Saturday, March 30, 2019

Top Brass

And now for something completely different …

It seems apropos to be channeling Monty Python for this change of pace. The creators are British, after all, and I suspect they may know a thing or two about the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. So without further ado may I present the first ever episode of “Burrs and Booze”.

The burr, for the uninitiated, is an ancient mechanical puzzle likely dating back centuries. There is correlation with the classic six piece interlocked burr, a fusion of six sticks with internal notches that fit together in a specific way, and Chinese joinery techniques from the fourth century B.C.E. The first known depiction of a burr is from the 1698 engraving “L'Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts” by Sébastien Leclerc, one of the most famous French engravers of the seventeenth century. See if you can find it. Since then the world has seen innumerable modifications and expansions to this puzzle. For a comprehensive history of the burr see this excerpt from “The Puzzling World of Polyhedral Dissections” by Stewart Coffin, courtesy of John Rausch.

Brass Monkey 1 & 2 by Two Brass Monkeys

The story of these two burrs, however, takes us into much more modern times.  Ali Morris and Steve Nicholls, fresh off their success with the brilliant HoKey CoKey lock (which starred in its own sweet edition of “Locks and Libations”), decided that what the world really needed was more high quality, incredibly heavy brass puzzles. They set out to form a little business venture, and had a few ideas about the classic six piece burr.  These would be cylindrical, with a nice shine. They made the first as a standard interlocking cylinder burr. It is beautifully crafted, nicely puzzling, and can be disassembled and put back together within a few minutes. Even a novice can manage it fairly well. It’s the ultimate executive desk toy.

Looks can be deceiving

But I think the real reason they created the first, was to properly lull people into picking up the second. The second cylinder burr is not so simple. In fact, most people (at least, with no prior exposure to Ali and Steve’s devious ways) who pick it up, put it down in disgust after twenty minutes of getting absolutely nowhere. Many people can’t seem to get it to come apart at all. It’s the perfect compliment to the ultimate executive desk toy, ready to wipe the smug look off of someone's face at a moment's notice. It’s another very clever achievement from this devilish pair of tricksters.

Blue Ball prototype courtesy of Ali Morris

A little detail about these puzzles which may not be known is the story of how they got their name (which subsequently became the name of the joint business endeavor as well). When the first brass prototype of puzzle 1 was complete, Ali and Steve noted something which obviously stood out and was less than desirable. To keep the puzzle all together once assembled, there is a little sprung ball bearing on the final key piece. The casing around this initial bearing was bright blue. Naturally (Disturbingly?) Steve immediately thought of the Vervet Monkey (see here, if you dare).  Ali and Steve realized they would need to rid themselves of their "blue balls". They felt that calling their puzzles "blue monkey balls" might not be the best idea. And again, naturally (doubly disturbing?), the idea of removing these blue balls from the brass eventually led them to the expression, “To freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Viola, both the puzzles and the business had a name. From such auspicious beginnings comes the stuff of legends, or so I’ve been told.

The Diki-Diki Cocktail by Robert Vermiere

Right then. On to the cocktail. My first effort was not as well received by the critics as I had hoped. They said, ““Have you got anything without spam?” “Well, spam, egg, sausage, and spam – that’s not got much spam in it,” I replied. Or perhaps that was from the Flying Circus. No matter, I’ve got something even better to pair with a pair of Blue Balled Brass Monkeys. It’s the Diki-Diki cocktail, of course. No, that’s not a typo. It’s a real, and quite classic cocktail created sometime prior to 1922 by Robert Vermiere, who then set it down for posterity in his book “Cocktails: How to Make Them”. Vermiere was a Dutch bartender plying his trade in London, and is considered one of the most influential cocktail personalities of the twentieth century. His book has the first known record of the classic “sidecar”, among many others, and includes a wealth of knowledge about the inventors of each drink.

A marvelous marriage of unusual flavors

He is credited with inventing the Diki-Diki, which is actually a delicious and simple drink (albeit with a few unusual ingredients) featuring French apple brandy (Calvados), fresh grapefruit juice, and the wonderfully weird Swedish Punsch. This was a ubiquitous spirit in the 1920’s but only more recently resurfaced in modern times and became readily available again. Swedish Punsch is like a funky spiced herbal liqueur. It dates to 1733 when the Swedish East India Company imported a red rice and sugarcane spirit known as arrack from Southeast Asia. This would be mixed with sugar and rum to make a punch. Eventually the punch was bottled and sold on its own merit. It works remarkably well in the Diki-Diki. Vermiere claims that the drink was named after the impressively diminutive chief monarch of the Ubian Islands in the Philippines. Reports suggest that Diki-Diki was a real person, a datu chief from Zamboanga, who was indeed only 32-33 inches tall. I could find no mention of a brass monkey, however. All good things must come to a close. So ends this silly offering. You have my apologies if you have found it to be burr-densome. Cheers!

Two Brass Monkeys and a Diki-Diki. Best caption ever?

Diki-Diki Cockail by Robert Vermiere c. 1922

¼ gill (1 oz) Calvados
⅛ gill (½ oz) Caloric Punch (Kronan Swedish Punsch)
⅛ gill (½ oz) Grapefruit juice

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel, or give it the royal treatment. 

For more from the Two Brass Monkeys:
Two Brass Monkeys - Etsy Shop

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Calling a Spade

It’s time for a little detective work.  I suppose discovering the secrets of a puzzle box is actually nothing like solving a real mystery, but it’s a nice analogy at any rate.  Especially for the series of card suit boxes produced by Junichi Yananose, which are all called “cases”. We’ve cracked the Diamond Case, the Heart Case, and the Club Case, so let’s finish up the series and solve the mysterious case of the sealed Spade.

Spade Case by Juno

Juno’s final installment to his series appears to be quite similar to the Club Case. It’s a square box which is quite sturdy made from Karri, American Black Walnut and Koto wood. There are what appear to be two layers in contrasting colors on top of a third section, presumably the body of the box. As expected, a spade is cut out on top to provide the distinguishing feature. Like the Club Case, this allows a slight window into the works. Exploration quickly confirms that despite appearances, the Spade Case is completely different in function than the Club.

Can you ace this spade?

Juno suggests that this puzzle should be relatively easy to solve, once the main mechanism is discovered. If you’re like me, you might find part of the solution and not fully understand it. This can go on for a while! But once the clever idea is well understood, it’s true that the rest is just exploration and some reasoning. Juno wanted to present something completely novel, that perhaps had never been seen on a puzzle box before. I don’t think the idea is completely new but this is indeed a unique presentation of it, and brilliantly executed. The Spade Case is truly unusual, a lot of fun to solve and a perfect conclusion to the card series, which I must say (and can’t resist saying) has been quite … suitable. Juno has one of the most creative and puzzling minds and those of us who love puzzle boxes are incredibly lucky that he has decided to put his talents to this task.

A Reasonable Amount of Trouble by James Hensley 

With the Spade Case satisfactorily cracked, we should give thanks to the “ace” detective responsible – I’m referring of course to Mr. Spade himself. One of the truly quintessential private eyes from the “hard-boiled” detective genre, Sam Spade was Dashiell Hammett’s most famous creation. He made his debut in 1930, appearing for the first time in the Maltese Falcon. Spade’s famous role was immortalized in the 1940’s film version by Humphrey Bogart. I imagine Spade, a rough and tumble thinking man who would just as easily fight his way out of a situation as negotiate, might not have much patience with a puzzle box. More likely than not he would take the expedient route and smash the thing to find what’s inside.  Of course that would be missing the whole point.

Spicing things up

Sam Spade was known to enjoy his rum, although a neat shot of whiskey wasn’t misplaced beside him either. Hal Humphreys, a real life private eye, wrote about this cocktail tribute to Spade, one of his fictional heroes. Dashiell Hammett described his character as a “hard and shifty fellow”, and Humphreys cites a favorite line of Spade’s from the Maltese Falcon: “Oh … I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” James Hensley, the manager at one of Humphreys’ favorite speakeasy establishments, The Patterson House, created the drink based on that line.  It starts with rum, but a spiced rum, since detective work can be so exciting. There are plenty of interesting spiced rums available, but you can also make your own by adding in common spice flavors such as allspice and orange. Lyle’s Golden Syrup provides the sweetness. It’s a golden buttery sugar syrup found in England but not very common in the States, so I used some rich simple syrup instead. The last touch, the mezcal rinse, adds just the right amount of smoky noir to the drink as well. Next time you’re facing a particularly challenging puzzle, and feeling bold, mix up one of these. It ought to help you get into, and out of, a reasonable amount of trouble. Cheers.

This pair has thrills in spades

A Reasonable Amount of Trouble by James Hensley

2 oz spiced rum
¼ oz Lyle’s Golden Syrup
7 drops lime bitters
1 dash Peychaud’s Bitter
Mezcal rinse
Orange zest

Rinse a favorite glass with mezcal. (Swirl a small amount to coat the inside of the glass and discard the liquid.) Stir the main ingredients together with ice and strain into the prepared glass. Add the dash of Peychaud’s and some orange zest.

For more about Juno see:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Construction Zone

Sometimes a project can take on a life of its own.  Such is true for any venture, be it business or pleasure, and I suspect many of us can relate.  This is a tale of a puzzle box, however, one that references an ancient lost race of craftspeople who built the most incredible and complex objects. These constructs boggled the minds of the archaeologist adventurers who unearthed them and attempted to decipher their purpose. It may be of interest to know that this ancient race is entirely fictional. Although that seems irrelevant in light of an actual tangible artifact, brought to life by none other than the Stickman himself, Robert Yarger, now exposed as the last living member of that ancient race.
Dwemer Construct by Robert Yarger

The Dwemer Construct, aka The Stickman No. 34 Puzzlebox, is an impressive artifact indeed. It appears to be partly a box, at least on the bottom, which serves as a pedestal supporting an explosion of mechanical marvels.  There are a myriad of levers, gears, knobs, cranks, pistons, cogs and unusual objects packed into the space on top of the box and held in place by a framework.  It’s incredibly mysterious and confusing. It’s also all beautifully rendered in polished walnut and sapele woods, with little maple details scattered all about. There are unique corner step columns which provide a novel detail. Initial exploration reveals some movement here and there, and it may eventually become slightly clear what the ultimately requirement is in order to access the inner compartment of the box, but this revelation is not terribly helpful. Things move, here and there, and sometimes other things move in response. Certain parts seem to produce movements in entirely different sections, but not always. Sometimes the same move does not produce the same result … this is classic Stickman and can be found on a few other boxes he has created over the years.

Better gear up and leverage some ingenuity here

The initial idea for the box was to have a set of parts which combined in surprising ways to produce certain movements. It was to be a fanciful construct, such as the ancient Dwemer civilization would have produced (a mysterious race of elves or dwarves from the games Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls). Rob imagined this would be a fairly simple thing, and thus set out to produce an edition twice the normal size to allow more fans to get a copy. He imagined it would take him about 3 months. But this idea, of combining fascinating puzzle parts in odd shapes and sizes to function in unexpected ways, is exactly the kind of puzzle Rob enjoys so much. The boxes grew in complexity and evolved from the original idea into much more, until it was 10 months later, the box had two separate solutions, he had spent more time on it than on any previous box, and it was simply time to move on. Even so, there is still more to this box that remains in Rob’s mind, a third solution, which may yet one day be added.

Stickman's first DIY kit

The box itself is a playground for a mechanical engineer. The entire structure comes apart into over 45 individual pieces. The initial challenge is to deduce how to maneuver the box in its original state so that all four locks are open and the inner compartment can be reached. After this, a pouch hidden inside is discovered, which contains even more parts, and the means with which to deconstruct the works. Once fully disassembled, the next challenge is to figure out how to reconstruct the parts into a second, completely different configuration. This is easily the most unusual aspect to any puzzle Rob has ever created, and takes the solver on the same journey that Rob takes when designing many of his puzzles.  He described this process as his being “painted into a corner” method. He often designs as he goes, forcing himself to figure out what exactly to do with parts he has already cut. Here are 45 parts, which can combine in a hundred ways – good luck! Careful observation of the parts suggests how they might interact and where they might fit. There are holes drilled here and there. There are odd shapes. Another interesting observation is how certain shapes, holes and parts don’t seem to have any use at all, in the first construct or even after creating the second. These are meant for the third construct, which doesn’t even exist, yet.  The process of designing the puzzle itself from the pieces is Rob’s favorite part of puzzle box making, the part that brings him joy. This box allows others a chance to experience that same process. But beware – it took Rob an entire week to figure out how to assemble the second construct himself!

The First Construct

Rob’s intent for the Dwemer Construct is truly for this construction phase to be the heart of the puzzle. Of course, not everyone is cut out for this level of genius. Rob produced an extensive manual which accompanies the box (the largest one ever), with detailed instructions on assembly for the two constructs and their solutions.  Another wonderful aspect of the box is that simply taking it apart and assembling it another way is incredibly entertaining, even without deducing the process on your own. Finally, despite having just put the box together a different way, using the instructions, the mystery remains. It is so complicated that solving the second assembly is no easier just because you have just put it together! The construction gives few clues as to how it works, allowing the solver to enjoy a new, second puzzle. There are so many aspects to enjoying this marvelous work, with levels of complexity from the basic to the extreme, and the ability to choose your own experience. It’s an incredible achievement and one of the most unusual Stickman boxes ever.

The Offering by Alex Wiegand

Creating a toast for this complex marvel posed a particular challenge. I’ll usually find a classic or modern cocktail which echoes the name of the box, or pair a regional spirit with the artist’s place of residence. Sometimes I’ll come up with a convoluted association and see if anyone can deduce the reason for the pairing. If I can’t find anything at all useful I’ve also been known to make up a new cocktail for the occasion. It boggles the imagination but I wasn’t able to find anything remotely palatable related to ancient lost dwarf civilizations. Rob suggested the “Red Dwarf”, an interesting concoction with rum and juices I had not heard of before, but I had already decided on something else. These blog posts take time, effort, a bit of research, and a lot of commitment. Rob recognized that a while back and took to calling them my “offerings” rather than my “posts”.  I rather like the sound of that term and appreciate the sentiment it evokes. So here’s an offering to pair with this offering.

I'll make you an Offering you can't refuse ... 

Or perhaps I should say to “pear” with this offering.  This cocktail, by way of Alex Wiegand from Cambridge Massachusetts, employs a pear shrub to impart a delicious sweet and tart flavor to the drink. Shrubs are old fashioned fruit and vinegar based drinks which originated in England  (by way of Persia) and were used long ago as health tonics. They are sometimes known as “drinking vinegars” and have made a come back in recent times as both stand alone beverages and as cocktail ingredients. Homemade shrubs are delicious – this one calls for freshly chopped pear, turbinado sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, and sherry vinegar. I’ve taken the essential ingredients and made a quick workaround by using the incredibly delicious St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur and adding pear infused balsamic vinegar, with quite satisfactory results. Another interesting component to this offering is Cardamaro, another fascinating Italian amaro. Like all amaros it is an infused regional wine, with herbal and bitter components, traditionally used as a digestive aid after a delicious meal. You’d be forgiven for thinking it must be infused with cardamom, which is what we all think initially. The key ingredients here are actually cardoon, and blessed thistle, both from the artichoke family. Cardamaro is rich and sweet, with only very subtle hints of herb and hardly any bitterness. It’s a wonderful amaro to try. Lastly I’ve added a few dashes of something uniquely suited to this drink pairing, some Stickman Sapele Bitters. These are really a tincture Rob made from actual Sapele wood, the very same wood used to make the Dwemer Construct. If you have access to any slivers of Sapele wood, a similar effect can be produced by simply adding a sliver, perhaps in the form of a stirring stick, to the glass. The flavors will seep into it due to the alcohol, imparting a mellow sweetness and aging to the drink. A final word about amaros is that they are created from dozens of local ingredients including plants, roots, bark and flowers indigenous to whatever region the amaro is from. There is a masterful creativity in determining what to combine, in what way, and where to add it in the process, to create something incredible. It’s a perfect element to compliment this particular offering. Cheers!

Offering up this pair of constructs

The Offering by Alex Weigand

1 ½ oz reposado tequila
1 oz Cardamaro
¾ oz pear shrub
½ oz fresh lemon
(2 dashes Sapele bitters or stirring stick)

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with citrus construct.

For more about Robert Yarger:
For pictures of the second Dwemer assembly (SPOILER):

Saturday, March 9, 2019

We All Want to Change the World

We interrupt this broadcast of Boxes and Booze for a surprise installment of Locks and Libations.  I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rainer Popp’s fabulous T9 puzzle lock, regarded by many as one of his very best.  Many of you are aware that Rainer is the “Raining” champ of modern day puzzle lock creations, with 11 creations to date including what is now thought of as the greatest ever created, the T11.  He has some serious competition from ShaneHales, Dan and Boaz Feldman, and now Ali Morris, but no one else has invented as many locks, at least. I wrote about the unbelievable T11 here, a modern day marvel with so many unexpected elements it is mind boggling.

T9 by Rainer Popp

The T9 is less intimidating, in appearance and mechanics, made for mere mortals apparently, although by no means simple or easy to solve. I had been curious about this lock for some time, and as fortune had it, a good friend decided to lend me this copy.  The lock is made from brass and steel, weighing in at a hefty 1000g.  It’s solid and heavy.  It’s quite distinctive, with a central circular plate set into a rectangular body which has interesting waves undulating across the front and back.  Inset into the circle are six unmarked rivets forming the points of a hexagon, three red dot rivets in a triangle further to the edges, and a tempting keyhole right in the middle. Exploring the lock reveals a few more little details here and there, with unknown significance.

You say you got a real solution? Well, you know ...

T9 has a very attractive design and is one of the prettier Popplocks.  There’s a key, thankfully, which fits the lock, as it turns out, but – spoiler alert – doesn’t open the lock when you turn it.  That sort of information seems like a required statement when discussing trick locks, just to ensure everyone that things are legitimate.  Rainer Popp says that this lock was inspired by Robinson Roulette, a peg jumping puzzle released by Milton Bradley in 1985.  The puzzle consisted of a rotating circle with holes around the clock points on the inside, and pegs on the outside, with a goal of moving all the red pegs onto the circle, following a certain rule, and having the final peg placed be the white one. Hmmmm …. Ok, if you say so Rainer.  I won’t mention anything about the solution to the lock but I will say that it is brilliant, satisfying and fun. 

Revolver by John Santer

To toast the T9 I’ve got a great version of the Old Fashioned, that perennial favorite and blueprint for the first cocktail ever, made classically with rye whiskey, sugar, and angostura bitters. It’s incredibly easy to make variations by switching up the ingredients or adding something extra.  We’ve had more than our fair share of Old Fashioneds here before and even delved into the absurd origins of the cocktail itself. This version was created by mixologist John Santer, of Bruno’s and Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco, to celebrate the release of Bulleit’s new bourbon in 2004.  He uses coffee liqueur in place of simple sugar, swaps Angostura for orange bitters, and even finishes things off with a huge flourish by flaming the oils from an orange peel over the finished drink.  Some say that’s how the drink became so popular, but I suspect it also has something to do with how tasty it is. 

All I can tell is brother you have to wait

I’ve tinkered with the recipe once again for my own version, using High West Campfire (an incredible blend of Scotch, Bourbon and Rye with a nice peat reminiscent of the campfire) but staying true to the origins with some toasted cinnamon infused Bulleit Rye.  For the coffee liqueur, it’s hard to beat NOLA from the innovative distillers at St. George Spirits, with its distinct chicory undertones and bold coffee flavor. So saddle up, pardner, grab your six shooter (for your Bulleit rye), and let’s ride this one off into the sunset.  Cheers.

Don't you know it's gonna be all right?

Revolver by John Santer c. 2004

2 oz Bulleit Bourbon
½ oz coffee liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Flame an orange peel over the glass if you’re feeling flamboyant.  Or flambé- ant…

For more about Rainer Popp see:

For more Old Fashioneds see:
What has life Tortoise?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Member of the Club

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” – Groucho Marx

It’s getting clubby here at Boxes and Booze this week as we continue the card suit case series from Juno with the Club Case, his second in the series.  This follow up to the Diamond Case, which is a slim and unassuming looking little box, is much more substantial.  It features Karri, Koto, and Zebrano wood crafted into a sturdy square box.  The base and lid contrast in color nicely and in the center of the lid piece is a club shaped window which affords a view into a strange mechanism.  These are the key pieces, made from Burmese Teak.  Juno had the initial idea of allowing a little view of these rectangular pieces, but it was too basic for him.  He disconnected the pieces on opposite sides and turned the mechanism in an unexpected way.  It becomes clear what must be done once the box is explored but it is a clever surprise, and knowing what must be done does not make it easier.

Club Case by Juno

Juno does not really like the idea of a “black box” where all the mechanism and puzzling is hidden.  He prefers to give access to little views and hints, but still make the puzzle very challenging somehow, nonetheless.  He succeeds very well with the Club Case, with a wonderful mechanism which is familiar but newly implemented, and very challenging.  As with many of his boxes, the motions are quite dynamic and the box behaves in a novel way. Juno went through many ideas and iterations for the final mechanism, as each little adjustment had big effects on everything else.  In addition to the main trick, he wanted to ensure stability, durability, and he wanted it to be a decent challenge.  Much of the final work was then done on his CNC router, ensuring a fine precision and professional look and feel.  The Club Case does not disappoint, and set the bar high for the next two boxes in the series.  Juno made sure that everyone would want to be a member at his club.

A glimpse inside the Club - do you know the password?

There have been countless “Club” cocktails as well through the ages, each a reflection in some way of the establishment where they began as the “house cocktail”.  Let’s select one with which to toast the Club Case – perhaps, the Pegu Club?  This is a drink I’ve been meaning to feature for some time, and now have the perfect opportunity.  The Pegu Club was a Gentlemen’s Club for British Officers and civilians built in 1880 in the city of Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar).  Like all classic British Officer’s cocktails, the club’s signature drink featured gin (preferably “Navy Strength”) and a healthy dose of citrus. It was meant to be light and refreshing, perfect for a hot day in a tropical country.

Pegu Club c. 1882

Thanks to the popularity of the club, known as one of the finest in Southeast Asia at the turn of the twentieth century, the Pegu Club cocktail was known far and wide around the world.  Its popularity had a resurgence, along with the craft cocktail movement, in 2005, when Audrey Saunders opened her famed bar of the same name in New York City.  This was a defining moment in modern cocktail culture, when classics were relatively unknown (and thus “new”) and when mixing drinks was becoming a culinary art once again. Saunder’s mentor, the famed “King Cocktail” himself Dale DeGroff, actually coined the term “mixology” from his perch at the Rainbow Room.  People came to Saunder’s Pegu Club to drink, but also to learn.  It became an epicenter of the new cocktail culture.  If you want a taste of the Golden Age of cocktails with seamless transition to the modern day, order or make yourself a Pegu Club.  Cheers!

Classically refreshing

Pegu Club c. 1882

2 oz London dry gin
¾ oz Dry Curacao (Saunders: 1 oz Cointreau)
¾ oz fresh lime (Saunders: ½ oz)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Lime peel garnish.

This pair is rather clubby

For the prior Card Suit Cases from Juno see: 

For more cool cocktails from Audrey Saunders see:
Side Notes
High-brow Hybrids
A Trip to Cuba