gears of Time? The Solar Alignment Actuator? and the last, which is quite clearly written, The Cinnabar Tomb. Perhaps my quest will finally reveal their meanings.

November, 2019

Many months have passed. Finding the take off point proved more difficult than we had anticipated, and yet, at last, we succeeded. Each time we felt despair setting in, another clue was revealed, a photo or drawing from the notebook made clear, or a notation explained. At last, we discovered the path. I am a scientific man, but here we faced the ghosts of old. Was it madness that drove our companion away, or something worse? I fear we will never know, and it will haunt me forever.

The Temple was just as father predicted, rising like an ancient stepped pyramid from the jungle floor. We circled the perimeter to gather our bearings, and discovered the ruins of past adventurers – were these clues, or warnings? There was no thought of turning back, and the radiant suns beckoned us, yet climbing the steps was far more difficult than expected, a challenge that took many days and sent us back and forth in an unexpected, interlocking dance. Our journey eventually brought us to the portal, deeply stained red with dragon’s blood, a gruesome warning indeed. The password, lost for an age, was found again, but some things are not meant to be woken, and we ran for our lives as the earth shook the rubble down upon us.

Now lost in darkness, we stumbled upon a Chinese Gate supporting massive doors, sealed behind which we could hear the steady whirring of gears that seemed to turn back time itself as we listened, transfixed. I have no explanation for the wisdom we summoned to get us through those doors, except to admit there was some magic in the air. Crossing that threshold, we sensed the presence of the maker, hidden behind every detail. We might have lost ourselves in a trance for eternity there, amidst the relentless turning of the gears, if we had not given in to the universe, and stepped outside of time itself. At last, we had reached the tomb. I could see it in the distance, infusing the space with a poisonous crimson glow. The floor appeared lined with dragon hide. There was an object at hand in the entryway, a replica of the Temple built of exotic walnut, lacewood, curly maple, wenge, bloodwood, ebony, purpleheart, poplar, diamonds, tiger eye, abalone, copper, steel, brass, leather and more. But what of the fabled treasures, the silver dragon, the silver scarab whose mechanical wings part to reveal solid gold? Alas, I know not, and perhaps this is what saved us in the end. For as we broached that most sacred of spaces, a venom tipped dart shot from the darkness to pierce my companion. I could not let her die. I grabbed the ancient relic before lifting my friend into my arms and running, as fast as I could, away from that cursed place, to save her, and to save myself.

Feb, 2020

Looking back as I write this account, I find it all hard to believe, even though I lived each moment. Already the memories fade, the reality becomes blunted. Were it not for the artifact, I might suspect I had invented it in a dream. I dare not explore the beautiful relic, which surely holds so many secrets that are far beyond my skill to reveal. Many nights I simply sit and regard it, sipping the blood red mulled wine I have come to associate it with, my evening Nitecap. 

The drink takes me away from the frantic hunt, based as it is with a floral Beaujolais containing subtle earthy notes that speak of France.  The wine runs deep in this potion, where echoes of cabernet sauvignon and merlot combine as well, fortified by lemon and orange brandies, and quinine. There is sherry too, more fortified wine of the palomino grape, which lends an autumn nuttiness, that has been infused with exotic Chai spice, and amplified by sweet cinnamon. At last, a sparkling golden crown is set upon the liquid, more wine to join the rest. All of these rich flavors from the earth merge in the magical elixir, sending me on a journey of the senses, the only adventure I now require. The drink transports me, and I realize I no longer need the artifact as a reminder. I will send the relic on to a friend who may yet unlock its secrets, and continue the tale … of Dragos.

Tucked into the back of the old journal was a recipe:

Treasure Chest, Natasha David (Nitecap)
2 oz gamay, pinot noir or similar medium bodied red wine
1 oz Lillet Rouge
1 oz chai tea-infused oloroso sherry
¼ oz cinnamon syrup
1 oz dry sparkling wine
Stir all but the sparkling wine with ice and strain into a favorite chalice. Top with the sparkling wine.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Coming of Age

“There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.” ― Milan Kundera

It’s my birthday, and it’s a big one. I feel lucky to be able to commemorate the occasion in some small way. I’m sure, like Ozymandias, that these words will blow away with the winds of time, but it’s nice to have an opportunity like this, in this moment, to celebrate. I seem to be celebrating a lot of milestones recently, which means that life has been good to me. Like I said, I feel lucky.

AGES by Brian Young

I’ve chosen a puzzle and potion pairing that compliment the themes of the day well, at least for me. The puzzle is Brian Young’s “Ages”, his most recent limited edition offering. Ages is a handsome burr puzzle beautifully crafted from Queensland Silky Oak & Western Australian Jarrah woods. Outward appearances would suggest that it is composed of either six or perhaps nine or more interlocking pieces to form a classic six sided burr shape. There appear to be three sections on each side, capped with a solid piece of the darker wood. The whole affair is sturdy and pleasing in appearance. Most six piece burr puzzles would come apart into separate pieces after a few manipulations of the pieces. Some even require many moves, but technically this is limited in a standard six piece burr to less than a dozen. I’m not suggesting that this makes burr puzzles easy, far from. Burrs are not my forte or favorite. I’m just explaining what is typically expected. Ages is not typical in any way, shape or form. It’s momentous, like living to a certain age.

“No, that is the great fallacy: the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Ages is a bit hard to pin down and categorize as a puzzle. Like an experienced traveler who has seen many sights and learned many secrets, it brings a lot to the table. The journey might best be described, as expected based on appearances, as a burr puzzle after all - in other words, a challenging (very challenging) interlocking piece puzzle, whose objective is to be taken apart and then put back together again. Which is much easier said than done. Consider that most people quickly discover two initial moves that are rather obvious, and remain stuck there for … ages. There are reportedly over forty-five or more moves needed to take all the pieces apart, and thirty-six before the first real piece is released, although I lost count myself, once I made it past those first two moves. But what makes it hard to characterize is that along the way there are other elements sprinkled in, with secret locks, twists and turns, false paths and dead ends, discovered tools and tricks. It doesn’t follow the guide book or play by the rules. At the end of the journey there is treasure, too, which just makes everything even more exciting and literally rewarding. Brian and his wife Sue, who together have run their Mr. Puzzle shop in Queensland for decades, have placed a tiny piece of authentic Australian Lightening Ridge Opal inside the puzzle, hidden at its heart in a final secret compartment. So of course I love this puzzle, because whatever else it might be called, it is also a puzzle box.

The Brave by Bobby Heugel

Brian offers a few explanations about why the puzzle is named Ages. First of all he mentions that he designed the puzzle in 2010 (when it was originally going to be named the “Berlin Beer Burr”!) and never got around to making it until 2019. But he explains that another reason has to do with a software program many of those who love burr type puzzles may be familiar with, Andreas Rover’s BurrTools, which can be used to analyze, take apart, put together and create new burr puzzles, and much more. The program can be used to analyze a set of pieces to see how many moves are required and how many solutions to a puzzle there may be. This can help a designer refine things to make the solution unique, for example. When Brian plugged in his design, the program told him the analysis would take a while. Specifically, (the program has its own sense of humor) it reported this: “Time left: unknown -> days -> years -> millennia -> ages”, which amused and satisfied Brian so much he renamed his puzzle. Sue relates that at one time, they had an old computer dedicated to the analysis of potential Ages configurations that would run twenty-four hours a day. Some days it would find so many solutions it would come to a crashing halt, and sometimes it would run for weeks without finding a single solution. It became a daily part of the workflow, turning on the lights, powering things up, deleting the Ages files and rebooting the old computer. In the end, the full analysis was never completed. This should also give anyone unwise enough to attempt this puzzle some serious pause. Like many of his limited editions, Brian did not initially send any instructions or solution with the puzzle. To take it all apart, if one were ever to find oneself in a clever enough position to do so, would invite the great fear of never being able to put it all back together again. To do this, according to Sue, one would have to be “very brave”. She is just using nice words, I think.

"Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been." - Mark Twain

With that in mind, I selected this particular cocktail to pair with this puzzle and toast the day. There are a few things going on here that make this one special. When I first got serious about craft cocktails and the refined art of a well made drink, there was only one true craft cocktail bar in Houston, my hometown. Anvil Bar & Refuge, and its owner Bobby Heugel, became the epicenters and architects of Houston’s subsequent cocktail culture. The bar remains one of the best in America, consistently and reliably named on national “best of” lists and garnering six James Beard Award nominations over the years. It’s still my favorite bar in Houston. There’s a famous drink they serve there, created by Heugel at the beginning, which has a permanent spot on the menu. Legend has it that he spent an entire year perfecting this drink, before he even opened his famous bar. Heugel is also well known for his passion about true origin agave spirits, featured prominently in this drink, which is largely a fifty-fifty mix of tequila and mezcal – another reason I selected it for this offering. The agave is mellowed, and amplified, with a bit of Averna, a dark amaro known for its touch of sweetness, citrus and chocolate flavors, that pair well with the agave spirits. The citrus is further enhanced with a hint of citrus liqueur, and the drink is finished with Angostura mist and a flamed orange peel.

“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.” ― H.L. Mencken

Another interesting thing about this cocktail is how it is prepared and served – at room temperature. Unlike most cocktails that are either shaken or stirred with ice, this is a “scaffa”, a room temperature cocktail that is already perfect, undiluted and unchilled. It’s strong, bold, and may not be for the faint of heart, which is why they call it “The Brave”. I don’t think you have to be brave to enjoy it, though. It’s a perfect cocktail, well balanced and delicious. I did something a little extra to it as well, a final nod to the auspicious occasion at hand. I added the ingredients to a charred oak barrel and left it in for AGES before decanting. Exactly three weeks, at any rate, which is a fine amount of time for a small barrel to work plenty of magic. The final cocktail was a bit darker, softer in texture and palate, imbued with oak and perhaps even more delicious. Now I raise my glass to the Ages, and bravely face the future. Cheers.

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” ― Mark Twain

The Brave by Bobby Heugel

1 ounce mezcal (preferably Del Maguey Vida)
1 ounce blanco tequila (preferably Siembra Azul)
1/2 ounce Averna
1/4 ounce Royal Combier
Garnish: 3 mists Angostura and a flamed orange peel

For more from Brian Young: