Sunday, August 30, 2015


If you look to the heavens this time of year, in the north - northeastern sky at sundown, you may be able to find a bright constellation in the shape of a “W” or “M” depending on your perspective.  You would be looking at Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethiopia and mother of Andromeda (who floats nearby along with her hero Perseus).  She is doomed to cling desperately to her throne as she circles the north star, often upside down, for boasting of her own beauty over that of the sea nymphs, or so the story goes.  The prolific Japanese puzzle box master Akio Kamei of the Karakuri Creation Group is well known for his inventive, often complex mechanisms and his beautiful woodworking skill.  He must have been inspired by the stars when he created his constellation themed boxes based on the “Great Bear” (the “Big Dipper”) and “Cassiopeia”.  The Cassiopeia 3 box is an evolution of the original which simplifies the opening mechanism into only two moves while retaining the original concept and beauty.  This version is made of rose and katsura woods and is adorned with the constellation it is named after.  In an upper corner of the box sits the north star as well.  The box is astonishing in that its solution incorporates a unique navigational mechanism which can be intuited by looking to the stars.

The Cassiopeia 3 by Akio Kamei
There were a few cocktails I considered pairing with this lovely puzzle box.  Since Cassiopeia was a queen, I considered the “Queen’s Cocktail”, an drink originally found in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail book from 1930.  This tasty tipple is a variation of the “perfect martini”, which requires half sweet and half dry vermouth along with the gin.  In the Queen’s Cocktail, pineapple juice is also added.  In recent times this cocktail has become associated with the other “Queens”, the borough of New York City, and is often found along with the "Bronx" cocktail.  As much as I love New York, that wouldn't retain the proper spirit.  Another “Queen’s” cocktail is the “Dubonnet Cocktail”, a mixture of gin and Dubonnet rose liqueur, which is an herbal and quinine based spirit created in the mid nineteenth century.  The mixture creates an elegant type of gin and tonic which also has the distinction of being Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cocktail. 

The Compass Rose Cocktail - this drink is stirred, not shaken ...
But in the end I paired the Cassiopeia box with an equally lovely cocktail which combines cognac, Campari and maraschino liqueur (and I am not talking about neon red maraschino cherry juice, heaven forbid, but fine cherry liqueur).  A three ingredient drink which includes Campari is almost always a Negroni variation in my opinion, so is automatically off to a good start.  This combination works incredibly well, with a great balance of flavors and complexity.  It’s called the “Compass Rose”, and I will leave its connection with the Cassiopeia box for you to contemplate.  Look to the night sky for a little mythological or mixological inspiration of your own.  Cheers!

Let the stars be your guide ...

For the Compass Rose cocktail created by Jimmy Patrick:

For more about the work of Akio Kamei:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

All That Glitters

Isn't it ironic when a coin operated machine has a quarter stuck in the slot?  It taunts you with false gifts.  You can’t get the money out, and you can’t seem to use it either.  And it’s blocking the only machine available, too, how rude.  Because next Tuesday is “National Whiskey Sour Day”, we have to discuss the Gold Coast Parking Meter puzzle by Brian Young (Mr. Puzzle again!).  Of course, you say.  

The Gold Coast Parking Meter puzzle from Brian Young (Mr. Puzzle!)

This cute little parking meter has a coin, ready to pay the meter, but stuck in place.  The goal is to feed the meter, and put everything back together properly as well.  The little meter was created for the 2007 International Puzzle Party in the Gold Coast, and functions as a “take-apart, put together, sequential discovery” type puzzle.  It’s made from yellow leichhardt, which gives it a “golden” color, and mackay cedar woods.  It’s fun to explore and has a nice but not too complicated trick to it.  It’s not a “box”, I know, but nobody’s perfect.  So, what does this have to do with whiskey sours, you ask? 

Feed the meter to complete the puzzle,  The money's got to go somewhere inside, so it really is a box after all.

I happen to love whiskey sours.  Now, before you get all bent out of shape about sickly sweet ways to ruin good whiskey, remember, we are talking about simple, fresh, craft cocktails here.  The poor daiquiri is another example of an incredibly simple yet oft misunderstood libation.  A whiskey sour is essentially the same drink but with whiskey.

“Sour” cocktails are thought to have originated in the 18th century seafaring days, when sailors would receive their rations of alcohol mixed with lemon or lime juice.  The water wasn’t safe to drink, and the citrus prevented scurvy.  Americans, who were fonder of whiskey than rum, swapped in their favorite spirit, and the bartenders of the day refined things.  The first record of the whiskey sour is in “Professor” Jerry Thomas’s “The Bartender’s Guide” from 1862, and the recipe hasn’t really changed much since then.  One controversy which remains today is whether a whiskey sour includes egg white.  Egg white, which you may recall from “Episode I – A Blog Awakens”, can add richness and texture to a drink, but can also really freak people out.  Many modern recipes for the whiskey sour suggest egg white as an option now.  It’s not essential, but honestly, it can kick any drink up a notch.  My favorite recipe, from Employees Only in New York, does not use egg white.

The Gold Rush Cocktail created by T.J. Siegal

A “new classic” whiskey sour variation to enjoy on national whiskey sour day, which uses honey syrup rather than simple sugar syrup, is called “The Gold Rush”.  Created by T.J. Siegal at Manhattan’s Milk and Honey bar, it gently ups the ante on the basic recipe in a perfect way that completes the evolution.  Shake one up while you solve the Gold Coast Parking Meter puzzle.  Cheers!

The Gold Rush (adapted from The PDT Cocktail Book)
2 oz whiskey or bourbon
1 oz honey syrup (anywhere between 1:1 and 2:1 honey:water)
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Shake over ice and pour
Garnish with a slice of lemon or orange and a brandied cherry, if you've got one
Additional garnish with an Australian 10 cent coin (optional)

These two are golden!

For more on the whiskey sour and the Gold Rush cocktail:

For the Employees Only whiskey sour:

For more about the Gold Coast Parking Meter Puzzle:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Reaching for a Good Book

It was recently “National Book Lover’s Day” (Aug 9), which surely deserves a mention.  Reading and sharing good books is a big part of what we love in the boxes and booze household.  Here’s a book which might keep you up at night, just trying to open it!  The Book Puzzle Box by American furniture and puzzle maker Bill Sheckels is the kind of dense, difficult to understand book which is truly hard to get into.  Forget about how it gets better once you get past the beginning – this one takes a lot of effort just to crack the cover.

The Book Puzzle Box by Bill Sheckels

The beautiful book puzzle has a binding made from walnut, front and back covers of cherry and pages of ash.  I love how the natural grain of the ash wood has the appearance of real paper, even if this book isn’t exactly a page turner.  Bill Sheckels beautiful furniture designs can be viewed on his website, listed below.  He also crafts puzzles of his own and of other’s designs under his Black Dog Puzzleworks label.

Pages made from Ash wood look real!

In addition to “Book Lover’s Day”, it happens to be “National Rum Day” as well (Aug 16).  Rum is, of course, the basis for a good classic daiquiri, one of my favorite tipples.  We’ve discussed the Havana Club daiquiri and the Old Cuban, two incredible drinks.  For Book Lover’s Day and the Book Puzzle Box, let’s appreciate the Boukman’s daiquiri.  This delicious variation adds a bit of cognac to the rum and uses cinnamon syrup rather than simple syrup.  

The Boukman's Daiquiri - a touch of cognac and sweet cinnamon

It is named after Boukman Dutty, who led the Haitian slave uprising in 1791 which catalyzed the Haitian revolution.  It is speculated that his name reflects the nickname he garnered, “book man”, possibly from his own self-taught reading and his attempts to teach his fellow slaves to read.   It may be that the addition of cognac, which reflects the French influence in Haiti, and the addition of cinnamon, a common Caribbean flavoring, can explain the ties this daiquiri has to Haiti.  The real reason, however, why mixologist Alex Day, who created this cocktail while at the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. bar in Philadelphia, named it after Boukman, is speculated to be contained deep in the pages of the Book Puzzle Box by Bill Sheckels.  I couldn’t make that up.

Curl up with these good "books"

For more about Bill Sheckels:

For more on the Boukman's Daiquiri:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Incredibly Perplexing Pairing Put Plain

In the last installment I reviewed the "Crypsis" puzzle box by Kel Snake, which was an entrant in the Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition at this year's International Puzzle Party.  I paired it with the "Sierra Madre Sunrise" cocktail, but I didn't explain the connection.  As promised, here is the explanation:

This puzzle might give you butterflies ...

One of the most prominent features of the Crypsis puzzle box by Kel Snake is the lovely monarch butterfly which adorns the top.  It speaks to the name of the box, “Crypsis”, which refers to the natural ability of some organisms to avoid detection, such as the way certain butterflies can blend into their environment.  It also refers to a key element of the puzzle box itself!  Taking the butterfly theme a step further, I linked the natural migratory pattern of the monarch butterfly, which takes an annual journey in the fall from Eastern North America down to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, to the cocktail.  Full credit for that convoluted concept goes to my own pairing, my wife! Cheers!

Get ready to curl up with a good book, coming tomorrow ...

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Incredibly Perplexing Pairing

It’s time for another Canadian theme, at least in part, due to a group of intriguing, playful people who shall otherwise remain incognito, perchance preferably.  In keeping with that spirit, this post is a bit of a puzzle itself.  You may have noted that the puzzle box and cocktail pairings share a common theme of sorts, sometimes obviously so, other times as more of a “stretch”, if you will.  See if you can determine what links this week’s puzzle box to its cocktail.  A more detailed explanation will be provided in a follow up post, along with the winning comments.

The Crypsis Box by Kel Snake

The “Crypsis” is a playful puzzle box designed and crafted by Canadian Kel Snake.  He typical creates intricate locking mechanisms which he retrofits into existing wooden boxes with varying levels of difficulty.  The term crypsis, which refers to the natural ability of some creatures to avoid detection or “hide in plain site”, could apply nicely to many of his boxes.  Sometimes he starts from scratch and builds the whole box as well.  One of the greatest examples of this is to be seen in his “Lost Treasure of One TinSoldier” puzzle, which I have discussed previously.  The Crypsis is another, beautifully crafted from from Curly Maple, Walnut, Purpleheart, American Holly, Lacewood, and Poplar.  It has whimsical knobs sticking out of each side which resemble oreos or lollipops.  There is a butterfly that adorns the top which has lovely painted wings made of feathers.  And there are little strings coming from each side with metal butterfly beads, which can be gently pulled on although nothing seems to occur.  This is an extremely fun box to solve for many reasons.  The beauty of the craftsmanship makes it a joy to handle.  There are many knobs, but not so many you get confused or lose track. And the level of difficulty is balanced well, so it takes a little time and experimentation but eventually most will find themselves at the solution.   Which is the most fun of all!  Kel has added a bit of mischief to this puzzle which gets revealed at the end, and I would hate to spoil the surprise.

Are those Oreos?  Maybe lollipops?

For the Crypsis box I made the “Sierra Madre Sunrise” cocktail, created by Elana Lepkowski, and made with mezcal, Aperol, lemon juice, club soda and in my case, chocolate bitters.  This is a wonderful cocktail to try at home if you have never had either mezcal or Aperol.  Mezcal is the oft misunderstood cousin of tequila.  You should feel bad for mezcal, because I don’t think it has its own day like tequila and the others lucky spirits.  Any spirit made from the agave plant can actually be considered a “mezcal”, so tequila is a form of mezcal which has far more restrictions on how and where it is made.  Traditional mezcal is made by roasting the heart of the agave plant in underground wood-fired pits, which lends it the distinctive smoky taste.  Fine mezcal is as complex, smooth and refined as fine bourbon or cognac.  

The Sierra Madre Sunrise by Elana Lepkowski

What about Aperol?  We will have to explore the Italian “Amaro” liqueurs in detail one day, but by way of introduction I will explain that the Italians are so serious about their food, which we all know is incredible, that they have special drinks which help “prime” the stomach before the meal, called aperitifs, and drinks to help digest the meal afterwards, called digestifs.  Aperol is an aperitif, similar to Campari, which I love and have written about before, but lighter in color and flavor.  In the Sierra Madre cocktail, it compliments the mezcal exceptionally well.  The chocolate bitters bring out the orange flavors of the Aperol.  Combined with the lemon, and diluted by the sparkling water, the drink becomes a perfect summer sipper.  It’s a great introduction to these spirits because all the individual flavors are rendered more subtle and smooth.  Try it as you puzzle out the connection between the Sierra Madre cocktail and the Crypsis puzzle box.  To be continued …

What's the connection?

For more about Kel Snake:

For about Elana Lepkowski's Stir and Strain blog and to make her Sierra Madre Sunrise:

Saturday, August 1, 2015


What happens when a fine furniture maker decides to make a puzzle box?  The “Woodwink” puzzle box is a beautiful piece of woodwork designed and crafted by Australian artisan Peter Cook in his shop, Scarab Wood Studio.  The box is made from Jarrah, Sheoak and desert Snakewood, which are all indigenous Australian exotic woods, and is composed of 53 precision-made pieces.  Despite this the box is completely silent and gives no clues as to what might be going on inside.  It has a lovely burnish and wood smell, and is as smooth and polished as silk.  There are gorgeous splines along the corners and a pattern created by the colors and textures of the woods.

The Woodwink Box by Peter Cook

The box resisted efforts to open it for a while but eventually revealed its secrets.  Inside, the bottom is lined with soft leather and a little silver badge inscribed with the maker’s mark, the box’s edition number and its year of completion.  Peter has applied his masterful woodworking artistry to the art of the puzzle box and the results are gorgeous.  This is a unique box created with a tremendous amount of fine craftsmanship, and will have you “woodwinked” for a while.  It deserves a cocktail with similar qualities, finely crafted out of many parts, yet smooth and elegant at the finish, and with a hidden secret.

Leather lined interior and a little silver marker add to the elegance of this box

Which brings us to Faith and Flower’s milk punch.  This award winning restaurant in Los Angeles is home to Michael Lay, their “Chief of Booze”, a title anyone could respect.  He has delved deep into the history books (specifically “the professor” Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, from 1862) to remaster the classic “clarified milk punch” for a modern take on the old classic.  Clarified milk punch is a clear drink, which can look like water or wine, yet is made with milk!  Just change the name and it would fool anyone.  Michael Lay’s version is one complicated cocktail, which incidentally won Esquire’s “cocktail of the year” last year, so of course I had to make it.  It takes three days to complete, mostly due to the length of time needed to allow the flavors to meld initially, and then for the milk solids to settle out at the end.  Intrigued?  Typically I like a cocktail with a single bottle of base spirit, such as a nice gin, rum or bourbon.  In this case I had no less than seven (!) bottles of booze lined up ready to contribute to this masterful concoction.  It’s not as many parts as in the woodwink box, but not bad.  The fumes alone could make you drunk.  

No less than seven base spirits combine together in this boozy bomb

Keep in mind that this is meant to be a punch, served for a party.  I cut the proportions dramatically which works just as well.  The alcohol steeps in a mixture of fresh pineapple, lemon peels and green tea overnight.  The real fun begins on the second day, when you add boiling milk to the rum, cognac and bourbon mixture and watch it curdle … did I just ruin all that fine booze?  All part of the plan, all part of the plan.  After straining the milk solids away, and letting the smallest particles settle overnight, you are left with a pale yellow, clear potion.  Put it in a wine glass and you might think you are about to sip a lovely chardonnay.  But this potion packs a punch, pun intended, and has been described as a “silky smooth booze bomb”, which really sums it up nicely.  The flavors are incredible, rich, sweet, tropical, balanced and alluring, with an undertone of velvety milky-ness which lends a truly surprising element to this crystal clear drink.  This “milk punch” really hoodwinks you, but you forgive it as you reach for another.

A refined pair of puzzling beauties

For more about Michael Lay's clarified milk punch:

For more about Peter Cook: