Saturday, June 30, 2018

Bon Voyage

I’m on vacation so this week’s offering will be small and sweet (I know, the expression is typically “short” and sweet, but in this case “small” works so much better).  I’m revisiting a few of my favorite places along the California coast on this bon voyage, so it seems the perfect opportunity to revisit a few favorite box and booze destinations as well along the way.

Bon Bons by Perry McDaniel

Here’s a small and sweet puzzle box treat to tempt the taste buds.  What the heck, here’s a whole bunch of treats.  Perry McDaniel, the premier purveyor of puzzling pastries, is one of the most precise craftsman I know who can create incredibly complex mechanism in the tiniest pieces of wood.  He has outdone himself with his Bon Bon series, scaling things down to a diminutive box which resembles a bite sized bon bon.  

They look good enough to eat

He created four of these in total for his pop up pastry shop, which appears mysteriously in various parts of the world.  The set includes three bon bon sized puzzle boxes made from different woods and adorned with a single thin stripe of frosting on top, and a decorative bon bon with a bite taken out of it, which reveals scrumptious layers of colorful wood inside.  This decorative bon bon is certainly the hardest one to open, since it doesn’t, but the others might as well be glued shut as well since they are incredibly tricky.  It’s hard to believe how intricate and complex Perry has made these tiny treasures, and it’s a joy to experience them.

Baker's Dozen by Mike Di Tota

I know there are only four of these delectable desserts in the Bon Bon series, but I wish there were a dozen.  With that in mind I’ve paired them with another incredible “unlocked” cocktail from one of the most innovative zero-proof mixologists around, Mike Di Tota from New York, who’s cocktail “Billow’s and Thieves” I also featured on these pages.  He is the General Manager and Bar Director at The Bonnie in Astoria, Queens, where he created a number of sophisticated zero-proof cocktails. He holds a degree in botany from the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture, and uses his understanding of roots, bark, seeds, stems, herbs and flowers in his delicious drinks.  

Jam packed with flavors

In his “Baker’s Dozen”, he combines two of my favorite cocktail ingredients, lime juice and tonic syrup, with a decadently delicious blackberry and fig syrup, to create one of the most delicious drinks I’ve tasted in quite a while. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a bon voyage like this soon – small, sweet, and serene. Cheers!

A pair of unusual baked goods

Baker’s Dozen – Mike Di Tota

1 oz blackberry-fig syrup
½ Tonic Syrup
¾ oz fresh lime
Soda water

Combine ingredients in a favorite glass and fill with ice. Top with soda water and stir. The original adds a sprinkle of dried Lebanese-style aphrodisiac tea leaves and buds, for garnish.

Blackberry-Fig Syrup
∙ 1 quart turbinado sugar simple syrup
∙ 13 ounces fig preserves (Di Tota uses Bonne Maman brand)
∙ 13 ounces blackberry preserves (Di Tota uses Bonne Maman brand)
∙ 1 cinnamon stick, crushed
∙ 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
∙ 5 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

For more about Perry McDaniel:

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Feeling Corny

Let’s face it.  This is a feel-good blog.  I never set out to be the world’s most acerbic or eviscerating critic of the particular media I write about.  It’s true that I tend to be overly complimentary of the puzzle boxes and even the cocktails I feature each week.  Admittedly, not all puzzle boxes are very complicated or difficult, and some have design flaws or quality issues.  I tend to feature the best ones, but not always.  The platitudes I offer are truly genuine, however, and I really do enjoy these creations and admire the artwork and skill required to create them.  Even more, I recognize that most of these artists rely on our patronage and good reviews for their livelihood, and if I can encourage someone to keep creating, I’ve helped a little. I also love a good pun, and really can’t help myself, so if it gets a little corny in here at times, so be it.

Ixia Box by Juno

Now that you’ve been warned, you won’t mind if it gets a lot corny here this week, as I feature a new craftsman to these pages, Junichi Yananose.  Better known by his nickname, Juno grew up in a remote part of Japan and began making puzzles with precut blocks when he was eleven or twelve years old based on books and his own designs.  He eventually bought himself a scroll and table saw and began making burr and packing type puzzles. After he moved to Tokyo he had little time for puzzle making, but in 2011 he moved from Japan to Queensland Australia to escape fallout from Fukushima and embark on a new adventure.  He took a carpentry course at the government sponsored TAFE (Technical and Further Education) school and began working with Mr. Puzzle himself, Brian Young.  Brian and his wife Sue helped Juno and his wife Yukari to get settled in Australia, until they were finally able to open up their own puzzle shop, Pluredro.  Juno is known for his complex and unusual burr style puzzles, with many pieces joining to form geometric polyhedral shapes.  More recently, he has begun to develop his ideas about puzzle boxes, and the results are as unusual and surprising as might be expected from this designer.

Quite a bit more than meets the eye ...

The Ixia Box, so named for the pretty Ixia flowers which adorn the top, was the result of Juno’s attempt to salvage the run-off wood waste from his other puzzle creations.  He thought that by cutting these cutoff ends at sixty degree angles, he could form gears or flowers by gluing them together.  From this vague notion and no other specific ideas he went on to develop both the Ixia and Quartet Boxes, which feature these salvaged creations on top.  His continued work with burr puzzles then fueled many ideas for these and other puzzle boxes to come.  The Ixia Box is full of colorful exotic wood pieces including Rosewood, Jarrah, Util, Bubinga and Ebony, and has many levels and components.  The “flowers” on top, in three colorful woods, do much more than simply look pretty.  The puzzle box turns out to be of the sequential discovery category, due to pieces and parts which are discovered that are then used in some fashion to help open the box.  Juno’s background in complicated mechanisms and (dis)assembly puzzles guarantees that his boxes are not going to be simple affairs with a basic lid that opens.  What looks like a typical box will most likely be filled with unexpected components and the ultimate “compartment” may be very small despite external appearances.  The Ixia Box requires some creative thinking and alignment to proceed through the “middle” steps, and the sequence is satisfyingly elegant.  Fortunately I did not notice it until later, but there is a way to cheat on this step which ruins the fun.  I like that Juno throws one more obstacle in your way after this brilliant set of moves, which, although not nearly as elegant to solve, at least keeps the challenge going.  If this box represents what he can come up with using scrap parts, it’s no wonder that his carefully planned out boxes are so unusual.

Ixia Blue

For the cocktail pairing I’m bringing things back home to Texas, by way of Kentucky.  The Ixia flower is a species of corn lily, so we will start our liquid lesson off with a nod to a famous lily cocktail, the Oaks Lily.  Most will have heard of horseracing’s main event, the famed Kentucky Derby which we celebrated at Boxes and Booze this year with a Champagne Mint Julep.  Many will not be as familiar with the companion race, held the day before, known as the Kentucky Oaks.  Run by fillies rather than colts, the victor is draped in a garland of lilies instead of roses.  And like the Derby’s Mint Julep, the Oaks has its own traditional drink of choice, the Oaks Lily.  

Balcones Baby Blue Bourbon 

This new classic, made with vodka, lemon juice, orange liqueur and cranberry juice, is not a bad place to start for what we have in mind.  From there we can head back to Texas, as promised.  I wanted to capture the essence of the “corn” for this corn lily cocktail, which means bourbon.  Bourbon is by definition a whiskey made with at least 51% corn mash.  But Texas bourbon, you say?  You’re damn right! In fact, one of the most interesting and award winning corn whiskies in recent times come from the Balcones Distillery located in Waco, Texas.  Their “Baby Blue” bourbon was the first Texas whiskey on the market since Prohibition and is created using 100% heirloom blue corn.  The innovative team from Balcones makes truly handcrafted bourbon using copper stills in small batches to retain the unique flavors and nuances, which in the case of the Baby Blue includes notes of toffee, cinnamon, butter, vanilla, brown sugar and kettle corn, to name a few.  Mmmmmmm.  I’ve adapted the original Oaks Lily cocktail with Baby Blue bourbon as the star attraction for a richly rewarding treat.  Here’s to creativity blooming in unlikely places – cheers!

A corny pair

Ixia Blue

2 oz Balcones Baby Blue bourbon
¾ oz fresh lemon
½ oz cranberry liqueur
½ oz orange liqueur
½ oz demerara syrup

Shake together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a citrus peel flower.

For more about Junichi Yananose:

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Easy as Pie

Jesse Born is back at it again with a true show stopper.  The Pi Box is his most extravagant and complex piece of work to date and embodies all of the skills he has learned up to now.  Crafted from Mahogany, with a beautiful Curly Maple bottom and accents of Walnut and Purpleheart inside, the Pi Box is a nonagon which features nine individual slices of pie on the lid.  Each pie wedge is decorated with Jesse’s homemade colorful geometric yosegi marquetry.  Each corner is reinforced with splines and there are many small and elegant details. The box is a beautiful piece of artwork and can stand alone as a conversation piece.  But the most remarkable part is the puzzle itself. 

Pi Box by Jesse Born

The pieces of pie are all separated from one another in an expanded circle around the lid.  Jesse provides one piece of instruction, which is that once all nine pieces are centered together, to create a complete and uncut pie on top, the box will open.  It’s a helpful bit of information, although it becomes clear that this may be the goal fairly quickly.  However, and not surprisingly, the slices of pie are not going to cooperate so easily.  The lid is incredibly dynamic and even if you think you may have some idea of how it should work, getting there is not so simple.  The box is precisely made, and demands that the steps be followed exactly, with no room for error or accidental success. The solution is truly marvelous, and it’s impressive how Jesse managed to make it work so well.  In keeping with his prior boxes and style sense, once you have solved the puzzle and opened the box, there is a built in mechanism which allows you to disassemble the working elements and marvel at the construction and design.  It’s another great touch on this decadent dessert.

A pie in the sky idea Jesse brought to life

We’re giving this delicious achievement the royal treatment here at Boxes and Booze by toasting it with a cocktail named after a king.  King Kamehameha, to be precise, the legendary ruler of Hawaii who first united the islands together over two hundred years ago.  Admittedly, it’s unlikely that King Kamehameha imbibed anything even close to his namesake cocktail, which was created for the Lono tiki bar in Hollywood by beverage director Michael Lay.  The drink is a rich and decadent mix of four different rums (not unusual for tiki drinks, but always impressive), lots of citrus, the lightly bitter Italian aperitivo Aperol, pineapple, and passion fruit.  If that sounds amazing to you, you’re not wrong.  It’s so deliciously rich and flavorful, sipping on one poolside could be considered dangerous.  

King Kamehameha by Michael Lay

Michael Lay’s creations are worth seeking out if you are in California, since he has developed the bar programs at a number of successful restaurants and bars in Los Angeles.  His Faith and Flower Clarified Milk Punch, which won Esquire’s “Cocktail of the Year” award in 2014, is one of the most complicated cocktails I’ve ever made, and well worth the effort.  Getting back to the present offering, Lay had been binge streaming old episodes of “Magnum P.I.” when he came up with the name for the King Kamehameha cocktail. It's also the name of the club where the characters in the show hang out.  Now you can stop wondering why this drink is paired with the Pi Box - I know that was bothering you.  Cheers!

A tiki drink fit for a king


¾ oz dark overproof rum, preferably Plantation OFTD rum
¾ oz aged Puerto Rican rum, preferably Bacardi 8
¾ oz Jamaican rum mix, preferably a blend of Smith & Cross and Appleton 12 (or Denizen Merchant)
1 oz Aperol
1 oz fresh lime
1 oz fresh orange
2 oz fresh pineapple (or sub syrup)
¾ oz passion fruit syrup
¾ oz honey syrup

Shake all ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass full of ice.  Fanciful fruit garnishes and tiny umbrellas required.  Shoes optional.

I'm pie eyed for this pair

For more about Jesse Born:

For more about Michael Lay’s award winning Clarified Milk Punch:

Saturday, June 9, 2018


Here’s one more addition to the Locks and Libations series, a little light hearted fare I thought I would just “toss” in.  Why not.  By the way, I hope you catch it when I toss it, since it will either break your foot or make a hole in the floor should you fail.  Compared to other puzzle locks, like the DanLock I presented earlier in the series, which might be described as scoring a “10” on a ten-point scale, this one (in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel) goes to eleven.

T11 by Rainer Popp

Rainer Popp is a German craftsman who has turned his passion for restoring and collecting vintage antique locks into his own brand of modern day puzzle locks.  Because of his skill and creativity, many believe that he is the greatest puzzle lock maker living today.  He hand turns and mills every piece he designs himself from solid brass and stainless steel.  His limited edition locks, which he names simply in a numbered sequence, starting from his first trick lock, “T1”, have become highly sought after collectors items.  He may truly have outdone himself with his latest offering, the T11, which has been hailed as the greatest trick lock ever created.  I’m no authority, but I can vouch that it is ridiculously difficult to open.

A key component

Even if you are not impressed with complex mechanisms in general, or difficulty of a puzzle to solve, it’s hard not to admire the T11 for sheer aesthetic beauty alone.  The lock is large, at 140mm high, and heavy, weighing in at 2 kilos. It is fashioned like a medieval fortress with solid fortifications and studs all over.  Rainer relates that the middle rivet of the shackle was originally intended to be stainless steel as well, but a mistake from the manufacturer was a happy accident which looks quite nice.  As you explore and discover, you are reminded more of a concentric castle from the middle ages, a castle within a castle if you will.  And the key to the castle is also a thing of beauty, large and stylish with a clever T11 logo imprinted on the tip.  Which is somewhat ironic, as there is no obvious keyhole.  You are given one hint along with the lock, which is to use this key in the keyhole.  Hmmmm ... "Speak, friend, and enter."  As if.

Rainer's inspiration for the T11 is from Yale's Magic Lock, a famous lock mechanism invented around 1850 by Linus Yale, Jr., one of the pioneers of modern day mechanical locks.  You can see this impressive piece of lock history for yourself via a link at the end, but be warned it will reveal a few critical hints about the T11.  It’s hard to explore this lock, being too heavy to hold in your hand for very long.  You explore it little by little, noting a few unexpected things, and suspecting a few more.  You may even find the first move, although you may not realize it, as nothing much really occurs as a result.  But that may be as far as you get, unable to enact even the next step.  I know a few seasoned lock pickers who never made it past this point on their own.  And there are thirteen steps to go, if you’re perfect, and don’t count a few more side steps also required.  I know I’m being cryptic but it’s the best I can do.  You won’t find any hints here.  The most I will say is that many of the steps required are quite fitting for a trick lock, as they are reminiscent of picking a lock, requiring perfectly precise positioning and timing.  How do I know?  Thankfully Rainer includes an instruction manual.  There are so many unexpected movements and amazing developments in this puzzle, and even a leap of faith which is rewarded with true panic.  Rainer has not spared an ounce of creativity and psychology here.  The T11 is truly one louder than the rest.

World's Collide by Trevor Corlett

In keeping with the Locks and Libations theme I am presenting another “unlocked cocktail” to pair with this masterpiece of security.  It’s also a fitting end for “Negroni Week”, the international charity event which ran from June 4-10 this year.  You may recall the Unlocked Negroni I created for April Fool’s Day to pair with Kathleen Malcomson’s Unlocked Drawer.  It’s quite challenging to create a good non-alcoholic Negroni substitute, since the original drink calls for equal parts of three distinct spirits and has no juices, syrups or tonics.  

A complex play of flavors reminiscent of a Negroni cocktail

An unusual approach which works is to use high quality coffee, which brings acidity and balanced bitterness to the drink.  Madcap Coffee Company from Grand Rapids Michigan has done an impressive job with this creation, their “Worlds Collide” coffee negroni.  The name is a nod to the mashup of the coffee and spirits industries, as well as the international combination of flavors found in the drink.  I think the name perfectly reflects the remarkable achievement of Rainer Popp’s T11 as well.  The drink incorporates Madcap’s Double Third Coast espresso with a homemade orange - pink peppercorn syrup and berry shrub.  Like the original Negroni and the T11, this drink is an acquired taste, a challenge to the palate and senses, and while you may not solve its nuances immediately, you can enjoy it for the beauty of its construction and appearance alone.  Here’s to unlocking life’s greatest challenges.  Cheers!

Popp in sometime to unlock this pair

World’s Collide by Trevor Corlett

½ oz orange-peppercorn syrup
2 oz espresso (Third Coast)
1 oz sparkling water
¼ oz berry shrub
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Add syrup and coffee to an ice filled glass and stir to chill.  Strain into a fresh glass, top with sparkling water, shrub and bitters and stir.  Garnish with the key to a great challenge.

For more about Rainer Popp:

To see Yale's Magic Lock, the inspiration for the T11 (provided courtesy of Rainer Popp):

For prior unlocked cocktails:

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Are we not drawn onward to new era

Self described French “Visionary Architect” Luc Schuiten penned a series of groundbreaking and provocative graphic novellas in the early two thousands, which formed the “Hollow Grounds” trilogy.  The first in this science fiction series, “CARAPACES”, provides brief but potent snapshots of six different scenes, each with the underlying theme of desire and its devastating consequences.  The next chapter, “ZARA”, is set in a world with unusual physical properties, inhabited only by women. We watch as they encounter, and dispatch with, the first men to discover their world.  It is a fitting parable for today’s times.  Finally, “NOGEGON” follows one of the main characters from Zara into a new story, in a new and highly structured world.  Slowly, it becomes clear that this world is governed by pure symmetry, and events will ultimately resolve themselves just as they began.  Careful analysis of the novella’s structure reveals minute planning, with mirror images in the pages, artwork, text and plot.  The entire journey is a palindrome. It’s a remarkable a piece of artwork.
Silver City by Neokid

Which brings us to “Silver City”, another beautiful production from the French craftsman Cristophe Laronde, known as “Neokid”.   His signature piece, “Mecanigma”, features an explosion of moving parts and pieces which interlink in a steampunk fantasy brought to life.  He is a self taught woodworker and creates his visionary designs with modern technology, including laser cut wood parts and 3D printed pieces.  He was inspired by the stories of Luc Schuiten and created the work Silver City in homage to NOGEGON, the perfectly symmetrical, palindromic world.  This striking box, crafted from poplar wood, padouk, ash and aluminum, features black oak and mahogany marquetry which produces the perfectly symmetrical and lustrous pattern adorned on its surface.  

Marquetry veneer pattern in black oak and mahogany

The symmetry hardly ends there, as might be imagined by now from the description.  The nine moves required to open the box are satisfyingly predictable, once the initial moves are deduced.  This does not detract from the experience; rather, it feels like a well planned dance of movement, and understanding the source material is enlightening.  Finally, opening the box, which retains the perfect symmetry despite its complex and unexpected shape, reveals the Silver City in its full glory.  The box is also available as a kit which can be built from laser cut parts at home and is equally stunning, with post-modern aesthetics which recall an industrial city even more than the polished version.

The build-it-yourself kit contains everything you will need - and looks really cool, too

In honor of this brilliant design from the enigmatic Frenchman, and coinciding with the start of this year’s Negroni week, the annual international fundraiser featuring everyone’s favorite cocktail, I’ve created a perfectly symmetrical, French themed version.  The Negroni, as everyone now knows, is a classic Italian drink which originated sometime around 1919, when Count Camillo Luigi Manfredo Maria de Negroni asked for something stronger than his usual “Americano”, a vermouth and Campari sprtiz, at the Caffe Casoni in Florence, Italy.   The bartender swapped the spritz for gin and the Negroni was born.  Negronis are incredibly versatile and stand up well to experimentation, with innumerable riffs using every base spirit imaginable to replace the gin. For this fanciful French variation, we are using French cognac, of course.  Aperol, the lighter, more floral cousin of Campari, compliments the cognac quite nicely here, and we have something very special for the sweet vermouth.  

NEGRORGEN (Silver City Negroni)

POE Wines in the Napa Valley was founded in 2009 by Samantha Sheehan and is run entirely by women.  Their bottles feature a raven’s feather, in homage to their Poetic namesake.  They have produced a limited edition of fruit forward sweet vermouth over the past few years as well, including the Vin D’Pampe Vermouth Rose, made from a base of their Pinot Noir rose.  It’s grapefruit tones play magically with the Aperol and it shines in this cocktail.  If you like grapefruit, this negroni was made for you.  Just don’t be alarmed if you find the glass full again at the end of the evening.  It’s all part of the symmetrical plan.  Cheers!

A most delicious reviver to keep on your radar

NEGRORGEN (Silver City Negroni)

½ oz cognac
½ oz Aperol
1 oz Vin D’Pampe(or other grapefruit forward sweet vermouth)
½ oz Aperol
½ oz cognac

Stir with ice for the perfect amount (never odd or even) and strain into a favorite glass.  Ensure the garnish is level and enjoy at noon (while listening to ABBA).

These two put up some nice stats

For more about Neokid:

For prior negroni variations:
Down for the Count
Fine Creations
Petit Four Your Thoughts