Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Easy Road to Cuba

What’s old is new, and what’s new isn't really.  We are going back to Cuba again here on B+B.  In July, 2015, the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations after over 50 years of silence.  Perhaps this year we will see the long standing embargoes lifted.  Time will tell, as they say, but rather than wait, let’s get puzzling. In prior posts I have discussed a series of “cigar” themed puzzle boxes known as the “Havana’s” boxes, made by Carolina based woodworker Eric Fuller.  The series includes 4 boxes, each designed to house a single cigar, with increasingly difficult hidden opening mechanisms.  Eric is particularly good at designing tricky mechanisms, small hidden details, and detours or traps which distract you from the goal.  He wanted the Havana’s Box #4, the final installment, to be the most difficult to solve, and it certainly lives up to that objective.  

The Havana's Box #4 by Eric Fuller

I would argue that none of the boxes in this series are what could be considered easy, though, and I was certainly stumped for a long time on both #2 and #3.  Box #4 is once again beautifully hand crafted, made from Quartersawn Sapele and Wenge veneer, and made to look almost identical to Box #1 to acknowledge the project had come full circle.  What’s new is old.  Box #4, also known as the “Bruce” (after another one of the bartenders at the Havana’s Deluxe Bar, where Fuller frequently enjoys his cigars), has a remarkable feature which is discovered early on and which is unlike anything similar I have seen.  There are a few other discoveries in store, and a critical logic point which must be surmounted, but this initial feature dominates the experience and defines this box in a special way.  It’s an incredible puzzle box – though I would advise you not be in a hurry to get to the cigar!

Something particularly devious is going on here ...

As with the prior Havana’s boxes, we need something particularly Cuban to imbibe along with the experience.  It’s time to introduce what some perceive as the “lazy person’s” cocktail.  Something incredibly easy to balance the incredibly difficult puzzle box.  The story (there’s always a story if it’s a great cocktail) goes back to 1898, when Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders took control of San Juan Hill in Cuba, signaling the beginning of the end to the Spanish American War.  The US occupation of Cuba lasted from 1898 to 1902, which was just enough time for US produced Coca Cola to mingle with Cuban made rum.  This probably happened in 1900, with various accounts of who, what and where, as usual in cocktail lore.  Perhaps, as recorded by many historians, Captain Russel of the US Army Signal Corps, after ordering a rum, a coke, and a lime wedge, toasted, “Por Cuba Libre!” (To "Free Cuba”), and the Cuba Libre was born.  

The Cuba Libre

This incredibly simple, easy, and tasty drink has certainly stood the test of time, and remains ever popular today.  Perhaps you remember, or more likely, don’t remember, what you have done after a few “rum and cokes”?  With the resurgence of quality craft cocktail enthusiasm, you will likely find that your rum and coke is now more like the original “Cuba Libre”, which includes fresh lime juice and a few dashes of Angostura bitters.  What’s old is new.  Some even insist the original had a bit of gin in the mix.  It’s impossible to know exactly how the original Cuba Libre tasted, but it was certainly more complex than a rum and coke.  Coca Cola was very different in 1900, after all, both in flavor and certain ingredients ….  What’s remained the same is how easy it is to make.  So you can save up your energy for the puzzle box, obviously.  Cheers!

See you in Havana!

Cuba Libre:

2 oz rum (light, dark, aged – it’s all up to you. Go on, experiment!)
½ oz fresh squeezed lime juice (about ½ a lime)
Cola (Mexican Coca Cola is great due to the cane sugar, and other small batch brands are great too)
½ oz gin (optional, for the truly ambitious)
 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters

Squeeze the lime into your glass then drop it in.  Add the rum (and gin).  Drop in a few ice cubes, add the cola and bitters, stir, and enjoy.

For Eric Fuller’s website:

For a great article on the Cuba Libre:

For prior Boxes and Booze posts about the Havana’s Box series please see:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Story Time

A quick post this weekend about how boxes and booze can tell stories.  This week we are featuring a beautiful wooden book created by up and coming woodworker Jesse Born from Rome, New York.  His “Book” puzzle is an elegantly crafted delight to hold and explore.  Made from maple, cherry and pine woods, it has additional accents of mahogany and spalted maple.

The Book Puzzle by Jesse Born

The book has a soft and warm wax finish.  The details are really lovely, from the artistic crescent along the spine to the incredibly realistic wooden pages.  But this book is a ruse.  It hides a secret inside, and perhaps a good story to go with it.  The opening mechanism is clever and, if you will allow me the liberty, quite “novel”.  It’s sure to put a smile on your face once you discover it.

Beautiful details and craftsmanship - look at those pages!

A prior pairing took us on location to Houston's Spare Key bar (see here).  To pair a potion with this beautiful book, I headed to another one of Houston’s "storied" cocktail bars.  “Julep” has received national praise over the past year or so since it opened, being hailed as one of the country’s best new bars, along with it’s owner, Alba Huerta, who has been receiving her own accolades.  The bar focuses on southern hospitality, as its namesake drink evokes scenes of country breezes, porch swings, and festive parties.  

Something puzzling is going on at Julep ...

At Julep I found a delicious libation to pair up with the Book puzzle box, called “The Ruse”.  The drink combines bourbon, amaro, Palo Cortado sherry, cane syrup, orgeat, lemon and orange bitters.  There is a citrusy tart and sweet richness to this cocktail that works so well.  Palo Cortado sherry is a mysterious ingredient, which starts life developing as a dry “fino” type sherry, but somehow ages and matures more like a sweeter “oloroso” type sherry, and thus retains qualities of both.  Perhaps this is the “ruse” referred to by the cocktail’s name.  It certainly pairs well with a puzzle box.  Huerta says that every great cocktail tells a story.  Cheers to the stories you come up with along your puzzling paths.

It's all a "Ruse" ... 

To visit Jesse Born’s website:

For more information about Julep:

For prior “Book” themed Boxes and Booze please visit:

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Puzzled by Love

Love is in the air

So how did this all start, anyway?  “St. Valentine” may have been one of many different priests of that name from Roman times, but most stories seem to agree that he was a Roman priest during the third century who performed secret marriages for young soldiers, despite the decree by Emperor Claudius II that they could not marry.  Perhaps he was imprisoned for his actions, other stories suggest, and before his death sentence, he sent a love letter to his jailer’s daughter, signed “from your Valentine”.   Hmmm, that’s nice, and sad and all, but there is probably a bit more to it.  Having to do with the Pagans, as usual, and efforts to appropriate all of their holidays.

The Pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia fell on the Ides of February (Feb 15).  The Priests of the Luperci would gather at the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, had been mystically born and raised by a she wolf.  The festivities involved the slaughter of a goat, whose hide was cut into strips, soaked in blood, and then paraded around the city by the priests and used to slap and mark the young women, to improve their fertility, of course.  I’m not making this up. I don’t know if someone else did, but it wasn't me.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Christian church anointed St. Valentine’s day on February 14th, in order to suppress this other, unsavory holiday.  So now we give cards instead of blood soaked goat hide.

The Love Box 5 by Akio Kamei

The “heart” shape is also a common Valentine’s day motif.  It’s curious how this shape came to be associated with the symbolic emotional or romantic heart, since it looks nothing like an actual heart.  The earliest known depictions of the heart shape are from medieval times, where it usually represented a leaf, such as a fig leaf.  It’s curious to imagine a man handing his true love his fig leaf.  Really gets the point across.  Throughout the middle ages the romantic heart shape appeared in artworks which show its evolution from the earliest upside down pinecone shape, in a 1250 manuscript, to the more modern symmetrically scalloped, indented shape we know today, which appeared in the 14th century.  This recognizable heart shape was known at the time as the “hallmark heart”.  Or maybe I just made that part up, who knows.

Go on, you know you want one

To posit that love may be purely mathematically, here is a concept to ponder: if you place two equal circles so they just touch each other, and trace the path of one rotating around the other from the original point of contact back to the start, you will have created a heart-like shape called a cardioid.  And if you are really ambitious, you can solve this equation for true love: (x2 + y2 − 1)3 − x2y3 = 0.

The Love Box No. 5

To celebrate Valentine’s Day here at Boxes and Booze, I have paired modern Japanese puzzle box master Akio Kamei’s “Love Box 5” with a special cocktail I created for the occasion.  Kamei created a number of “Love Box” puzzles shaped like little hearts.  No. 5 is a cute little piece in dark wood, with a bright yellow wood ribbon, and a red cloth lined secret compartment.  It’s not too tricky, like a pleasant metaphor about how love should be.  The cocktail, which I have named the “Love Box No. 5” for some reason, is a delicious variation on the Negroni, a perfect cocktail I have discussed in the prior posts.  It’s rich and nuanced, with some bitterness to balance the sweetness, like another true love metaphor. And it has chocolate, which is always a good thing.  Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day!

This cocktail will steal your heart

The Love Box No. 5

1 oz Tempis Fugit Crème de Cacao
1 oz Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
1 oz Campari
2 dashes Bitter Truth Mole Chocolate Bitters

Stir together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.

There's a lot of love here folks.  Cheers!

For more information about Akio Kamei:

For prior Negroni related Boxes and Booze:

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Key Secrets

Way back in the “days of old”, according to the story, the city’s valuables were held in safes which were duly guarded by designated “Keepers”.  The Keepers were personally responsible for the security of these safes, and holding onto the key that opened them.  To no one’s surprise, the keys could go missing, or be stolen, resulting in rather dire consequences for said Keepers.  The Keepers devised a solution in the form of a “Key Safe”, which was essentially an early puzzle box in which to secure the key.  The secrets of opening the key safe were known only to the society of Keepers, whose cunning rose above the common, befuddled folk.  

The Keeper's Key Safe by Randal Gatewood

Randal Gatewood, the expert woodworker and crafty puzzle box purveyor of Quagmire Puzzle Boxes, brought this concept back to life with his limited series of “Keepers Key Safe” puzzles.  The box takes the form of a small chest which was expertly crafted by hand from Argentine Mahogany, and polished with a special lacquer and beeswax finish.  

The lid slides back, but the puzzle has just begun ...

The lid slides smoothly back to reveal another internal wood panel, locked in place, with a slot for the key and branded with the Quagmire Puzzle Box logo.  The little wood key is supplied as well, which easily drops into the box through the slot for safe keeping.  As Keeper of the Key Safe, only you understand the clever 7 step movement required to retrieve it.  You hope.  Otherwise, you will be locked away from something valuable, such as your pride.

Can you keep the Key safe?

Houston’s craft cocktail bar scene has garnered numerous national accolades over the past few years, starting with Anvil Bar and Refuge, which set the standard.  A few Anvil alums have branched out on their own and opened bars recently.  One notable standout is Spare Key, a secluded “secret” upstairs bar run by Chris Frankel.  The bar sits above a popular restaurant, and has no external marking to announce itself except for a stenciled key on a back side door.  

Hmmm, I wonder whats up here?

Hmmm, secret boxes, secret bars, not so secret appeal.  Frankel has been lauded for his innovative bar programs around Houston.  At Spare Key, in addition to impeccably executed classics and an incredible specialty cocktail menu, Frankel has launched his “Unlock the States” menu. It features 51 different cocktails, one for each state plus DC.  The cocktails range from old classics to new standards, all related to that state in some fashion.  It’s kind of like pairing a cocktail with a puzzle box, right?  I’m probably the only one who sees it that way, but I’m okay with that.  I thought it would be fun to bring the Keeper’s Key Safe to the Spare Key bar, and see what Chris might come up with.  Luckily he was up for the challenge.  He didn’t fare too well with the puzzle box, but in his defense he was trying to open up the bar for the night.  I mentioned that Randal Gatewood, who created the Key Safe box, is from Texas as well, so a Texas themed drink might be in order.  

The Gatewood by Chris Frankel

The Texas “Unlock the States” drink is a margarita, but Chris whipped up a new drink he created on the spot for this impromptu challenge.  He combined Sotol, an indigenous Mexican spirit similar to tequila but from a slightly different plant and region, with Cocchi Americano, the light Italian Aperitif, Benedictine, and fresh lemon juice.  The drink was incredibly light and smooth, with subtle smokiness and sweetness.  It’s a delicious Texas treat to complement the Key Safe, and we decided to name it the “Gatewood”.  Here’s to the creative and talented artists who bring such skill to these remarkable creations, and make it look easy.  Cheers!

If you've got any spare keys, you might want to keep them safe ...

For more information about Randal Gatewood:

For more information about Spare Key and Chris Frankel: