Saturday, September 14, 2019


What’s Up, Doc? I’m dialing back into the Japanese Zodiac, all the way to 2011, the Year of the Rabbit. Currently we are in the Year of the Pig, but I promised not to make political jokes here (don’t be such a Boar). Shiro Tajima, former Karakuri Creation Group artist gone solo rogue puzzle maker, created a clever animal series of puzzle boxes based on the signs of the Japanese Zodiac. He made it through nine of the animals, some of which I have featured here before (the Rat (mouse), the Ox (cow), the Tiger, the Rabbit (this one!), the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep and the Monkey) and has theoretical plans to someday complete the set of the three remaining (the Rooster, the Dog and the Boar).

Magic Hat by Shiro Tajima

The Year of the Rabbit is one of Tajima’s most recognizable and adorable creations. I know it’s a fan favorite for many as there is a significant overlap between puzzle lovers and magicians, and Tajima’s “Magic Hat” bridges the two worlds nicely. It depicts the not-so-clever Baron Rabbit, who has gotten himself stuck half in and half out of the Magician’s Hat. His poor little front paws are barely sticking out, and his lower section is all but lost. At least he’s dressed appropriately, in his fine evening jacket. If you can help set him free and open the puzzle box, you might just get to see the rest of him, and be relieved that he hasn’t actually been cut in half. The puzzle is beautifully crafted from Katsura and Walnut, with what appears to be Redheart or Paduak for the jacket. It has a clever and fun mechanism which is quite dynamic and enjoyable.

Bad hair day?

To toast this magic rabbit we’ll tip our hats to the trendy new Peruvian inspired rooftop restaurant Cabra, Chicago’s new “cevicheria” where imbibers can soak in the views at the sensational bar. Lee Zaremba, the well-known Chicago mixologist and Head Bartender from Billy Sunday, helms the new bar and has come up with a summer stunner that’s just right for this pairing.

Cabra-Cada-Bra by Lee Zaremba

He does a little trick here with bourbon, which is always a great place to start, and creates a drink so delicious it will instantly disappear. The secret lies in the lip smacking fresh strawberry cordial which shines as the magician’s assistant and will misdirect you completely. To that he adds the alluring Cocchi Rosa aperitif and … abra-cadabra … the rest is simply magic. Cheers!

Strawberry delight

Cabra-Cada-Bra by Lee Zaremba

1 oz bourbon
1 oz Cocchi Rosa
¾ oz strawberry cordial
¾ oz egg white
½ oz fresh lime

Shake without ice then with to chill and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a few drops of aromatic bitters, or a wily rabbit in a hat.

Strawberry cordial:
1 cup fresh strawberry, tops removed, sliced. 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 lime zest. Combine ingredients and simmer over low heat until sugar has dissolved. Add lime zest and let cool. Strain through mesh and refrigerate for up to seven days.

This pair is magical

For more about Shiro Tajima see:
Monkey Business
Pooh Corner

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Born Supremacy

I’m going to let you in on a secret. But only if you promise to keep it, which I know is self-evidently hypocritical, but nonetheless. I’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy writing about one of Jesse Born’s new designs, because his name lends itself to clever wordplay. But this time, I’m going to let his work speak for itself – to tell you its own secret.

Secretum Cista by Jesse Born

Let’s begin with the name. The provenance of the name, “Secretum Cista”, is rather auspicious and steeped in mystery. From the Latin, “Secretum” has many translations, notably “secret seal”, or more simply just “secret”. But the name is associated with the “Secreta Secretorum”, the Secret Book of Secrets purportedly written by Aristotle to his pupil Alexander the Great and covering a host of elevated topics ranging from statecraft to the supernatural. The second part of the name, “Cista”, translates from the Latin to “basket”, or “box”, or in this case, “chest”. Secret Chest. There were other potential names, also derived from Latin, that Jesse was considering, but these shall remain a secret. You never know what other secret chests the future may hold.

Exquisite details like this "Tetris" yosegi and drawer with curved sides

Jesse was not thinking about creating a puzzle chest, and was initially resistant to the idea suggested to him by puzzle chest lover Matt Dawson. But as the idea infused his psyche, he decided to do what all successful visionaries know they must do – rise to the challenge. Jesse has an ambitious mind, full of creative ideas. He knew it would be difficult, but to his credit he didn’t waver. He met obstacles, set-backs, delays and design challenges. Each step was a new learning experience. In the end, he has created a masterpiece, so the journey was worth the effort.

Stunning ancient Mango wood, and inner drawer liners that hide secret mechanisms

His chest is simply stunning. It has layers upon layers to discover, marvel at, appreciate and enjoy. It is a woodworker’s show piece and a puzzle lover’s puzzle chest. The chest sits twenty inches high and weighs close to fifty pounds – it’s a solid piece of furniture. There are eighteen drawers awaiting exploration, each with a delicate hand turned Katalox drawer pull. The case is made from lustrous Wenge which emits a handsome warm sheen, and has raised through dovetail joints at the corners which lend a polished yet rustic feel. Each drawer is made from multiple types of wood. Some have surprising shapes on the inside, and all have an extra wood lining for additional elegance. On the top row, the drawer fronts are of Holly, with bespoke ribbons of Purpleheart and Wenge mosaic inlay using Jesse’s “Tetris” pattern – look closely and the classic shapes can be discerned. Inside, the Purpleheart drawers are curved on the sides and have a Poplar wood lining. The second row has two-hundred year old aged Mango wood fronts, Paduak drawers, and Cherry lining. The remaining rows all have Mahogany drawers and fronts which highlight the beautiful wood grain. Slightly darker Mahogany was used to offset the bottom row fronts. Inside, the third row has a Walnut lining, the fourth row has a Bloodwood lining, and the fifth row has a Red Oak lining. The bottom (sixth) row is unique in that the inner drawers are hexagonal, with Purpleheart sides and a Katalox lining. The hidden beauty of each drawer is one of the many treasures awaiting inside.

This drawer is key ...

Each and every drawer in the chest is locked with an individual and unique secret mechanism, except for one. In the center of the chest is a Wenge drawer with an Oak circle. Pull on it, and the circle is revealed to be a solid Wenge cylinder, albeit with six empty sockets. What is this strange cylinder, with its empty sockets? Its central placement, at the heart of the chest, is more than metaphor. The chest is a metapuzzle, and the cylinder will be key to the solution before the final locked drawer can be opened and the puzzle completed. Some of the chest drawers are locked with independent mechanisms, and can be opened at any time, while some require the opening of other drawers first, in a linked sequential interplay. The full name of the chest, The Secretum Cista Mechanical Puzzle Chest, gives some hint into how many of the drawers are unlocked through actual mechanical movements within the chest. Another incredible addition to the design is discovered when the chest is turned around. Jesse has placed a glass back on the chest, allowing the inner workings to be visualized. A complex mechanical marvel crafted in colorful exotic wood awaits the observer, providing insights into how certain drawers might open but no clues as to how this might be accomplished. Once solved, however, the mechanisms come to life. Watching the workings move as the drawers are activated is magical.

The glass back allows a view of the magic

The chest is a treasure hunt. Opening each drawer serves a purpose, whether to whet the appetite for what is in store, to allow access to another drawer further along, to hide a tool which may be needed to solve a future puzzle, or to hide one of the master keys. It provides a wonderful journey with a mix of challenges that range from simply subtle to deviously difficult. The endgame is a perfect motivator to keep one going, and is immensely satisfying to complete, but the journey is the true pleasure. Secretum Cista is the stuff of legends.

Every row has a unique drawer composition with surprising details

Toasting a puzzle chest of this magnitude requires more than one drink. I’m not suggesting thirteen separate cocktails like I made to celebrate another legendary vessel, the Apothecary Chest, which is actually thirteen individual puzzles, after all. No, I’ve got something else in mind. The Secretum Cista is a single puzzle chest, self-contained, by one individual artist. But it does require the discovery of six essential keys. Yes, here is where we will need to introduce more than one drink. For assistance we will turn to the classic tome “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” by David Embury, 1948.

The Six Essential Cocktails of David Embury

I have a natural affinity for David Embury and his famous cocktail book. Embury was never a professional bartender and never worked in the spirits industry. He was a senior tax attorney in a Manhattan law firm and had a prominent and successful career. He also loved to make cocktails, and published, on the side, an encyclopedic volume of the twenty-first century cocktail which has become part of the classic cocktail cannon. A signed first edition of his book can fetch well more than the cost of a new puzzle chest. He insisted that there were six essential cocktails, to be known and loved, if one were to be taken seriously as an aficionado:  the Daiquiri, the Jack Rose, the Manhattan, the Martini, the Old Fashioned, and the Side Car. All other cocktails, in his estimation, are merely variations on the theme of these basics. Embury was also famous for placing all cocktails into two categories, either aromatic or sour, and for his formula of base spirit, “modifying agent”, and “special flavoring and coloring agent” in a strict 8:2:1 ratio. This ratio makes for very dry drinks with very prominent alcohol dominance, and has been adjusted accordingly over the years for modern palates and balance. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this exact proportion for these drinks now. But I present these essentials here in their classic form and ratio, in the true spirit of the game. Six keys for six keys, may they unlock all the wonders in the world. Cheers!

Hmmm, I could use some help here. Any takers?

Six Drinks from The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David Embury, 1948

N.B. All drinks to be shaken or stirred as noted with lots of ice to chill and strained into an appropriate glass.

The Daiquiri
8 parts white Cuban rum
2 parts lime juice
1 part simple syrup
Shaken, no garnish

The Jack Rose
8 parts Applejack
2 parts lemon
1 part grenadine
Shaken, twist of lemon

The Manhattan
5 parts American whiskey
1 part Italian sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stirred, maraschino cherry

The Martini
7 parts English gin
1 part French dry vermouth
Stirred, lemon twist or olive

The Old Fashioned
12 parts American whiskey
1 part simple syrup
1-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Specifically: Stir syrup and bitters in the glass, add about 1 oz of the whiskey and stir again, add two cubes of cracked ice and top with the remaining whiskey. Lemon twist and maraschino cherry.

The Side Car
8 parts Cognac
2 parts lemon
1 part Cointreau
Shaken, lemon twist

For more about Jesse Born see:

Natural Born
Born Again
Victorian Age

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Planes Trains and Automobiles

I’m on a transportation kick it seems, following up the Slammed Car puzzle box with an offering from Karakuri Creation Group artist Osamu Kasho. This little baby goes from zero to twenty in two minutes! Kasho, who enjoys creating whimsical, almost cartoonish objects like the Rocket Ship and The Wolf from Grimm, says that his “Trike” is actually a motorized tricycle. Perhaps it can go even faster, maybe sixty miles per hour if you let the throttle out. But let’s not discount the power of the human peddler. The world speed record for a human powered bike, the Aerovela Eta (which looks just like a speeding bullet) was over 89 miles per hour.

Trike by Osamu Kasho

Kasho’s Trike is his usual blend of adorable creation mixed with clever puzzling. The tricycle is adorned with a few multicolored details crafted from cherry, walnut, dogwood, and karin. There is a handlebar, a headlight, a seat, the requisite three wheels and even a decent storage space – if you can access it! I always enjoy Kasho’s creations, which typically don’t reveal their solutions immediately but require a bit of exploration and experimentation until they gradually surprise you with a satisfying secret. Trike is no different. It’s one of Kasho’s earlier works, and revealed what delightful ideas he has in store. His pieces are always distinctive and always a pleasure.

Shining some light on the situation

At first, this trike appears to be broken, because the front wheel doesn’t turn. Of course that’s part of the puzzle, but I’ve taken the liberty of using it for a toast to the clever cycle. Close your eyes and imagine you are lounging on the sunny streets of Siena, in the Tuscan hills of Italy. In your hand is a cool refreshing aperitif made with Campari, white wine and soda water – essentially a variation on the Campari Spritz. This simple and simply delicious indulgence is often called “La Bicicletta”, ostensibly named after an old man who would wobble his way home on his bicycle after imbibing a few. Like many cocktail names, this story is full of romantic imagery and thin on potential reality.

Broken Bike by Jeff Morgenthaler

Never fear, however, because we are only passing through this Italian town on our way to Portland, Oregon, where acclaimed mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler helms the ship at Clyde Common in the Ace Hotel. His version of La Bicicletta swaps the Campari for the artichoke laced herbal digestif Cynar, an amaro that is perfect for cocktails. Traditionally enjoyed by old Italian men over ice, the success and popularity of Cynar in the US was a bit of a surprise. It does not actually taste like artichokes, but is in fact a rather rich and sweet amaro with a lovely flavor. Morgenthaler uses it effortlessly in his pre-bottled soda spritz, creating a refreshing sipper with an intriguingly different flavor that’s always ready to go. These are great to make for a picnic or late afternoon indulgence. They are also low in alcohol content, to keep your bicycle wobbling to a minimum. Cheers!

Cycling through this pair

Broken Bike by Jeff Morgenthaler (single serving adaptation)

11 ounces Cynar (¾ oz)
15 ounces white wine, dry (1 oz)
22 ounces filtered water (1 ½ oz soda water)
2 small lemons, scrubbed and peeled in strips (lemon strip)
Express lemon peel oils into mixed ingredients and let sit overnight. Carbonate and bottle. Or mix up the single serving and enjoy immediately! Garnish with a broken lime wheel. Cheers!

For more from Osamu Kasho:
Wolves at the Door
Blast Off - Part I
The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Jury Grand Prix

Let’s go for a ride. It’s been a while since we’ve taken a trip together here on B&B. The last time was just over a year ago, when we took a road trip in Rocky’s brass model-T. We’ve been on a sailing trip, and even a trip to outer space. This time we’ll pile into a great big automobile and have an award winning adventure. Don’t get confused, we’re not going in a Japanese car, despite its having been last seen in that country. It looks a lot like an old Jeep Grand Wagoneer, but in fact it’s an Australian car, the first to hit the production line there since October 2017. The manufacturer, Pluredro, admits that the Australian auto industry is a bit puzzling, and have limited this run to one hundred cars.

Slammed Car by Juno

Slammed Car, designed by Junichi Yananose (Juno) and produced by his puzzle company Pluredro (Juno and his wife Yukari) in Queensland Australia, is their latest and greatest sequential discovery puzzle, and one of the best new puzzles in the world. It recently won the Jury Grand Prize at the 2019 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition held in Japan. Juno is well known for his complex, intricate and innovative assembly puzzles, but has also put his impressive mind toward puzzle boxes and sequential discovery puzzles in recent years. His series of card suit (diamond, heart, club and spade) boxes are each delightful, and his sequential discovery burr was on many bestof the year lists last year. Recognizing the appeal of these types of puzzles, Juno set out to create another puzzle box which would also be a sequential discovery puzzle. Juno is incredibly ambitious, and wouldn’t settle for anything short of the idea in his mind, so took much longer than usual to produce the final puzzle, the Slammed Car. It helped that he has a workshop full of advanced manufacturing tools, including a CNC router, which allows mass production of intricate parts and fine details. But for the Slammed Car, he decided he would need an even bigger CNC router – so he got one! He also wanted to use light Koto wood for the car, but didn’t have enough. So he went to his favorite timber stock yard, and reserved almost all of their entire stock. Which, it turns out, was barely enough for one hundred puzzles. Based on the response the final design has received, it was worth the wait. The car is a lovely wooden model in its own right, with many nice details crafted from Koto, Blackbean, Jarrah and PNG Rosewood. There are side mirrors, headlights, license plates and even fully functioning wheels. The license plates are modeled after actual vehicle registration plates (“number plates”) from the UK, where by law the front plate must be white and the back plate must be yellow. Juno and Yukari felt this would make the cars more “posh” than those seen on the country roads of Queensland. 

Authentic rego number plates make this one posh ride

The puzzling aspect of the car is simply brilliant. There are many, many steps to it, from 15 to 20 according to Juno depending on how they are counted. I’m partial to the 20 count based on my own experience. There are at least ten items to be discovered and removed as the car is disassembled in order to try to find the way inside. Most items are used again, in very clever and specific ways, to achieve the final goal. There are about three distinct phases to the journey, and most travelers end up stuck on the side of the road at the final phase, which requires a very elegant and satisfying solution. Every aspect of the design is used in the mechanism, including the wheels which spin freely just like on a model car - and in fact this very detail led to the name "Slammed Car". Juno realized early in the design phase that if the road clearance of the car were set at a normal height, he wouldn't be able to place any mechanisms around the wheel axles. He intentionally lowered the clearance, and realized the car looked a lot like the modified cars popular with young kids in Japan. These are called "shakotan", which means "low height car". A similar term for this style of car in English is "Slammed Car". It is a brilliant puzzle, incredibly fun and beautifully crafted, well deserving of the Grand Jury prize. Juno has placed a tiny loaf of bread inside the car, based on a running joke about puzzle boxes, and to reward the weary traveler after the long journey to the solution. Personally, I’m celebrating with a drink as well.

Parallel Parking

I’ll start this toast with an old classic cocktail called the White Lady. Bear with me and we will eventually get to our actual destination, but I like to take the scenic route. Harry MacElhone was one of the more famous bartenders of the golden age, and invented any number of well-known, perfectly turned out classics still celebrated to this day. But even Harry had his prototypes. Take the White Lady, named after a popular rose of the times, in the aftermath of World War I, when Harry was getting his start in London after serving in His Majesty’s Forces. It was a sickly sweet concoction of Cointreau, crème de menthe, and lemon.  Ten years later you would find Harry finally in his true element, at the famous Harry’s New York Bar (in Paris, of course – it was Prohibition in New York, after all). He revised the drink, and the true White Lady, a well balanced mix of gin, Cointeau, lemon, and egg white, was born anew. This is the drink still popular today.

Boxcar by Lawton Mackall

Alexander Lawton Mackall was the “POTABLES” writer for Esquire Magazine during the 1930’s and 40’s, and knew MacElhone’s drinks well. He is credited with creating a slightly modified version called the “Boxcar”, in which the lemon is switched for lime, a dash of grenadine is added, and the works are served up in a sugar rimmed glass. It remains another great classic, simple and tasty, but rather more obscure, until now. Because I would be hard pressed to find a more appropriately named cocktail to pair with this puzzle box car. I can vouch that the drink does indeed go well with Juno’s award winning creation, and I will add that this is the only circumstance when I would advocate drinking and driving. If you are lucky enough to find yourself behind the wheel of one of these beauties, buckle up – you’ll be in for the ride of your life! Cheers.

This couple auto get a room

Boxcar adapted from Harry MacElhone by Lawton Mackall, c. 1935

2 oz gin
½ oz Cointreau
½ oz lime
1 dash grenadine
½ oz egg white

Shake together without then with ice and strain into a favorite vehicle. Sugar rim the steering wheel in order to be authentic, and buckle up.

For more about Juno:
Four Goodness Sake
After a While
Feeling Corny

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Fairy Tale

Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild with a faery hand in hand, for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand - William Butler Yeats

Puddleduck Pastures by Kelly Snache

Many may recall the award winning “Fairy’s Door Puzzle Box” designed and created by Mike Toulouzas in 2014. It is a beautiful box featuring a large locked door on the front, and requires the discovery of many hidden and secret items to access the inside. It captures the magical nature of the “secret world” of myth and stories with its theme and design. Kelly Snache, the spiritual woodworker and puzzle box maker from Canada, is full of magical and whimsical ideas, and has created a fairy door of his own as an homage to this enchanting idea. Kel has done this sort of thing before, when he created his Carousel Box, full of brightly colored gears that spin and interact, which was inspired by the Stickman No. 3 “106-Move” puzzlebox, often referred to as the “Gear Box”.

It's a-door-able

Kel relates, “I think there is a little Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn in me as I grew up playing in the forests and in the meadows and moon beams.” It’s no wonder he embraced the chance to bring his vision of the fairy door to life. Kelly’s door is called “Puddleduck Pastures”, named after (I believe) the charming little fairyland where our hapless heroine (Lil’ Miss Fairy Pants) resides. She has done it again and locked herself out of her house. Your task, should you be clever enough to complete it, is to let her back in by opening the door. You will be rewarded with a lovely little tour of her dainty dwelling. The puzzle is purposefully picturesque, shaped like a little fairy house might be, with a sturdy door, a wee window, a sloping, lopsided roof and a charming chimney. Kel explains, “A sprinkle of my own early life of makeshift forts and playing among the nature spirits was my inspiration for the front design look.  Bringing out our Boyhood wonder was my intention.”   

The fairy flits about, awaiting your assistance

Colorful exotic wood accents abound, as do delicate details. Each little house shares the same overall structure but has unique accents in wood and design, which, I have been told, the fairies appreciate. They are all beautifully rendered and will be immediately recognizable now. Kelly says he put a lot of extra work and detail into the design, and has created something very special. He has also made it fiendishly puzzling. There are many hidden items to discover and use as tools, and a few novel locking mechanisms he has invented just for this puzzle. You’ll need to be patient as you explore and experiment, and a dash of fairy dust might help too. Persist, and you’ll surely appreciate the adorable interior of the fairy abode, which Kel is sure will put a smile on everyone’s face. These interiors were created by Nicole Lees, a public school principle and fairy realm artist who forages all of her own natural materials. Puddleduck Pastures was Kelly’s entry in the 2019 Nob Yoshigahara International Puzzle Design Competition.

The Green Fairy by Dick Bradsell

To toast this marvelously magical door we turn to the fairy drink of Le Belle Epoque. Absinthe has its mysterious allure thanks to the romanticism given it during that golden age. I wrote about its fascinating storied history before, when I discussed the “Wormwood” box by Thomas Cummings. Wormwood, or artemisia absinthium, contains the active compound thujone, which was once thought to be a hallucinogenic. This unlikely effect may or may not have been sought out by the bohemian crowd who fondly referred to the spirit as “The Green Fairy”.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Absinthe is a bitter herbal liqueur made with varied infusions but always containing bitter wormwood and anise which lends its distinctive licorice flavor. It is usually green hued but can be clear. Traditionally, it is served by dripping ice cold water through a sugar cube resting on a special slotted spoon on top of the glass. This produces the most magical effect inside the glass, as non-water soluble compounds (such as anise) are released in wispy, smoky strands and clouds known as the “louche”.

This cocktail is Pasture-ized

Absinthe can be an acquired taste, but there are a few elegant ways to introduce yourself to its charms. The absinthe frappe is one, and the other is surely a drink which is apropos for this pairing, the Green Fairy. The cocktail is simply an absinthe sour, with fresh lemon juice, sugar, and egg white. A sour is almost always a nice way to experience a new spirit and can open the eyes of the most steadfast doubter. A proper whiskey sour, for example, can change the mind of anyone who thinks they don’t like bourbon. This sour, with absinthe, was created around 1990 by famed London mixologist Dick Bradsell, a man who knew what he was doing, so don’t just take my word for it. Here’s to opening new doors to new experiences. Cheers!

Green Fairy by Dick Bradsell, London, England c. 1990

1 oz absinthe
1 oz lemon
1 oz chilled mineral water
¾ oz sugar syrup (2 sugar to 1 water)
1 dash Angostura bitters
½ oz fresh egg white

Shake without then briefly with ice to chill and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and fairy dust.

For more from Kelly Snache see:

For a prior Dick Bradsell cocktail see:

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Born This Way

Some ideas have existed forever, since time and consciousness alike, have always been, and some ideas are Born. It’s always fun to present a new puzzle from Jesse Born, because his name allows for so many creative expressions. Wordplay aside, his boxes are simply wonderful, full of new ideas, logic, surprise, and beauty. His creations just keep getting better, and his newest is no exception.

Jack in the Box by Jesse Born

Jack in the Box was born from an idea Jesse had for Art of Play, the innovative modern curiosity shop created by twin brothers Dan and Dave Buck in 2013. The shop curates beautiful playing cards from artists around the world (among many other puzzling curiosities). Jesse had in mind a small puzzle box which would hold a deck of cards. He felt the original design wasn’t quite right and ran out of time with Art of Play, but continued to work on it with his fried Josh Gant, a machinist who has been helping in Jesse’s workshop. Between them, with additional help from Jesse’s brother Steve who simplified the design and came up with the name, they produced the final prototype over a two month period (while Jesse was working on another, bigger, “Secret” project …).

Beautiful wood contrasts and a Yosegi Spade inlay

Jesse wanted to add a yosegi spade on top of the box as a cool design feature, which took him a while to perfect. He uses the double bevel marquetry technique, and may be the first to have ever done this using yosegi as well. The final box is really nice, crafted in rich dark Wenge wood with a contrasting Holly border. There’s also Bocote inside, and the yosegi spade is made with Cherry and Walnut. It fits perfectly in the hand and has a soft smooth finish. Overall it requires six or seven moves to access the deck of cards inside, a nice sequence with a couple of little aha moments. The box strikes a good balance between subtle trickiness and keeping you from the cards. It’s a great way to carry a deck, although probably too beautiful to use day to day. Jack in the Box was entered into the 2019 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.

Joker's Wild by Thomas Waugh

For the Jack in the Box puzzle box I made a Joker’s Wild cocktail, a crazy unusual and delicious creation from one of the great mixology innovators, Thomas Waugh, who served as head bartender at New York’s famed Death and Company for many years. In this drink he used Pacharan, a liqueur from the Navarra Basque region of Spain where blackthorn sloe berries grow wild. Similar to sloe gin but made with a sweet anise liqueur base, Pacharan (Patxaran in Basque) has additional infusions of coffee and cinnamon. I made a quick homemade version with sloe gin, coffee liqueur and Arak, a Lebanese anise liqueur, but the traditional Spanish liqueur is available in specialty stores as well. 

A wild assortment of flavors

The drink is based with Pisco, the Peruvian clear grape brandy, and combines it with all the surprising flavors in Pacharan plus a little vanilla sweetness. Finally a few dashes of absinthe ties things together. Wild! I’m always amazed at drinks like this one, with such a mix of surprising flavors that would not seem to go well together but somehow create an unexpectedly delicious drink. Here’s to Jacks and Jokers – may they always be surprising and wild. Cheers!

A Straight Flush

Joker’s Wild by Thomas Waugh (2011)

½ oz Pisco
1 ½ oz Pacharan (I used 1 oz Sloe Gin, ¼ oz Arak and ¼ oz Coffee Liqueur)
2 dashes absinthe
¾ oz lemon
½ oz simple syurp
¼ oz vanilla syrup
Club soda

Shake initial ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite tall glass with ice. Top with club soda and garnish with shaker foam, or a festive card juggling Jester riding a unicycle. Cheers!

For more about Jesse Born:

For a prior cocktail by Thomas Waugh:
Moon Cocktail

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Such is Life

It’s the time of year again when people of a puzzling persuasion gravitate together, in an undisclosed location somewhere on the planet, to ponder the perplexing, trade stories, exchange gifts, award achievements, perhaps imbibe, incrementally, and generally celebrate the shared joy of being baffled. A few years back I crafted a cocktail to toast the incredible “Big Ben” puzzle from Brian Young, Juno and John Moores, and posted it ahead of that year’s event. The puzzle went on to win the Jury Grand Prize award, and at a subsequent gathering a group of friends celebrated with Brian by making a round of my cocktails. It has since become my habit to present a puzzle produced by Brian, aka Mr. Puzzle himself, on these annual occasions.  Brian and his wife Sue have run a successful international puzzle business from their home store in Queensland Australia for over twenty five years, creating new and complex designs of Brian’s own invention and sourcing hard to get items from around the world. Their commitment and passion to this art form and hobby have inspired many and benefitted all, and they are integrally tied to the annual International Puzzle Party celebration. Brian created the puzzle trophy (and puzzle stand) for the inaugural Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition, now in its nineteenth year. He has designed innumerable puzzles for the exchange event, and has garnered a few design competition awards along the way.

Ned Kelley by Brian Young 

Some of Brian’s most sought after work is from his limited edition series, which he began at the beginning, in 1993, when he would craft only six of each puzzle. Luckily he now makes many more of each limited series, but he no longer produces one every year. Back around the year 2000, Brian relates that he attended a lecture by Gary Foshee, demonstrating his Tower Treasure puzzle, and he was smitten with the idea of making his own sequential discovery puzzles. He began to develop the ideas for his store’s Tenth Anniversary puzzle, which would celebrate a bit of history from his homeland and incorporate sequential discovery into the design. The theme of a puzzle is very important to Brian, and he tries to include tools and even movements that tell the story. For this story, he chose the infamous tale of Ned Kelley, the notorious Australian bushranger and outlaw wanted for a series of police murders in the late 1800s. Kelley and his gang’s evasion of police capture for over two years ended in a famous gun battle in which the outlaws wore makeshift iron suits and helmets which have become iconic. Kelley was captured and hanged, but the story continued into the macabre. Kelley’s body was illegally dissected for medical science, and his head was sawed off. At some point, his skull disappeared. His bones were exhumed around 1929, and what was thought to be his skull was placed on display at the old Melbourne Jail, from where it would be stolen in 1978. Modern DNA testing of the skull, recovered again in 2009, proved it was never truly Kelley’s skull, which remains missing to this day.

Stick 'em up!

Ned Kelley the puzzle was made from Queensland Blackbean, a beautiful wood indigenous to eastern Australia. Ned stands tall (290mm) in his custom armor, bearing a pistol in each hand. His body is based on a classic Kumiki style Japanese interlocking cube puzzle composed entirely of unique pieces, with expanding secrets and mechanisms from there on. There are ten puzzling steps and multiple tools to decipher for the ultimate goal of finding Kelley’s skull. The entire puzzle will disassemble along the way as well. The puzzle tells the story of Kelley’s last stand, with a historically accurate “re-enactment” required to progress. Details from the final battle are provided (clues!) on an included certificate that comes with each puzzle. It’s a clever and fun touch that Brian has added, building certain movements into the solution which mimic the true story.  It was such a special achievement that the puzzle had its official launch at an art gallery, the “Art and Soul Gallery”, owned by a friend of Brian and Sue’s. The exhibit was officiated by the Minister for Primary Industries and Rural Communities, Henry Palaszczuk, whose daughter is currently the Queensland Premier (like a US State Governor). Quite an auspicious debut, and thanks to Sue Young for the wonderful history.

End of the Road by Chris McMillian

Here’s a toast to Ned Kelley, a legendary puzzle from one of the greats. It deserves a drink from one of the greats as well, legendary barman Chris McMillian. Chris is a well-known New Orleans icon who co-founded the Museum of the American Cocktail, and has led many well regarded bar programs in his home city. Imbibe magazine, the industry trade journal, named him one of the 25 most influential cocktail personalities of the past century. He is famous for his historical knowledge and love of story-telling, and is often described as an antebellum bartender, full of tradition steeped in the past. 

This pistol packs a punch

He contributed one of his creations to a slim volume of exquisite cocktails, produced by two New Orleans bartender friends named Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal in 2009. The little book, “Beta Cocktails” (originally “Rogue Cocktails”) is something of an underground cult classic among industry folk, and it’s full of now famous recipes from some of the best known cocktail personalities. McMillian’s “End of the Road” cocktail is just the sort of drink you would expect from the past, a simple equal parts combination of distinctive spirits that merge into something truly unique. The cocktail balances smoky Laphroaig scotch with bitter Campari and wildly herbal Chartreuse. It’s an unlikely blend with an unlikely ratio but wouldn’t you know, it’s perfectly balanced and delicious. It’s a sophisticated sipper, a gentleman’s nightcap, and features three ingredients easily found in most bars. Perhaps even found somewhere in the world, where puzzlers ponder, at the end of the road. Cheers friends.

It's the End of the Road for you, Ned

The End of the Road by Chris McMillian
1 oz Laphroaig 10 Yr
1 oz Campari
1 oz Green Chartreuse
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  

For prior year’s Mr. Puzzle IPP toasts see:
Party Time
Louvre is in the Air
Long Distance Call
London Calling

RPP 2015 toasting the Big Ben win with some "London Callings"

Brian at the Ned Kelley premier in 2002

Art and Soul gallery display
NB - special thanks to Sue Young for the great old photos and history of Ned

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Take a Memo

Every so often I come across a puzzle box which happens to embody something inherently apropos for the central theme of this odd blog of mine, which attempts to pair puzzle boxes (and the occasional non-box puzzle) with craft cocktails. I call them “perfect” Boxes and Booze boxes, which is not to imply they are my absolute favorite boxes, but how can I not like them? Typically these puzzles contain some alcoholic element, such as the SpringNight box by Yoh Kakuda, which features a frog who is drinking sake, or the Hokey Cokey lock from Ali Morris and Steve Nicholls, which comes with a bottle opener attached to the shackle. Sometimes the entire puzzle fits the theme, such as the Whisky Bottle from Akio Kamei, an absolutely essential item in every Boxes and Booze collector’s collection. There are also puzzles which have something to do with writing, an obvious but often overlooked aspect to the adventure, such a Ze Super Pen by Stephen Chin, or the Writer’s Block by Tracy Wood Clemons, which is a puzzle box writing desk with booze inside – perhaps the ultimate perfect B&B box.

Memo Pad by Hiroyuki Oka

The writing theme strikes again in the Memo Pad, a wonderful little offering from former Karakuri Creation Group artist Hiroyuki Oka. Oka’s formal training and greatest passion is in the classic Japanese puzzle box form and the art of yosegi marquetry. He spent a decade working with the KCG and produced many creative puzzles with an affinity for the classically shaped box, although some of his designs were much more unusual. For the past ten years or so Oka has been working on his own company, Oka Craft, where he makes his beautiful traditional move puzzle boxes of the highest quality for unbelievably low prices. His Memo Pad takes the appearance of a small notepad, crafted from Walnut, with Dogwood and Purpleheart accents. The word “MEMO” is written prominently on the top, so there’s no mistaking it. It also comes with a handy wooden pencil, which fits perfectly in a built in holder. Go ahead and write down any thoughts or inspiration on how to open the secret compartment, and we can compare notes later.

A noteworthy puzzle box

The Memo Pad is also my litmus test for the humidity level in Houston. The opening compartment has an extremely precise fit, so that when the wood is even slightly, imperceptibly swollen, the drawer sticks. But once in a while, it opens like butter. Of course, the first time I ever met this box, it was stuck tight. So I wasn’t sure if I had figured out the right sequence, or not. The cocktail pairing for this box owes its origins to Nick Baxter, the brilliant baron of bafflement (knight of knowledge, master of mazes, professor of puzzles?) whose name just might be familiar to a few of you. Nick helped me open the Memo Pad with the unorthodox yet completely effective suggestion that after I had performed the necessary steps, I “bang it hard and flush against something”. It worked of course, which led to his next insight, that the puzzle ought to be paired with, therefore, a “Harvey Wallbanger”.

This Wallbanger is bananas

Indeed. The Harvey Wallbanger, like many popular cocktails from the seventies-eighties era, was the brilliant brainchild of a marketing genius. In 1969, George Bednar became the US marketing director for the importer of Galliano, a seldom used anise flavored herbal liqueur from Italy. He found a willing partner in Donato “Duke” Antone, a retired bartender living in Connecticut with a big personality, who helped him come up with a simple drink featuring Galliano (vodka, orange juice, Galliano). Together they created a backstory involving Antone’s famous “Blackwatch Bar” on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where in 1952 he invented the drink for a Manhattan Beach surfer named Tom Harvey. A cartoonish surfer drawing was created with a tag line and the drink became immensely popular in the seventies.  Of course none of it, not even the famous bar, ever existed, but they sure sold a lot of Galliano. The liqueur recipe was altered as well, and truth be told it was an awful drink. Which just goes to show … something about America, I suppose. Antone was a self-promoting superstar, and his obituary claimed that he also invented the Rusty Nail, the White Russian, and the Freddy Fudpucker (don’t ask), among other famous drinks, and that he was a WWII recipient of two silver stars, two bronze stars, two Purple Hearts and a Croix de Guerre. I mean, seriously, wouldn’t you want to have a drink with this guy?

The Memo Pad Cocktail

For the actual toast I’m making to the Memo Pad puzzle box, however, I’ve brought us into the modern era. It’s a fun challenge to turn a Harvey Wallbanger into a delicious cocktail, and many modern bars have done it successfully. It helps that they have restored the original Galliano recipe now. My version takes the original ingredients, but swaps the vodka for gin, and connects the dots between this drink and another classic, the Last Word (which ties in the writing theme here quite nicely). To make a Last Word we need a base spirit such as gin (check), an herbal liqueur such as Galliano (check), a citrus such as OJ (check), and a sweet liqueur. Call me bananas, but I went with a banana liqueur. Don’t judge until you’ve tried it, because it works and is delicious. May I present, the Memo Pad: the Last Word in Wallbangers. Cheers!

A notable pair

Memo Pad

1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Galliano
¾ oz banana liqueur
2 ½ oz fresh orange juice

Shake together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with your favorite tall tale.

For more about Haroyuki Oka:
Apples and Honey

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Bag of Tricks

It’s been a while since I featured something from Tracy Wood Clemons, an American woodworker who, when asked how she became so talented at designing intricate and complex wooden puzzle boxes, can honestly say, “well, that’s my middle name, after all”. Tracy’s unique style is instantly recognizable. She tends to use mahogany in most of her pieces and accent it with a pleasant color palette of other warm woods. Her work is often folksy or even rustic in appearance, which might give the impression of being simplistic, but that is far from the case. She has a very clever mind and a knack for puzzle mechanisms and mechanics. You might say she has a whole bag of tricks in her brain, just itching to get out.

Tracy's Box of Tricks

She used that bag of tricks to produce a wonderful box of tricks. “Tracy’s Box of Tricks” is an impressive creation, a large and hefty wooden sculpture that just begs to be explored. Crafted from Walnut, African Mahogany and Oak, the box sits 10 ½ x 9 x 9 inches tall and deep and is fairly heavy. It looks quite complex, with many levels, components, and what appears to be a cage of sorts, all resting firmly on a set of multicolored feet. There are nice details all around and an overall pleasing architectural shape to the structure. Pick it up, and you will hear various clicks, clacks and movements occurring from within. Tracy relates that she had the idea for this box rattling around similarly in her head for well over two years before she was finally able to put it all into the world. Her “inspiration” was to create an extremely challenging puzzle box which also had an appealing artistic look and feel to it, and she has indeed succeeded very well. Tracy’s puzzle boxes truly live up to that name, in the sense that she likes to incorporate actual puzzles into the designs. For example, The Writer’s Block, an old fashioned writing box style puzzle box she made, includes an actual sliding block type of puzzle which must be solved in two different ways in order to access two of the compartments inside.

What wonders await?

Her creations also tend to be “sequential discovery” puzzles, requiring tools which she hides here and there that are needed for other parts of the journey. The Box of Tricks is incredibly ambitious, with three separate “tiers” to work through, each with its own set of challenges. There are a few hidden compartments to find, at least six separate objects to discover which may or may not come in handy, and she has added a nice touch for the finale as well. Tracy has green eyes, and refers to herself as “The Green Eyed Lady”. She created a logo to match, and has placed it in the final hidden compartment, like a Japanese hanko. You’ll have to work for your prize, and it won’t be easy. The second tier section is particularly tough, with a set of mechanisms you will not simply stumble upon. As if that weren’t hard enough, Tracy plays one more trick on you. She includes a detailed set of opening instructions, but has purposefully made these cryptic as well, so that if you are tempted to peek, you will still struggle. Her instructions are part of the fun, and part of the charm of her work. I struggled for a long time to open all the sections of this box, and was convinced there must be something wrong, that a piece had come loose inside, or stuck, or broken. No such thing had occurred, and it turns out that she plans her mechanisms precisely to ensure that such things won’t occur. Don’t be fooled – she is too good at fooling you otherwise.

A Mahogany cocktail for the Green Eyed Lady

For Tracy’s Box of Tricks I dipped into the cocktail lore’s bag of tricks as well and pulled out a fitting drink from one of the cocktail worlds true nerds, Robert Hess, a computer software guru at Microsoft, called the “Mahogany”. Back at the start of the new cocktail renaissance in the late nineties, Hess was there, talking source code with the bartenders who helped rewrite the script. He was one of the few “non-industry” folks who was truly a part of the scene, and kept a massive drinks file on his handheld PDA which he would share with the professionals. He ultimately turned these into the trend setting website “Drinkboy” in 1998, which became the industry standard of the time.

A stunning collection of flavors

A German acquaintance of his once challenged him to create a cocktail using the much maligned Jägermeister, a classic German amaro made with 56 herbs and spices and known for its bracing and strong flavors. Originally crafted as a digestive aid in 1934, a marketing genius brought it to the US in the eighties and turned it into a party drink. Despite the stigma it now holds for many, it remains true to its craft origins and can be appreciated as such. But crafting a cocktail with it is a true challenge, as the flavors tend to overpower anything else. Hess came up with a brilliant drink, which balances the Jager with another, sweeter herbal liqueur, Benedictine, and equilibrates them both with dry vermouth. There’s a little flourish in the glass as well, with a spritz of cinnamon tincture to tie things together. The story goes that Hess would keep this tincture in his pocket and bring it out when his bartending friends would not be able to complete the drink properly. I recreated the drink with an homage using Averna and Underberg amaros, which together bring out the best flavors from Jägermeister. This drink is like a multilayered, multistep puzzle box, with lots to discover and so many surprises. Cheers!

More than a few tricks in this pair

Mahogany by Robert Hess

¾ oz Jägermeister (or sub ½ oz Averna and ¼ oz Underberg)
¾ oz Benedictine
1 ½ oz dry vermouth
Dash of cinnamon tincture (or cinnamon schnapps)

Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a glass which has been coated in the cinnamon tincture. No garnish, unless it is for the Green Eyed Lady.

For more from Tracy Wood Clemons:
Writer's Block
Side Notes
A Little Hanky Panky