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

Saturday, July 13, 2019

In Bloom

“Ignorance is like a delicate fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone.” – Oscar Wilde

Bloom-Box by Rocky Chiarro

Spring has come and gone, and here we are in the midst of summer (apologies for my Northern Hemisphere centric view of the world). The flowers have bloomed already, so this pairing is a little late in the scheme of nature, but the weather is so absurd lately I’m thinking it doesn’t really matter. Also, despite the name, the provenance of this marvelous little box doesn’t actually have to do with flowers after all, despite it’s being called the “Bloom-Box”.

in full Bloom

A description of “Brass Puzzles by Rocky”, which is the name Rocco Chiarro uses for his puzzling endeavors, and also the segue into this run on sentence, should theoretically start with the solution. That’s because Rocky always thinks about the way a puzzle will work first, before deciding how it will look or act. He develops a mechanism, then applies it to a new puzzle design. He actually copyrights his puzzle solutions, and their odd and playful names. But of course I’m not going to explain the solution here. We’ll just have to do things backwards. The “Bloom-Box” is a simple appearing rectangular chest with square legs and a lid. Rocky made another, different chest as well in the past, called the En-Deavor (named after the Space Shuttle). But that is another story. The Bloom Box came about after Rocky sold a puzzle to French magician Gaetan Bloom many years ago. They proceeded to correspond about a magic trick involving a big box and Bloom even sent Rocky a book about it. Which led to Rocky creating the Bloom Box. You won’t find any hidden rabbits inside it, but you might find it to be rather magical.

Pins and Needles by Alex Day

Despite what I said before about the box, I’m sticking with the flower theme for the cocktail, at least. Blooming flowers in the mixology world mean Daisies, and Daisies mean spirit, citrus, sweetener and soda. The sweetener was historically with orange cordial, but that changed to grenadine in the early twentieth century. Plenty of variations abound, but most agree that a Daisy should be cold, refreshing and garnished with seasonal fruit.

Extra special with champagne

Here’s a great modern Daisy from Alex Day, the well-known innovator behind famed Death & Co. New York, among many other great bars. After his New York stint he helped open Honeycut, another highly regarded hotspot in Los Angeles, where he created this drink. In it, he uses rhum agricole as the base spirit, which is made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses that imparts a grassier, “funky” flavor element which rum aficionados love. Add to that the floral Lillet Rose aperitif (a perfect bloom) and some pineapple syrup to sweeten things up. Carbonated water Daisifies it for a truly wonderful sipper for the season. These are definitely in bloom right now. Cheers!

This pair is in bloom

Pins and Needles by Alex Day

1 oz white rhum agricole
 1 ½ oz Lillet Rose
¾ oz pineapple gum syrup
½ oz lime
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 oz soda water

Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with the soda water and garnish with a lime wheel and pineapple wedge.

For more from Rocky Chiarro:

Saturday, July 6, 2019

All's Well That Ends Well

“My formula for success? Rise early, work late, strike oil.” -  John Paul Getty

Plugged Well by Brian Young

I’m not sure how long you have to live somewhere to be able to properly say you are “from” there, and perhaps it’s a state of mind as well. I think I can safely say that I’m “from” Texas now, at least in the sense that I’ve lived here a long time. With that in mind I’m particularly pleased to have had this little puzzle sitting on my shelf for some time now. It was one of the first items I ever bought from Brian and Sue Young’s Mr. Puzzle shop, back before they were all sold out and extremely hard to find. Little did I know at the time, the story of this puzzle was connected to my own hometown of Houston.

Hubba Bubba

The Plugged Well was the result of a request to Brian from Matthew Dawson, a fellow puzzle collector, enthusiast and Houstonian. Matt worked in the Texas oil industry with his family’s business, and had an idea for a puzzle. It centered around a story he created about the fictional “Uncle Bubba”, from whom the puzzler has inherited a non-functioning oil well. It seems that back in the 1960’s, oil prices had dropped so low that Uncle Bubba plugged the old well to stop the flow. But now that oil prices have skyrocketed, if you want to make your fortune, you better figure out how to unplug that old well!

Fool's Gold by Jen Ackrill

Brian designed the puzzle based on that idea, and fashioned a cute little oil rig from native Queensland Walnut and some brass and steel parts which are both visible and hidden. There’s a prominent derrick with a brass pipe where the oil might one day spurt, and a locked drawer on front with a fixed knob. The goal is to access the inner compartment, where a prized barrel of oil awaits. Brian is a master at creating ingenious and clever puzzles of all sorts, and his sequential discovery puzzles are some of the best. The Plugged Well does not disappoint, with many fun discoveries and a tricky sequence of precise mechanics to navigate before the compartment can be opened and the puzzle solved. The puzzle was generously presented by Matt at the Edward Hordern Puzzle Exchange in Washington DC, 2012.

Some mighty unusual ingredients 'round these parts

Much like how I’ve had this puzzle for a long time and have been meaning to write about it, I created this cocktail pairing a while back and have been letting it age appropriately. It seems it is time to unplug this well. I chose a drink called the “Fool’s Gold”, because oil is sometimes known as “black gold”, but the Plugged Well is so tricky it might just keep you from your treasure indefinitely. Fool’s Gold is a great name for a cocktail, so of course there are many versions, most a variation on the theme of a whiskey sour or a whiskey and coke. This one is far more interesting and complex, as befits this puzzle. It was created by Jen Ackrill, a mixologist from Honolulu, Hawaii. That should give you a hint of what you are in for already. She splits the base spirit between bourbon and a special rye style gin form St. George spirits, then adds a layer of bitterness with Amere Nouvelle, a modern take on a classic French bitter liqueur. Finally she sweetens things up with banana liqueur – she’s from Hawaii after all. I know what you are thinking. Indeed, the drink sound as bananas as that ingredient. But it works surprisingly well. It’s unexpected, and delicious. You’d be a fool not to try it. Cheers!

Strike it rich with this pair

Fool’s Gold by Jen Ackrill
1 oz St. George Dry Rye Gin
1 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
¾ oz Bittermens Amére Nouvelle
¼ oz Giffard Banane du Bresil
1 lime zest, as garnish

For more from Brian Young:
Boxes and Boos
Party Time
Louvre Is In The Air