Saturday, June 22, 2019

Connecting the Dots

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” – Oscar Wilde, 1891

Color-colo by Yasuaki Kikuchi

Wilde was contemplating the phenomenon that what we experience in life, at times, is directly influenced by our notions of art. We see a beautifully painted sunset which evokes certain emotions, and we then experience those same emotions when viewing a real sunset. Or so the theory goes. It has larger implications in a world controlled by media, but I digress. I’m just here to talk about a puzzle box.

A new twist on an old twist

This one, the “Color-colo” by Japanese artist Yatsuaki Kikuchi of the Karakuri Creation Group, who wanted to imitate a Rubik’s Cube with his creation. That puzzle, invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik as an architectural model, is an iconic symbol known all over the world. So in this case it seems that art is imitating art. The Rubik’s Cube is not a puzzle box, of course, unless you consider this one, so Kikuchi had to take some artistic license here. His cube does not twist into over 43 quintillion combinations, like Rubik’s version. No need to repeat that feat of wonder. Kikuchi’s cube is sized to comfortably fit in the hand and crafted from walnut, maple and cherry woods. It features little multi-colored dots all around, and it lives up to the expectations created by the original that it imitates, in that the goal is indeed to align all the colors on each side, like a real Rubik’s Cube. The box turns out to be quite dynamic, and it is satisfying and fun to engage the mechanism. The name may confuse some Westerners not familiar with the many common forms of onomatopoeia in the Japanese language. They love words that sound like what they are describing. Like this one: ゴロゴロ which describes the sound of something rolling around. If you don't know Japanese, the word is pronounced like, well, "color-colo" - say it a few times fast and you'll see. It's a great pun and play on the word in Japanese, and also gives a little hint about how the box works. What a wonderfully creative homage and festive box by this clever new designer.

Singapore Sling

For the toast, I actually developed this pairing in reverse. I have wanted to feature the classic “Singapore Sling” cocktail for a while, but couldn’t decide what box would pair with it, until it struck me that this one would do quite nicely. Many will know the famous nickname for Singapore, which derived from its depiction on many world maps as simply a “little red dot”. The term is now used proudly in self reference by this thriving independent nation. The Color-colo cube has little red dots all over it (and many other colors too, of course, but life is imitating art here, ok?).

The original recipe, c. 1900 ... 

The “sling” family of cocktails arguably predates the actual “cocktail” and may have been a bridge from the popular punches of the early 1800’s in America to the cocktail itself. A sling back then was essentially a single serving of punch, made with spirit, sugar and water, but no bitters. Things got much fancier at the turn of the next century, especially at, say, the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. They were famous for their sling, made with gin, lemon (or lime), ice, soda water, and … other stuff. The other stuff is so mysterious because there are now so many versions of the drink and the cocktail history books are not so helpful. A modern day Singapore Sling at the Raffles includes pineapple juice, cherry brandy, Benedictine, grenadine and bitters too. But Historian David Wondrich has combed the old newspaper archives from Singapore and established what is likely to have been the true additions in the original version: red cherry brandy (the drink was historically pink), lime juice, and Benedictine (and a few dashes of bitters). I’ve chosen to make Whitechapel’s version (a modern gin joint in San Francisco) of this classic, which sticks to the original formula. It’s one of the best. Cheers!

Dots a nice pair

Singapore Sling (Whitechapel)

1 ½ oz London dry gin
¾ oz Cherry Heering
¾ oz Benedictine
1 oz lime
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Club soda

Build the ingredients in an ice filled Collins glass, top with the club soda, and give it a stir. Garnish with a little red dot.

For more from Yasuaki Kikuchi see:
Know L

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Things That Go Boom

It’s been a little while since I featured something from my friend on the other side of the world. It’s amazing to think that he is experiencing winter now, while it’s getting unbearably hot in my corner. The world spins on its axis, the seasons change, and life goes on.

Ze Bomb by Stephen Chin

Such is not the case with Stephen Chin’s icosahedron puzzles. Stephen likes to take complex interlocking polyhedral objects, such as the humble cube, and “turn” them into practically impossible objects by spinning them on his lathe to create spheres, footballs, apples, and in this particular case, bombs.  These creations are all based on the original work by Wayne Daniels, who discovered a way to dissect an icosahedron into ten similar interlocking parts which require simultaneous movement to come together and to come apart. The icosahedron is one of the five Platonic Solids, objects which are composed of faces which are each identical (congruent), regular (equilateral), and which have the same number of faces meeting at each vertex. For example, a cube is made up of identical squares, and three squares meet at each and every point (vertex). The icosahedron is also Platonic, composed of twenty equilateral triangles with twelve vertices where five triangles meet. In Wayne Daniel’s dissection, there are two sets of five identical pieces, which are mirror images of each other (“right-handed” and “left-handed” pieces) and compose the top and bottom halves of the final shape. He was certain that having ten identical pieces was impossible. But Stephen Chin is, as the saying goes, “the bomb”.

Spin it, and watch it go "boom"!

Stephen set out to achieve the impossible and ultimately succeeded, being the first to notice a possible solution for ten identical pieces. George Bell created a program to search for all possibilities and ultimately determined there was only one other piece shape that could work, and it would not support the magic “angle” that Stephen had deduced. Thus, Dr. Chin’s creation remains unique, with ten identical pieces and a mechanism unlike any other. In his version, the ten piece icosahedron is literally turned into a sphere, so that it can be spun, and the forces pulling at the pieces as they spin will ultimately lead to an explosion of all ten coming apart at once. By adjusting the internal angle just right, he achieves a bit of delay, such that the sphere will spin for a few seconds before finally exploding. This occurs as the spin axis finally coincides with the disassembly axis for the coordinate motion. It’s a fantastic mechanism and worth the struggle to reassemble everything just to watch it happen over and over again. If creating a working identical ten piece icosahedron assembly wasn’t impossible enough, just consider that it explodes into ten pieces if it is spun – yet it must be spun at incredibly high speed on the lathe in order to create it. An impossible object indeed. Of course, Stephen is never content, so has turned the sphere into other clever shapes as well, such as the beautiful apple (“1 Pinko Ringo”) and “Ze Bomb” seen here. Technically these do not have identical pieces, but the aesthetics are wonderful. Crafted in various exotic hardwoods, these pieces are some of the most beautiful functional pieces of mathematical art.

"Ze Bomb" adapted from Jillian Vose

All this geometry makes me need a drink. I’ve mixed up a fun and funky riff on a tiki style classic to toast this incredible creation. The original comes from mixologist Jillian Vose, a Cape Cod native who is a rock star in the New York mixology scene. She is currently the beverage director at The Dead Rabbit, twice named the World’s Best Bar, among many other accolades which she helped achieve.  This recipe comes from her prior time at Death and Company, another iconic bar, and can be found in their essential cocktail book.  While gin is an unusual base spirit for a tiki recipe, it works well in her drink, in the form of “Old Tom” gin, a malty-er, sweeter, old fashioned style of gin resurrected in modern times. She named the drink the “Tom Bomb” because of it.

Zucca makes a surprise appearance

I’ve swapped out the Old Tom for something even odder for a tiki recipe, an Italian amaro. This drink is toasting one seriously odd fellow, after all. I’ve used Zucca, an unusual amaro featuring the rich and earthy flavor of Chinese rhubarb root. Combined with pineapple, lemon, orgeat (almond syrup), acacia honey, and a classic mix of vanilla and allspice syrup known as “Donn’s Mix #2” (in honor of Donn Beach, one of the original tiki pioneers from the 1930’s), the drink is tiki heaven, and the Zucca is a surprise hit which works amazingly well. In fact, it’s “Ze Bomb”! Here’s to turning things around in new and fantastic ways, and hoping they don’t explode on you, unless of course, you want them to. Cheers!

This pair is the bomb!

Ze Bomb adapted from Jillian Vose

1 oz Zucca

½ oz gin

¼ oz Donn’s Spices #2 (1:1 mix of vanilla syrup and Allspice Dram)
½ oz lemon
½ oz pineapple
¼ oz orgeat
¼ oz acacia honey syrup

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. No garnish required, but let’s face it, garnishes make life more fun.

For more from Stephen Chin:
Fruits of Labor
Pure Genie-us
The Fraulein's Fall

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Curve Balls

“Don’t stop me know, I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball” – Queen

Eric Fuller has got some balls. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a new puzzle box design from the curator of finely crafted puzzles and master of mischief. He’s been busy making incredible interlocking, maze and packing puzzle designs while he refines his business model. No matter, everything he makes is top notch, as many collector well know. He hasn’t produced an original secret opening box in almost three years, but that has now changed.

Multiball by Eric Fuller

Eric has never been content to create a typical puzzle box. Almost all of his original designs involve some novel mechanism which must be understood anew, or enacted in a clever way. He likes to, and is extremely talented at, create diversions and misdirection. His boxes keep you on your toes, keep you guessing, and keep you frustrated, at least for a while. Most of us see this as a good thing, and derive great satisfaction from solving something challenging yet possible, as opposed to something so difficult or random as to be practically impossible. It’s a tricky balance to get right.

Fuller gets the ball rolling 

Eric’s newest box is “Multiball”, a sturdy, sold feeling box expertly crafted from Ash, Wenge and Walnut woods. The distinguishing feature is a narrow acrylic window on one side which allows a view of four steel ball bearings, which roll back and forth. Move the box around and a few more interactions become apparent. There appear to be steel pins which drop in and out of place here and there as well. Multiball is classic Fuller. Take some time to observe, and it might seem obvious what is going on, and what needs doing. Most likely, this “knowledge” will change over time. The box reminds me of the old fake Mark Twain saying about how “it’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”. (Fake because this quote is usually attributed to Twain, who never said it. The true origins are an interesting but lengthy aside.) Multiball plays a really devious trick on you, and even after you understand, it remains difficult to separate truth from fiction at times. I spent many days trying to work out just exactly what is going on inside that box, and even after finally understanding, correctly, what needs to be done and why, found it very challenging to come up with a good plan to get it done. Multiball was worth the wait, and Eric has a lot more new puzzle box designs in the works as well.

Smoke and Mirrors by Melissa Yard

I’m toasting this new box from one of the puzzle world’s most unique characters with a fitting tribute. The name of this cocktail is irresistible, so naturally there are quite a few versions available out there. A good name is hard to hold onto in the drinks world, and is seldom trademarked or copyrighted. The best someone can hope is for their drink to become so famous that no one would think to use the name again, something that doesn’t happen very often. I’ve chosen to use the recipe offered by Melissa Yard, Georgia native and current bar manager at Josephine Wine Bar in Charleston, South Carolina. She’s a well known mixologist and sommelier in Atlanta and now Charleston, and her drink was featured in Imbibe magazine, one of the Industry’s most popular magazines and a common source of inspiration for me.

Mezcal is the belle of the ball

Yard’s cocktail features the smoky allure of mezcal, one of the most complex and interesting spirits with countless regional varieties to explore. She adds a delicious mix of pineapple, ginger and spice, which sets this drink apart from your every day margarita. In the original recipe she uses a spicy pineapple jalapeño syrup and separate ginger syrup. I often try to simplify my cocktails a bit, so for example here I made a single pineapple and ginger syrup, and added the spice with some habanero bitters. (Maybe you don’t think that is simplifying things and you may be right.) The egg white adds texture and fluff, and is an essential ingredient for some in a truly proper sour. The resulting cocktail is something special, full of mystery and perfect to accompany a tricky puzzle. Here’s to finding the proper balance, in everything we pursue. Cheers!

Keep an eye on these balls

Smoke and Mirrors by Melissa Yard

1½ oz mezcal
½ oz orange liqueur
1 oz fresh lime juice
½ oz ginger syrup
½ oz pineapple jalapeño syrup
1 fresh egg white (pasteurized, if you like)
Garnish: cayenne mix (1:1:1 sugar to salt to cayenne)

Dry shake all the ingredients together without ice to combine. Add ice, shake again to chill, then strain into a chilled glass. Garnish.

For more about Eric Fuller:

Saturday, June 1, 2019

All Greek to Me

It’s time for another installment of “Locks and Libations”, the occasional puzzle lock digressions of a puzzle box collector. This unique creation comes from the mind of Greek American Constantine Bovalis, a mechanical design engineer from Illinois. Constantine notes that the inspiration for his puzzle creations comes in a roundabout way from traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, which he says yield up their secrets fairly easily after simply moving a few things around here and there. He does everything he can to make his creations the exact opposite! He believes that a good puzzle is logically deducible despite being tricky, and that a real challenge is to design something which is difficult to solve while remaining perfectly visible. With that in mind he prefers to have everything on display in his puzzles, with nothing at all hidden.

Bovalis Lock

He created an original puzzle box with transparent acrylic sides, full of gears and exposed mechanisms. It proved quite popular and led to a collaboration with collector Matthew Dawson, who requested he make a new puzzle in the shape of a padlock. The object would be to release a trapped coin. From this modest description the Bovalis Lock was born, rather quickly, as it turns out. Constantine has a quick mind and immediately sat down to design the lock, producing a working model within two weeks and a functional prototype a week after that. 

Fine gears drive multiple overlapping mechanisms

He 3D prints most of the parts himself using a very smooth PLA filament and does the final constructions. He outsources the complex gears which have such tiny notches he is not satisfied with his own printing efforts. The locks are a great example of what can be accomplished these days with 3D printing.  The puzzle is just as described, a fully visible mechanical enigma full of gears and levers. Every interaction can be seen, but it is not immediately apparent what must be done to free the coin. The colorful parts add to the enjoyment. The lock even won an award, for best mechanical / geometrical design (also known as the “Euclid” award) at the 2018 Megistian Aenigma Agon, the premier puzzle competition held on the Greek Isle Kastellorizo and hosted by Pantazis Houlis.  

The Preppy Handbook, an "unlocked cocktail"

As with many of the previous Locks and Libations pairings, I’m offering another “unlocked cocktail” to complement the Bovalis Lock. This is
my name for “zero-proof” cocktails, aka non-alcoholic, aka “mocktails”, a term I avoid for fear of being mocked. In lieu of high proof spirits with actual alcohol, zero-proof drinks often employ other ingredients with strong or interesting flavors as a base ingredient, then add other components often found in a classic cocktail. They don’t skimp on the culinary effort and can rival anything else on the menu. These days there are also non-alcoholic distilled spirits available as well, which evoke complex flavors recognizably similar to common spirits but without the proof.

Seedlip Garden, green tea and berry jam

The first non-alcoholic distilled spirit, and one of the best, is from the Seedlip distillery, which makes a range of three different varieties. This recipe uses the “Garden”, full of fresh green peas, hay, and flavors from the English countryside. I’ve made a traditional sour with crisp fresh lime juice, and added some green tea for a more complex and unexpected twist. I used a special green tea as well, zhuyeqing, which is also known as Bamboo Leaf due to its shape, and is a prize winning tea from modern China. Finally the sweetness is derived from berry jam, which adds texture as well as a vibrant pink color.  The combination of pink and green made me think of the old “preppy” uniform from the eighties, which is how I came up with the name. Unlock this cocktail for yourself sometime, for something different, like the transparent creations of Constantine Bovalis. Cheers!

Unlock this pleasant pair

Preppy Handbook

2 oz Seedlip Garden
1 oz fresh lime
½ oz green tea
1 tbs berry jam

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a tea cup. Garnish with a lime twist.

For more Locks and Libations with “unlocked cocktails” see:

Saturday, May 25, 2019


Guess what? It’s my birthday! For this year’s celebration I’m offering a special birthday themed pairing here on B&B.  I’m also keeping it short and sweet cause hey, it’s my birthday!

Present for you by Shou Sugimoto

Let’s start with a present, shall we? For me? Really? There can’t be many better puzzle boxes for this occasion than the “Present for you” box by Karakuri Creation Group artist Shou Sugimoto. (Brian Young’s “Birthday Surprise” is another good one, but I’ve already written about that one.) Present for you was Sugimoto’s 2017 end of year offering, and a truly pleasant surprise for those who received it. Sugimoto, one of the newest members of the group, has recently started to create some very interesting shapes and mechanisms, including the amazing Ferris Wheel from last year’s Idea Contest. He has an art background and brings a fresh sensibility to the group.

All wrapped up with a radiant ribbon

Present for you is a beautiful creation, crafted from maple, magnolia, chanchin, and Japanese torreya woods to resemble a present, all wrapped up with a pretty bow. The contrasting wood ribbon is particularly nice. Getting this present to open to see what’s inside is no simple task, however. No matter whether you’re a wrapping paper ripper or a neat as you please unfolder, it will take some time with this one. It’s a really clever mechanism and requires quite a bit of dexterity too. If you have a friend to help, even better. Thanks for the present, Shou, it’s just what I wanted.

The Friendsip

For a birthday toast, I’m waxing philosophical and suggesting that the best present we all have is the lives of those we love who are present in our own. With that in mind, I’m raising my glass to all my family and friends, near and far, old and new. This is a cocktail I created from some spirits a friend sent me to try a while back. I had made a comment about how interesting they sounded, and next thing you know, a few little bottles arrived on my doorstep. It was a nice surprise, and provided some perfect inspiration at the time. The samples were of Chareau aloe liqueur and Amaro Angelino, both incredibly unique California spirits which were not available in my region at the time. Chareau is a light and refreshing spirit distilled from local aloe vera, cucumber, eau de vie, lemon peel, muskmelon, and spearmint. It adds a truly unique flavor to any drink. Amaro Angelino is a distinctly Californian light bitter liqueur in the Italian style with bright citrus notes. Both are truly delicious on their own, and both are fantastic in cocktails. I combined them for this one, and call it the “Friendsip”. Here’s to my family and friends, thanks for your presence in my life. Cheers!

I get by with a little help from my friends


1 ½ oz reposado tequila
½ oz Amaro Angelino
¾ oz Chareau aloe liqueur
½ oz Cointreau
¾ oz fresh lime

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a lime bow.

A pair of perfect presents

For more about Shou Sugimoto:

Homeward Bound

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Game of Thrones

I’m jumping on the pop culture bandwagon this week with a themed offering, although I’m doing it in my own special way.  As everyone who has been paying even the tiniest fraction of attention in the world knows, Game of Thrones has become a global obsession.  The name refers to the title of the first novel in the fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, first published in 1996. The series chronicles the lives of several royal dynasties (and an additional supernatural “undead” army thrown in for good measure) all vying for control of the fictional land Westeros and the ultimate prize, the Iron Throne. Martin envisions a total of seven books in the series, and has published the first five to date. While the books have been best sellers, the phenomenon really took off due to the HBO production, now in its eighth and final season. The very last episode, with a battle scene reported to be the biggest in film history, airs this weekend.

Toilet by Kyoko Sueda and Tatsuo Miyamoto 

An event of such epic proportions clearly needs an epic offering to do it justice.  Here’s a puzzle box throne for the occasion: the Karakuri Creation Group Toilet. This one really speaks for itself. It’s a toilet. The Toilet was part of the group’s annual “Idea Contest”, in which puzzle box suggestions from all over Japan are solicited and voted on, and a few selected for production by the group’s artists. Rumor has it that Kyoko Sueda, whose idea this was, received notice about her winning design idea with a message that read: "You're in luck ... "  It was so popular, in fact, that it won the “Favorite Grand Prize” the year it was produced. I suppose everyone can relate to it. 

Your throne awaits

The goal of the puzzle is to access the two secret compartments, which reside in the bowl and in the water tank. Use your imagination, and you might be privy to finding them both. No actual toileting is required, by the way, to enjoy this beautifully crafted item made from walnut, maple and oak by Tatsuo Miyamoto at the Karakuri facilities. It’s a wonderfully prized conversation piece and should be number one (or number two) in any bathroom collection.

The Last Urd

To toast this monumental throne and epic cultural event I’ve created a special themed cocktail as well, of course. As this final episode will surely be the last word in the series (except for the two unpublished novels and ignoring the whole undead thing going on here which just messes with the finality of everything – but these are minor details) it seemed appropriate to make a Last Word variation. This classic cocktail is a recurring theme here. The four basic ingredients are easy to vary in ways that always create something new and delicious. Although the GOT world is fictional, it definitely has a medieval European feel to it. I decided to use aquavit, the traditional Scandinavian spirit, as the base, to channel some of that feeling. The other ingredients in a Last Word are a citrus, an herbal liqueur (typically Chartreuse) and a sweet liqueur. For the latter I’ve resurrected something I made in the past for another amazing LW variation I called “The Alexandrian Solution”. It’s a homemade “kornelkirsch”, traditionally made from the berries of the cornelian cherry tree (whose branches made the famous Gordian Knot of legend). The flavor has been described as a cross between cranberry and sour cherry. For my homemade version I infused some sour cherry into cranberry liqueur with outstanding results.

It's the last word in Medieval cocktails

The cocktail’s name references Scandinavia and the time of the Vikings. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were watching a bunch of Vikings on an episode of GOT (especially the Night’s Watch), so it just seemed to make sense. Granted, GOT has its own mythologies and religions, but in the Norse mythologies, there are nine worlds, all connected by the giant tree “Yggdrasil”, the Tree of the World. Living at the base of the tree are the three ‘Norns”, female beings who rule the destiny of the gods and men. They care for and nourish the tree, with water from the Well of Fate. One of these three is Fate herself, known as “Urdr”, more often depicted simply as “Urd”. In Old English she is known as “Wyrd”. I suspect she will have something to say about who assumes the Iron Throne. The cocktail’s name also references the puzzle box. Don’t spit out your drink when you catch on. If Fate should have it, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to try this drink for yourself one day too. Here’s to epic battles, clever crafts, plays on wyrds, double entendres, and literary masterpieces you can enjoy in the bathroom. Cheers!

This pair is feeling flush with excitement

The Last Urd

¾ oz aquavit
¾ oz yellow Chartreuse
¾ oz fresh lemon
¾ oz sour cherry infused cranberry liqueur

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into an appropriately medieval looking vessel. Spill all over your beard as you drink.

For more Karakuri Creation Group Idea Contest winners see:

For prior Last Word variations see:

Saturday, May 11, 2019

By Any Other Name

Red roses have had the symbolic meaning of love for centuries, with the origins traced back to Greek mythology. Aphrodite is usually cited as the source, perhaps from her tears, and the red color from her blood or from the blood of her lover Adonis.

Rose by Hideaki Kawashima

Karakuri Creation Group artist Hideaki Kawashima was compelled by this history to create a rose for the group’s “Sweets” themed exhibition. "Rose" was his fourth work with the group, designed as a gift for his friends who like roses. It’s a lovely puzzle box with overlapping concentric petals and a multistep sequential opening mechanism which is meant to represent the blooming of rose buds. His intention was to create an organic shape, which can be noted in the curves of some of the petals, but overall the structure remains a cube with an angular appearance. Kawashima notes that this is when he realized he was best suited for designing geometric forms. He has certainly produced some of the most amazing geometric creations since, although I would also note that he has successfully designed a few very beautiful non-geometric designs as well. He created a few versions of the Rose box, all of which are elegant, but I think this one, made from Rosewood, is particularly perfect.

Waiting to fully bloom ...

I’ve paired Kawashima’s Rose with another Rose, a classic cocktail from the turn of the twentieth century. The Jack Rose first appears in print around 1905 but surely was a staple well before then. The drink features Applejack, a spirit which has roots deep in American history. Laird and Co., America’s oldest operational distillery and the producer of the best known version of Applejack, was founded in 1780. The Jack Rose makes an appearance in Hemmingway’s 1926 classic “The Sun Also Rises”, and I’m particularly fond of literary cocktails.

Hide and Seek

For this variation, I’ve split the traditional base of Applejack with some Japanese whisky.  It adds a rich and smoky element, with notes of citrus and pear, to the drink, and enhances the apple flavor very nicely. To complement and reference the puzzle maker, I’ve named this version the “Hide and Seek”. Here’s to rich histories, classic symbols and sweet offerings. Cheers!

Japanese Rose

Hide and Seek

1 oz Hakushu whisky
1 oz Laird’s Applejack
¾ oz fresh lemon
¾ oz fresh grenadine

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

By any other names, this pair would still be sweet

For more about Hideaki Kawashima:

For a prior Jack Rose:
You Don't Know Apple, Jack

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Adventures in Africa

Fancy going on an African safari, anyone? The allure of the classic game hunt is the stuff of novels by the likes of Isak Dinesen in my book, and the only shooting I’d be interested in is with my camera.  Luckily there are all sorts of ways to experience the call of the wild, such as with this phenomenal puzzle box from Robert Yarger.

Little Game Hunter by Robert Yarger

The Little Game Hunter (aka Stickman No. 24 Puzzle Box) is another one of Robert’s explorations into different puzzle styles. His career as a puzzle box maker was born from an old Japanese puzzle box he had as a boy, so it’s not hard to understand why he was also fascinated by the Japanese style of interlocking puzzle known as kumiki. The style originated in the 18th century and derived from traditional Japanese joinery and carpentry techniques used to lock pieces of wood together without nails or glue, in ways that could flex and move to withstand earthquakes. There was a post war “spirit of pleasure” which developed in the Edo period, circa 1750, when kumiki are thought to have first been made, possibly as toys used to train young carpenters on the joinery techniques. The best known original kumiki craftsman is Tsunetaro Yamanaka, and his grandson Hirokichi is credited with developing many kumiki animals, such as the elephant.

Meet "Sparkles"

Robert’s kumiki elephant takes things a few steps further, in typical Stickman fashion. He created a set of stand-alone elephants originally but always intended for them to be the trophy set upon a puzzle box. Ultimately he was able to achieve this vision and the Little Game Hunter was born in beautiful Mahogany, Padauk and Maple woods. Here, the elephant stands on a nice pedestal which contains two secret compartments. The elephant is made up of twenty separate pieces which interlock in a very specific way to create the final statue. A few of the legs, and the trunk, are integrally merged into the mechanism which also locks the box. Overall there are twenty-five steps required to fully disassemble the prize and reveal the two secret compartments. In the process the box itself can also be fully disassembled into six individual pieces. The movements are surprising and clever. Reassembly is quite a fun challenge requiring logic, some dexterity, and many moving pieces. Hopefully your elephant memory will provide reminders from the disassembly process. Or not, as was the case with me!

If only I had an elephant's memory ...

A fun fact about this puzzle is that Rob gave each of the elephants in the limited edition it’s very own unique name, inscribed in the solution booklet. Some names that he recalls include “Dumbo” (naturally), “Humphrey”, “Wrinkles”, “Peanuts”, “Blue”, “Bo Bo”, “Crinkles”, “Happy”, “Tinkles” (my favorite), and “Norman”. Let’s also not forget the one featured here, “Sparkles”, whose personality certainly lives up to her name. A lesser known fact is that each of the elephants was actually a secret agent, sent out into the world on covert missions (oops, covers blown). Stickman headquarters served as mission control, so one might be tempted to refer to Rob as “M” or “Q” (or maybe “Charlie”).  Recipients of the original elephants took to documenting their activities and would send Rob photos of the “agents” from locales all around the world. The elephants’ clandestine activities were often rough and tumble, and their ears were so fragile. Rob relates having to replace the hand carved ears so often that he ultimately made a whole bunch of extras that now fill a dish in his house. Whenever someone asks him if he is listening, he picks it up and replies, “I’m all ears….”

Spotted in the wild ...

The Little Game Hunter is also a cautionary tale against poaching the majestic elephant, a practice which is ostensibly banned but still occurs, resulting in the death of thousands of elephants each year for their ivory. Rob originally intended for the puzzle to have tusks, which would have added an additional layer to the disassembly, but mostly for aesthetics. He was not satisfied with his wood bending efforts, and could not source Holly to hand carve them, so left them off in the end. Their absence is a poignant reminder, and perhaps for the best. The puzzle is nonetheless his most adorable work, so much so that his wife requested one for herself. It resides in their bedroom to this day.

Rum, chocolate and ice cream ... and don't forget the sparkles

I almost forgot the cocktail! But an elephant never forgets. Believe it or not, there are any number of elephant cocktails out there on the interwebs, mostly of the pink and white variety. I’m partial to classics, but even there it was hard to find something just right. I settled on this recipe, from the pages of the venerated “Difford’s Guide”, a White Elephant cocktail which I suspect would be something Stickman himself might enjoy immensely. He once sent me an idea for a cocktail which was quite similar. I don’t usually go for overly sweet drinks, but there is quite a tradition for dessert drinks like this so it fits into my “classic” style category well. The original cocktail called for vodka, but I’ve swapped that for white rum instead, which I’m sure no one will argue with here. Rather than cream as in the original, I’ve gone all in with ice cream instead. For an over the top touch (it’s for a Stickman, after all) I’ve sprinkled edible purple glitter on it (in honor of “Sparkles”, of course), and one of my typical whimsical citrus peel garnishes. You’ve been warned – this hunter is dangerous … ly delicious. Try one, if you’re game. Cheers!

I'm game to hunt down this pair

Little Game Hunter (adapted from Difford’s Guide)

2 oz white rum
¾ oz crème de cacao (chocolate liqueur)
¾ oz vanilla ice cream
¾ oz milk

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Edible glitter and a few dashes of Stickman Bitters recommended, but not required.

For more about Robert Yarger:
Favorite Things
Doing a Good Ternary
Clutch Moves

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Adventures in Sweden

Det finns något förbryllande om den här rutan.

You just never know what you might find wandering around in Ikea. Take this rugged looking box, for example. It’s a sturdy and handsome affair, crafted with a beautiful oak frame. It has side panels which are covered in soft burlap, a rather unusual touch which gives it a uniquely distinctive appearance. It’s a fairly large box, and heavy. It’s impossible to tell from the outside that this is a puzzle box, containing all sorts of brass hardware inside, with multiple internal compartments, five distinct locking mechanism, and a sequential discovery tool which is required to ultimately access the final secret compartment. Until, that is, you pick it up and realize there is no obvious way to open it. Once the initial trick is discovered, it is immediately apparent that this is no ordinary box.

Hemlis Box by Gustav Nilsson

The “Hemlis Box” (a way of saying “secret” in Swedish) is the creation of Swedish carpenter and cabinet maker Gustav Nilsson. Nilsson is from northern Sweden and has picked up inspiration from his travels all over. He is currently studying at the prestigious Capellagarden School of Craft and Design in Oland, one of the best art schools in the country. They focus on old techniques using hand tools and traditional styles, but Nilsson has his own ideas, and brings a fresh perspective. For the Hemlis Box, he knew he wanted something tricky, with clean lines and no obvious top or bottom. The opening mechanism was well thought out, but he created the rest inside as he went with what he describes as a “messy mix of playing and testing”. He likes to use recycled parts in renewed ways, and says that as far as his inspiration is concerned, “The mind is a mysterious machine.” He reminds me of a few other clever puzzle makers I know. He jokes that he built this box for Frodo to carry the ring inside, and any fan of Tolkien is a friend of mine.

There's no cow on the ice

For this unusual box, which is a change of pace from the routine, I’ve done something equally unusual for the cocktail pairing. I’ve teamed up with some cocktail friends from Sweden to help me choose the appropriate toast for this Swedish box. Joakim and Mattias are the duo behind “Cocktail Detour”, a blog which chronicles their world travels and passion for mixology. They live in downtown Stockholm but have visited the best bars all around the world. For the Hemlis Box, they selected an unusual classic which features the quintessential Swedish spirit, aquavit. Aquavit, or more traditionally “aqvavit” (literally, “water of life” – sound familiar? This is the same derivation as aqua vitae (Latin), a type of fruit brandy, and even uisce beatha (Gaelic), the original term for whiskey), is the classic Scandinavian grain spirit distilled with herbs and classically featuring caraway and dill flavors. Think of it as Scandinavian gin if you are not familiar with it already.

Time Bomb c. 1982

They found the “Time Bomb” cocktail in the pages of the Vogue Cocktail Book, 1982. The book was compiled by Henry McNulty, a “man-about-town” who styled it after the 1930’s era cocktail heyday and jazz age. McNulty was an American born in China, educated in the Ivy League, who became a war correspondent during World War II, and later a drinks industry journalist best known for his role as the spirits editor at British Vogue in the seventies and eighties. The Time Bomb lives up to its name as a potent bomb of a dry martini variation which evokes that classic era. The cocktail is very dry and sophisticated, with a nice balance between the flavors. The aquavit is not overwhelming thanks to the split with vodka, and the lemon balances things well. It’s a perfect drink for sharing secrets. Cheers!

Caught with your beard in the letterbox

Time Bomb c. 1982 (from the Swedish recipe)

3 cl akvavit
3 cl vodka
3 cl citronjuice
1 bit citronskal

Blanda I ett stort cocktailglas. För den som tycker om riktigt torra drinkar.

Suspect owls in the bog here ...

For more from Cocktail Detour see:

N.B. I did not actually find this box in Ikea, in case you really thought so.  Also, the odd photo captions are all common Swedish expressions - see if you can deduce their meanings.

Special thanks to Cocktail Detour for the collaboration.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

In Which Eeyore Finds His Tail

“ ‘That Accounts for a Good Deal,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘It Explains Everything. No Wonder.’
‘You must have left it somewhere,’ said Winnie the Pooh.
‘Somebody must have taken it,’ said Eeyore. ‘How Like Them,’ he added, after a long silence.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh 

The Donkey's Tail by Kathleen Malcolmson

Haven’t we all felt like we are missing our tail, now and then? I suppose we have a choice in those situations, to see things like Eeyore, where everyone else is to blame, or like Pooh, who approaches life with a sunnier disposition. I’m sure we can apply this philosophy to the great events of our time, and the great turmoils in the world, but if we can’t get past our own missing tail, seeing the bigger picture might prove difficult. The way Pooh sets out to solve this mundane mystery is a good formula for solving a puzzle box as well. Observe, but also, notice things. Ask questions, and listen with an open mind. Don’t make any assumptions, and think about what might be possible, and what might work.

Of course, there's more here than meets the eye ...

Eeyore also provides a nice segue to this wonderful puzzle box by Kathleen Malcolmson, The Donkey’s Tail, which she created almost twenty years ago when she lived in Colorado. It’s a lovely little design featuring a nicely detailed rectangular box set upon a pedestal. There is a lid which can be removed, and two felt lined internal sections. It would make a nice jewelry box or gentleman’s valet. Due to its small size and shape, Kathleen also gave it another nickname – the Canary’s Coffin. I hope it has never been used for that actual purpose! Of course, there is a secret to this box. While it remains a perfectly lovely container based on the merits of its outward appearances, gaining access to the secret space is the challenge. The solution is surprising, enlightening (regarding the puzzle’s name) and extremely well hidden. Malcolmson is a master at this, after all.

Kathleen relates that the idea for this box came from the very first visit she ever had with none other than Jerry Slocum himself. She had been searching for ideas on trick opening boxes, and came across an edition of  Jerry's book, "Puzzles Old and New" in her local Denver bookstore, "The Tattered Cover". She sent the results, her first puzzle box, to Jerry for his opinion, which garnered her an invitation to his home and vast collection in Beverly Hills. There, he showed her an antique writing slope he had recently acquired. Kathleen adapted the secret mechanism she had seen, and after much testing was satisfied with the tricky invisible mechanism. This first version of The Donkey's Tail was entered into the inaugural Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Competition in 2001. Kathleen still wasn't satisfied (the first version was too easy) and improved the design for the subsequent production run, crafted in Walnut / Primavera, Cherry / Imbuia, and Maple / Imbuia woods. 

The Donkey's Tail

To toast this marvelous box I’ve created a variation on the theme, borrowing ideas from a few other cocktails in the process. It started with “Eeyore’s Requiem”, a modern classic by Chicago mixologist Toby Maloney which features no fewer than three different amari in a bitter nod to the Negroni. One of those three is Cynar, the vegetal, bittersweet amaro featuring prominent artichoke leaf and other herbs. Cynar is a really versatile amaro and gives so many cocktails a surprising and hard to place flavor. Another modern classic which relies heavily on Cynar is the “Bitter Guiseppe”, created by Stephen Cole (also from the Chicago cocktail scene). This drink is like an amaro Manhattan, with a full dose of amaro tempered by a two to one ration of sweet vermouth. I once made a variation of it using Momenpop’s Vin d’Sange, a deliciously sweet blood orange and black pepper vermouth. It made such a different drink that I called that version “Guiseppe in Love”.

Bitter and Sweet with a Tasty Treat

I’ve combined elements from the Eeyore’s Requiem and Bitter Guiseppe recipes to create this week’s pairing, The Donkey’s Tail. The Cynar remains front and center, and there’s a little Campari there as well. Keeping the Negroni formula means we have gin, and I brought back the d’Sange sweet vermouth to cheer Eeyore up a bit. The last time I made Eeyore’s Requiem for a pairing, I gave it a little tail garnish made from lemon and orange peel and a little mint leaf. I’ve upped the ante this time for something completely edible which compliments the drink perfectly. The Donkey’s Tail’s donkey tail is a fruit leather made from Cynar with raspberry and apple puree, all tied up with homemade candied lemon peel. Eeyore never had it so good. Cheers!

This pair is telling tales. How like them.

The Donkey’s Tail

1 ½ oz Cynar
½ oz Campari
½ oz gin
¾ oz sweet vermouth
¼ oz fresh lemon
2 dashes lemon bitters

Stir over ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a lemon peel, unless you are feeling ridiculously creative. Try not to be bitter, when the glass is empty.

For more from Kathleen Malcolmson see:
More Dovetail Attention
Fool Me Twice
A Taste of Texas