Sunday, May 31, 2015

Triple Play

June 1-7 is international Negroni week, a worldwide charitable event sponsored by Imbibe magazine and Campari.  The Negroni is one of the all time great classic cocktails, and what better time to celebrate it than during its new official holiday.  If you’re not familiar with the Negroni, here is a bit of cocktail lore to wet your whistle.  The Negroni is thought to have originated about 100 years ago in Florence, Italy, where one of the most popular drinks of the day then was and now remains the “Americano”, a combination of Campari and sweet vermouth with a spritz of seltzer.  Campari is a bitter aperitif (designed to aid in the priming of the digestive track before the meal, as opposed to the bitter digestive for after the meal) famous for its bright red color, which was originally produced with carmine dye obtained from crushed cochineal insect shells.  Good stuff.  The flavor is derived from herbs, floral elements and fruits fermented with alcohol, but of course the actual components are a highly guarded secret of the “I’d have to kill you” variety.  Vermouth is similarly complex but based with wine rather than pure alcohol.  The wines are fortified with herbs, flowers and plants indigenous to the region where they are produced.  In Italy, vermouth or “bitters” and a “spritz” of seltzer are as common as a gin and tonic here in the US.  The Americano (Campari and vermouth spritz) is a nice enough drink on its own, of course, but on that fateful day in 1919, Count Negroni was looking for a little more “oomph” and asked the bartender to kick it up a notch.  The resultant swapping of seltzer for gin, along with Campari and vermouth, launched a classic which has stood the test of time.  The drink has an international week in its honor, need I say more?  The Negroni is a “boozy” drink, and has a perfect balance between the flavors.  It’s also incredibly easy to make (not a bad strategy) with equal 1:1:1 proportions of each of its 3 core ingredient, stir over ice, pour and enjoy.  It’s also incredibly easy to experiment with, by simply substituting one or another of the ingredients to create endless varieties.

The Triskele Box

I’ve paired the Negroni with a beautiful puzzle box which also has a central theme based on 3 components, the “Triskele” by Hideaki Kawashima of the Karakuri Creation Group.  A triskele is an ancient Celtic symbol with three interlocking spirals.  The box has lovely raised panels on each face, which alternate directions in a spiral fashion, and overlap the corresponding edges of each side thereby locking the panels in place.  Each corner is also crafted in an overlapping spiral pattern, which additionally has the effect of locking each panel firmly in place.  There is absolutely no wiggle room on this box.  Nothing at all moves and all the usual attempts at opening it fail miserably.  The mechanism for opening the box is a thing of beauty, and if you have never experienced it before, it is truly startling and counterintuitive.  Its mind boggling to imagine how this was crafted out of wood, and makes me realize I better stick to making cocktails. 

The Slow Fade Cocktail

Here is a delicious Negroni variation to celebrate Negroni week and the Triskele box, the “Slow Fade”, created by Chicago bartenders Henry Prendergast and Robby Haynes of Analogue.  Keeping the 3 equal components of the classic, it substitutes the gin for mezcal to provide a wonderful smokiness which I particularly love.  If that’s not your thing you can try a blanco tequila instead but you’ll be missing out.  It also substitutes the sweet vermouth for a blanco vermouth to impart a lighter tone, making this drink more of a “white negroni” variant.  Add a bit of elderflower liqueur, which I think actually gets a bit lost in this drink, and a dash of bitters, and you have the slow fade.  Contemplate that as I “spiral” this post into its own slow fade.

Good things come in 3's

Check out Negroni week, find a local participating bar, and go try one:

Recipe for the Slow Fade:

For more on Hideaki Kawashima:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fairytales and Treasures

Inspiration comes in many ways.  In this case, it was from a song, “One Tin Soldier”.  The song was first recorded in 1969, sung by the Canadian group The Original Caste and subsequently covered by a number of different artists.  It’s an anti-war song about a group of peaceful folks on a mountain stronghold, rumored to hold a great treasure locked away.  They are attacked and killed by their violent neighbors in the valley below, who want the treasure for themselves.  Of course what is locked away on the mountain is only a simple message of peace.   Kelly Snache, a wood craftsman from Ontario Canada, is a peaceful mountain folk kind of guy.  He is well known for creating new clever puzzles out of old wooden boxes, using very unusual and unexpected mechanisms.  As he tells it, he had in his workshop collection a particularly small little wooden box, a tiny chest without much room inside.  Typically he will take an empty box, with plenty of room inside, and create all sorts of hidden internal mechanisms which keep the box locked up tight, with the challenge being to then figure out how to open the box.  This usual style was clearly out of the question for the tiny chest he had, which didn't have any significant room inside.  Listening to the song, One Tin Soldier, one day (yes, there was a point to introducing that song), he thought he would reverse his usual modus operandi, and build the locking mechanisms outside of the box.  He would create a mountain stronghold to house the secret treasure.  The result is an incredible work of art and one of the most incredible puzzle “boxes” I have seen, “The Lost Treasure of One Tin Soldier”.

The Lost Treasure of One Tin Soldier
Because everything was built externally, the beautiful woodwork and craftsmanship are fully on display.  He has created an entire structure, with a pedestal on the bottom, and a surrounding cage on top, in which the little antique chest is trapped.  The structure is composed of many different exotic hardwoods which give it a gorgeous appearance, including Red Cedar, Curly Maple, Bird's Eye Maple, Wenge, Purpleheart, Walnut, Aromatic Cedar, Oak, Cocobolo, Splated Maple, and Cherry.  Surrounding the pedestal are various knobs and peepholes which will be integral to solving the puzzle. 

You can see the beautiful exotic hardwoods along with Kel "Snake's" logo
Inside the pedestal is where the magic really happens.  Turning the box over, you can see layers of different wooden mechanisms, with everything packed in snugly and no hints as to how anything comes apart.  The interplay of the various hardwoods is stunning and mesmerizing.  It seems clear though, that you will need to work your way through these layers in order to eventually release the cage which holds the chest onto the pedestal.  A bit of exploration gets things started, with a few pieces releasing.  You will actually need to use these pieces many times to proceed, like any good sequential discovery puzzle.  After that, things come to a grinding halt.  Getting the first real piece out of the way requires a lot of thought and a bit of dexterity.  It’s a remarkably tricky mechanism.

I see a key!  Too bad it won't help yet ...
Things don’t get any easier after that, either. There are many deviously tricky steps to figure out along the way that had me stumped one after the other.  There were two specific steps which seemed impossible, as if there was no way things could come apart further.  Thinking about what would have to happen if it was not actually impossible ultimately led to both solutions, yielding incredibly satisfying aha moments.  The puzzle provides so many great challenges, fiendishly clever mechanisms, and layers in addition to being a gorgeously crafted piece of woodwork that it is easily one of my all-time favorites.
At last! The Treasure revealed.
In total, you will have to work your way through 35 separate movements to finally release the lost treasure, freeing approximately 24 separate pieces which come apart along the way.

Incredibly complex set of components
Pairing this incredible puzzle with a drink called for something very special, as you might imagine.  I recently discovered a wonderful drink called “A Fairytale of New York”, which like the puzzle has its origins in Canada.  The name alone makes you want one, right?  Also like the puzzle, this cocktail was inspired by a song of the same name, by the British punk rock band The Pogues, and one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time in the UK.  The song was named after a novel (of the same name) by the Irish American novelist J.P. Donleavy, who was born in New York.  So as with most enduring fairytales, this one has been passed around the globe a bit as it matures.  The Fairytale of New York cocktail is rather old fashioned – it’s a variation on that classic drink.  The base spirit is a good Canadian whisky, which provides a nice mellow foundation.  Add to that some “winter warmth syrup”, an incredibly delicious potion made with apples, pears, cinnamon, cloves and walnuts, with a hint of orange and a few dashes of bitters, and you have the fairytale in a glass created by bartender Dave Mitton from Toronto.  The drink evokes the winter holidays by a cozy fireplace, but the good feelings can be enjoyed any time of year.  As a final nod to the Canadian craftsman who created the Lost Treasure box, I amped up the Canada in the winter warmth syrup by substituting the sugar with rich amber maple syrup.  It adds another whole layer of depth and flavor to this incredibly delicious drink.  If you've never tried whisky or bourbon before, this would be a great place to start.  And you can use the extra syrup on your waffles and ice cream. 

The Fairytale in Ontario cocktail - so delicious
The Fairytale in Ontario Recipe:
2 oz Canadian Whisky
¾ oz “Canadian Winter Syrup”
2 inch Orange peel
2 dashes walnut bitters (use Angostura as a substitute if needed)
Muddle the orange, bitters and syrup then add the whisky and stir with an ice cube.  Mmmmm.

