Saturday, October 29, 2016

Separation Anxiety

One of the charming things about most Japanese puzzle boxes is that in general, they are usually not very difficult to solve.   They provide just enough mystery to be entertaining but not frustrating.  There is great pleasure in discovering the secret mechanism, and these boxes indulge that feeling by providing the right amount of deception to keep you guessing briefly and then rewarding you. They are like puzzle box candy. Naturally, if this is the expectation, there is always the exception, at least with Japanese puzzle boxes.  Eric Fuller is not Japanese, so these rules don’t apply to him – he prefers to make the exception the rule.  Which is to say, he delights in making his puzzle boxes extremely difficult to open.  And of course, we puzzle box partisans rejoice.   

The Spline Box 3 by Eric Fuller

One of his design concepts involves the wood joinery detail known as a “spline”.  These accents can provide stability and strength to joints or simply add a decorative touch.  He has created a few puzzle boxes which incorporate these details in different ways.  Each is a wooden cube adorned with splines at each corner.  The “Spline Box 3”, the third in the series, has been a notoriously difficult puzzle to open.  I spent about a year and a half working on it, off and on, with no luck, convinced that it no longer functioned properly (damned Houston humidity), until very recently it finally yielded up its secrets (humidity be damned).  I had even deduced correctly how it worked and what was required, but even so, a year and a half.  There are plenty of collectors out there who have never opened their copy.  The mechanism is so specific, and the woodworking so precise, that the solution will elude you if you are even a fraction off the mark.  Eric envisioned it would be this way, and perhaps he succeeded better than he imagined.  I believe people have even sent their box back to him thinking it must be defective, only to have him send it back, assuring them that he opened it just fine, and that they are merely deficient.  I added that last part – now that I have opened mine I can poke fun at other people.  So if you really want to torture yourself, give the Spline Box 3 a try.  Just be sure to have a few Japanese puzzle boxes handy to ease your nerves now and then.

Gratuitous interior photo with no spoilers - it really does open!!

This puzzle was so difficult to open, and took so long, you might say it gave me some serious “separation anxiety”.  It tested my motto that “a good cocktail isn’t puzzling, but a good puzzle might just make you need one”.  So let’s indulge that sentiment, shall we?  This time of year is great for bourbon and autumn flavors.  The Lion’s Tail is a perfect classic cocktail for the season.  It features allspice liqueur (also called "pimento dram", because allspice is the dried berry of the pimenta dioica tree, not because it has anything to do with red peppers, of course, but I digress) which evokes flavors of allspice, cinnamon, clove and cardamom in a rum base.  Delicious but potent - a little goes a long way.  Add that to bourbon and lime for a very satisfying sip which first appeared in the "Cafe Royal Cocktail Book" by William J. Tarling in 1937.  To "twist the lion's tail" was to act particularly "British", suggesting this cocktail was the result of a prohibition era London-based expatriate, or so the prevailing theory goes.  

The "Separation Anxiety"

With the Spline 3 taunting us, rather than allspice liqueur, I substituted Besamim, an unusual spirit which is infused with a mixture of similar spice flavors including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.  Besamim (which means “spice”) is associated with the “Havdalah” ceremony which symbolizes “separation” – the word Havdalah translates as “separation”.  How could I not use a liqueur which symbolizes "separation" in a puzzle paired cocktail?  Besamim liqueur is made by the same artisanal distillery (Sukkah Hill Spirits) which created Etrog liqueur, another very unusual flavor that I featured in the Harvest Highball.  Let this Lion's Tail variation, which I call the “Separation Anxiety” cocktail, calm your nerves as you attempt to separate the Spline Box 3, or any other of Eric Fuller’s devious designs! Cheers!

True to my motto, this puzzle deserves its own cocktail

Separation Anxiety: 

2 oz bourbon
½ oz Besamim liqueur (or use Allspice dram)
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz demerara syrup
2 Dashes Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Extremely frustrating puzzle box optional.

For Eric Fuller’s website see:

For prior Eric Fuller puzzles see:

For more information about Sukkah Hill Spirits see:

For the Harvest Highball see:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Harvest Hijinks

I love autumn.  As if you couldn’t tell already, with all the recent autumn themed puzzles and cocktails featured here the past few weeks.   I’ve even been stretching my repertoire a bit with some autumn themed cocktail creations of my own, such as the Autumn Daze and the Waterfall (paired with some seriously amazing puzzle boxes).  We haven’t exactly broken out the sweaters yet here in Houston, but there’s a chill in the air for sure. So here’s one more for good measure, which incorporates the holiday Sukkot as well.  What’s that, you say?  The “Festival of Booths” comes around this time of year to celebrate the harvest season.  Reminiscent of the harvester’s hut, which was set out in the fields of yore during the season, a sukkah is a little outdoor shelter where you can rest, eat, and look at the stars. You’ll also find a strange citrus fruit there called an etrog, or citron. This ancient Mediterranean fruit looks like a fat wrinkled lemon and has an intense citrus and violet fragrance – cocktails, anyone?  

Secret Box House

It turns out that a small distillery in Los Angeles has actually created an Etrog liqueur, which is so unusual that I literally decided to create an entire box and booze pairing around it.  Starting with the cocktail, I thought about other fruit flavors of this seasonal holiday, which include apples, pears, figs, grapes and pomegranates.    Pomegranate equals grenadine, of course, and I’ll use any excuse to break out the apple brandy (or Applejack).  So here’s the “Harvest Highball”, made with Applejack, Etrog, and a fig-pomegranate grenadine.  It’s pretty tasty.

Harvest Highball

Now we need a little hut under which to imbibe this bountiful beverage.  It’s not exactly a hut, I admit, but it is a really cute little house.  It might even be made out of palm, myrtle and willow woods, who knows?  Those are the symbolic branches of Sukkot, by the way, in case anyone wants to make a puzzle box out of them.  The “Secret Box House” was created by the master craftsmen in Hakone, Japan, the cradle of yosegi marquetry woodwork and origin of the “himitsu-bako”, or secret box.  The house is adorned with incredible yosegi details, including the bricks of the house, the chimney, and the shingles on the roof.  Of course, to truly appreciate the beauty of the season we need to be able to see the stars from our hut.  On this little house, it will take 12 secret moves to accomplish that task, and every adorable detail of the house must be used.  There’s a front door, a few windows, a tiny chimney – it’s going to take a bit of home improvement to open the sky light, but you’ll have a lot of fun in the process.  This is a really enjoyable little puzzle box, with plenty of tricks to keep you guessing packed into a charming shape.  So turn on Cannonball Adderly’s “Autumn Leaves” and get up to some harvest hijinks yourself as well.  Cheers!

This cozy couple are ready for the autumn

Harvest Highball
1 ½ Laird’s Applejack
¾ oz fresh lime juice
¾ oz fig grenadine
½ oz Etrog liqueuer (Sukkah Hill Spirits)
3-6 oz club soda to taste
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir all ingredients over ice and enjoy while listening to Autumn Leaves.

For more information about Sukkah Hill Spirits:

For more information about Japanese yosegi marquetry see:

For more information about Applejack see:

For a prior cocktail with grenadine see:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Complimentary Condimentaries

The deviously puzzling Sandfield brothers, Robert and Norman, designed their Salt and Pepper Shakers to exchange at IPP 22 held in Antwerp in 2002.  Like so many of their puzzle designs, the salt and pepper shakers feature impossible dovetails on each end.  They were expertly crafted from oak and walnut by their friend and long-time Sandfield collaborator Perry McDaniel, whose precision expertise is easily seen in this pair of what I have dubbed, “complimentary condimentaries”.  The brothers Sandfield are well known for their “puzzler’s puzzles”, which second guess what many “puzzle experts” would normally try in their attempts to find the solution.  They lay traps which have absolutely nothing to do with solving the puzzles, and thoroughly enjoy when people fall into them.  The salt and pepper shakers were just such a trap which they set for well “seasoned” puzzlers during the exchange. As the story goes, they each went round, exchanging their puzzles separately, to give the illusion that they were independent.  At least they made sure that everyone who got one puzzle, also got the other.  But many fell into the trap, and never realized that in order to open either the salt or the pepper shaker, you need both together. 

Salt and Pepper Shakers by Norman and Robert Sandfield

The shakers are often considered to be one of their greatest designs. They are a “sequential discovery” type puzzle, with the added wrinkle of being interdependent, so that an item or “tool” discovered in one shaker may very well be needed for a step on the other shaker.  They are also perfectly elegant in the way that nothing is wasted in the design, everything has an exact purpose and use, and there is at least one rather beautiful, unique movement which is unforgettable and brilliantly executed.  When every last discovery and compartment is revealed, you do indeed find a bit of salt and some pepper secreted away in two tiny compartments (they are technically puzzle boxes, according to my very broad definition) – but I wouldn’t use these as your go-to table side seasonings.  Unless you like to let your food get cold!

For the "seasoned" puzzler ...

I’ve been playing around with salt and pepper in cocktails as well, so this provided a nice excuse to make a few more.  Salt and pepper in cocktails is nothing new – you are probably familiar with a salted rim on your margarita, or fresh black pepper in your bloody mary.  But these ingredients have been finding their way into all sorts of cocktails as more prominent players over the last few years.  A true cocktail, dating back to the origins of the concept, should always be properly “seasoned”. What distinguished the cocktail of yore from otherwise ordinary booze was the combination of the spirit with sugar and “bitters”, those medicinal elixirs made of bits of bark, spices and seasonings.  Bitters are literally referred to as the “salt and pepper” of cocktails, even though they are usually far more complex.  

Passing Cars by Yours Truly

Let’s keep it simple (not really) and focus on just the salt and the pepper, shall we?
For the salt cocktail, I present one of my own creations, the “Passing Cars”.  This savory and satisfying solution is created with a base of gin created in the “old style”.  Ransom distillery teamed up with cocktail historian David Wondrich to recreate the type of gin found in the mid 1800’s, pre-prohibition cocktail heyday.  Standout features of this gin are a maltiness due to a base wort of malted barley and the infusion of botanicals in corn spirits, which is then aged in barrels – sounds a bit like bourbon, no? This unusual gin is then combined with lemon juice, Cynar (an artichoke(!) based Italian Amaro) and parsley syrup and finished off with, of course, a salt water solution. 

For the pepper cocktail, I borrowed a smoky, peaty and peppery scotch creation from New York’s Up and Up bar.  Inspired by the “Rob Roy” (previously featured here), creator Matt Piacentini describes how his “Peat’s Dragon” flaunts a “super concentrated” black pepper tincture amid a mix of Cutty Sark Prohibition and Talisker 10-year-old scotches, Lillet Blanc, Dolin dry vermouth and Grand Marnier.

Peat's Dragon by Matt Piacentini

So next time you reach for the salt and pepper shaker, it just might be for your cocktail! And don’t blame me if you find this all very puzzling – I blame the Sandfields.  Here’s to savoring the well-seasoned diversions in all our lives.  Cheers!

"Cocktail - Shakers"

Peat’s Dragon adapted from Matt Piacentini (The Up&Up, NYC)

1 oz Cutty Sark Prohibition whisky (I used High West Campfire Whiskey)
½ oz Talisker 10-year whisky (I used Compass Box Peat Monster)
½ oz Lillet Blanc (I used Cocchi Americano)
½ oz Dolin dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat)
½ oz Grand Marnier (I used Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao)
¼ oz black peppercorn tincture

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.

*Black pepper tincture: Steep 4 oz of black peppercorns, then add in a blender with 1 liter of Everclear. Strain through a cheesecloth, and cut with equal parts water.

Passing Cars:

1 ½ oz Ransom Old Tom Gin
1 oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz Cynar
½ oz parsley syrup*
Few dashes of salt water solution

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a sprig of parsley.

*Parsley syrup: Bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to gentle boil.  Remove from heat and add a few bunches of parsley.  Steep for 5 minutes then strain out parsley before bottling.

For more Sandfield creations see:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Chasing Waterfalls

With fall in full swing it’s the perfect time for cocktails and puzzle boxes.  I know, I know - when isn’t it a good time for cocktails and puzzle boxes, right? The flavors of fall are evocative of the season and work so well in cocktails and spirits, too.  For this particular fall cocktail we’ll use a crisp, fine pear brandy.  But first we need to back up, all the way to 17th century France, where an Alsatian monk may or may not have (as with all great cocktail lore) fermented some mashed up cherries to create a restorative and curative elixir which he called “eau de vie”, French for “water of life”.  Eau de vie are clear distilled fruit brandies, unaged and bursting with the intense essential flavor from which they are derived.  Very different from fruit liqueurs, which are sweet and satisfying in their own right, eau de vie are dry and highly aromatic.  Technically, any distilled spirit is an eau de vie.  For example, Scotch, which is distilled from malted barley, derives the name “whisky” from a Gaelic word meaning “water of life”.  But typically eau de vie refers to the clear fruit brandies, and there are plenty of great fall options.  As mentioned I selected a perfect pear brandy eau de vie, which we can consider a “water of fall”.

The 83 Move Waterfall Box by Kagen Sound

Coincidentally, I know just the box to pair with this pear.  Considered by many to be a master of the art, Kagen Sound (nee Schaeffer) crafts his artisanal puzzle boxes in Colorado using his mathematical mindset and wood working techniques usually reserved for fine musical instruments.  One of his modern masterpieces is his “Waterfall” box set.  This series of 5 puzzle boxes are beautifully rendered from walnut and feature decorative inlay ribbons of wenge and maple which run around the boxes in various intentional patterns.  The series builds with the first four from the “7” move box to the “15”, “19” and “42” move boxes.  Add these together (7+15+19+42) and you have the final installment, the “83” Move Waterfall Box. 

Tiny inlay clues map each side. Notice how the ribbons don't line up ... yet.

On the first four boxes, the dark wood inlay ribbon runs around the boxes in a serpentine, irregular fashion.  This is a clue as to how the panels need to move in order to open the box.  Unlike traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, which typically have 4 sliding side panels that move in fairly predictable ways, the Waterfall box panels move on all sides, and in multiple directions.  The ribbon clues are helpful but only just get you started.  As the number of moves goes up, the ribbon becomes less and less helpful.  On the 83 move box, the ribbons wrap all around on all sides like a well tied up present, and each side panel has a little clue in the center. Unique to this final box in the series, these little inlaid clues are a map to the movement of each individual panel.  Another clever design feature is that when the box is closed, the ribbons wrapping it do not line up – but when the box is solved, they do.  And the piece de rĂ©sistance reveals serious pre-planning, considering that these boxes were created over a five year period: if the first four boxes in the series are stacked together in the proper way, they form a new ribbon which reveals the initial opening sequence  for the final box.  Viola!

The Waterfall cocktail

I suppose I should create a meta cocktail to compliment the Waterfall Box, building four separate drinks which share some common theme and a fifth which takes elements from the first four and adds even more.  I guess I’m not as ambitious as Kagen Sound.  My “Waterfall” cocktail will have to do.  Based off the “water of fall” pear brandy, it adds fresh lemon juice, maple syrup (for that eau so autumn sweetness) and fresh apple cider via a muddled crisp apple.  This eau de vie brings the joie de vivre.  It’s a modest homage to this amazing masterpiece, and a lovely treat you’re sure to “fall” for.  Cheers!

These pear eau so well

The Waterfall

2 oz  Pear Eau de Vie
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz maple syrup (Grade B preferred)
¼ seasonal apple, cubed with skin and core
Dash of black walnut bitters

In a mixing tin, muddle the apple and maple syrup.  Add the remaining ingredients, shake with ice and double strain into a favorite glass. 

For more about Kagen Sound:

For prior Kagen Sound puzzle boxes:

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Autumn Daze

Welcome to the south, sun.  On September 22 the sun’s ecliptic (the imaginary plane along which the planets orbit) intersected with the celestial equator (the imaginary projection into space of Earth’s equator) to mark the autumnal aequus (equal) nox (night) – more commonly known as the equinox.   The days are now getting shorter and the temperature cooler (in the northern hemisphere at least) as the sun spends its time south of the celestial equator.  Hopefully things will cool off soon in Texas, too!

The Autumn Box by Robert Yarger

Last spring we enjoyed a springtime “daisy” cocktail to celebrate the early bird (see why spring came early this year).  The classic daisy is light and refreshing with a base spirit (originally gin), citrus and sweetener.  It gave rise to another well known classic, the margarita (daisy in Spanish) which swapped the gin for tequila. We paired up the daisy with Kamei’s “Spring Box” to keep with the theme, of course.  It’s only fitting we continue that theme now, and give fall its fair due.
The Autumn Box by Robert Yarger takes on a more traditional rectangular prism (box) shape than many of his designs, yet remains one of his more beautiful creations thanks to the vibrant fall colors it features.  Made with shimmering leopardwood, dark wenge, and the bright reddish orange padauk which really makes it pop, the Autumn Box does evoke the traditional feelings of fall.  

Something sneaky going on here ...

Robert describes how working with the red wood left a strange coating of sawdust over his shop so it looked like he was on Mars.  The box appears rather straightforward, with two apparent end panels locked in place by long dovetailed slider bars.  Getting one side open is usually not too tricky, but don’t “fall” for that – there’s something going on you may have missed, and revealing the second hidden compartment is all but impossible until you discover the exact set of secret moves required.  Winter may come on ere you deduce these devious moves, but you won’t mind.  The box is so pleasing to look at and manipulate, you can take your time.

The Autumn Daze

While doing just that we can sip on something special to celebrate the season.  The spring daisy we enjoyed the last time the days and nights were equally long was light and refreshing.  Let’s put an autumn spin on that and bundle up with a little warmth, shall we?  I mentioned that the margarita can be considered a daisy with tequila (for a little history of the margarita see here).  For this autumn daisy I used a special anejo tequila which has been infused with serrano peppers and cinnamon.  Anejo tequilas are aged for at least 1 year, often in oak barrels, which adds complexity and maturity similar to other aged spirits.  The aging for this particular tequila is for 28 months, which imparts a rich amber color as well, and the infusion of peppers and cinnamon give it a uniquely warming heat and delicious spice.  To this wonderful base I added lime juice and lightly sweetened things up with the perfect dry curacao.  Finally a few dashes of chocolate bitters to enhance the orange and cinnamon flavors and we have the perfect fall cup to contemplate these autumn days.  As the days grow shorter, let one of these “Autumn Daze” cocktails put you into a pleasant autumn daze.  Cheers!

A double dose of autumn

The Autumn Daze:
2 oz Soltado Anejo Tequila (if you don’t have Soltado, try infusing some spice to a different anejo)
1 oz fresh lime juice
½ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
2 dashes Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Shake together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with some chilly weather and warm companions.

For the previous equinox this year see:

For other boxes by Robert Yarger see:

For the perfect margarita see: