Saturday, August 27, 2016

Great Scott!

I’ve gone “on location” for a write up a few times before, to favorite bars where the cocktail pairing was made by the house.  I brought the puzzle boxes along for the ride and set them up at the bar or on a table.  I’ve even toted a puzzle to the beaches of Hawaii (Perry McDaniel’s Hawaiian High Jinks) for a write up.  Last year I made a cocktail on location but still brought the box, at a Houston “puzzle party” based in the home of Robert Sandfield.  This time while on location things were a little different – I hadn’t planned it but there was a box that I just had to write about.  I wasn’t sure when or if I’d get another chance to see it, being one of the only two copies in existence.  At the recent Rochester Puzzle Picnic (RPP) hosted by Jeff Aurand, Brett Kuehner brought along his copy of the famous “Tinker Box” crafted and designed by Neil Hutchison and Robert Yarger.   The boxes were made as special gifts for the IPP 35 hosts last year.  I had the rare opportunity to explore and solve the box with its creator (Neil) hovering nearby, offering his brand of useful comments such as “would you, now?”, “is that what you thought?” or “that may or may not be necessary”.  Neil has a rather dry sense of humor.  It was actually an amazing pleasure to have him adding color commentary and historical insight as the box progressed, learning about stumbling blocks in the creative process and areas where he had to correct issues or rework sections.

Tinker Box by Neil Hutchison and Robert Yarger

The Tinker Box is a gorgeous piece of woodwork which requires 49 steps to reveal all three secret compartments.  The main structure is made from beautiful leopardwood and gives the box a striking patterned appearance.  It rests on hand carved legs which sprout claw like feet.  On top there are six cubic attachments along the edges of the box, which themselves are connected in various ways to links, gears and levers on the top.  One set of these appears to be connected via a long axis gear of some sort, with a complicated looking central cylinder.  There are columns and pins and shafts and levers in rich detail made from wenge and maple.  Along the front there appear to be various compartments.  

A complex set of shafts, gears, levers and connectors adorn the top

An important design concept held by the creators is that one should be able to discern the objective of a good puzzle from close observation, and go from there.  With that in mind, studying the Tinker Box does lead to a few ideas on how to get things started, and eventually you are on your way and may even discover what appears to be a tool which springs out at you, although there are no springs. Hmmm.  Don’t forget to observe this tool as well, just like everything else, or it may just remain a great head scratcher for you.  Hopefully you will be able to put the tool to better use.  At this point you might also fall prey to another clever (or devious) design detail by the creators which seems to go against your better judgement and instincts. “Does it, now?” says Neil, nodding and grinning.  Of course if you haven’t been paying attention, using the tool won’t seem to have helped at all.  At last, you are rewarded with an open compartment. “Congratulations,” says Neil. “That’s one.”  Sigh.  Two more await, and the second is a great reveal and very satisfying indeed.  In fact, there is a little scroll waiting for you there, on which there is a space to write your name and sign the “guestbook” as it were.  It’s a beautiful box, as you would expect from these artists, which spares no detail or mechanism.

Rob Roy circa 1894

Neil Hutchison originally hails from Scotland, so pairing up the Tinker Box with a cocktail naturally started there.  We have to head back to late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and meet Robert Roy MacGregor, a Scottish outlaw and folk hero known as the “Scottish Robin Hood” who took part in the Jacobite rising. His life was fictionalized in the “Highland Rogue” (1723) and later in Sir Walter Scott’s “Rob Roy” (1817).  More importantly, of course, was the creation of the famous cocktail in his honor, which occurred at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1894 to celebrate a new operetta about his life.  A Rob Roy is simply a Scotch Manhattan, that quintessential classic of rye and sweet vermouth, and equally delicious.  Those of us who appreciate a fine single malt scotch would rather not use one in a cocktail, and therefore I prefer to use a blend when making a scotch cocktail.  Luckily Jeff, our consummate host, had the perfect bottle on hand (not to mention an incredible vermouth).  The cocktail was quite satisfying, or at least Neil pretended to like it. He told me something like, “a clean shirt’ll do ye”. That’s good, right?
All kidding aside I’d like to thank Jeff, Brett and Neil for access to the legendary Tinker Box.  It’s incredible to learn that just 6 years ago, Neil had never made a thing out of wood.  Thank goodness someone suggested he try. Cheers and “lang may yer lum reek”!

A couple of Highland Rogues

Rob Roy:
2 oz Blended Scotch
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Orange peel

Stir ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass. Express the orange peel over the glass and drop inside.

For more about the Tinker Box:

For Neil Hutchison’s Blog:

For prior Boxes and Booze “on location” please see:

For more about last year’s Houston Puzzle Party see:

Can I get a hint, Neil?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sloe Down

As summer winds down and we start looking forward to Autumn I thought we should enjoy at least one more refreshing gin based drink.  Here in Houston the heat lasts for a lot longer as well so it's easy to justify.  Something like a classic and simple Tom Collins, with gin, lemon and fizz.  It’s like grown-up lemonade and great for poolside sipping.  I also have a beautiful bottle of Greenhook Ginsmith’s Beach Plum Gin, gifted from a good friend, and any excuse to add that is a good excuse.  Beach plum gin is a unique variation on classic sloe gin, the British autumn staple, but since it’s beach plum we can happily call this a (late) summer drink.  

Beach Plum Sloe Gin Fizz

Let’s back up a bit and explain sloe gin, first of all.  As the story goes, sometime in early 17th century Britain, the Enclosure Act began a land ordinance which divided public lands into private farmsteads.  Borders were established via hedgerows of Blackthorn, which produced the tart sloe berry each autumn.  It wasn’t long before these found their way into the abundant gin production of the day and viola, sloe gin was born.  Like Italian lemoncello, sloe gin is still best found as a homemade family recipe in small batches, but there are a few companies now mass producing delicious versions for all of us. 

Creative Secret Box 1 "Snail"

Sloeing things down a bit on the puzzling side as well, I present the “Snail” box, a collaborative effort from the Karakuri Creation Group.  This one is from their “Creative Secret Box” series, an initiative they developed to bring new and unusual mechanisms and movements to the classic looking puzzle box.  The Snail box, the first in the series, was designed by Shiro Tajima and crafted by Tatsuo Miyamoto.  It features the colorful and abstract yosegi design patterns seen on all of the creative secret series puzzle boxes.  

Colorful abstract patterned yosegi

I love the mechanism on this one.  It’s very simple, but very clever and may take you awhile to discover.  It certainly utilizes a movement and concept not seen prior to its creation.  It’s well hidden and must have required perfect precision to create. So slow down while exploring this one, no rush – you might even say, go at a snail’s pace.

For the Sloe Gin Fizz you can go a little faster, it’s quick and simple to make.  But then take your time enjoying it – you can easily complete this solution in a few seconds if you’re not showing some restraint!  Here’s to the late days of summer winding down.  Slow down and enjoy them before they’re all gone again for a year. Cheers!

Sloe down and enjoy a few more good summer memories

Sloe Gin Fizz (from the PDT Cocktail book by Jim Meehan)

1 oz Plymouth Gin
1 oz Sloe Gin (I used Greenhook’s Beach Plum Gin)
3/4 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 oz simple syrup
3 oz sparkling water or club soda

Shake all ingredients except soda water over ice and strain into a tall glass.  Top with the soda water and pause for a while.

For more information about the Karakuri Creation Group:

For prior boxes by Shiro Tajima please see:

For prior boxes by Tatsuo Miyamoto please see:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Victorian Age

It’s time to curl up with a good book again – we’re celebrating annual national “Book Lovers” day here at Boxes and Booze (technically it was on August 9, and hopefully you didn’t wait an entire year to celebrate!).  Right now I’ve managed to get my hands on the family copy of the new Harry Potter, my children having finally relinquished it.  I’m particularly fond of “potions” class, you know.  Last year I featured a great book puzzle box by Bill Sheckels and paired it with the Boukman’s daiquiri, a delicious variation of that classic rum cocktail.  This year I have another book puzzle to peruse on book lover’s day, which has also proven to be quite difficult to read.  Appearing as though it were plucked from the shelf of an old library hidden away inside the musty mansion of some secret society, the “Victorian Book” puzzle box, by Jesse Born from New York State, exudes an instant air of mystery.  

The Victorian Book puzzle box by Jesse Born

Jesse set out to design an old tome reminiscent of centuries past and has done an incredible job.  The layers of fine detail on this book are incredible.  Every inch is covered in hand carved flourishes, much of which was created on a lathe.  The book has striking concentric circles on each face and the spine, which are accented by beautiful buttons of spalted maple.  The pages are also hand carved to appear as irregularly stacked old parchment.  Jesse worked hard to perfect the finish, which lends the book an ancient looking patina. Made from cherry, curly maple, and spalted maple, this incredible book doesn’t stop at being stunning to look at – it’s a great puzzle box too.  There’s a surprising secret hiding here, which leads to a separate unique and very tricky opening mechanism, for those with the book smarts to deduce it.  There will be no speed reading here!  Inside is another treat – the interior is beautifully finished as well.  I may or may not have also found, secreted inside, an unpublished manuscript from Charles Dickens himself, titled “Great Expectations 2: A Cocktail of Two Cities”.  Ahem.

This is some seriously dense reading material

Speaking of Dickens, and cocktails, I think we should pour ourselves something apropos of the Victorian era to imbibe as we settle in with this formidable tome.  Dickens famously described a few of the celebrated tipples of the day in his “American Notes for General Circulation” from an 1842 visit he took to Boston.  There, he marveled at the “Gin-sling, Cocktail, Sangaree, Mint Julep, Sherry-cobbler, Timber Doodle, and other rare drinks.”  The Sherry cobbler is a great example of the simple pleasures which were state of the art at that time – exotic sherry wine mixed with sugar imported from the tropics, citrus, and ice.  Don’t overlook the ice – that was exotic too, imported down from frozen lakes in the north.  This frosty and refreshing drink was so astounding that Dickens took it with him and added it to his next novel.  A famous ‘cocktail’ scene from “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit” (1843) portrays an astonished Chuzzlewit drinking the glass dry in one go with a look of ecstasy on his face.  

Port Wine Sangaree circa 1842

We’ve already featured the cobbler, and sadly, no one knows what was in a Timber Doodle (which would be the perfect cocktail for a wood worker, don’t you think?), so here’s a classic port wine Sangaree, a perfect accompaniment for the Victorian Book puzzle.  This one survived the test of time and we see it all the time nowadays, as Sangria.  Originally it was made with madeira, or port, and just like the cobbler, simply sweetened with sugar and diluted to frosty perfection with ice.  Some citrus could be added, and it was crowned with the ultimate touch of class for the day, grated nutmeg.   Let’s settle in then, friends, with a good book, and toast the tales they tell, let’s “taste of Bacchus’ blessings now and then”, and never want for friends, or a bottle to share with them.  Cheers!

Time to settle in with a good book

Port Wine Sangaree:

4 oz port
1 teaspoon sugar
2 thin lemon wheels (optional)

Shake vigorously with ice and pour unstrained into a favorite glass.  Garnish with grated nutmeg over top.