Canadian Winter Syrup:
"Canadian" Winter Warmth Syrup is decadent

1 ½ cups water
1 cup Grade B maple syrup
½ apple, ½ pear peeled and cubed
3 cinnamon stick
A few cloves, nutmeg, and walnuts if you have them
Simmer the ingredients for about 20 - 30 minutes,
strain and refrigerate.

For Kelly Snache’s website:    or search “Soul Tree Creations”  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Trip to Cuba

Sometimes the box begets the cocktail, and sometimes it’s the other way around.  The Old Cuban Cocktail is a modern classic, and is also one of my wife’s all-time favorite drinks.  You wouldn’t have to force one on me either.  We discovered this incredible cocktail one fateful evening while people watching and dining at one of Houston’s swankiest restaurants, Brasserie 19.  My wife has this incredible ability to score us a prime seat at the bar during peak dining times at the most popular eateries in town, no reservations needed.  She does this with parking spots, too, which we have dubbed her “parking karma”.  So I guess this is her “restaurant seating with prime people watching at the bar karma”, henceforth to be known as “barma” for short.  Once settled into these choice seats, I will often chat with the bartender.  On this occasion I asked the bar manager, John, for something with aged rum, and soon after we were presented with this magnificent cocktail.  The Old Cuban is built off of a daiquiri foundation – white (clear) rum, lime juice and simple syrup.  If that’s not what you think of when you hear “daiquiri”, you have been poisoned by strawberry slush which has frozen your brain.  We’ll revisit the daiquiri on these pages soon, but right now we have other places to go.  If you like a mojito, you’ll realize it’s also built off of these basics (white rum, lime juice and suger) and has the addition of mint and club soda.  The Old Cuban is the sophisticated older sibling to the mojito.  It replaces the clear rum with aged, dark amber rum (the one from story above used Mount Gay XO, which remains the best choice in my opinion, although there are many excellent alternatives).  And it replaces the club soda with … wait for it … champagne!  The result is incredibly alluring, rich and delicious.  This is a drink you could sip all night long.  The Old Cuban was invented in modern times, by Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club in New York City, and we are eternally grateful to her.

The Old Cuban
Pairing this cocktail with a puzzle box was quite simple.  I actually have a puzzle box named the Havana’s #2.  I also have one named the Havana’s #3, and I wish I had # 1 and #4 but I digress.  As I haven’t actually figured out how to open #3 and don’t own the others, viola: Havana’s #2 and the Old Cuban.  

The Havana's #2
 The Havana’s Puzzle Box Series is the brainchild of a wood crafter from Raleigh, North Carolina, named Eric Fuller.  He is well known for creating limited series of beautiful exotic wood puzzles based on other designers and his own inventions.  His local cigar bar, Havana Deluxe, and the people who work there served as the inspiration for his series of increasingly more difficult to open cigar boxes.  This is of course a relative concept (difficulty in opening), as box #2 was extremely difficult to open, and box #3 still has me stumped.  And I wish I could blame the Old Cuban’s but that’s sadly not the case.  The Havana’s 2 box is beautifully crafted and very solid, made of quartersawn sapele wood panels.  The bottom of the box is veneered with quilted sapele, which gives it a lovely shimmering quality and the top of the box is veneered with bleached lacewood for an elegant contrast.
Beautiful quilted sapele veneer
The puzzle and its designer are very clever, and assume you have opened a few puzzle boxes in your day, and are going to toy with you because of that.  What I mean is that the box starts to open in a fairly typical way and before too long you are on your way to enjoying a cigar … when things freeze up.  You’re stuck with a tantalizing teaser view of the semi-opened box.  And without giving anything away, I’ll just say that this puzzle makes you think outside the box in a whole new way.  It’s really one of the most clever boxes I have seen.  And with that, I’ll tip my glass and bid you Salud!

Stay posted for other Eric Fuller boxes in the future, one of which will be paired with one of his own favorite cocktails, which is a true classic.  Cheers.  

Time for another Old Cuban!
Old Cuban Recipe:
1 ½ oz Aged Rum (e.g. Mount Gay XO but something at least 7+ yrs)
1 oz simple syrup
¾ oz fresh lime juice
8 mint leaves
2 oz champagne
Muddle the mint and syrup, add the rum and lime juice, shake, strain, and float champagne on top. Garnish with a mint sprig

Eric Fuller’s Website:

Sunday, May 10, 2015


The Pandora secret box is a clever puzzle.  Made of laser cut panels and metal bolts, it has a solid and satisfying feel in your hands and the distinctive smell of laser cut wood.  The puzzle was designed and created by J├╝rgen Reiche, a prolific puzzle designer of wooden games and puzzles whose inventions are available through Siebenstein-Spiele, a German puzzle shop, as well as other specialty puzzle retailers around the world.  I obtained my particular copy from Mr. Puzzle, a fantastic shop based in Queensland Australia.  Mr. Puzzle is run by Brian and Sue Young.  Brian is well known in the puzzle world for his own incredible puzzle designs and limited editions as well as his high quality productions of other puzzle designers.  I am giving them this unsolicited praise and plug for the excellent customer service I received from them with the Pandora box.  The box is supposed to remain impenetrable until you start to discover its secrets, and then it provides you with tools you will need to use in order to proceed.  It is a sequential discovery puzzle, where all the elements you need are hidden within the puzzle. When I first received this box, I’ll just say that things were loose and revealed themselves without any effort or thought process.  It all seemed far too simple and obvious.  I contacted Mr. Puzzle, and after a few exchanges they simply asked me to send it back so they could see what might be wrong.  Before I had even sent it off, they had packed up a new one and sent it on its way to me.  When I ultimately was able to experience the puzzle as it should be, it was very mysterious, clever, and satisfying.  Thanks Brian and Sue.

Pandora Puzzle Box
Pairing this box with a cocktail proved to be a very fortuitous exercise.  Pandora, as you may know, is a character from Greek mythology.  She was the first human woman created by the gods (Hephaestus and Athena).  As the story goes, she famously opened a jar filled with spirits.  Of course most people recall the story with her opening a box, but originally it was a jar.  A jar filled with spirits.  Why there hasn’t been a cocktail named after her until now appears to be a small Greek tragedy all of its own.  Since she was the first Greek woman, I thought of the pink lady cocktail, another prohibition era classic, made with gin, applejack, lemon juice, simple syrup, grenadine and egg white (if you are put off by the egg white see my Egg blog post).  But since Pandora is no ordinary lady,  I wanted the drink to be specific to her as well.  I substituted the sweet grenadine for Campari, the mildly bitter Italian aperitif with the distinctive red color (originally obtained with crushed cochineal beetles which produced the dye carmine – now, alas, obtained from food coloring).  The bitter liqueur imparts to the drink the bitter spirits released into the world when Pandora opened the jar.  But hope remains – remember? And the Campari, in my humble opinion, makes this classic cocktail shine.  It tastes fantastic and gives the drink a sophisticated balance it doesn’t really have with the original recipe.

The Pandora Cocktail
So as you struggle to open up this Pandora’s box, have hope and sip the Pandora cocktail.  Maybe you can keep the recipe inside.

Don't give up hope - this cocktail is delicious! 

Pandora Cocktail (adapted from The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan)
1.5 oz Plymouth Gin
.75 oz Lemon Juice
.5 oz Laird’s Applejack
.75 oz simply syrup
.5 oz Campari
1 egg white (pasteurized if you prefer)

Dry shake (no ice) ingredients, then shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass

For the original cocktail:
For the puzzle:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A new blog about boxes and booze ...

I decided to combine my two recent pass times, making craft cocktails and collecting puzzle boxes.  There are certainly plenty of blogs about cocktails, some from professionals who make a living at it, and I doubt I would add great insight into the spirit world with a stand-alone booze blog.  There are also already a number of excellent puzzle blogs, from enthusiastic collectors who have been at it for a long time.  But no one has combined these two worlds yet, and it seems to me that will be very entertaining.  I can assure you, at the end of a busy week, it is extremely enjoyable to stir or shake up a well balanced cocktail, pour it into a beautiful glass, and imbibe it slowly while considering a puzzling work of art which refuses to reveal its secrets to you.  There are plenty of metaphors to be had at the expense of booze and boxes, and fear not, we will open them all.

For this inaugural post I have chosen to discuss the “Egg” by Wil Strijbos.  It seems to be the perfect puzzle to start this blog, although it’s not actually a box.  At least it’s not a burr.  We would have to start with the cocktails first if we ever discuss a burr.  The Egg is a take apart puzzle, but with no space inside, and not at all boxy.  Really nothing like a box, but the symbolism of beginning is too perfect.  It’s merely a two piece puzzle, shaped like an egg, with the goal of separating the halves.  Very simple, yet very complex.  The Egg is so satisfying because it exemplifies a few ideal attributes of a great mechanical puzzle.  It looks fantastic, like a piece of art, large and smooth with a stunning pink brushed aluminum exterior.  It feels fantastic, smooth and firm with a fluid movement and weighty heft.  As a puzzle it immediately delivers, in the way I appreciate, because it yields a little right away, but then stops.  It makes you smile, as you realize this will not be so easy, and that you are in for a journey of discovery.  It gives some clues, some clicks and stops and starts, encouraging you to keep going.  And it makes you commit with its simple request to be taken apart into two pieces, nothing fancy, but nothing doing, either.  Of course, this is all in the beginning, well before you want to chuck it out the window and hope it smashes a lot of things on its way down.  This puzzle is really hard, and the designer does not provide you with the solution.  Which is devious and dastardly of him and brilliant as well.

The Egg by Wil Strijbos

And which makes me want to reach for a drink.  What to pair with this crafty little puzzle?  Obviously, a craft cocktail with egg in it.  If that sounds less than delicious, you might need to put down the vodka tonic and pull up a chair.  Eggs or egg whites have been used in cocktails since at least the mid 1800’s.  The egg white in particular adds a rich texture and a pleasing “mouthfeel” to the drink, as well as an elegant foamy froth over the surface, which can’t be achieved in other ways.  If I haven’t gotten your attention now with “mouthfeel” and foamy froth, you might be hopeless.  There are so many great cocktails with egg white as an ingredient, it was hard to pick just one.  First I thought about the Clover Club, which is a pre-prohibition classic dating to the late 1800’s and named for the Philadelphia men’s club which met in the Bellevue-Stratford hotel.  It’s a combination of gin, lemon juice, raspberry syrup and egg white.  It’s simple, refreshingly tart and lightly sweet, and has a light pink color due to the raspberry syrup, which makes it a nice match up for the Egg puzzle (also pink).  It’s easy to make and might put you in a better mood once you start to get frustrated with the puzzle.  There are some high quality small batch syrups on the market (for example, small hand foods pictured here), but the best is to make your own, which is super easy and makes the kitchen smell great. 

The Clover Club Cocktail
While the Clover Club is a great cocktail, which I highly recommend you try making at home, I felt it wasn't complicated enough for this particular puzzle, which appears simple enough but is deviously difficult.  Therefore, the cocktail that I have paired with this puzzle is the “Sueno”, created by Raul Ystorza at his Los Angeles mezcal bar, Las Perlas.  The Sueno strikes a lovely balance between smoky, spiced, herbal and sweet.  It  combines a lightly smoky blanco mezcal with meyer lemon juice, five-spice honey syrup (cardamom, start anise, fennel, clove and cinnamon), balsamic vinegar syrup, a fresh strawberry, basil leaves, rosemary needles, and of course, a fresh egg white.  There is a lot of prep involved here.  The balsamic vinegar syrup does not, in my opinion, make the kitchen smell great.  The five spice honey syrup is also tricky, and hot honey does some serious damage to your fingers.

5 spice honey syrup in the making - watch your fingers ...
This is a very complicated drink.  But when you try it, it tastes smooth and sultry and alluring and fills your mouth with a delicious intensity which begs for another sip.  You would be hard pressed to imagine what is actually going on inside that glass, but you suspect it’s a lot.  Reminds me of a puzzle I know.

The Sueno Cocktail ... tastes like a good dream
The Egg was a pivotal puzzle for me.  During the two month period that I was trying to solve it, occasionally picking it up and spinning it around, I had my doubts.  I was convinced I would soon reach out and ask a fellow puzzler to provide the solution.  I couldn't decide if I would be able to simply not know how it worked.  I was truly ready to give up when I did finally solve it.  It was as if the puzzle was rewarding me for my perseverance, or for my analytic mind, or for making such brilliant cocktails.  I’m definitely projecting onto this aluminum egg, but I don’t think it minds.  I studied the opened egg for a while, put it back together and could then open it up in a few seconds again, having now understood the internal mechanism completely.   Soooo satisfying.  Moments like that call for a pre-made cocktail: a fine bourbon with a single ice cube.  Which is not really a cocktail.  But the Egg is not really a box, and I thought we discussed this already.  And because life should not let us feel so self satisfied, it was entirely fitting that when I handed the puzzle over to my 9 year old son, he handed the two separated halves back to me with a shrug in a minute or so.    “I probably got lucky,” he said.  I’ll drink to that.

For recipes see: