Saturday, December 30, 2017

Favorite Things

The beginning of a new year is always cause for reflection.  Here at Boxes and Booze I’m thinking about this dual hobby of mine, which I have oddly enough managed to combine.  I’ve made many friends from both sides of this coin and for that I am truly amazed and thankful.  It’s become a reliable outlet for me to explore my creative side and I’m so glad there are a few folks out there who enjoy seeing what I’m up to.

Yosegi Oak Wood Slide Box (Stickman Puzzle Box No. 1)

“A puzzlebox is a complex container that challenges the mind, redirects perceptions, and whose solution eludes those seeking to discover its secret chamber.” – Robert Yarger

For this New Year’s post I’m offering another kind of beginning, from the puzzle box perspective at least.  Last year we traveled north to Canada where I explored the theme of time and a unique puzzle built inside the case of an antique clock.  The year before we celebrated in Japanese style with soba buckwheat noodles.  That was rather apropos as the origin as well as the rebirth of the puzzle box was in Japan.  This year we will celebrate in the US, tracing the origin story of one of our most celebrated artists and the start of something special.

When Robert Yarger and his brother were boys, they each received a traditional Japanese puzzle box one Christmas.  Over the years the boxes were lost, and eventually Robert decided to make a few such boxes of his own to replace them, giving the results to his brother, family and friends.  These would become the first Stickman puzzle boxes.  Luckily, a number of the boxes were also sold to collectors who recognized that there was something special going on inside these plain, rustic boxes, and who requested new designs.  One of my favorite stories about this time is how frightening it was for Robert to use the old radial arm saw he had at the time, which would launch projectiles across his shop, scream and smoke like a banshee, and make him practically pee in his pants as he turned it on.  It’s a testament to his skill that he could create such incredible objects (including all components of the first 3 Stickman boxes) with the most rudimentary of tools.

The original run of “Oak Wood Slide” boxes (what would become The Stickman No. 1 Puzzle Box) were fashioned from scrap wood Robert had about his shop and as such were rustic in appearance and varied in shape and size.  Details like beveled edges and decorative grooves were all created with the radial saw.  Even then, the boxes featured more than meets the eye and the spark of Stickman genius can be seen.  There are three separate compartments to be discovered, and an internal locking system which causes one drawer to open as another is being closed.  The effect is rather metaphorical, and unintentionally prophetic for this artist’s work.  Robert is eternally in pursuit of the horizon.  He always creates something new, something not seen or done before, and when he does pay homage to past designers or designs, he adds his own brand of new magic to it.  When he completes a project, he rarely revisits the same idea again, unless there was some element to it which he left unexplored.

Beautiful yosegi made from poplar and wenge

He also hates to revisit past puzzles, even if all of the original run were never finished, as has happened with some of his designs.  Fortunately, he loves to encourage and mentor new artists.  Rick Jenkins has been Robert’s most recent apprentice and has developed and acquired the skills found in all of the Stickman series.  With his help, many of the original puzzles which had never been finished are now complete, including the final run of Stickman No. 1 boxes.  As a fitting tribute to the origins of his puzzle company and passion, Robert and Rick finished the final box, number 100, in beautiful yosegi veneer.  Rick learned the technique for this on his own, essentially teaching it to Rob in the process, who offered advice and technique suggestions along the way.  This experience actually prompted Robert to develop the “Traditional” box (Stickman No. 32), a design he might not have attempted otherwise.  The “Yosegi” Oak Wood Slide Box is unique in the No. 1 series, wrapped in a stunning checkered and striped pattern which gives the box a distinctive appearance and prominently shows off Rick’s impressive skills.  The box heralds another beginning, and we look forward to seeing what Rick Jenkins will create on his own as this new drawer begins to open. 

Boxes and Booze

To ring in the New Year along with this portentous puzzle I’ve mixed up A Few of My Favorite Things, just like the box does.  The aptly named drink features the special Italian aperitif known as Barolo Chinato which comes from the Piedmont region in north western Italy.  Barolo is a prized wine made from the Nebbiolo grape, with a following and provenance which needs no alternate use.  Yet generations of distillers have used it as a base in which to steep cinchona bark, spices, sugar and herbs to produce unique and delicious vintages of something incredibly special.  It’s like applying the addition of complex puzzles to an incredibly skilled and beautiful piece of woodwork which could easily stand on its own to create something richer and more layered.  

My Favorite Things by Paul Manzelli

Mixologist Paul Manzelli, head bartender at Bergamot in Massachusetts, combined a few of his favorite things into this cocktail, which includes Barolo Chinato along with rye whiskey and the Italian Amari Aperol and Cynar.  The chinato brings wonderful balance to this combination of the lightly bitter grapefruit Aperol and the surprisingly sweet artichoke Cynar.  Manzelli clearly loves Italian aperitifs and digestifs.  And who can blame him.  This cocktail might become one of your favorite things too. 

Here’s a toast to woodwork and whiskey and warm winter laughter, puzzles and potions and praise to the crafter, boxes and booze and what family brings, yes, these are a few of my favorite things.  

Cheers and Happy New Year!

A few of my favorite things ...

My Favorite Things by Paul Manzelli

1 ½ oz rye whiskey
½ oz Aperol
½ oz Cynar
½ oz Barolo Chinato
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange twist or a Stickman logo.

For more about Robert Yarger see:

For more about Rick Jenkins see:

For prior New Year’s themed cocktails see:

Time Passages

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Let it Snow

Tis the season and it should come as no surprise that I’m continuing my holiday themed offerings again.  I’ve been saving up something special for this week which coincides with Christmas.  Although we don’t get much snow here in Houston we can still dream of a winter wonderland, a toasty fireplace and the fresh scent of evergreen.  I’m always fascinated by how traditions evolve over time and the origins of those traditions.  The Christmas tree, for example, and how it became a symbol of this season.  It’s not hard to understand why people throughout history have been drawn to the evergreen, which stands like a beacon of hope in the cold winter, promising that spring is coming one day.  Why not place ornaments and offerings on such a tree, to entice it to bring spring even sooner! I’ve got a nice little ornament around here somewhere…

The Snowflake Box by Robert Yarger

The Snowflake Box (Stickman No. 9) was designed with the idea of making a puzzle box tree ornament.  It’s a lovely little box attached to a loop and would look nice on anyone’s tree.  Robert Yarger designed these with fine interlocking corners which do indeed look like snowflakes, and the white Holly wood completes the look. As a decorative ornament, these are wonderful and you won’t likely find a finer piece of American ornamental folk art around.  

Ho Ho Holly

Of course, this is a Stickman box, so the beauty doesn’t end there.  It is also an incredibly satisfying and brilliant puzzle box.  The Snowflake is composed of six similar pieces which form each side of the cube.  Once solved, the panels can be disassembled, creating another puzzle.  It’s two puzzles in one, a gift that keeps on giving! The box has a wonderful solution.  It holds a few unexpected surprises, but everything is visible and there are no hidden tricks, which makes it such an elegant design.  It’s also quite marvelous how the finely milled corners interlace, overlap and interconnect.  The craftsmanship is outstanding.

Rudolph Collins by Bach Nielsen

To toast this special box I’m calling on the special reindeer who pays a visit this time of year – Rudolph of course! The Rudolph Collins is a local favorite at The Barking Dog, a cozy down to earth bar in Copenhagen where the staff create Christmas cocktails for a cocktail advent calendar each year.  This one is based off the classic Tom Collins, that refreshing summery sipper with gin, lemon and soda.  For the Christmas version there is added sloe gin, the wintery gin infused with sloe berries, and cinnamon syrup, which always turns up the winter wonderland vibes in a holiday drink.  It’s a delicious variation and a tasty treat for the holidays.  Try one of these at your own festive gathering and have a happy, happy holiday. Cheers!

Flavors of the season will make your nose shine bright

Rudolph Collins by Bach Nielsen (The Barking Dog, Copenhagen)

1 oz London dry gin
¾ oz sloe gin
¾ oz fresh lemon
½ oz cinnamon syrup
Chilled soda water

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a tall glass with ice.  Top with the soda water and garnish with a cinnamon stick - or a lemon wheel Rudolph.  Cheers!

Let it snow!  Happy Holidays.

For more about Robert Yarger:

For more about sloe gin see:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Feeling Cagey

To truly enjoy the holiday season this time of year it’s always nice to keep it simple.  Remember the little things in life and spend quality time with family and friends.  These simple pleasures become amplified and take on new meaning and depth.  Here’s a fairly “simple” puzzle box I received as a gift from a friend, a small gesture yet one that means so much.  Shiro Tajima, formerly of the Karakuri Creation Group, enjoys playing with simple shapes and structures in surprising, unusual and puzzling ways.  He created his “In a Cage” puzzle with the goal of designing a simple box with a complex secret.  He is masterful at the small details in his boxes and has created some of the most puzzling and award winning offerings in the past.

In a Cage by Shiro Tajima

In a Cage is a perfect little puzzle box.  It really is so simple, just a small redwood box inside a white dogwood cage.  The box is held in place somehow, but moves around and from side to side.  Puzzling out the solution is not so simple after all, and requires a number of insights into how the structure functions. It seems hard to believe that such a little device could keep you busy for long, but it does.  It’s so clever and satisfying.  It’s truly a brilliant design and won an honorable mention at the 2017 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.  It’s a great puzzle to slip in your pocket and hand to a friend, and if it can’t be solved it still acts as a lovely fidget spinner!

It seems so simple, and yet ...

To toast this little marvel I made a replica of In a Cage … in a cocktail!  Sticking with the theme of something simple which has hidden complexity, I’ve created a variation on the classic Brandy Alexander, one of the more deliciously simple holiday cocktails in existence.  I always seem to come back to this one during the holidays.  Traditionally, brandy is combined with crème de cacao (chocolate liqueur) and heavy cream in equal proportions for a decadent dessert drink which dates back to 1915 and a bartender named Troy Alexander.  He used gin in the original, but brandy became dandy soon after. 

This cocktail is in a cage!

For this version I’ve swapped the brandy for Pedro Ximenez Sherry, a seriously scrumptious dessert wine because why the hell not.  But you really begin to appreciate this Alexander more and more as you experience it (much like the puzzle box …) thanks to the special holiday ice keeping it cool.  The ice is made from cinnamon spiced cranberry syrup and Becherovka, the Czech Republic herbal liqueur which dates from 1807 and has been described as “Christmas in a glass”.  Its flavors of ginger and cinnamon blend deliciously with the cranberry syrup and swirls of the melting goodness ebb into the Sherry Alexander as you sip it until you start to feel guilty about experiencing all this pleasure.  There’s a puzzle in your hand, a toasty fire going, maybe a kitten in your lap and your family all lounging about looking at their phones. It really doesn’t get any better than this, does it?  Go on, you deserve it.  Cheers!

Don't be cagey - it's delicious!

St. Nicholas Cage

1 oz PX Sherry
1 oz Crème de Cacao (Tempis Fugit)
1 oz heavy cream

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Add a large prepared ice cube and grate some nutmeg on top.

Ice: Freeze mix of Becherovka : spiced cranberry syrup 1:1 with equal parts water.  Volume depends on your ice tray.

Spiced cranberry syrup: Add 1 cup fresh cranberries, 2 cinnamon sticks and a few allspice cloves with 1 cup water to a sauce pan.  Simmer until berries burst then mash.  Add 1 cup sugar to dissolve and simmer for a few minutes.  Strain the mix through a mesh strainer to remove the large solids.  Scale up as desired, this stuff is delicious.

Simple pleasures

Special thanks to Matthew Dawson for the perfect puzzle gift.  The bourbon gummy bears have nothing to do with the cocktail, but Matt loves gummy bears so those are for him.

For more about Shiro Tajima:

For last year’s Brandy Alexander:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Piece of Cake

It’s that time of year again when we all like to indulge ourselves with particularly special treats and gifts.  I’m not Italian, but my family and I have grown to love having the special Italian holiday bread known as panettone on hand this time of year.  Originally from Milan and dating back in origin all the way to the Roman Empire, panettone has now become a holy grail of sorts to bakers and achieved a certain cult status.  This is because, of course, it’s incredibly complicated.  Panettone dough is one of the most challenging to work with and can be impossibly tricky according to bakers.  To create the perfect, lightly delicate and delicious cake, full of tiny treats inside, which literally pulls apart and melts in your mouth, requires days of preparation and precise planning.  Only a true master baker can pull it off.

Blackjack Cake by Perry McDaniel

A feat which Perry McDaniel could handle with aplomb, no doubt.  After all, his Puzzled Guy Patisserie produces some of the finest, most precise and beguiling puzzles around, and folks line up around the corner whenever the bake shop happens to be open.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to experience how Perry designs his puzzles, you’ll also note the incredible process and detail he undergoes, with prototypes that look like geometric experiments gone awry.  Somehow he turns these into the most delicious looking creations which beg to be devoured, but keep you guessing and guessing as to just how that can be accomplished.

His Blackjack Cake is an innocent and tempting looking treat.  It appears to be a chocolate layer cake with a splash of chocolatey sauce drizzled over top and oozing down the sides.  The artistry of this piece is simply wonderful, and mimics reality so well it fooled many in an unexpected way. Perry sold these at IPP 37 in Paris, and offered additional real cake pastries alongside them as well.  Reportedly, some people wanted to purchase the “other” puzzle box from him too – the actual cake.  His creations are so lifelike that a real slice of cake might just be a puzzle box too.

Only the finest ingredients will do

Perry likes to push the envelope with his puzzle boxes.  He is able to build in tiny features and details which seem impossible for such small pieces.  He hides moves in plain sight incredibly well.  And he likes to add novel elements, as with the Blackjack Cake.  The name is actually a clue to the goal, for in addition to finding and opening the two secret compartments here, there is also a game of cards.  Win, and you’ll be holding Blackjack in your hands.  The mechanism employs Perry’s usual assortment of tricky, well-hidden moves, but also a few novel elements which will either infuriate or delight you.  I was personally delighted, and I’d love to play another hand.  Fortunately, as with his prior petite four and bon bon puzzles, the “pastries collection” will be another series. Hooray, and bon appetit!

Il Panetun by Michele Garofalo

I’m toasting Perry and his marvelous cake which is really a puzzle box with another cake – which is really a cocktail!  The “Jerry Thomas Project” is a speakeasy style bar in the heart of Rome, Italy and home to world renown mixologist Michele Garofalo.  The bar celebrates the “Professor” Jerry Thomas, one of the fathers of cocktails and the original mustachioed bartender from the nineteenth century.  He predated the prohibition era so naming a speakeasy in his honor is a bit anachronistic but we can forgive the artistic license – the drinks there sound fabulous.  Check out their home page, where the secret password hides in plain sight for you to discover.  As a tribute to his home town and their historical cake, Garofalo has created a liquid version.  His “Il Panetun” recreates the panettone as one of the more decadent and delicious holiday cocktails you are likely to consume this season. It features a homemade chocolate sauce and the decadent, quinine based wine Barolo Chinato, which was meant to be paired with chocolate, after all.  The result is simply stunning, rich and utterly delicious.  I’m trying to imagine enjoying one of these with some authentic artisanal panettone simultaneously but my brain keeps short circuiting when I do.  Here’s to special treats and the spirit of indulgence. Who says you can’t solve your puzzle and drink it too?  Cheers!

The combination of chocolate and chinato is heavenly

Il Panetun by Michele Garofalo

1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Grand Marnier
½ oz Barolo Chinato
1 oz homemade chocolate syrup
1 oz heavy cream
1 egg yolk
2 dashes orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together vigorously without ice and then again with ice to chill and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a Pocky stick or a slice of panettone.

Homemade chocolate syrup: Simmer ¾ cup sultana raisins and zest of 2 oranges with 2 cups water, gently muddling once simmering and cook 6-7 minutes. Strain solids and add ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder at low heat.  Whisk to dissolve then add twice the amount of sugar, combine until smooth.  Cool and bottle, keep refrigerated.  

This pair takes the cake

For more about Perry McDaniel:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

Solar Box by Akio Kamei

Especially because the days are getting shorter as those of us in the northern hemisphere move closer to the winter solstice, it’s nice to see the sun.  Here’s a brief glimpse of that erstwhile ray of brightness in our lives, shortened thanks to the Earth’s axis.  Anyway that’s my excuse this week and I’m sticking to it.  Akio Kamei’s Solar Box is a fiendish little star masquerading as an octagonal puzzle box with curving rays of frustration encircling the main compartment.  At least master Kamei mentions in his description that it’s “not easy” to open.  I certainly felt a little burnt by the time I mastered its gravitational pull.  I almost went blind staring into it for so long.  The Solar Box is a beautiful creation and twinkles like the star it is thanks to the lovely zelkova wood.  One final word of caution though, you’ll need to have some Serious Puzzle Fortitude to solve this – I’d recommend SPF 50.

The Sun by Joe Schofield

This puzzle box star needs something equally bright to sip while solving.  The Sun, by Joe Schofield from The Tippling Club in Singapore, provides just the right amount of bright, warming holiday cheer.  Singapore isn't a cold, snowy wonderland this time of year – its nice and sunny.  So in Singapore, this cocktail is actually a winter holiday drink!  A seasonal mix of white rum, tart lemon, and rich honey syrup start this nuclear fusion going nicely.  Add a few photons of the gentian-based Peychauds bitters (which are out of this world) and ignite with a gamma ray of liquid heat – the original calls for Tabasco and I used Habanero Hellfire bitters, which can light quite a fire in your mouth.  Shake it all up while humming “Here comes the Sun” and sip responsibly, or you’ll be seeing stars.  Cheers!

A bright, sunny and winter cocktail with a hint of heat

The Sun

1 ¾ oz white rum
¾ oz fresh lemon
½ oz rich honey syrup (3:1 ratio)
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 dash Tabasco

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a sunny lemon wheel.

Let the sunshine in ...

For more about Akio Kamei:

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Turing Chest

Art Deco meets Japanese tradition in this masterpiece by Nicholas Phillips.  Nicholas is an American furniture maker and woodworker, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics and worked as a mathematician with NASA for much of his life.  He studied the Japanese marquetry technique known as yosegizaiku with seventh generation master Ichiro Ishikawa (the direct descendent of Nihei Ishikawa (1790-1850) who invented the technique) in Hakone Japan and uses traditional Japanese tools to create his yosegi.  He crafts beautiful wooden boxes and chests adorned with his stunning yosegi, and his background lends itself to the creation of ciphers and mathematical puzzles, which he occasionally builds into his creations.

The Turing Chest by Nicholas Phillips

The Turing Chest features six Cherry drawers covered with colorful patterned yosegi including tri-color kikkou (tri-weave), single color kikkou (Redheart, Yellowheart and Holly), and a special Redheart and Holly asanoha (hemp leaf pattern) from a block he made with Mr. Ishikawa.  There is also Yellowheart asanoha yosegi hidden on the sides of one of the drawers.  Line accents on the yosegi are of Ebony and Holly.   Drawer pulls are of Chechen (Brazilian Rosewood).  The chest case, made from Bloodwood, features Art Deco inspired radius corners with outlined double dovetailed joints of Curly Maple and African Kiaat.

Stunning Bloodwood case with Art Deco inspired double dovetail radius corners 

Each beautiful drawer is locked in place.  There are many keys secretly hidden away inside the chest, each one unique and required to open a specific drawer.  One of the drawers is actually a stand-alone puzzle box, discovered once it is removed, which of course contains another key required to proceed hidden inside.  The puzzle box, crafted from Cherry, White Oak, Big Leaf Maple, and covered in the red and yellow asanoha yosegi, is in the style of a traditional Japanese himitsu-bako but features a unique secret mechanism.  It employs a very clever trick of Phillip’s invention not seen on any prior known puzzle box, which he developed specially for this chest.  Once the puzzle box has been solved, and the key inside obtained, the final drawer can be unlocked – but is it truly the final compartment?  Perhaps all the secrets of the Turing Chest have not yet been revealed, and there is more here than meets the eye.

The puzzlebox drawer - featuring a fantastic novel mechanism

Phillips wanted to name the chest after a mathematician involved in the theory work behind cryptology, as its mechanisms depend on keys and locks.  From Phillips: The chest is “named for Alan Turing, whose work at Bletchley Park during World War Two formed the groundwork of modern cyphers."  The Turing Chest is also a play on words referring to one of the ideas in Computer Science for which Alan Turing is most famous.  The “Turing Test” is often used to determine if a computer can be considered to have true artificial intelligence.  The test is conducted by a human typing questions into two different computer terminals.  Each terminal is “connected” to either another remote human, or the computer which is being tested for AI.  The tester is aware of this, and is attempting to determine which computer is which.  If the tester is fooled, the computer can be considered to have true AI.  The Turing Test, conceived of by Turing in 1950, was successfully passed in 2012 by a computer named “Eugene” which had been given the personality of a twelve year old boy.  Eugene was last seen impersonating an adult home bartending puzzle box collector.
The fine woodworking on the chest and drawers, the hand-made internal lock and key mechanisms, and the gorgeous Japanese yosegi work reflect the pinnacle of the maker’s art.  Phillips used the Turing Chest in 2017 as his show piece to attain Master Artisan in Wood status in the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen.  Congratulations, Nicholas, and well deserved.

Flavors of Japan

It seemed appropriate to continue the theme of Japanese yosegi for a toast to Dr. Phillips’ fine creation.  I wove together a classic sour using elements which are all from Japan.  Starting with a fine Japanese whisky, I chose the Yamazaki, from Japan’s first and oldest distillery.  I only break out my prized bottle of Distiller’s Reserve for special occasions.  For the citrus, I used Japanese yuzu, the super tart, seed packed cousin of the lemon.  Finally for sweetness I used a decadent Umeshu plum wine syrup.  Ratios for a typical whiskey sour need to be adjusted to account for the tartness of the yuzu and sweetness of the plum wine syrup.  For diehard sour fans an egg white can also be added for texture and foam.  A simple lemon twist will do for garnish, but I was inspired to create a little yosegi of my own to toast this fine creation.  I enjoy making intricate citrus peel garnishes for my cocktails, and while this is not technically yosegi in the manner of its creation, I think it retains the spirit and the kikkou pattern came out quite nicely.  Here’s to a fine masterpiece, by America’s own Japanese master.  Kampei!

The Yosegi cocktail

The Yosegi

2 oz Japanese whisky
¾ oz yuzu
1 oz Umeshu plum syrup
½ oz fresh egg white (optional)

Shake together with ice.  If using egg white shake without ice and finish shaking with ice briefly.  Strain into a favorite glass.  Yosegi garnish.

A taste of Japan

For more about Nicholas Phillips see:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Doing a Good Ternary

I lived in New York at one point in my life.  Everyone had a triple lock on their apartment.  There was the regular lock, for the key, but inside there was also the deadbolt, and the chain.  Some people had even more elaborate affairs.  If you wanted entry, you had to navigate all those locks.  It would have been even more puzzling if the key only opened the lock every so often.  There would have to be a repeatable pattern, for sure, but it wouldn’t be obvious and turning the key wouldn’t always have the expected outcome.  I’m pretty sure if Robert Yarger had designed it, that’s how it would work.

Stickman No. 8 Puzzle Box (3-Lock Box) by Robert Yarger
The Stickman No. 8 Puzzle Box is known as the “3-Lock Box”, and you probably get the idea.  Sliding certain panels seldom seem to have the same effect each time they are moved.  Initially one or two panels might move a bit, but after some experimentation (trying the same thing you just tried, which normally has everyone quoting Einstein’s theory of insanity at you, but in this case has you pointing out this box to those hecklers) suddenly another panel just might move.  Whoops, now it won’t move anymore.  There are multiple layers of security going on here, with at least three “locks” which need to be opened, which in turn each require multiple repeated moves (perhaps three?) to achieve.  Keeping in mind that all the movements are integrated together, so that a single moving panel may be functioning in multiple ways at once, and you have a brilliantly confusing puzzle on your hands.  Miss one step in sequence and you pay the price of repeating multiple steps over again.  If that wasn’t enough, there is a logical but very clever hidden move required at one point which will keep the best of thieves locked out of the secret drawer.  

The mechanism inside the box is based on a ternary calculating machine which Rob had crafted with no specific purpose in mind, until its use in this box materialized in his brain.  It sat in his “maybe later” drawer for over a year, and even other puzzle makers could find no use for it, which is just as well, since he ultimately came up with this incredible puzzle.  The box is strikingly beautiful, covered in glossy Wenge with bold ribbons of Purpleheart and Maple wrapping it up like a present.
This is truly one of the more unusual puzzle boxes due to the changing nature of what appears to be the same exact move each time.  

Rob has added a challenge to the solver, in the instruction manual, which also makes the box unique in his series.   Because one false step can send the solver back to the beginning for certain moves, there are levels to the efficiency of movement possible, and it remains quite a challenge to determine how to open it from the starting locked position in the least possible number of moves, even after you know how.  The solver is awarded a certain “status” (e.g. novice, expert) depending on how efficiently this can be accomplished.

Wrapped up like a beautiful present

Something about a triple-locked box must be especially compelling to human nature.  Around the same time that Robert Yarger’s 3-Lock Box was being produced, Eric Fuller was also producing his own Triple Lock Box.  Eric pointed out that although Rob claimed the name for his box came from a popular Jimmi Hendrix song (as well as the mechanism), the song was actually by Sammy Hagar.  Rob insisted it was Hendrix, and to this day still retains that description of the puzzle on his website. Even though Eric was right!

One more nice touch here is a little known back door into the box.  Once the box is solved and its mechanism understood well enough, it can be manipulated in a certain way to allow the lid to slide completely free so the fascinating internal mechanism can be admired.

A toast to this trifecta of puzzle box locks comes in the form of a classic cocktail triple play as well.  The storied Negroni is one of my favorites, in all its forms and flavors, as evidenced by its many appearances on these pages.  It may be the cocktail that I have featured more than any other.  I suppose it’s appropriate to be using one to toast another Stickman box, whose work I have probably featured more than any other.  The original Negroni, to refresh your memory, is a combination of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, and was likely invented in the early 1900’s in Florence, although maybe not.  For the full semi-factual and fun filled story you can read my prior history of the drink when you need to procrastinate about something.  

This drink is on lock-down

For the 3-Lock Box I was feeling like a fall Negroni was in order, both because the cooling weather calls for fall spirits and because the rich dark woods on the box feel appropriate for the season.  I’ve therefore swapped out the gin for a fall favorite – Laird’s Apple Brandy, from America’s oldest distiller.  Aged and complex, it can be substituted for bourbon or cognac wherever those may be called for – and wherever else too!  Instead of Campari, I used a different amaro which is lighter, with more citrus and spice.  I’d like to make a disclaimer here, that unlike solving the 3-Lock Box, enjoying this drink does not require imbibing three of them in a row.  Although if you do, please leave a comment, as we’d all love to hear what you have to say at that point.  Here’s three cheers to the things in life that keep us guessing, and that aren’t always what they seem, or at least not all the time.  Cheers, cheers, cheers!

Autumnal Equilocks - a fall flavored Negroni

Autumnal Equilocks

1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
1 oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
1 oz Amaro Montenegro
Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with 3 locks.

A pair of triples

For more about Robert Yarger:

For prior Negroni variations see:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Natural Born

Every time I review one of this craftsman’s boxes, I feel “born again”.  It’s a great feeling so I’m always glad to get the chance.  Jesse Born is a talented young fellow from Rome, New York with the knack for making great puzzles, the skill for making beautiful woodwork, and the desire to perfectly merge the two together.  His prior puzzle boxes have all been gorgeous and enjoyable, and his skill simply keeps improving.  He is constantly driven to learn new methods in production, precision, and technique.   For his “Yosegi Pattern Box”, his primary goal was to produce a beautiful “standard” type of box, at least in shape and size, which he has certainly achieved. He was inspired by traditional Japanese boxes and the work of master Ninomiya.  Like all of his creations, Jesse poured his heart into this one.  Each box required over one hundred cuts with his table saw, and he went through numerous batches of yosegi while learning and perfecting his vision for the box. The secondary goal, according to Jesse, was to incorporate a unique puzzle element not seen on any other puzzle box.  He has achieved that goal as well, and the result is a delight to behold. 

Yosegi Pattern Box by Jesse Born

The box is a hefty square affair made from either shimmering light Maple or dark Mexican Ebony on the base, with the complimentary wood found in contrast on the lid.  The top is also adorned with strips of yosegi, the traditional Japanese marquetry technique which Jesse has experimented with in different wood types and patterns.  Along the sides of the box are abstract zig-zag like patterns which add another nice dimension and overall aesthetic touch to the piece.  Inside, the box has a chamber made from beautiful Purple Heart wood, but you won’t get to appreciate that for a while.  The lid is firmly fixed in place.  There’s a lot of rattling going on inside the box, and sometimes it even seems to be repeatable.  Perhaps there’s a method to this madness?  The box requires a few steps to open, and is immensely satisfying to solve.  I enjoy all sorts of puzzle boxes, but the ones that employ hidden movements which can’t be seen, requiring something inside to move here or there just right, often leave me feeling ambivalent.  I prefer to deduce the solution, or discover something which has been very cleverly hidden in plain sight.  Which is why I love this box.  It fooled me into thinking it was something else entirely, when in fact it’s completely logical, with a wonderfully surprising and unique mechanism.  Everything is waiting in plain sight for you to discover, if only you are as clever as the designer.  The box provides just the right amount of misdirection, is instantly understandable once the AHA moment hits, and rewards the solver with a beautiful interior to complement the beautiful exterior.  Like other Bornwood designs, once inside the mechanics and mystery are all revealed, which is a nice touch.  All of his boxes have been great, but this is his best yet.

Interesting yosegi inlay adorns the top

The patterns on the sides of the Yosegi Pattern Box made me think of the “Zig-Zag Café” in Seattle, former home of famed bartender Murray Stenson who in 2004 resurrected a pre-prohibition cocktail classic known as the Last Word.  The story of that cocktail dates back to the Detroit Athletic Club in 1915, where it was the drink of choice for a celebrated stand-up comic of the day who was known to always have one (the last word) – on stage and in the bar.  It’s incredibly versatile and easy to make, with equal parts gin, lime, chartreuse and maraschino liqueur, and it lit up the cocktail scene during the recent renaissance.  It’s been described as cocktail “lasagna” – meaning there are scores of different recipes which tweak the ingredients, but as long as the basic formula remains the same the drink is always good.  

Born Yesterday

Here’s a delicious variation apropos for the season which I call, “Born Yesterday”.  Ironically, it features apple brandy from America’s oldest distillery, Laird and Company.  Their classic Applejack is also fantastic this time of year.  In addition to swapping the gin for apple brandy, the maraschino is exchanged for another incredible seasonal treat from a newer American craft distillery, St. George Spirits Spiced Pear liqueur.  This magical fruit brandy liqueur tastes like a freshly pressed Bartlett pear sprinkled with cinnamon and clove.  The combination of fall flavors blends effortlessly and you might be fooled into thinking this is an inspired new creation when, in fact, it’s merely the latest word. But you weren’t born yesterday – cheers!

Treat yourself to some natural born delights

Born Yesterday

¾ oz Laird’s Old Apple Brandy
¾ oz lemon
¾ oz Yellow Chartreuse
¾ oz St. George Spirits Spiced Pear Liqueur

Stir together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a twist.

For more about Jesse Born:

For prior Last Word variations:

Saturday, November 4, 2017


“Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary …” – Poe

Ah yes, this indeed describes my sentiments well as I attempted to open yet another fine puzzle padlock.  Welcome back to “Locks and Libations”, the erstwhile scribblings of a box collector who finds himself in possession of something distinctly … not a box … yet wishes to share the wonderful prize with the world, nonetheless.  Plus I love to highlight the brilliant work of my friend Shane Hales, that master of wood and metal, and many other fancy titles which sound quite impressive.  Shane’s puzzle lock series was inevitable, since he is a master locksmith, a puzzle lock collector, and an admirer of the inner workings of locks in general, both old and new.  Add his penchant for puzzles and viola, the Haleslock was born.  Following up on the Haleslock 1 and Haleslock 2 (which I have also featured here – Shane, when are you going to make a puzzle lock puzzle box so I can stop pretending these are boxes? I’m becoming the opposite of puzzlemad …) is the surprisingly named Haleslock 3, which debuted as Peter Hajek’s exchange puzzle during IPP 37 in Paris. 

Haleslock 3 by Shane Hales

“Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore...” - Poe 

This lock certainly stands out from a crowd, with its unusual shape and style.  A key is attached to a chain, which is shackled to the … shackle.  There is a much more prominent lock plate on the front of this padlock, with a pleasant little door which slides open to allow the key entry.  Not that it does any good.  I feel like I say that a lot with these locks. Haleslock 3 is a modified old English lever lock, and according to Shane it’s one of the oldest types of its kind still in production, with little change to the inner workings in 200 years – that is, until Shane got a hold of one. There’s definitely something moving around inside, and a certain move seemed to be reproducible, which is not the same thing as seemed to help, but that’s about all I could discover.  I stared into the keyhole, looking for clues, for a long, long time ….

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing …” - Poe


I should learn my lesson with these puzzling locks, and listen to the raven (“Nevermore”).  But there’s something so appealing about a secret lock which doesn’t open like it should – I suppose it’s the same something that draws me to boxes that don’t open the way they should, and hidden mechanisms in general.  So I’ll ignore the raven, and raise a toast to it, and this fine installment in the Haleslock series, instead.  

The Raven - a brooding, melancholy drink

The “Raven” cocktail is my take on a recipe from “Alison’s Wonderland Recipes”, a delightful blog whose author’s creations are all based on works of literature.  I took the liberty of increasing the atmospheric melancholy and funk, if you will, by using an agricole rhum, which is made from pure sugarcane rather than molasses.  The resulting “rhum” is incredibly moody and delicious.  Plus a special dose of dark rum to really set the tone – Poe is rather dark, after all. Finally my version needed a little amaro, that bitter Italian herbal potion, to capture the bittersweet depths of despair evoked in the poem … fine, and the lock, too.  Thanks Shane, and cheers!

Locking at my chamber door

The Raven – adapted from Alison’s Wonderland Recipes

1 ½ oz white rhum agricole
½ oz Plantation OFTD
1 oz fresh lime
½ oz pomegranate juice
½ oz simple syrup
¼ oz Averna
3 blackberries

Muddle the berries with the syrup and add the remaining ingredients.  Shake with ice and double strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with something apro-Poe …

For more about Shane Hales:

N.B. Special thanks to Jeff Aurand for reminding me about this great poem …

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Wolves at the Door

Ready for a spooky tale of harrowing horror, just in time for Halloween? Well, I suppose this tale won’t terrify, but it is from a collection of one of the original horror stories – Grimm’s Fairytales.  If you’ve actually read any of the originals, you’ll agree – most of these “children’s” stories are quite grotesque and some are downright horrifying. 

The Wolf from Grimm by Osamu Kasho

For their “Story” themed exhibition, Osamu Kasho of the Karakuri Creation Group tapped into these tales and made a box called “The Wolf from Grimm”.  Kasho tends to create whimsical boxes with soft curves and almost cartoon like features.  I love his playful style and craftsmanship.  This one is no exception, rendering the Big Bad Wolf from the fairytale in contrasting walnut and maple, laying on his back fast asleep.  Admittedly, I imagined that this was the wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood story, of which I am more familiar.  Kasho mentions in his description of the box that the wolf has a big belly, and wonders what could be inside.  Indeed, there is something rattling around in there.  I thought I might find Granny, freshly devoured, inside the wolf’s cavernous stomach.  But there is another tale which stars the wolf as well, “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids”, in which he devours a family of young goats by tricking them in a few clever ways.  We find the evidence of his treachery inside the belly of Kasho’s wolf.  So the next time someone knocks at your door, perhaps wearing a disguise, beware – especially if he or she says, “Trick or Treat!”  He might just want to eat you!

One too many, Mr. Wolf?  Of what, is the question ...

For Halloween and to continue the Big Bad Wolf theme I made a late night cocktail perfect for sipping on a crisp autumn All Hallow’s eve.  Created by innovative New York mixologist Jason Walsh, the “Grannies Nightcap” is a boozy bourbon surprise.  It starts out as a traditional Manhattan, with rye and sweet vermouth, but adds layers of flavor and depth with the addition of the intensely bitter Fernet Branca, which is balanced with the honey sweet scotch liqueur Drambuie.  I can see Granny in the forest now, taking perfectly good care of herself by offering the wolf this potent nightcap, then watching him pass out by her fireside.  Trick or Treat, everyone.  Cheers!

Granny's Nightcap by Jason Walsh

Grannies Nightcap by Jason Walsh

1 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 ½ oz Sweet Vermouth (such as Noilly Pratt, but not Carpano)
½ oz Fernet Branca
½ oz Drambuie

Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Express lemon peel oil over the drink and garnish with a terrifying grin.

Trick or Treat!

For more about Osamu Kasho see:

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Autumn Keys

The only problem with spending many weeks focused on a rare and mythical masterpiece (i.e. the Apothecary Chest) is deciding what to do once the series has wrapped. Fortunately I feel like all the fine puzzle boxes are masterpieces, and indeed they all bring something new to discover.  Let’s step back and admire our old friend and champion of the modern day puzzle box, Japanese master Akio Kamei. His original works have graced these pages time and again and I suspect will continue to do so for as long as I keep this up.  He has crafted some of the most timeless designs and invented the mechanisms which made them legendary.  He is well known to enjoy making people think outside the box – a saying which takes on new poetry when considering the medium in which he works. 

The Box with a Key by Akio Kamei

Another one of his many classics is “The Box with a Key”, a lovely little chest of walnut with decorative miter splines and functional wooden hinges.  The box has a keyhole on the front and comes with a clover headed key.  As if it weren’t obvious, Kamei teases the solver with the statement that usually, the key is turned in the lock to open such a box.  But not in this case! Try as you might, turning the key has absolutely no effect.  Which is why it is truly madness that you keep trying.  The solution, known to many, is a revelation of design brilliance and one that unfailingly puts a smile on your face the first time you experience it.  Kamei knows the key to a great puzzle, and we are forever in his debt.

The solution hinges on the unexpected ...

This time of year is always perfect for an Old Fashioned cocktail, with the seasonal flavors of fall stirred into the mix.  For this classic, old fashioned puzzle from Kamei, I’ve turned the key to another old fashioned, the classic drink of spirit, sugar and bitters.  The “Black Key” is a richly satisfying rum old fashioned which was originally created for Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, a dark rum blend which is finished in bourbon barrels.  Maple syrup for the sugar really hits the right notes for the fall.  I’ve kicked up the autumn notes in my version with the use of Besamim, a delicious liqueur full of seasonal spice flavors including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.  Angostura and orange bitters grace the original, but I’ve also played with those as well by using Black Cloud Black and White Bitters, which bring flavors of chocolate and vanilla to the party.  The key here, if it isn’t obvious, is to stir things up as you see fit, and turn them in a new way.  Here’s to playing with the recipe.  Cheers!

Autumn Old Fashioned

The Black Key (original)                          The Autumn Old Fashioned

2 oz blended dark rum                               2 oz aged rum
1⁄2 oz pure maple syrup                             ½ oz Besamim
1 dash Angostura bitters                            2 dashes Black and White bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with orange peel and puzzle over something new.

Box and Booze with the keys to autumn cheer

For more about Akio Kamei see: