Saturday, July 25, 2015

Time for Tequila

Friday was "National Tequila Day" in the US.  These spirited days seem to creep up on me before I'm ready to celebrate properly, so I've taken the liberty to grant tequila the entire weekend.  It's national tequila weekend, now.  You're welcome.

The Tequila Box by Osamu Kasho

Those familiar with the Karakuri group will realize which box is coming today.  The “Tequila” box is a whimsical creation by Japanese puzzle box maker Osamu Kasho.  Kasho is a member of the Karakuri Creation Group, and fond of playful, cartoon-like creations.  The box itself is a lovely smooth pale yellow and features a greenish cactus sprouting out of the box, wearing a little bowler at a jaunty angle.  Like many puzzle boxes, there isn’t a great way to describe the mechanism of opening without spoiling some of the discovery and surprise.  The maker explains that there are no prickers on this cactus, and true enough, it is perfectly polished, although it might give you a little stab of frustration for a while as you try to open it.  I should point out, of course, that tequila is actually made from the agave plant, and not the jovial saguaro cactus depicted here, but who cares.  This cactus is more fun. 

Is there any tequila inside?

And what to drink with this particular puzzle box?  Perhaps something with ... tequila?  To help me decide, and since it is national tequila weekend (wasn’t it just national daiquiri day?), I mixed up a batch of my favorite margaritas.  The classic margarita calls for fresh lime juice, tequila, and orange liqueur (such as triple sec, Cointreau or curacao).  Nice and simple, which always makes for a great cocktail.  Delving into the origins of the margarita unearths any number of stories about who, where and when.  The ingredients are a variation of the classic sidecar cocktail, which has lemon juice and uses brandy rather than tequila.  Both of these classics are simply versions of the type of cocktail known long ago as a “daisy”, which required citrus, base spirit, and orange liqueur.  And the Mexican word for daisy is … margarita.  So who coined the term?  I like the story about the Agua Caliente Race Track, a hot spot in Tijuana, Mexico in the 1930’s.  Apparently young Margarita Cansino performed there and may have inspired the drink – you might know her as Rita Hayworth.  Take your pick, there were apparently a lot of dashing barmen inspired by a lot of lovely Margaritas in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  There are certainly a lot of inspiring recipes for great margaritas now, so take your pick.  My version is a favorite beach time tipple.  I actually forego the orange liqueur and use a splash of fresh orange juice instead (so technically it’s arguably not a margarita). I also like a slightly aged tequila, called “reposada”, rather than the usual clear “blanco” commonly used in the drink, and I use agave syrup rather than simple sugar syrup.  It ties the sweetness back to the origins of the tequila and adds a richer flavor.  Shake one up and enjoy the summer while it lasts.

Beach margaritas anyone?

Beach Margarita:
2 oz reposado tequila
1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
½ oz fresh squeezed orange juice
½ oz agave syrup
Shake well over ice and pour

One for me and one for Mr. Cactus.  Cheers!

For more about the origins of the margarita:

For more about Osamu Kasho:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Returning to Havana

We need to spend a little time discussing the daiquiri.  I'm sure everyone realizes that today, July 19, is National Daiquiri Day.  You've had it marked on your calendar for months.  I mentioned the daiquiri back in a prior post about the Old Cuban, one of the best “new” classic cocktails.  The daiquiri often gets a bad rap and brings to mind a frozen slushy sweet strawberry headache you once had on a cruise ship or in Cancun.  Maybe you like that sort of thing.  I won’t judge.  But that’s not really a daiquiri.  The daiquiri is one of the great classics of cocktail history.  It’s the perfect way to enjoy a good rum, and like all classics, it’s a simple combination of ingredients.  A classic daiquiri is merely rum with lime juice and a little sugar.  There are differences of opinion on which proportions of those ingredients makes the very best daiquiri, but it wouldn't really be a classic it that weren't the case.  A well-made daiquiri is bright, tart, refreshing and dangerously delicious.  What’s most interesting about the daiquiri are the legends and lore that go along with it.  It was famously the favorite drink of John F. Kennedy, for example.  And Ernest Hemingway will forever be associated with it, having his very own version named after him.  Legend has it that at one of his favorite local watering holes in Havana, Cuba, the Floridita, he enjoyed a less sweet variation of the daiquiri, which has a splash of grapefruit and substitutes the sugar for a little cherry liqueur.  He would often order a “double” and the drink thus came to be known as the “Papa Doble”, although more commonly referred to as the “Hemingway Daiquiri”.  Classically a daiquiri uses white rum, but I prefer mine with a well-aged rum for more complex flavors.  Here is my recipe for the “Havana Club Daiquiri” which uses one of the best tasting rums in the world.  It’s a Cuban rum, so technically not available in the US right now, but things are looking up these days on that front.

The Havana Club Daiquiri - don't ask me how I got that bottle ...

1 ½ oz Havana Club Rum (if you are American, try another aged rum such as Flor de Cana 7yr)
1 oz simple syrup
¾ oz fresh squeezed lime juice
Shake with ice, pour and serve.  Garnish with a lime wheel if you can hold off on drinking it for a moment.

The Havana's #3 by Eric Fuller

While sipping this heavenly potion, contemplate the Havana’s Box #3 from Eric Fuller.  Eric created a series of cigar puzzle boxes inspired by his local cigar bar and his deviously clever puzzle box imagination.  I discussed one of his other cigar boxes, the Havana’s #2, in the same prior post as the Old Cuban cocktail.  It took me quite a while to figure out how to open the Havana’s #3, which is apparently how he intended things, making each of the cigar box series more challenging.  He understands how we think and plays off of that, with tricks that stay hidden for so long because we think things should be working in a certain way, when they are not!  The Havana’s #3 is beautifully crafted in Sapele wood and either Birdseye Maple, Pink Ebony, or like my copy, Flame Maple, which has a lovely luster and shimmer.  The box has an excellent weight and smooth feel in your hands, and responds in ways which alert you that there is something tricky going on inside.  A few things happen while attempting to solve this puzzle that are surprising, and eventually misleading!  Which are signs of a truly well designed, well-crafted puzzle.  The Havana’s #3 box goes well with the Havana Club daiquiri, but you’ll probably run out of daiquiris before you solve this puzzle!

Happy Daiquiri Day!

For more about Eric Fuller:

Sunday, July 12, 2015

London Calling

Today I am thinking fondly of our friends across the pond for a double dose of British themed entertainment.  One of the greatest sequential discovery puzzles of all time, and certainly one of my personal favorites, is the Big Ben puzzle.  This beautiful piece of woodworking sculpture, created for the 2014 International Puzzle Party held in London, was designed by John Moores, Junichi Yananose & Brian Young (Mr. Puzzle!) and crafted by Brian Young.  If you are at all a fan of London the sculpture of the clock tower itself would be worth owning due to its beautiful construction and lovely attention to detail.  These could easily sell out at any gift shop in Westminster.  Handcrafted from Papua New Guinean Rosewood, Western Australian Jarrah and Queensland Silver Ash, with brass elements, they are truly works of art.  But of course this sculpture is so much more.  Initial exploration of the puzzle reveals a very solid structure, very little wiggling of the 4 clock faces, and a bit of rattling deep inside somewhere.  The ostensible challenge here is to find and liberate “Big Ben”, which is of course the great bell at the top of the clock tower.  In this case it’s more of an itty bitty bell, but no less satisfying once you find it.  There are a few tricks to solve at the start of the puzzle, and eventually you will find yourself navigating the cobbled streets of London, metaphorically speaking.  The puzzle can be classified in a few different ways, including a ‘take apart’ puzzle, a ‘progressive movement’ puzzle, and a ‘sequential discovery’ puzzle.  This is in fact why it is such a great puzzle, so much fun to solve and so satisfying.  Along the way you will discover “Queen Elizabeth’s Crown” as well, as an incentive to soldier on.  The puzzle keeps going, which is particularly thrilling, since it’s so much fun.  Just when you think you may have solved it, it presents a few more challenges which need to be solved.  I mentioned that I think this may be the greatest sequential discovery puzzle of all time (so far!) because of the brilliant design and mechanisms which incorporate each element of the puzzle into the solution.  Most of these types of puzzles (“sequential discovery”) involve using a part of the puzzle which has been removed previously in order to open up a different part.  Like finding a screwdriver which fits that screw you noticed on the bottom.  This puzzle takes it to a whole new level.  Without giving too much away, you will have to be very creative with elements found in the puzzle and not overlook any ideas.  It’s remarkably well thought out.  Add to that how stunning it looks, even as it comes apart, for a truly impressive, fun and satisfying puzzle.

The Big Ben Puzzle by John Moores and Brian Young

To compliment this uniquely special puzzle called for a very special drink as well.  Something particularly British, naturally, but perhaps with a progressive movement or sequential discovery element as well?  How in the world would we accomplish that with a cocktail?  It turns out that summer time is perfect for distinctly British cocktails and for our purpose at hand.  One of the most widely beloved of all British cocktail contributions is of course the gin and tonic (or its more pretentious reincarnation in recent cocktail bars as the “tonic and gin”).  This storied concoction has its origins in Imperial Britain, when in the early to mid 19th century quinine powder harvested from cinchona bark was being utilized to prevent malaria for citizens and soldiers stationed in India.  The bitter medicine was made more palatable by mixing it in sweetened soda water, and the invention of “tonic water” really took off when Schwepps launched their product in 1870.  It was only natural that British soldiers starting mixing their daily gin rations with their daily medical ration – quite efficient, really.  Another distinctly British summer drink is the Pimm’s Cup.  Pimm’s liqueur was also created by an Englishman around 1840 as a medicinal tonic.  The original version, “cup #1”, is also a gin based spirit.  The classic British Pimm’s cup is a mixture of Pimm’s liqueur with sparkling lemonade and lots of summer fruits and berries.  US versions often swap the lemonade for ginger ale, but you get the idea.  It’s a drink which can be as simple or complex as you like it, with these basic ingredients.  The gin and tonic and the Pimm’s cup are extremely complimentary drinks, so I created a special cocktail which starts out as one and turns into the other.  The “Big Ben” cocktail begins as a somewhat fruity gin and tonic, due to a nice ripe muddled strawberry at the bottom of the glass.  Otherwise it’s as simple as it can get, using good quality gin and your favorite tonic.  A bit of muddled cucumber doesn’t hurt either.

Pimm's and Lemonade Ice!

The ice is very unusual, however.  For this drink, you will need a little preparation, by freezing a few special ice cubes ahead of time.  For my version, I froze some ginger lemonade ice (just add some fresh ginger muddled into lemonade) and some Pimm’s lemonade ice.  Most alcohol won’t freeze very well on its own so it’s easier to dilute it a bit with something, such as more lemonade in this case.  If you would rather your gin and tonic not have strawberry to begin with, you could make strawberry lemonade ice as well.  The variations are up to you.  Add a few of these special cubes to your G+T, sit back in the summer sun, and as the ice melts, the drink becomes a Pimm’s cup.  This progressive move / sequential discovery cocktail solves itself, so you can focus on other things, like the Big Ben puzzle, or a nap in the sun.  Bottoms up!

Big Ben Cocktail - A gin and tonic which becomes a Pimm's Cup once melted.

Big Ben Cocktail:

2 oz British Gin
Good quality tonic water
large ripe strawberries
Lemon ginger ice
Pimm's ice (depending on the size of your ice tray, add either 1 or 2 oz of Pimm's with lemonade for each cube.  Each drink should have ice equaling 2 oz Pimm's)

Muddle a strawberry in the bottom of a glass. Combine the gin and tonic and a squeeze of lime.  Add the special ice cubes and garnish with more fruit and mint.  Add sunshine and more tonic as the ice melts.

It's time for some Big Bens

For more about the Big Ben puzzle:

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Red, White and Blue

For Independence day we are celebrating at Boxes and Booze with a specially themed combo.  The Fourth of July is about celebrating America’s birth as an independent nation, so our puzzle is based right in the heart of America’s capital city.  The Washington Monument is a sequential discovery type puzzle designed, crafted and presented at the 2012 International Puzzle Party in Washington, D.C. by Brian Young, aka “Mr. Puzzle”.  The puzzle is a beautiful replica of the monument and even includes a tiny elevator which takes tiny people up to the tiny observation deck.  Really.  Well, my copy has that, anyway.  It’s crafted in wood from “white” Queensland Ash and “red” Australian Jarra, but where’s the “blue”?  

The Washington Monument puzzle by Brian Young ("Mr. Puzzle")

The goal of this puzzle is to take it apart, find the ”blue” hiding inside, and put it all back together again.  The closest you  might get toward this goal is “feeling” blue.  Brian Young is completely devious in his designs so the easiest way might be to light a firecracker under this puzzle.  Now, I know you’re saying, it’s not a box.  I thought this was a “boxes” and booze blog.  I allowed for some non-box puzzles too with the very first post, so we’re good.  Besides, there is a small space deep inside the puzzle which is revealed once the puzzle has been taken apart, so technically this could be considered a box after all.  This puzzle is not for the faint of heart.  The mechanism used to get it open requires some serious lateral thinking and patience.  Mostly it will have you spinning around in circles.  You might even see fireworks for the July Fourth holiday, from bashing your head against the wall.

Red, White, and Blue!

To make this puzzling experience so much more fun, combine it with the “Red, White and Bourbon” cocktail.  This patriotic potion is a simple variation on two wonderful classic cocktails, the Boulevardier and the Old Pal.  Both of these two old cocktails can also be considered as variations of the classic Negroni, which we highlighted a few weeks ago during Negroni week.  That cocktail famously combines equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari.  The Boulevardier and the Old Pal both date back to about 1927, during Prohibition time in America, when you had to find yourself in Paris, at Harry’s New York Bar, and mingle amongst the expats and literati, to enjoy a great cocktail.  Harry McElhone, the proprietor, wrote about these cocktails in his book from that era, “Barflies and Cocktails”, and true to the title, he describes the drinks as well as the regulars who invented them.  The Boulevardier, which substituted bourbon for the gin but otherwise maintained the 1:1:1 Negroni proportions of bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari, was the favorite drink and creation of Erskine Gwynn, an American expat who came to Paris in 1927 to start a magazine styled after the New Yorker, which was called, you guessed it, the “Boulevardier”.  The Old Pal cocktail was slightly modified from this.  The bourbon was switched for high proof rye whisky, and the original recipe called for dry vermouth rather than sweet.  The original proportions remained equal, but more modern recipes double the rye for a 2:1:1 ration.  Harry McElhone also recounts this drink’s creator, the sports writer William “Sparrow” Robinson, who was apparently fond of calling everyone “my old pal” and who dedicated the drink to his old pal, McElhone.  For the “Red, White and Bourbon” cocktail I use the bourbon from the Boulevardier, and the dry white vermouth from the Old Pal, with modern proportions which let the bourbon balance better with the Campari, for an American take on these old favorites.

The "Red White and Bourbon (1776)" Cocktail

The Red, White and Bourbon Cocktail (1776 Cocktail):
1 1/2 oz bourbon
3/4 oz dry white vermouth
3/4 oz Campari
Stir over ice, pour and garnish with lemon peel.  Firecracker optional.

Show your independence this July 4th and try any one of these great cocktails while solving a puzzle, watching some fireworks, or making some fireworks of your own!

Happy 4th of July!

For more information about the Washington Monument puzzle:

For more on the Boulevardier cocktail:

For more on the Old Pal cocktail: