Saturday, September 26, 2015

Secrets and Ciphers

Nestled in the dangerous shadows deep inside one of America’s secret spy enclaves, Quakertown, Pennsylvania, lives Stephen Kirk, who describes himself as a former “technology guy” in the corporate world who specialized in “data visualization / analytics”.  He started Cryptic Woodworks as a realization of his furniture making skills combined with his interests in secret codes, puzzles, and hidden mechanisms.  His “Mysterious Wood Puzzle Box with Locked Drawer” may not have the world’s most puzzling name, but it is delightfully mysterious.  

The "Mysterious Wood Puzzle Box with Locked Drawer" by Stephen Kirk

His intentions are to draw you into a code solving experience which is completely contained within the puzzle box.  There are cryptic symbols scattered all over this box, burned into the wood in decorative patterns.  The box features a prominent rotating dial on top and has four more dials on the sides.  It is hand made from cherry wood, with walnut, poplar and birch accents and details, and is a stunning, beautifully crafted piece of art with high quality finishes.  The encoded puzzle is fun to solve and really does make you interact with the box in a way unique to other puzzle boxes.

Cryptic symbols adorn the dial on top and around the box

To compliment this cryptic cask, let us contemplate the “Baconian Cipher” cocktail from Chicago’s Yusho.  Francis Bacon is considered to be the father of the “scientific method” of empiric observation and experimentation.  He made many great contributions to the arts and sciences, including one of my favorite codes, the Baconian Cipher.  Unlike a true cipher, this method involves hiding a message within a message, rather than using pure encryption.  It relies on a binary coding of two alternating elements, based on the five letter groupings devised by Bacon to correspond to the letters in the alphabet, shown below.  A common example uses different type faces in the text, such as plain and italic.  The prior sentence is an example which uses regular and bold text to conceal a message – can you decipher it? Some examples are more subtle, and harder to spot.  The code can even be translated onto everyday objects, such that you could potentially hide a message in plain sight.

a     AAAAA               g     AABBA               n     ABBAA               t      BAABA
b     AAAAB               h     AABBB               o     ABBAB               u-v   BAABB
c     AAABA               i-j    ABAAA               p     ABBBA               w     BABAA
d     AAABB               k     ABAAB               q     ABBBB               x      BABAB
e     AABAA               l      ABABA                r     BAAAA               y      BABBA
f      AABAB               m    ABABB               s     BAAAB               z      BABBB

The Baconian Cipher cocktail combines some rather specific ingredients including anejo tequila, a rich sweet vermouth called Cocchi di Torino, and an aperitif based off of a recipe from the 1860’s which originated in Turin, Italy, called Gran Classico, along with a drop of tamarind bitters.

The Baconian Cipher cocktail from Yusho Chicago

Although the drink is spectacular, layered, and delicious, it would be truly puzzling to find all those ingredients in your cabinet (although not so puzzling to find them in mine!).  Luckily, this type of combination – a base spirit, a vermouth, and an aperitif – is based on the classic negroni (gin, Campari, vermouth), which you can always happily substitute.  Try some other great negroni variations here and here as well.  I’ll raise my glass to this mysterious puzzle box maker and wonder what cryptic woodwork he will come up with next.  Cheers!

The Baconian cocktail sits nestled on a shelf amidst some of its friends.  There is something puzzling going on here ... deciphering it could be quite rewarding for someone.

For more information on Cryptic Woodworks:

For the Baconian Cipher recipe:

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Ahoy, Mateys.  I’m sure you are all aware that today (September 19) is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  This crazy holiday was started by a couple of salty dogs named Ol’ Chumbucket (John Baur) and Cap’n Slappy (Mark Summers) who drop anchor in Oregon and came up with this jolly roger of an idea back in 1995.  The idea was popularized by Dave Barry, the humorist and author, in 2002.  Dave Barry has serious pirate cred with his incredible series of Peter and the Starcatcher books.  The theme has achieved true social media legitimacy now with options to choose the “pirate” language on both Facebook and Google.   

The Pirate Box by Tatsuo Miyamoto

Lest I be made to walk the plank for insubordination, I present the Pirates Box by Tatsuo Miyamoto of the Karakuri Creation Group.  He explains that a pirate ship wharf mural on the wall of the new Sekisyo Karakuri Art Museum in Hakone Japan, the home of the Karakuri group, inspired him to create this puzzle box.  The Pirates Box looks just like a classic small pirate’s treasure chest.  The lid opens without fanfare and inside is a small wood and metal padlock which guards the loot.  Some experimentation and prodding reveals that this puzzle utilizes kannuki sliding keys, a common feature on classic Japanese himitsu-bako (secret boxes) well known to those with puzzle sea legs.  However, these keys don’t function exactly as might be expected, but use a little hornswaggle Miyamoto has perfected.  You won’t end up with an eye patch or a hand hook trying to break into this dead man’s chest, but you might shiver a few timbers.

Locked up tighter than hardtack 

If you haven’t already figured it out, I really love rum. A lot.  I’ve written before about the daiquiri, one of the great, simple, classic cocktails of all time, which is often completely misunderstood.  But on Pirate Day, let the scallywags sip on the dainty daiquiri.  We need something swarthy to glug from our pewter flagons as we shout yo-ho-ho.  Fear not, bilge rats, for in fact, the first “pre-prohibition” clap of thunder (pirate craft cocktail) I ever tried, many years ago now, which launched my mixology madness, was the “Dark and Stormy”.  

The Dark and Stormy.  Pirate spoon optional.  Whoever drank my rum ration will face the hempen halter. 

Back in 1806, James Gosling ran aground en route to America from England, in St. George’s, Bermuda.  50 years later, he perfected his blend of dark rums into what would become Gosling’s Black Seal Rum.  The Dark and Stormy is classically (and officially) made with this rum and Gosling’s ginger beer.  In Bermuda, that’s all that goes in the glass, but in the US we add lime juice as well, which gives the drink an extra layer of richness, and more importantly, prevents scurvy.  We can parley this dispute with the Bermudians until we’re loaded to the gunwall but both versions are delicious.  So get plundering and avail yourself of some dark rum, some spicy ginger beer, and a squeeze of lime, for a puzzling good time, or I’ll see you at Davy Jones Locker.  Now splice the mainbrace, me hearties, tip your tankard and bottoms up!

Pour some down your bung hole but don't go three sheets to the wind, pirate puzzlers.  

For the official “Talk Like a Pirate Day” website:

For more about Tatsuo Miyamoto:

For a seaworthy recipe of the Dark and Stormy:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Apples and Honey

Knowing my proclivity for highlighting national calendar days, my father made sure to remind me about National Grandparents Day, which is today.  It seems an auspicious opportunity to also celebrate life, renewal, family, and those whom we love.  At this time each autumn, we eat apples with honey to symbolize the sweetness in life and of our hopes for another sweet year.  It sounds like the makings of a great cocktail as well if you ask me.  After all, an auspicious year should start with a great toast.

The Honeybee Box by Haroyuki Oka

The Honeybee box, made by Hiroyuki Oka of the KarakuriCreation Group, seems like a perfect little puzzle box to capture these themes as well.  Oka says that he designed the box with the notion of springtime in mind, but I think the honey tastes just as sweet this time of year.  The puzzle is beautifully made from beech,  karin, lacquer tree, walnut, purple heart, mizuki (dogwood), and other colorful woods which work together to create a little flower on a stalk.  The cute honey bee buzzes around and is integral to solving the puzzle and opening the box.  This is such a finely made box that the correct solution can remain hidden despite trying the proper maneuver over and over, without realizing it.  The fine lines which separate different pieces are well hidden and disappear when the box is closed.  It took me quite a while to figure out how to get to the honey!  Oka is known for his fine puzzle box craftsmanship and currently offers a range of traditional Japanese puzzle boxes on his website

The colorful woods make this a bright and cheerful puzzle

To continue the theme, I created an apples and honey cocktail.  The “Sweet Year Sour” is a variation on the Gold Rush cocktail which I have featured previously.  If you recall, that is a modern take on the classic whiskey sour, which uses honey syrup instead of simple sugar syrup.  For the Sweet Year Sour, I kept in some bourbon for my dad, who loves bourbon, added in some apple brandy, and a few dashes of baked apple bitters to bring it all together, to create a “Gold Rosh” from a “Gold Rush”.  Groan if you will, this is one tasty cocktail!  If you would rather leave out the bitters, no one will weep.  In case you missed all the subtle metaphors going on here, I’ll conclude with a few more tasting notes.  Try this lovely libation and toast the changing weather, the sweetness of life, love, family and friends, the wisdom of our parents, and our children, and appreciate how this sour is really quite sweet.   Happy New Year!

The Sweet Year Sour - apples and honey in a glass

The Sweet Year Sour:

1 oz bourbon
1 oz apple brandy
1 oz honey syrup (1:1 honey and water)
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
3 dashes baked apple bitters

A little "buzz" for a sweet year!

For more information on Hiroyuki Oka:

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Get Lost!

It’s time to get lost in a good book.  September 6 is “National Read a Book Day”.  I seem to enjoy celebrating these contrived national days and this one is hard to pass up.  It’s slightly different from the recent “National Book Lover’s Day”, which is really more inclusive and easier since you’re not required to actually read the book on that day, just "love" it.   Which is great since we loved ourselves a Boukman’s daiquiri and attempted to open Bill Sheckel’s Book puzzle box (loved it!).  Now that it is “read a book day” it suggests there are plenty of other variations to come up with as well, and have enough for a “book lover’s” month!  Might I suggest, “favorite quote from a book" day, or “about the author" day, or “clever chapter names" day?  Or perhaps my favorite, “lost in a good book" day.  There’s already a fun novel with that name (see Jasper Fford) and I know the perfect puzzle box for it, too (surprise!).  

The Book (Zougan) by Akio Kamei
Akio Kamei of the Karakuri Creation Group (inspirer of many fine boxes and booze) made a series of special book puzzles with differing designs.  Some have geometric patterns with classic Yosegi marquetry wood inlay, some have cute stripes in alternating colors, and some have a beautiful “Zougan” style wooden inlay depicting lovely cranes.  Japanese woodworking is famous for its unique styles of wood inlay. Yosegi refers to a process of creating geometric designs out of thin wood sections arranged and glued together to form blocks, then shaved off in thin layers to be affixed over wooden crafts.  The Zougan style refers to the inlay process of creating pictures and shapes from solid pieces of naturally colored wood, and the technique is original to the Hakone mountain region of Japan.  The Zougan cranes on Kamei’s book puzzle were crafted by Haruo Uchiyama, a master craftsman of this style.

Beautiful wood inlay and page texture

Getting lost in Kamei’s book is really quite easy.  Once you discover the simple opening mechanism and reveal the internal compartment of the book, you might be tempted to stash something secretly in there.  Which is perfect, because it will have disappeared when you try to retrieve it again!  The book is a magic trick box puzzle box.  To complement this artfully mysterious monograph I have created the “Lost Word” cocktail.  The tipple is a tribute to the Last Word cocktail, a well known prohibition era potion which originated in 1920’s Detroit and was made famous by a vaudeville actor known for his monologues.  In the Last Word, maraschino liqueur is used to sweeten the drink.  I exchanged this for apricot liqueur, in homage to Kamei and Uchiyama who also collaborated on another puzzle box masterpiece called “Apricot”.  

The Lost Word Cocktail - it's the last word in book puzzle boxes

The “Lost Word” gives this classic cocktail a new modern spin and the result is highly enjoyable.  Try one and get lost in a good book – just don’t save the recipe in this book puzzle, you may never find it again!

The Lost Word Cocktail:
¾ oz gin
¾ oz green Chartreuse
¾ oz apricot liqueur
¾ oz fresh lime juice
Shake together over ice, strain and serve straight up with your favorite book

Get Lost in a Good Book!

For more information on Akio Kamei:

For more information on the Last Word cocktail: