Saturday, May 28, 2016

La Belle É-"box"

Absinthe, that mysterious emerald elixir which calls to mind visions of bohemia complete with Parisian cafes, famous artists and enchanted evenings.  I knew that eventually I would want to write about it, and Thomas Cummings has given me the chance.  He produces his puzzle boxes under his “Eden Workx” label and is a self-described lover of hidden spaces, secret entrances and disguises.  Taking a puzzling concept from, as he notes, 18th Dynasty Egypt, circa 3150 BC, he has created a clever puzzle box from reclaimed barn wood, brass accents, and an old, hard piece of decorative wood he placed on top, which has a distinctive feature.  Etched into the wood are little squiggles which have a rather suggestive appearance.  Thomas said that upon seeing this, his wife queried whether it was “wormwood”.  While not made from the infamous bitter plant of that name, it is possible that little grubs might have burrowed in this wood in its past and left their footprints behind.  The name for this box went through a few permutations but in the end that was too good to pass up and it is now officially called the “Worm Wood” box. 

The Worm Wood Box by Thomas Cummings

The puzzle itself is fantastic and the interesting “worm wood” on top is just one of the nice details.  There is a brass dial or knob on the front, with some hinges, a few square studs around the top on all sides with verdigris brass accents, and a French polish finish to boot.   As a puzzle box it proves a very fun challenge complete with a few dead ends and misdirections, and a great ending.  As with his Navigator box, it has a rustic feel combined with an artistic finish, and provides a nice balance of novelty and difficulty.  Apparently the name also had Thomas searching out the “old bottle of Absinthe” – possibly to inspire another great design.

Are those worms on top?

Absinthe has a long, long history, going back to ancient Egypt and Greece and ending up in 19th century Europe where it was thought to produce visions in its imbibers.  It gets its name and the tales of its hallucinogenic effects from its most famous ingredient, wormwood, or artemisia absinthium.  Very high concentrations of the active chemical in wormwood, thujone, were once thought to produce mind altering effects.  Absinthe does not actually contain such high levels, and regardless, thujone has since been shown to have no such properties.  It’s likely that toxins and even poisons such as copper salts found their way into the drink due to cheap production methods in the late 19th century and that these are what made folks like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec literally mad for the potion.  

Absinthe verte 

Wormwood was thought to have medicinal properties in Ancient Egypt and Greece, where it was used thousands of years ago to flavor wine.  Modern day Absinthe originated in Switzerland, invented by the physician Pierre Ordinaire in 1792, also with a medicinal purpose in mind.  They certainly had good medicine back then.  It’s not as silly as it sounds, since wormwood does have anti-parasitic effects and absinthe was used to effectively treat and prevent malaria in French soldiers of the day.  In the mid 1800’s it became the drink of choice for the bohemians and bourgeois of Paris, where it developed its air of magic and mystery, and was known as “la fée verte”, the green fairy.  Surely this was encouraged by the mesmerizing way that absinthe behaves when prepared in the traditional manner, which is by placing a sugar cube on a special slotted spoon which rests on top of the glass.  Ice water is then dripped slowly through the sugar and into the absinthe in the glass below.  Wisps of smoky, cloudy ribbons begin to curl and swirl around in the glass, creating what is known as a “louche” (French for “opaque”).  For you chemists, this is the result of herbaceous components in the drink which are not water soluble, such as anise, being released.  

The mysterious louche

Like the drink, the history clouds over around the turn of the last century, when another Swiss man murdered his family while under its influence (plus a tragic volume of other alcohol in his system as well).  World-wide bans on absinthe soon resulted.  In recent times, absinthe has been produced again, although with regulations on keeping the thujone levels extremely low.  France lifted its official ban in 2011, almost one hundred years after the backlash.  You can now experience high quality, authentic absinthe, either vert (green) or blanche (white), with its classic wormwood, anise and fennel flavors, at your leisure.  Whether you find artistic or other inspiration in the glass remains for you to discover.  Cheers!

A welcome pair of worm wood wonders

For more information about Thomas Cummings:

To read about his "Navigator" box please see:

For some classic and new absinthe cocktails:

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Renegade Rabbits

Opinions vary, but one commonly held belief around these parts is that the puzzle boxes appear to have multiplied. I really couldn't say about the validity of that supposition, but if such a thing were even remotely accurate, I would have to blame, of course, the rabbits. They appear to be quite pleasant and innocuous, a charming pair of benign bunnies minding their own business on the shelf. But they are most assuredly, in the immortal words of Alan Rickman, "up to something". The particular perpetrators in question here are the work of Yoh Kakuda, one of the Karakuri Creation Group of puzzle box artisans based in Hakone, Japan.

Two-Tricks by Yoh Kakuda

His work almost always takes the form of an animal or contains an animal theme. His puzzles are lovely, approachable, often adorable and usually easy to solve. This does not diminish the beauty of his artistry. I do like a challenging puzzle, though, and this one has more than his usual set of simple opening moves. You might say he has a few "tricks" up his sleeve. In his "Two Tricks", the aforementioned rabbits are, from all outward appearances, calmly contemplating a tasty looking little mushroom from atop their little box. The box itself rests upon a set of tiny feet, a nice additional touch. Don't let looks deceive you, however; these wascally wabbits are not so sweet. They both want that mushroom, you see. No sharing for such a tiny treat. They are carefully plotting and, unbeknownst to one another, have each set a trap for the other. In "Two Traps", you will have to keep your wits about you if you want to outsmart these fluffy fiends.


Don't be fooled, these rabbits are "up to something"

Perhaps these rabbits are not as bad as they seem. At least they are not about to kill each other, or you for that matter. Not like that ancient menace of olde, once referred to as "the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on." Sure, that cute little bunny looked like a mere harmless hare, but it had "nasty, big, pointy teeth" and could decapitate an armed knight with a single bite. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you'll have to trust me when I say the mere description of that bloodthirsty thumper made Sir Robin soil his armor. Maybe you are not a Monty Python fan, or have not ever seen "The Holy Grail" movie. You can still enjoy the cocktail created by New York's Giuseppe Gonzalez. That's right, there's a cocktail named "The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog" and you can get it at the Suffolk Arms in NYC.  

The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog by Guiseppe Gonzalez

Combining Pimms with scotch is one thing, but adding carrot and cucumber juice turns this cocktail rabid. Or rabbit, that is. It's a clever homage and a nice springtime sipper. Anything with Pimms is a good idea, after all. Like the " London Calling " which turns from a gin and tonic into a Pimms cup I wrote about to celebrate Brian Young's Big Ben puzzle. Go mix yourself up something refreshing and watch the Holy Grail again while you're at it. Here's to bad bunnies, harrowing hares, and renegade rabbits. Cheers!

With friends like these ...

The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog by Giuseppe Gonzalez:
1 1/2 ounces Pimm's
1/2 ounce Scotch, preferably Monkey Shoulder
1 ounce carrot juice
1/2 ounce cucumber juice
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
soda to top
Shake together and strain into a tall glass or mug.

For more about Kakuda Yoh:

For the "London Calling" Pimm's cocktail please see:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Candid Cam-era

There are probably a finite number of possible ways to open a wooden box, but designers delight in exploring the options to see what’s possible.  Part of the challenge in creating a new design is also in making the novelty invisible, so the box doesn’t necessarily look any different.  Another is to create a mechanism which defies expectation, so it remains undiscovered if you are mentally limited by your prior experiences.  Eric Fuller is good at designing puzzles with both of these features.  It also helps that he is a master at precision woodworking so he can turn these devious designs into solid reality.

The Cam Box by Eric Fuller

His “Cam Box” was a follow up to his original set of “Splined Boxes” and as such retains the general appearance of a 2.75 inch square cube, but without any splines this time.  The Cam Box has mahogany tongue in groove joinery around the sides and lovely recessed quilted maple burl panels on the top and bottom.  It would “seem” to have certain limitations and expected movements. The box requires about 6 “moves” to open, but like all of Fuller’s boxes, there is something unusual which needs to be discovered along the way in order to proceed.  It’s a beautiful box and great puzzle which will have even seasoned puzzlers stumped for at least a little while. 

Beautiful quilted maple and mahogany

The Cam Box recently joined me “on location” to one of the best bars in America.  Set in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego and styled like a 1920’s apothecary emporium, “Polite Provisions” feels like a thoroughly modern bar but with all the comfort, beauty and ease of a past era.  It has an open air design with lots of light, white tiles, shiny brass, art nouveau accents and incredible details to discover all around.   The staff are welcoming and evoke a hospitality which makes you feel like they already know you.  The co-owner and celebrity mixologist Erick Castro is known for his “vintage minimalist” cocktail creations which have become modern classics.  It’s no wonder the bar has been named Cocktail Bar of the Year along with many other similar accolades, including a recent James Beard nomination.  

The Ken Burn's Effect by Erick Castro

For the “Cam Box”, I selected Castro’s “Ken Burns Effect”, an elegantly balanced whiskey cocktail featuring rye, oloroso sherry, maraschino liqueur and angostura bitters.  He describes it as “full-bodied on the palate with flavors of walnut and dark cherry”.  Sounds pretty good, and it is.  The “Ken Burns effect” is a reference to a technique used often and well in many of the famous filmmaker’s documentaries, whereby he will slowly pan across a still photograph, often zooming in selectively on a face or detail, and thus bringing the photo to life.  In the cocktail, Castro pans across the selected ingredients as well, slowly bringing them forward as the drink comes to life.  Pairing the Ken Burns Effect with the Cam Box is a bit of a photographic trick as well on my part, but I’ll leave that mystery for those who know and not spoil the film.  Here’s to hand crafted hospitality, beautiful bars, and clever creations.  Cheers!

Smile for the Cam-eras

For more about Eric Fuller:

For more about Polite Provisions:

For prior boxes and booze featuring the incredible work of Eric Fuller please see:

For more whiskey cocktails please see:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Circular Logic

Sometimes a puzzle will keep you going around in circles.  In this case, it’s quite literal as well.  Kagen Sound is a well known wood worker, mathematician, artist and conservationist who resides in Denver, Colorado.   In his workshop there he applies his mathematical background and consummate wood artistry skills to create some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing puzzle boxes in the world.  His creations are not merely “puzzle boxes” - they are works of art.  From a mechanical, functional point of view his creations often advance a classic concept literally into new directions.  For example, his sliding panel boxes are modeled after traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, which typically incorporate unidirectional movements on 3-4 sides which in sequence allow the box to be opened.  Sound’s panel boxes have sides which all move, and each panel may move in 3 or 4 different directions.  From an artistic viewpoint, his creations also exhibit the highest level of craftsmanship.  He uses beautiful and rare hardwood with purposeful attention to grain patterns, intricate wood inlay to add detail and contrast, and finishes his boxes with techniques normally reserved for fine musical instruments. 

The Lotus Box by Kagen Sound

In addition to boxes, he has made a few pieces of puzzle furniture.  One of his most notable is his Lotus Table, which hides six drawers that only open when the correct geometric pattern is created on the surface of the table.  This is accomplished by rotating a series of concentric circles set into the table top, each inlayed with contrasting wooden lines and curves, until they line up.  Each drawer will only open with a unique pattern.  Somehow Sound has developed these rings to generate six different beautiful patterns.  When all six drawers are opened, the table has the appearance of a lotus flower.  He has also magically transformed this large format concept into a series of puzzle boxes, starting with the Lotus Box.  The box follows the same principle on a smaller scale, with four hidden drawers dependent on four separate patterns.  There are eight concentric rings which must be manipulated to create the different patterns.  Along the way there are clues to be found which guide you on to the next pattern, with a final clue at the end which links to the other boxes in the series, the “Caterpillar” and the “Butterfly”, which will be released in the future.  The Lotus is stunningly crafted in Claro Walnut, Curly Maple, Wenge and Madrone for the inlayed pattern stripe.  The Curly Maple literally shimmers along the sides.  Simply rotating the rings around is a tranquil experience, as you watch new patterns form and reform.  It’s truly beautiful.  Opening the drawers is almost superfluous – almost! 

The concentric circles turn into mesmerizing patterns

For the Lotus Box I have taken some liberties with a classic cocktail known as the “Seelbach”.  The Seelbach cocktail hearkens back to the Pre-Prohibition era 1900’s and was created at the grand old hotel in Louisville, Kentucky that bears its name.  It’s a celebration of fine Kentucky bourbon which includes the boozy combination of bourbon, orange curacao, and two types of bitters – Angostura and Peychaud’s.  The curacao, an orange liqueur, adds a bit of sweetness.  To modify this for our purposes, I substituted the curacao for a “flower” derived liqueur – bear with me here.  I’m not aware of any “lotus” liqueur, although there may very well be some out in the world.  In lieu of lotus, I used a hibiscus flower liqueur.  There are a number of these available, but I like one called “Hum” which is rum based and includes other flavors and lime.  The orange liqueur is replaced with Hum, but we keep some fresh orange to balance it all out, and get the “Lotusbach” cocktail.  I warned you to bear with me, didn’t I? Now you will have to humor me as well.  I raise my Lotusbach to toast the Lotus Box, a magical, beautiful work of art.  Cheers!

The Lotusbach

The Lotusbach:
2 oz bourbon
½ oz Hum (or other hibiscus liqueur)
One fourth of an orange
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1-2 oz champagne
Muddle the orange in a mixing glass until its juicy.  Add the other ingredients and mix with ice to chill.  Strain into a favorite glass, top with champagne and garnish with an orange peel.

Why not take these for a spin?

For more information about Kagen Sound:

For a prior Boxes and Booze about Kagen Sound please see:

For the original Seelbach cocktail:

For a (sanctioned) look at the beautiful patterns which open the drawers, please see the solutions page (Warning – these are the solutions, so don’t peek if you don’t want to know):