For more about Jesse Born:

For last year’s book lover’s post, please see:

For other book puzzle boxes, please see:
Story Time  (featuring another beautiful design by Jesse Born)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Long Distance Call

Right about now a group of “international playful people” are gathered together in a (mostly) undisclosed location of the world, enjoying that beautiful city, some clever and unique mechanical puzzles which have never been seen anywhere in the world before, and best of all each other’s company.  I can’t join them in person this time but am sending this week’s post out to them and wishing them all a great time.  Last year at this time I featured a few puzzle boxes which were created by artists known to that group, whose creations were even entered into the international puzzle design competition which is hosted at that event.  One was the “Crypsis” box by Kelly Snache, a gorgeous box with a hinged lid and a distinctive butterfly resting on top.  Twirling the colorful knobs on each side might lead you to discover the correct sequence of moves needed to open the box, but beware –Kel is a mischievous fellow!  Another was the “Big Ben” puzzle by Brian Young of Mr. Puzzle fame.  Big Ben is a beautifully carved model of the famous London clock tower which sets you off on a journey of discovery. Along the way you solve steps, navigate a maze, find various tools and brainstorm just how you might use them to ultimately solve the endgame, which is to reveal the golden bell which gives the clock tower its name.  If that sounds like fun to you, you’re not alone – Big Ben won the Jury Grand Prize Award at the competition last year.

The SMS Telephone by Brian Young
Brian is at it again with the “SMS Telephone” puzzle.  I thought I would feature it this week in honor of that gathering I mentioned.  You know, those “interesting, polite pals” of mine.  It seems like as good a time as any to mention it, since it’s an “impossible, painful piece”.    What I mean is that these reviews are usually only done once a puzzle has been successfully solved.  Perhaps that lends authenticity to the review?  Or perhaps bragging rights to the author?  Well, I’m glad I never claimed to be able to solve every puzzle box – I would be regretting that boast right about now.  Most puzzle boxes aren’t really that hard to figure out, honestly.  But the SMS Telephone, that’s a different story altogether.  For now its secrets are well hidden and remain locked away.  I can’t even “phone a friend” on this telephone, since almost no one in the world has opened this puzzle yet, either!  The SMS Telephone is a handsome little sculpture which resembles an old fashioned Australian telephone box.  It comes complete with handset cradled on top connected to the main box by a wire and a rotary dial, all standard old fashioned issue. Which is all very confusing, since this is called the “SMS” telephone – and that is the ultimate challenge of this puzzle.  Hidden inside are a few compartments and again tools to find which you will need to use to solve the final mystery, which is to receive an SMS message from this old telephone.  Brian has deliberately built in false moves and booby traps to keep you from figuring things out, and apparently he really doesn’t want anyone to call him.  The line remains dead over here at any rate.  I’ll let you all know if I ever solve this one, and if you have any ideas, send me a text!

I'm getting "no signal" here ...

As you know, I’m “insistently pushing potions” to pair with these “intriguingly perplexing puzzles”.  For this “intensely pesky phone” I’ve settled on something decadent and indulgent.  This one should be sipped slowly for desert, perhaps to relax you after a long day of arguing with the phone company and getting absolutely nowhere.  The “Chadburn” is a delectable combination of tawny port, aged rum, pear liqueur and chocolate bitters which is rich and rewarding.  It was created by Martin Cate, the proprietor of “Smuggler’s Cove”, the landmark “tiki” bar in San Fransisco which helped fuel the recent tiki renaissance.  

The Chadburn by Martin Cate - pears and port, anyone?

The drink is named after the chadburn telegraph, the onboard nautical communications device which was utilized starting in the 19th century by the ship’s pilot.  It would send a message down to the engine room to alert the engineer about a change in speed or power.  The chadburn telegraph consists of a large dial face set in brass with a handle or lever which swivels around to the desired setting.  It’s classic and old fashioned look often remains intact even on modern devices which house state of the art communications.  It seem a perfect compliment to the old fashioned “SMS” telephone – and it’s a much easier solution, one you can stir right up.  I’ll be sipping one and toasting my friends across the globe as I continue to “interrogate possible ploys” on this wooden phone.  Cheers!

Intoxicating Pair Paradise

The Chadburn by Martin Cate:

½ oz tawny port
½ oz pear liqueur
2 oz aged rum
6 drops Bittermens Xocolatl Chocolate Mole Bitters
Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a favorite glass.

For more information about Brian Young:

For the Big Ben puzzle please see:

For Kel Snache's Crypsis please see: