Saturday, March 31, 2018

Fool Me Twice

It’s that time of year again, everyone’s favorite foolish holiday.  I’ve had some fun over the past few years with this one.  I once proposed a name change for the blog to “Twisties and Tonics” and featured Oskar’s Treasure Chest, a Rubik’s Cube which is also a puzzle box along with an “apple martini” which is really nothing of the sort.  A bit of Tom Foolery.  Last year I really tried everyone’s patience with a sneaky “Rick Roll” I embedded in a video of Fumio Tsuburai’s “Roll Box”.  After that I think everyone deserves a break.  There are still some sneaky things afoot for this year’s April Fool’s post, but they aren’t at anyone else’s expense this time. 

Unlocked Drawer by Kathleen Malcolmson and Perry McDaniel

I should say, if we are being honest with one another, that all great puzzle boxes are meant to be at someone else’s expense.  This hobby is self-inflicted masochism masked by intellectual curiosity at its finest.  For this April Fool’s Day I’m turning to one of my favorite groups of fine folks, the local Texas talents of Kathleen Malcolmson, Perry McDaniel, and Robert Sandfield.  Together they produced a classic little conundrum which purports to be nothing of the sort.  “Sandfield’s Unlocked Drawer” is a straightforward creation which doesn’t pull any punches – it is, as it claims to be, unlocked.  Just open it, and retrieve the Texas state quarter nestled inside.  Simple!  Ah, but, April Fools! You should know better than to expect things to be that easy from this group of puzzle professionals. 

Just take the quarter, the drawer is unlocked ...

Originally designed by Perry McDaniel, but with a simpler appearance, the Unlocked Drawer holds a place of pride in Kathleen Malcomson’s heart.  She had been working on the basic mechanism for this puzzle for about ten years before it came to life, adjusting tolerances, playing with humidity changes and researching solutions.  She had finally perfected the mechanism, but couldn’t get it to be consistent enough.  She approached Perry with her dilemma.  After confirming many considerations with her, he finally asked how many router tables she was using.  Just one, she replied.  You need two, that will take care of it, was Perry’s response.  Kathleen set up another router table, and it worked perfectly.  Knowing that she had solved the manufacturing issues, Perry offered the design for the Unlocked Drawer to Kathleen for Robert Sandfield’s 2007 IPP exchange in Australia.  In turn knowing how puzzlers think, Kathleen modified the design further, turning it into a classic puzzle box, which she rates as her favorite among her creations.  She recalls another triumph when later that year, after the exchange, a collector whispered to her that his copy was clearly “stuck”.  There’s really no better compliment than that, is there?  Meticulously crafted from her trademark Lacewood and Primavera, the Unlocked Drawer is a wonderful example of how simple yet challenging a well designed puzzle can be.  The precision required to execute this is also a testament to Malcolmson’s extraordinary skill.  If all doors were this tricky to open, we would never need locks.

The Unlocked Negroni

To toast this minny marvel of misdirection I’ve whipped up another misleading mixture.  You may have noticed my penchant for the bitter classic Negroni cocktail, which I frequently feature in various forms and versions.  Here’s a totally new twist on the genre, and perfect for April Fool’s Day, a “fauxgroni”.  Serve this one to you friends and relatives for a sophisticated sipper with a secret.  What the heck, serve it to your children too – it doesn’t have a drop of alcohol in it!  “Cocktails” with no alcohol have undergone their own revolution of late, with prep and care spent in their creation equal to the degree and extent of their alcoholic counterparts in many fancy bars and restaurants.   Often referred to as “mocktails”, these fancy non-alcoholic drinks are appearing on menus as “zero-proof” cocktails and other terms more fitting to their intense preparation.  I’ve coined the term “Unlocked Cocktails” which I think has a nice ring to it.

Fancy a faux-groni?

The Negroni is often thought of as the ultimate zero-proof challenge, since its three ingredients (gin, vermouth and Campari) are all alcoholic and distinctive in flavor.  There’s no juice or syrup for example.  How in the world can such a drink be recreated with no alcohol?  One of the best examples comes from Nick Duble, head bartender at New York’s Atera.  He created a “gin” by making a tea from juniper leaves and branches, a “Campari” by infusing beet juice with quinine and other aromatics, and a “vermouth” by rehydrating raisins!  There are simpler ways to achieve this level of flavor, and that’s fine with me (although I am in awe of his creativity).  Instead of gin I used Seedlip Spice, an innovative new product from the UK which is a distilled, non-alcoholic spirit based on techniques and recipes from 1651.  The Spice contains flavors of oak, cascarilla bark, green cardamom, all spice berries, lemon peel, and grapefruit peel.  I borrowed Duble’s innovative vermouth idea of rehydrating raisins, which really does taste like vermouth, and I used Italian bitter soda instead of Campari.  The Italians love their bitter liquids, and they have a number of such drinks available which are non-alcoholic.  The resulting “Unlocked Negroni” is a fabulous cocktail truly reminiscent of the original, and perfect for “imbibing when you aren’t imbibing”.  You’d be a fool not to try one.  Cheers!

This pair unlocks some surprises

Unlocked Negroni

1 oz Seedlip Spice
1 oz faux vermouth (rehydrated raisin “liquor”)
1 oz Italian bitter soda

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange peel.

For more creations from Sandfield & Company:

For prior Negronis:

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Vernal Journal

It’s about time there was some warmer weather in my part of the world.  Perhaps, if things go according to plan, the northern hemisphere of the Earth will tilt a bit closer to the sun as its orbit brings it round the bend.  I know many of my north eastern friends would welcome a break from the brutal winter they have faced this year.  I should be careful what I wish for – it’s going to get too hot in Houston before I even finish writing this.  But right now the weather is lovely, and the spring has officially started. 

Spring Night by Yoh Kakuda

In Japan, the frog is a common symbol of spring, perhaps due to the many species which erupt in song all throughout the rice fields this time of year.  In “Spring Night”, Yoh Kakuda evokes the return of spring with a happy frog who is enjoying his sake one night, while he gazes at the hazy moon and beautiful flowering cherry blossoms.  It’s so wonderful that he quickly gets drunk and falls asleep.  This fine fellow sits on a sturdy table with a locked drawer.  But no matter, let him enjoy this tranquil evening.  Pour him some sake, and perhaps he will bring you luck for unlocking.  The frog is also a symbol of good luck in Japan, and represents the idea of having returning fortune.  The Japanese word for frog, “kaeru”, sounds the same as the word meaning “return”.  So for good luck and successful returns in all things, people will often carry a lucky frog with them.  I sit mine on the shelf, where he keeps an eye on the other puzzles, and maybe brings some luck in opening them, too.

A perfect box and booze box - so lucky!

Spring Night is also a rather charming box in my opinion for another obvious reason – perhaps you will not have overlooked that this frog is drinking sake?  The box resides in the small category of perfect “Boxes and Booze” puzzle boxes, along with a few other.  Sake, you may know, is the traditional Japanese spirit made from fermented rice, which originated over 2500 years ago.  Our lucky frog is drinking his sake from a traditional “masu” wooden box cup (an ancient box and booze) which holds a volume of 1 “go” (approximately 180 ml / 6 fl oz).  He pours the sake into his cup from a “tokkuri”,  the traditional bulbous flask with a narrow neck, and he likely lets the cup overflow, to show prosperity (and perhaps because he is a little drunk).

Hazy Moon

Clearly we need to have a sake drink with our lucky friend, and he looks like he might share.  Spring calls for light, citrusy cocktails like the Daisy I described a few springs ago, and sake works perfectly in this setting as well. Carissa Pierce, known as the “Fermented Alaskan”, has a fondness for sake cocktails and created this simply perfect drink for the season.  Her “Rise to the Occasion” cocktail is a classic daiquiri riff using plum sake. In my version I used nigori sake, known as “cloud” sake due to the cloudy appearance imparted by unfiltered and unfermented rice left in the liquid.  I like the nigori style for its texture and sweetness, and it was perfect in this combination with white rum, lime juice and demerara sugar.  Here’s to balmy evenings, sweet scents on the air, tantalizing tipples and a return of good fortunes.  Cheers!

Nigori sake and rum are perfect together

Hazy Moon adapted from Carissa Pierce

1 oz nigori sake
1 oz white rum
1 oz fresh lime
½ oz demerara (or simple) syrup

Shake together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with something lucky.

A lovely spring night

For more about Yoh Kakuda:

For prior daiquiri variations:

Saturday, March 17, 2018


I’m stepping outside of the box, so to speak, for this puzzle box and potion pairing.  You might even say I’m escaping the elixir.  Deciphering the drink.  Sleuthing the solution.  All from my armchair!  I’m rather excited about this one as it’s something completely different, which is always nice now and then.  The box, actually a chest, is indeed a “puzzle box”, but not in the same sense as my usual offerings.  In this case, the case holds a case!  In case that wasn’t entirely clear, allow me to elucidate.  “The Kidnapped Crossworder” is a self-contained mystery puzzle in a box, delivered to your door by the “Armchair Detective Company”, the brainchild of three interactive media artists who have teamed up to create a fabulous experience.

The Kidnapped Crossworder from the Armchair Detective Company

The first of three planned mysterious cases, The Kidnapped Crossworder is presented inside a sturdy wooden chest locked up with a classic Chinese style lock.  Inside the chest are notes, documents, files, photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings, which introduce us to the story of our protagonist, who has now gone missing.  In addition, we finds odds and ends, cards, playing pieces, tools, oddities, and more chests, also locked up!  And so begins the mystery.  The Kidnapped Crossworder takes you on a journey which unfolds as you solve clues and crack codes, using tactile tools and items discovered in the chest.  There are layers upon layers to discover, subplots, and hidden secrets.  There are all sorts of codes to break, but fortunately you are provided with a little code breaking manual in case you are a little rusty.  The experience is incredibly enjoyable and extremely well thought out, and the details are wonderfully executed.  The physical objects and hands on clues are more satisfying than many comparable “escape room” type games, and the detective aspect turns you into Sherlock Holmes, a nice spin on the genre.  The additional locked boxes inside add the perfect layer of incentive to keep you going, as you get to know the characters and piece the story together.

A mysterious case inside this case ...

The team behind the Armchair Detective Company is composed of Shelby Arnold, Robert Sabuda and Simon Arizpe.  They are all award winning paper engineers, graphic designers and celebrated pop-up book artists.  You may recognize Sabuda for his amazing Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland reproductions, among many others.  They have carefully sourced items and materials for this tactile mystery box from around the world.  The items are all custom designed and made to feel like real artifacts collected during the course of an investigation.  If The Kidnapped Crossworder is any indication, the sequels promise to be absolutely incredible.  “The Druids’ Catacomb”, set in an ancient Celtic underground chamber, will feature no less than four nested boxes within boxes, opening sequentially as solutions are discovered.  The final mystery, “The Star-Crossed Scientists”, will take place in Victorian England, and will lead the explorer on towards the incredible finale, a mechanical drawing automaton which will sketch out the final clue ….

The Kidnap Cocktail by Trevor Easter

You might want to kidnap yourself an afternoon (possibly an entire day) to puzzle through this mystery.  A little sleuthing solution wouldn’t hurt to lubricate the gray matter.  A little Poirot potion, perhaps? I did a little sleuthing myself to dig up this one, the “Kidnap Cocktail” by Trevor Easter.  Easter created this drink for the 2010 winter menu at Rickhouse, one of the best whiskey bars in America located in San Francisco.  He introduces the drink with this statement: “We have your cocktail. Leave the money on the bar and wait to be contacted by one of our agents. If we see any cops, the deal is off and we send you back the cocktail glass in pieces.”  (Thanks to Camper English, the cocktail and spirits writer, who published the menu on his blog Alcademics.) The drink is a bold and brazen riff on the classic daiquiri, one of my favorite old cocktails with rum, lime and sugar.  This one uses Diplomatico rum, a wonderful aged Venezuelan molasses rum, but mixes things up with some smoky mezcal and funky Jamaican sugar cane rum.  The result will kidnap your senses.  It might not help you solve the mystery of the Kidnapped Crossworder, but you never know – it might just become the cruciverbalist cocktail of choice.  Cheers!

It may just kidnap your senses

The Kidnap Cocktail by Trevor Easter

1 oz Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva rum
½ oz mezcal
½ oz Jamaican Navy Strength rum
1 oz fresh lime
½ oz demerara syrup

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with ransom note or crossword lime peel.

You won't mind being kidnapped by this pair

For more about the Armchair Detective Company:

For more classic daiquiri variations:
A Trip to Cuba

N.B. The Armchair Detective Company is planning on releasing a second edition of The Kidnapped Crossworder this summer.  It can be preordered via their Indigogo page linked on their main website.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


The centuries old Japanese tradition of secret box making evolved from a need for a safe place to store important documents and treasures while traveling or at home.  The original designs utilized two basic but unexpected movements of box panels which would then allow access to the inner compartment.  The design remained largely unchanged for decades.  Master craftsmen such as Yoshio Okiyama pushed the boundaries of the art to include additional panel movements and ever higher sequences of movements which locked the boxes. In the modern era, Yoshiyuki Ninomiya and Akio Kamei truly jumpstarted a new design spark to this traditional artform, introducing novel mechanisms, shapes and concepts and truly thinking outside of the secret “box”. Kamei continues to infuse new life in his own work as well as his Karakuri Creation Group by inviting new artists to explore their ideas.

Kickake by Yasuaki Kikuchi

Appropriately, Yasuaki Kikuchi introduced us to his new ideas for the group with a kickstart of his own.  His “Kickake” box refers to the Japanese concept of something which triggers something else into motion.  It’s a perfect idea to kick off his own unique ideas and creations.  His box is wonderfully distinctive, with an inner cube wrapped up by a contrasting outer cube which has cutouts and windows all around.  If you can determine how to kickstart this box into motion, a sequence of eight moves will transform the box before your eyes into something different.  It’s a clever effect and perfectly executed, and holds a surprising finale as well.  Kikuchi is a welcome addition to group.

An auspicious kickoff

Let’s kick things off on the spirits side with something else that’s getting a jumpstart.  Irish whiskey, which has been around for centuries, has nonetheless been less than apparent in most modern (or classic) cocktails.  With help from innovative bars like The Dead Rabbit in New York there has been a surge of renewed interest and old classics like this one are finding new life and new appreciation.  The “Cameron’s Kick” dates back to the 1920’s where it began appearing in Harry Craddock’s cocktail books (ABCs of Mixing Cocktails, 1922; Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930).  

Cameron's Kick c 1930

The history of the drink and it’s namesake remain a mystery, but its not terribly hard to imagine.  Our erstwhile barfly Cameron, likely of Scottish decent based on the name, either ordered or was served this tipple by his creative barman back in the day.  The kicker was the unusual mix of half Scotch whiskey and half Irish whiskey. Maybe Cameron had a fondness for a green eyed lass, or maybe the barman snuck in the Irish whiskey as a trick, but one way or another, someone got a kick out of it.  By most accounts, this mix of flavors shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s damn tasty.  It might just kickstart your own appreciation for Irish whiskey, too.  Cheers!

You'll get a kick out of this pair

Cameron’s Kick c 1930 (Savoy Cocktail Book version)

1 ½ oz Scotch whiskey blend
1 ½ oz Irish whiskey
¾ oz lemon
½ oz orgeat

Shake together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with something to kick it up a notch.

For more about Yasuaki Kikuchi:

Saturday, March 3, 2018


Writing about puzzle boxes and cocktails has always been a balancing act, trying to bring equilibrium to two distinct ideas in a single format.  The endeavor invites constant opportunity for change and shifting focus, a perpetual starting point for something new.  In Taoism, the ancient philosophy of life which originated with Lao Tzu in China thousands of years ago, the contrasting paths of life and nature naturally flow in and out of one another, the way night turns to day.  Although night and day are separate, even opposite, they are both a part of each other and complete a whole cycle.  This concept is represented visually in the Taoist symbol Taijitu, commonly referred to as the “Yin Yang”.

Yin Yang Master Puzzlebox by Randal Gatewood and Robert Yarger

The Yin Yang Master Puzzlebox by Randal Gatewood completes a cycle of its own, and represents a celebration of a life and a tribute for a death.  Randal Gatewood was known to many in the puzzle community for his expertly handcrafted, unusual puzzle boxes which he sold under his Quagmire Puzzle Box label.  His website was filled with beautiful photographs of his boxes, accompanied with detailed descriptions of his process, the history of the work, and behind the scenes insight into his inquisitive and inspirational personality.  He was extremely private and few apart from his close family and friends knew him well.  One friend, a fellow woodworker and puzzle box artist named Robert Yarger, would trade correspondences with him on occasion, and the two had made plans to collaborate on a puzzle box design one day. 

Opened and closed, locked and unlocked ... its all part of the cycle

Those plans were not meant to be as they had envisioned.  Randal Gatewood died on May 26, 2016 while fighting cancer.  The flow and circle of his life was balanced by many things, including the uplifting spirit of his favorite saying, “I can, I will”, the pursuit of bringing his creative passion to reality in his puzzle boxes, and the reunion with his high school sweetheart, who he carried in his heart and finally married, thirty years later.   She sent his unfinished puzzles to Robert Yarger after Randal’s death, which gave Robert the opportunity to make good on their plan, after all and in a fashion.  Robert was able to finish the series of Yin Yang Master puzzle boxes started by Randal, and added his own “unique flair” to the design as well in the spirit of collaboration.  These meaningful creations bear both the Stickman Puzzlebox Co. logo and original Quagmire Puzzle Box stamp hallmarks.  The boxes are beautifully rendered in shining red paduk wood and feature a lovely inset Yin Yang symbol crafted from maple and purpleheart.  If you can properly align the balance of light and dark, of motion and rest, of life and death, perhaps, you will open the box. 

The hallmarks of friendship

The Way begot one,
And the one, two;
Then the two begot three
And three, all else.
-          - from the Tao Te Ching

This ancient description of the meaning of Yin Yang, from Lao Tzu, seems awfully like a cocktail recipe, no?  Clearly we are considering a Negroni here, the ultimate three part cocktail made from gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.  The brilliant brain behind Portland’s bustling bar Clyde Common created a version which uses a bit more gin, the lightly bitter aperitif Aperol, and the bittersweet Italian vermouth known as “Punt e Mes”, which means “point and a half” and describes its composition of one part sweet to a half part bitter.  He called it the “Bittersweet Symphony”, a name which rings true and feels all too apropos for this toast.  It would have been enough, but I felt the Yin Yang Master deserved more balance and I wanted a bit of sweet and sour to complete this pairing.  I continued the cycle and used the specs from Washington DC’s Farmers and Distillers “Negroni Sour” to achieve what I envisioned for this symphony.  I’ll raise a glass to Randal, his life, and his legacy.  He left behind plenty to puzzle over with appreciation.

Bittersweet Symphony Sour

Bittersweet Symphony Sour – adapted from Jeffrey Morganthaler and Farmers and Distillers

 1 ½ oz gin
1 oz Punt e Mes
1 oz Aperol
¾ oz fresh lemon
¼ oz fresh orange
¼ oz simple syrup
1 egg white

Dry shake egg white and lemon juice to froth (no ice), then add the remaining ingredients and shake with ice to chill.  Strain into a favorite glass and complete the cycle.

Bittersweet balance

For more about Robert Yarger:

For more creations by Randal Gatewood: