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

Saturday, April 13, 2019

After a While

When it comes right down to it, who really cares what the difference is between a crocodile and an alligator.  I wouldn’t want to meet either one hiding in the water. I’m not going to contemplate whether it has a wide or pointy snout as it tries to eat me. I’m not going to be able to look at its lower teeth protrusions when its mouth is shut, since its mouth will be wide open as it tries to eat me. I suppose I’ll know if I’m swimming in fresh versus salt water, but I’m sure I’ll forget at that exact moment, as it tries to eat me.

Chubby Crocodile by Juno

Of course, if it’s a charming puzzle box from Juno, I’ll assume it must be a crocodile, since Juno lives in Australia, and everyone knows about Crocodile Dundee, after all. They’ve got crocs in Australia! And by the looks of it, their crocs are extremely well fed. Juno’s “Chubby Crocodile” is an adorable puzzle box in the shape of a rotund reptile. Deep inside its belly is a storage cavity full of the remains of its last meal. Juno’s initial idea for this puzzle was for it to be an interlocking burr or kumiki type puzzle (the Japanese equivalent to a burr, often depicting a figure such as an animal) in the shape of a tortoise, but it ended up being too skinny, so he changed it into a fat crocodile instead. As the project was drawing to a close, he and Yukari thought it would be fun to put some objects hidden inside. Juno came up with some ideas and designs that would be efficient to cut on the router, so you may find a skull, a thighbone, a fish bone, a Gray (alien) or perhaps a slice of bread inside your croc. The bread is a running joke they have with Kevin over at Puzzlemad, who insists that something is not a "box" unless you can put bread in it. 

Don't let it fool you with those crocodile tears

The Chubby Crocodile is incredibly dynamic. From the moment you pick it up, it begins to move. The legs move, the head and tail move, even the eyes move. It’s fun to simply manipulate the initial sequence, so that the stubby little legs waddle up and down as if the crocodile is trying to run away. It knows you are about to carve it up and see what it ate for dinner last night. There are a few clever tricks here, as would be expected from Juno, and the discovery is fun. This one is not too difficult, and not too simple either, a perfectly entertaining piece with a few different elements. As always, it is expertly and beautifully crafted by Juno on his CNC router, and finished and polished with all manner of other equipment. Apparently Juno likes his workshop toys. That may upset Yukari, his wife and business partner, but if it means he is making wonderful puzzles like this, it’s certainly fine with all of us!

Chubby Crocodile Cocktail

I found a drink called the “After a While, Crocodile” by Elizabeth Dodwell, a cocktail author and purveyor of the blog “MixnSip”, which uses equal parts apricot brandy and triple sec with the juice of one lime. The idea was to drop half the lime shell into the murky drink so it looked like a crocodile floating ominously near the surface. As I am inclined to do, I tinkered with the recipe a bit a steered it towards the margarita variation it was always meant to be, albeit with apricot brandy rather than tequila. 

This croc likes apricots and oranges

I have a wonderful apricot rakia, a special type of fruit brandy originating from Eastern Europe, which worked really well here. I also used Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curacao in place of triple sec, because it’s amazing and I love it. I’ll use pretty much any excuse to add it. The result was a deliciously refreshing cocktail which is at once familiar (margarita, anyone?) yet novel and hard to place due to the featured apricot rakia, an unusual experience for most. This drink would satisfy the hungry crocodile in all of us, or would be lovely to sip on while running for your life while one tries to eat you. Cheers!

Beware this pair ...

Chubby Crocodile

2 oz Kinsman Apricot Rakia
1 oz fresh lime juice
¾ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
½ oz simple syrup

Shake with ice and double strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with lime peel croc frozen inside a clear ice cube (for safety).

For more about Juno see:

Saturday, April 6, 2019


When is a box not a box? The answer is, I don’t really care. Why do we need so many labels anyway? The world needs fewer labels. Everyone, and everything, can simply be appreciated on its own merit. Take this knock-out of a puzzle, for instance. It might have been born in pieces. People might look at it and call it an assembly puzzle. But deep in its heart, it knows it has always been meant to be a box.

KO Box by Takeyuki Endo

The KOPA box (also known as the KO box) by Takeyuki Endo from Japan is actually meant to be a box. It says so in the name, it’s a box. But unlike most puzzle boxes, this one comes in pieces. Three pieces, to be exact – a very small four sided “drawer”, which fits perfectly inside another four sided piece which is itself connected to a “C” shaped piece, and a final separate “C” shaped piece. Three pieces which are meant to all fit together and make a perfect cube. 

Let's see here, should be fairly straightforward ...

Once constructed, the inner compartment can hold a small object securely – it’s a box, after all. The trick is, how does it all fit together? It actually seems rather obvious, once you hold it all in your hands. Only, just as you are about to snap everything into place, it doesn’t. And this delusion of ease continues for a while, until it is quite clear that it can’t be done. Allard wrote about it brilliantly here, describing this process exactly. After a short while, the inevitable conclusion is that this is an impossible puzzle.

The fit that will give you fits

Only, it isn’t. Having others in the world assure you that there is an elegant solution (Kevin solved it as well here)  leads you to pick this up again and again, for days or weeks on end. Without that knowledge you might be tempted to simply give it up. But the revelation is astounding, and one of the most satisfying I have experienced. It boggles the mind to contemplate how Endo came up with this absolutely brilliant puzzle. It’s also not surprising that it ended up on a few “best puzzle of the year” selections last year. Endo also crafts these with elegant beauty, in light weight wood that’s easy to hold, a nice polish, and pretty little accents and details which are purely aesthetic and add a lovely touch. He is a perfect puzzle designer. If you ever get the chance to experience this puzzle box, don’t pass it up.

"Knockout Punch" by Adam Bernbach

For such a “knock-out” of a puzzle box I wanted a “K-O” of a cocktail to toast it with as well. I found what I was looking for from the creative team behind the drinks at 2 Birds 1 Stone, a speakeasy style bar in Washington, DC. Head barman Adam Bernbach, whose drinks I have featured before, created this doozy for “Garden and Gun” magazine in 2014, which they dubbed a “knockout punch”. It’s a delicious bourbon based punch featuring toasted cinnamon, ginger, lemon, cranberry, and rich sweet Madeira wine.

I love anything with Madeira, my dear

Madeira is one of my favorite ingredients and delicious on its own as a dessert wine. Similar to port, it is a sweet fortified wine (meaning it has an additional distilled spirit added, such as brandy) which originated from the island of Madeira off Portugal. Fortification of wine was typical in the seventeenth century, to prevent wine from spoiling during transport on long sea voyages. Conditions on these ships would range from hot in the tropics to cool as they made their way to the Americas. This process of heating and cooling lent the wine new flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel and toffee. Like many spirits, there are different profiles for Madeira. Malmsey, such as what is used in this recipe, is the richest and sweetest of them all, perfect for a decadent after dinner sip and wonderful in a cocktail.   Here’s to a knock-out pair. Cheers!

Harry Ellis Commemorative “Knockout” Punch by Adam Bernbach

8 cinnamon sticks, toasted
1 750 ml bottle of bourbon
8 oz granulated sugar
 4 oz ginger juice
4 oz fresh lemon juice
4 oz unsweetened cranberry juice
6 oz Malmsey Madeira
24 oz sparkling or soda water
Fresh nutmeg

Infuse the cinnamon sticks in the bourbon overnight. Combine all ingredients in a punch bowl and stir to combine. Serve over ice. For individual servings prepare roughly 1/10th of each ingredient.