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:

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Puzzling Appreciations - Apothecary Part VII

“Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination.” – William Shakespeare

Perhaps.  Although I’d much prefer a puzzle for that purpose, than the musky secretions of a wild cat.  Nonetheless, the role of the ancient apothecary is clear here, a purveyor of potions to aid the body, mind and soul.  Robert Yarger is a modern day puzzle box apothecary, producing the equivalent of such enrichment in wood.  This assessment is not as far-fetched as it may sound.  The Stickman logo which is branded or drawn onto each limited edition piece Rob creates, was originally created from an amalgamation of ancient alchemy symbols.  The final installment of the Apothecary Chest series is about the chest itself, the chassis which keeps all the individual puzzle box drawers in place, which Rob designed and created to hold all of those fine ingredients.  It’s also a tribute to this talented apothecary.

The Apothecary Chest by Robert Yarger et al.

The Apothecary Chest project was launched in late 2009 as a collaborative celebration of some of the best puzzle box artists in the world at that time.  Robert Yarger and all of these craftsmen had been working with each other, relying on each other, and supporting one another during this heyday of puzzle box development.  He envisioned a tribute to his friends which would literally bring everyone together in a single, epic creation.  Over the next four years, he eventually saw the project to completion, producing fifteen copies of the chest and nearly going bankrupt in the process.  Most of the chests are now held by the artists who contributed the puzzle box drawers, and a few have found their way into the hands of private collectors.  The Apothecary Chest Series published on these pages over the past many weeks owes a debt of thanks to Robert Yarger himself, whose personal chest has been featured in all of the photographs.

There were very few restrictions or instructions that Rob gave to the contributors.  Each puzzle box “drawer” had to conform to the 3”x3”x4” dimensions of the cavity planned to house them, but other than that, the craftsmen were given free reign and encouraged to create something which exemplified their unique style and personality.  This is why for example, according to Rob, he allowed Stephen Chin to include a cylindrical puzzle which was wrapped up in a sock, although he did make Stephen put it inside an actual box for the drawer mechanism.  Another notable result of this “restriction” is the drawer from Mark McCallum, who normally makes geometric style puzzles and not puzzle boxes.  Mark rose to the challenge and produced a fantastic puzzle box which houses his geometric puzzle.  Keeping in mind that the majority of contributors were not professional puzzle makers, one of the nicest reflections Rob has about the chest is how the quality of design and finish from these “hobbyists” exceeded what he would expect from the professionals.

Many discoveries await inside and out ...

The chest itself is a marvelous container, with beautiful exotic wood color accents and finely carved details.  It is, of course, also a puzzle, and at its core is a mechanical machine which moves the drawers in and out or locks them in place.  This is achieved via a unique cam lever and piston system, with arms extending into each drawer space that hook and lock the drawer in place until it is properly released.  Pushing on one drawer will make another pop out, and the mechanism can be unpredictable, surprising, and quite fun to observe.  The drawers are grouped into sections, and each section remains locked until secrets on and in the chest are discovered and properly activated. To achieve this, items and tools discovered inside the puzzle box drawers are used as well.  The idea was to ensure that the artists who contributed and thus received a copy of the chest would need to work their way through each other’s puzzles, to properly appreciate and admire the individual ideas while working toward the ending.  Again, rather than put any restrictions on the artists, Rob adapted the hidden tools and items to the boxes afterwards, placing what would fit here and there and modifying the chest as needed based on the final drawer configurations he received.   As Rob states, “the main purpose of the chest was to build bonds of friendship between puzzle makers, and that it certainly accomplished.  We are all a lot closer now having done this together.

Tippling Bros. Magical Pain Extractor by Wayne Curtis

To toast this epic achievement I wanted to stick to the apothecary theme.  Apothecaries, after all, were the original bartenders, and created the very first cocktails.  Each proprietor (what we would now call a pharmacist or druggist), would develop his own concoction from bitter herbs and roots, then serve it neat or mixed with a bit of water, sugar, and often brandy or gin as a medicinal cure all, no matter the malady.  The practice started in England, centuries ago, when it was common to add a few drops of these bitters into “Canary wine”.   Apothecary bitters really took off in colonial America and grew in prominence right up until Prohibition, when they all but disappeared.  Perhaps this was just as well, as many were sold as “miracle elixirs”, those guaranteed fixers, which certainly did not.  

Full to the brim with fruits, herbs, and bitters - it'll cure what ails ya

But the apothecary bitters, and bitter liqueurs, are back now, and these old time recipes are often celebrated in new inventive modern ways.  A particularly fun, festive and tasty tipple with which to toast the Apothecary Chest was created by spirits writer Wayne Curtis.  It’s full of fruit, herbs, spices and, of course, bitters, but has no other base spirit, making it a perfectly delicious way to appreciate the history of the Apothecary.  Here’s to many amazing individuals coming together to create a uniquely balanced whole which is so much more than the sum of its parts. Cheers!

Special thanks to Robert Yarger for the loan of his chest and his many insights into the history of the project.

This prescription comes with twelve refills

Tippling Bros. Magical Pain Extractor by Wayne Curtis

1 oz amaro (bitter liqueur such as Averna or Montenegro)
2 tsps chopped peeled green apple
3 rosemary sprigs
1 tsp sugar
6 mint leaves
1 egg white
3 dashes Angostura bitters
4 oz chilled tonic water
Cayenne pepper

Muddle the apple, rosemary, and sugar together, then gently muddle in the mint.  Add the amaro, egg white and bitters and “dry” shake, followed by a “wet” shake with ice.  Strain into an old fashioned glass (filled with ice if you like) and top with tonic water.  Garnish with rosemary, cayenne, and the cure for what ails you.

For more about Robert Yarger:

For the prior Apothecary Chest puzzles see:

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Medieval Magic - Apothecary Part VI

At last we come to the final two drawers of the Apothecary Chest.  As with many stages of the journey, the chest and the drawers are interlinked and interdependent up to the end.  The final two drawers both require elements which must be discovered along the way to open.  First we will explore the magical box known as “Abracadabra”.  The box has a few nice details including accented splines and a central dimple on the front, surrounded by inlayed wooden dots.  The lid, of course, does not come off. Without giving too much away I’ll just say that you’ll need to do a little magic to make this box reveal its secrets.  It really lives up to its name.  

Abracadabra by Matt Dawson and Kelly Snache
The box was designed by Matthew Dawson, a fellow Houstonian puzzle collector and designer who worked with Canadian artist Kelly Snache to bring this idea to life.  Kelly also created the Parameter Motion box which was encountered earlier in the chest. The mechanism for Abracadabra utilizes a little “magic” which reminds me of another design from Matt Dawson, the Ambidextrous Hexduos which was an IPP 30 puzzle exchange.  Matt worked with Robert Yarger on that design as well.  So brush off your spell books, break out the hocus pocus, and perform a little abracadabra on this puzzle box.

The Magic Hour by Tom Macy

We’ll toast the Abracadabra box with a magical cocktail full of sparkle and mischief.  Created by New York mixologist Tom Macy, the “Magic Hour” is a magically modified mimosa in disguise. This is not your ordinary brunch cocktail.  Tom Macy is the creator of, a hands on resource for aspiring culinary cocktail makers everywhere, and the head bartender at Clover Club, a Brooklyn landmark.  In the Magic Hour, he exchanges the classic orange juice for grapefruit, adds depth with the aperitif Lillet Rose (I used Cocchi Americano Rosa which was also wonderful), and finally stirs things up even further with a little Yellow Chartreuse.  The result is a delicious grapefruit twist on the classic which might just make you believe in magic.

A magical pair

Magic Hour by Tom Macy

1 ½ oz Lillet Rose
½ oz fresh grapefruit
¼ oz simple syrup
1 tsp Yellow Chartreuse
Sparkling wine

Shake all ingredients except sparkling wine together with ice and strain into a flute.  Add sparkles on top and garnish with some magic.

Knight vs. Dragon Box by Robert Yarger

Finally we come to the drawer which was created by the very man who envisioned and produced the entire chest, Robert Yarger.  His “contribution” to the chest, in quotations since he also built the entire chest as well which hardly makes the puzzle box his only contribution, is the magnificent Stickman No. 21 Puzzle Box, The Knight vs. Dragon Box.  Like all the other drawers, limited by the constraints of the chest, the external appearance belies the complexity of the puzzle.  Even so, the box manages to have a distinctive appearance, crafted from Mahogany and Jatoba with wood inlay dot accents.  

White Knight with Dragon

The internal mechanism is a brilliantly executed marvel to behold, but the action all plays out on the top of the box, enacted by the main characters, the Knight and the Dragon.  These are nicely rendered pewter figurines which are magnetically held in place.   As the box is navigated, the players must be moved in strategic ways to advance.  At other times, the pieces actually move by themselves, in a magical dance of parry and retreat.  To solve the box and allow it to open completely the Knight and Dragon must be maneuvered together, to face each other at last, so the Dragon may be slayed. The box can then be reset back to the beginning quite easily, or with a more difficult setting of moves if desired.  Once opened you can admire the mechanism, and understand how the magic is accomplished.  It’s a classic Stickman Box which improves upon a certain type of puzzle mechanism and adds new elements, and it’s a perfect ending to the incredible Apothecary journey.

The Difford's Guide version, with NOLA coffee liqueur

The Knight vs. Dragon Box is like the dessert at the end of an incredible chef’s tasting menu.  In that spirit I’ve paired it with a delicious drink called the White Knight.  Not only is it an after dinner drink, rich, creamy and decadent, but it also features coffee liqueur, perhaps making it the ultimate after dinner drink for this extravagant meal.  All I can tell you is that there are quite a number of White Knight cocktails, but this is the best of the bunch.  I discovered it in Difford’s Guide, the incredible and comprehensive spirits resource for enthusiasts and professionals alike created by Simon Difford.  There isn’t any additional information about it, but perhaps that is fitting, like a lost legend from the time of dragons.  I’ve used St. George Spirits incredible NOLA coffee liqueur, which, like the coffee from its namesake city, is created with Yirgacheffe coffee and chicory root, and sweetened with Madagascar vanilla.  It’s one of the best coffee liqueurs available, from one of the best American craft distillers.  Only the best would do to toast this extraordinary conclusion to the Apothecary Chest. 

Here’s to magic, to spellbinding wonders, to fantasy, and dragons, and white knights, and the imaginations which bring them to life for us.  Cheers!

This quest to slay the dragon is incredible

White Knight

¾ oz aged blended Scotch (such as Monkey Shoulder)
¾ oz Coffee liqueur (such as St. George Spirits NOLA)
¾ oz Drambuie liqueur
¾ oz milk
¾ oz half and half cream

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Sprinkle with the sparks from a freshly forged sword (or grated nutmeg) and garnish with a citrus peel, fire-breathing dragon – one of my finer creations, don’t you think?

For more about Robert Yarger see:

For the prior Apothecary Chest drawers see:

Stay tuned for the final installment of the Apothecary Chest series next week.