Saturday, August 1, 2020

Having a Ball

Summer at Berkeley, Lecture 6
“Having a Ball”

Puzzle Balls,  nineteenth and twentieth century

The Ming Dynasty scholar Cao Zhao published, in 1388, what he called an “important discussion about assessing antiques” of the time. It was an informational guide, essentially, and divided these important objects into thirteen different categories. By no means comprehensive, or encyclopedic, it was more or less his view on his own family’s impressive collection. He was a collector, writing about his collection, but this did not diminish the historical impact of what is now a part of Chinese cultural literature. In his guide, one of the objects he mentions is called a “devil’s work ball”. The reference is not to some evil object of dark religion, but rather to a beautifully carved ivory nesting sphere. These were the original puzzle balls, already antiques when he published his description, that some suggest date back one thousand years.

Victorian era puzzle ball with Tunbridge ware stars

The “puzzle ball” is certainly one of the oldest known examples of a puzzling object. These ivory spheres were hand carved, with freely moving inner spheres nesting one inside the other. The inner spheres were all highly decorated with lattice and geometric designs, and the outermost sphere would feature high relief carvings of temples, dragons, and the phoenix. They were “impossible objects” created on a lathe. Multiple channels would be drilled to the core, and special “L” shaped carving tools were then used to connect the dots inside and release internal layers, layer by layer. Most had between three to seven layers, but the largest in existence is said to have over forty layers. They became very popular in the nineteenth century, and ultimately stopped being produced when ivory was banned in the modern day.

Ebony Puzzle Ball with stand by John Berkeley

The Victorians had their own type of puzzle ball, turned on a lathe from wood. Hoffman describes two different versions. The “Puzzle Ball” references a boxwood sphere decorated with six raised ebony discs, or what he calls “bosses”. One of these bosses is actually a plug that sends a narrow projection all the way to the opposite side, where it appears to be the very center of that side’s boss. Press on the right spot and the plug will come out, revealing space inside the ball for a threepenny piece or other small object of the time. The “Ebony Puzzle Ball” appears to have been the more common variation, however. These were larger, and had many small nubs (little bosses) all around, encircled by intricately carved, ever expanding rosettes that covered the ball in fine detail. Finding the right spot on these leads to an actual secret compartment hidden inside the tapered plug, big enough to hide a dozen shillings. Victorian puzzle balls were made from around 1850-1900 and often featured a colorful mosaic of inlayed wood in geometric patterns. This form of decorative inlay was known as Tunbridge ware, after the spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent where it was commonly produced. John Berkeley made a few Ebony Puzzle Balls, although he never used ebony, a wood he disliked. He used African blackwood instead, his favorite. He recalls that it was very difficult to get the measurement right so that all the components fit accurately, and therefore he made very few of these. He also never used a jig or template, relying only on his eyes, and as a result his puzzles are as “near as possible” to perfect spheres.

Smokey Strawberry Old Fashioned, ala The Aviary

To toast these magnificent orbs I thought we should roll out a special cocktail as well. To pull this one off properly takes some balls – it had to be said at some point – ice balls. Serving a cocktail inside an ice sphere is all about the presentation, and it can be magnificent. No bar does presentation better than Chicago’s Aviary, where the style and showmanship is as important as the drink. One of the most famous cocktails they serve there is their Old Fashioned, of which they have many seasonal offerings on rotation, and which are all delicious. But what makes their Old Fashioned famous is the way they serve it, inside an ice sphere. At Aviary it’s really more of an ice egg, waiting to hatch. How long will it take? As consummate hosts, they don’t make their guests wait – rather, they provide a bespoke wooden ring fitted with a rubber band and striking stone, with which to place on top of the glass, crack the egg, and release the drink. Impressive and fun!

No ice ball cocktail is complete without a turned ring and fob striker by Stephen Chin

I made a home version of their “Smoked Strawberry” Old Fashioned, a summery sweet delight that they infuse with wood smoke before injecting it into the ice. I simply added a touch of extra peaty scotch to mine, which works very nicely as well. Strawberry syrup can be made quickly on a stove or in a blender, but at Aviary they make a lovely clarified syrup by simply covering fresh strawberries with sugar and waiting a while for the sweetened juice to extract. For the ice ball, a little patience and an ice sphere mold, plus a syringe, is required. Freeze the ice ball like normal, but flip it upside down in the freezer after about two hours. Wait another two hours, then take it out of the freezer. Poke a little hole in the top, extract the water still trapped inside, and viola. Now inject your chilled cocktail and serve with a little hammer, or a homemade ball cracker courtesy of another favorite wood turner. Class dismissed – cheers!

A lovely pair of balls

Smokey Strawberry Old Fashioned – adapted from Allen Hemberger, Aviary

2 oz bourbon
½ - ¾ oz strawberry syrup
¼ oz peat heavy scotch (such as Lagavulin)
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir with ice then inject into a hollow ice sphere (or simply enjoy with a large cube)

For prior lectures from the Summer at Berkeley series:

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Seeing the Light

Summer at Berkeley, Lecture 5
“Seeing the Light”
Lighthouse by John Berkeley for Donay

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other” - Virginia Woolf

There is something so evocative about a lighthouse. I’ve written about this sentiment before, but I can’t hold a candle to Virginia Woolf, who says it so much more eloquently. The image of a lonely tower at the edge of a cliff, tended for the sole purpose of guiding others in the dark, is a simple reminder of the soul of our humanity, alone in our own lives yet simply needing to reach out to connect with each other.

“A fallen lighthouse is more dangerous than a reef” - Navjot Singh Sidhu

Finely turned details set this one apart

I’m also drawn to this quote in the wake of John Lewis’s death. Lewis was a pivotal figure in the American civil rights movement, perhaps a “lighthouse” who shone selflessly. He was beaten, practically to death, by the storm, and still saw a generation through to a brighter day. His death indeed marks a light that has gone out. 

The history of the lighthouse is ancient, dating back over two thousand years to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria. Design, optics and purpose have changed over the centuries into our modern version of the lighthouse, which is now meant to warn of danger rather than welcome travelers to a city port. The light itself was one of the most innovative inventions of its time, and one that had huge impact on global navigation (“the invention that saved a million ships”). The "Fresno lens" was first employed in 1823 with a light that could be seen for more than twenty miles. These lenses could magnify light, their essential and primary purpose, but they were also objects of true geometric artistic beauty, using up to one thousand separate prisms in their construction. It’s no wonder the lighthouse has captivated our attention for ages. The Victorians were no different, and one of the many turned puzzle creations found in Professor Hoffman’s compendium is a lighthouse. There have been a few notable modern day homages to Hoffman’s Lighthouse. A beautiful brass version of this puzzle was made in the nineties by Doug Haigh, another Englishman who created a very limited set of custom made turned puzzles in brass for the magician John Ergatoudis. And one of the most impressive and beautiful creations by Robert Yarger was his own version of the lighthouse puzzle.

The Lighthouse by Matt Grippo

John Berkeley’s reproduction is also a thing of beauty, significantly elevated from the Victorian versions. He utilized three different woods in the design and added many fine details and touches. It was arguably his favorite puzzle of all, he says, particularly the miniature version, and required many specific steps to be created in order. He had a few interesting ideas for his lighthouse, but the most notable was the light itself. In his original pieces the “light” was made from Boxwood, which contrasted nicely with the body, base and accents that were made from Rosewood and Blackwood. In later versions, he had the inspired idea to use transparent Perspex (acrylic) for the "light". He recalls getting suggestions to wire a real bulb light into these as well, but never pursued this unnecessary level of complexity. The Lighthouse puzzle employs a clever use of the same principle found in the Arabi Gun, with the goal of removing the trapped ring from the body.

It's de-light-ful

Continuing the lighthouse theme, we have a cocktail from San Francisco bartender and manager at Blackbird, Matt Grippo. This was his first creation on the menu at the bar, and originally was barrel aged for 6 weeks. It’s equally satisfying and delicious as is, with plenty of balance between the rich aged rum and very dry sherry, hit of the lime and touch of almond and ginger sweetness from the falernum. It will provide just the right amount of light to any evening. Class dismissed – cheers!

An enlightening pair

The Lighthouse by Matt Grippo
2 oz añejo rum
¾ oz fino sherry
¼ oz falernum
2 dashes Scrappy's Lime Bitters

For prior lecture in the Summer at Berkeley series:
The Heir Appearent
Over a Barrel
King of the Castle
Elements of the Canon

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Elements of the Canon

Summer at Berkeley Series - Lecture 4
"Elements of the Canon"

“The cannon will not suffer any other sound to be heard for miles and for years around it.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cannon Puzzle by John Berkeley for Donay

The history of warfare, and the development of weapons capable of increasingly greater destruction and loss of life, is a gruesome tale indeed. The cannon, along with the fire-lance, was invented in twelfth century China, and featured prominently in battle since the thirteenth century. Of course there have been toy cannons around for centuries as well. Versions made from wood and brass could be found in the Victorian era, nicely detailed and resting on carved trundles. These would have been ideal objects to re-imagine into puzzles of the day, with their many sections and pieces. Hoffman describes three distinct puzzle cannons in his work, Puzzles Old and New, 1893. Enthusiasts of mechanical puzzles, and their histories, may be familiar with at least the concept of the puzzle cannon, if not with all of the specifics and styles. But they remain a fairly obscure niche. And, they are not to be confused with puzzle canons, another obscure niche in the world of musical composition. A puzzle canon is a musical riddle, where the missing part of a composition can be deduced from hints provided in notational or textual clues. There are numerous examples from famous to lesser known composers throughout history. If there were a competition, I have no idea which puzzle can(n)on would be considered more obscure to the general population.

The Cannon and Ball

John Berkeley produced all three versions of the Hoffman era puzzle cannon, most often using his favorite for hand chased threads, African Blackwood, which he considers the “King of Woods”. He also produced a few of these in the rare miniature sets he made for Donay, at approximately 100mm size. The "Cannon and Ball" version can be identified by the sound of the small ball trapped inside the cannon muzzle which rolls back and forth freely, and can be seen by tipping the muzzle down so it rolls to the opening (which is of course too small to allow the ball to come out). A classic Cannon and Ball puzzle will have an oval shaped opening in the muzzle, rather than a perfect circle. The puzzle features a very clever misdirection which has found its way into countless threaded puzzles ever since. John recalls that this was a tricky puzzle to perfect, discreetly hiding one of the main mechanisms while ensuring that it would still function properly.

The Cannon and Cord

Another variation on the theme is the Cannon and Cord puzzle. Classically, as found in Hoffman, this was a fairly simple disentanglement puzzle. The cannon in this case has a slot that runs its length, from muzzle tip to base. A cord resides in the slot, tied with a large ball on the end. The cord is held in place by a loose ring which slips over the muzzle, and the ring is in turn held in place by a pair of trunnions on the sides of the cannon. The goal, to remove the cord with the ball, can be achieved with a few manipulations of the cord through the ringBut you will find that this doesn’t exactly work on the Berkeley version – the cannon muzzle is closed off and cord has been trapped inside the slot. John decided to make the puzzle more challenging, and incorporated elements of the Cannon and Ball puzzle into his version of the Cannon and Cord, turning it into an excellent puzzle. John recalls that making this puzzle – in fact, any puzzle which required carving a slot into it – was anxiety provoking. That would be the last step, and any mistake would ruin the puzzle and mean starting over. He found that cutting a perfect slot in the cannon was difficult to do satisfactorily, and as a result he did not make many of these. 

The Arabi Gun

The final variation is also the most complicated. The Arabi Gun has approximately ten or so pieces involved in its construction and execution, and the solution requires a few extra steps and discoveries compared to the others in the cannon canon. The Arabi Gun can be identified easily by the prominent ball protruding from the muzzle, held in place by something springy. Push on the ball and it retracts slightly into the muzzle, but springs back again right away. Removing the ball is the tricky goal. 

Are you outgunned?

John describes this as one of the most complex puzzles that he made, “a veritable tour de force of thread chasing.” It was also his favorite of the three, especially in miniature. He encouraged budding wood turners not to be put off by the apparent difficulty of making this puzzle, as it can be broken down into manageable parts and the end result is an exceptional puzzle well worth the effort. He mentions in his wood turning book that there was one component of the cannon puzzles he disliked - making the little wood trucks that support the cannons. They look handsome and provide an elegant display stand, but they did not involve much actual wood turning (aside from the wheels and tiny pins), which is what he really loved.

The Canon Cocktail by Jamie Boudreau

To celebrate this beautiful battery we turn to a storied bar in Seattle known appropriately enough as “Canon”. Home to “America’s largest spirit collection”, at four thousand bottles and counting, “Canon Whiskey and Bitters Emporium” literally wraps you up in a warm embrace of bottle-lined walls. Jamie Boudreau, Canon’s owner and visionary, has one of the most extensive collections of vintage spirits and whiskeys in the world, including an original Mt. Vernon rye from 1895. His bar has also racked up the official accolades, earning “World’s Best Spirits Selection” at Tales of the Cocktail in 2017 and the #6 spot on the “World’s 50 Best Bars” list in 2014.

A drink that will blow you away

When Boudreau opened his bar in 2011 he created a signature cocktail to epitomize the oeuvre he was creating. The full name of the bar includes both whiskey and bitters, and the signature cocktail had to reflect that faithfully. While the menu has changed many times over the years, and other favorites like the “Truffle Old Fashioned” have gained popularity, the original remains a modern classic. The “Canon Cocktail”, if served at the bar, even features a stencil of the bar’s logo, a cannon (how clever and confusing), sprayed with Angostura bitters onto the special foam that sits above the liquid. The foam is made from Cointreau, the French orange aperitif liqueur similar to triple sec and well known in a Margarita. The basic drink, with rye, sweet vermouth, and amaro, is a lovely take on the Manhattan, and quite tasty on its own. The special foam elevates it to legendary status, and makes it so much more perfect to accompany these special puzzles. Class dismissed – cheers!

If boxes and booze had house rules, these follow the canon

The Canon Cocktail by Jamie Boudreau

1 oz rye whiskey
½ oz sweet vermouth
½ oz Ramazotti amaro
Cointreau foam (ideally made w Cointreau, lemon, egg white and sugar in a siphon, I whipped up a tolerable version using the blender on high speed)
Aromatic bitters (such as Angostura)

Stir the liquid ingredients well with ice to chill and dilute, then strain into a favorite glass. Top with foam and spray with aromatic bitters.

Batteries included

For prior lectures from the Summer at Berkeley series:

Saturday, July 11, 2020

King of the Castle

Summer at Berkeley – Lecture 3
“King of the Castle”

Castle Money Boxes by John Berkeley for Donay

Treen Castle is not a castle, it’s a jagged rocky promontory of cliffs that sit on the edge of Cornwall, England in the town of Treen. Castle Treryn, as it is properly called, is home to an ancient fort dating from the iron age. But its most famous feature is Logan Rock, an 80 ton granite boulder that sits atop the cliff in a way that allows it to mysteriously rock back and forth with the “gentlest of touch” without ever falling off. Of course, this was too tempting for Lieutenant Hugh Goldsmith and his men of the HMS Nimble, who in 1824 decided to topple the great stone down onto the beach below once and for all with some levers and bars. The outraged town made them put the boulder back on its perch, which was no easy feat in 1824.

Original Castle Money Box in Spalted Boxwood

Wood turned “treen” castles were also common household objects in the latter 1800’s. As mentioned, these little objects, made from boxwood, were typically containers for various items, such as dice, or string. A treen castle was not an entire castle, but rather a single, crenelated turret. Turrets had become popular architectural design elements again in Victorian England, thanks to the “Queen Ann Revival” style that is most commonly associated with the era now. The common household “castle” container had a lid that popped right off. Not so with Hoffman’s classic, puzzling version, which featured a coin slot on top, and was called the “Castle Money Box”. In went a coin, and the little puzzle was passed around to tempt friends and fools into retrieving it. I imagine that the puzzle played with people’s assumptions, who presumably were familiar with the more common containers that looked the same but behaved in a much more straightforward manner.

New Castle Money Box in Santos Rosewood

John Berkeley reproduced the Victorian era “Castle Money Box” puzzle in many beautiful wood varieties. He made his larger than the nineteenth century versions, to accommodate more modern coins. There is also a second version of this puzzle from that period, which employs a different trick for opening, and is appropriately known as the “New Castle Money Box” puzzle. The originals employ a mechanism with a small piece that is easily and lost. Like many things, John improved this in his version, crafting the mechanism to remain "captive" and thus rendering it safe from loss. Donald Goddard requested that these handsome reproductions be of “museum” quality. John Berkeley responded in kind by using beautiful, exotic hardwoods, but also by elevating the form and design of these old puzzles. Copying the Victorian era puzzles, he stuck to the straight or sloping columns and traditional crenelated turrets (also known as bartizans) of the Scottish baronial style. But he made his versions more elegant, styled after the classic Staunton chess piece rook. These chess pieces were originally designed by a journalist named Nathaniel Cooke, named after chess master Howard Staunton, and produced in 1849 by Jacques of London. They became the de facto style for chess pieces ever since. John Berkeley would have been familiar with the design, having produced vintage style chess pieces for Donald Goddard’s shop.

Donay Castle Money Box "Mk 2" in African Blackwood

But perhaps the most interesting Castle Money Box is the one that John came up with himself, for Donay’s own unique line of Hoffman era puzzles. Their “New, New Castle Money Box” was officially dubbed the “Donay Castle Money Box - Mk 2”. It was only ever crafted in African Blackwood and looked quite similar to the original Castle, with its classic turret architecture, crenellations, and coin slot on top. So similar, one might be tempted to solve it in the same fashion. The puzzle uses the same principles of playing with expectations that the original Victorians must have been susceptible to, and assumes that you already know how to solve the classic version. It employs a brilliant misdirection that requires tremendous skill to create, another testament to Berkeley’s mastery of the art.

The Full Windsor by Erick Castro

Let’s retire to the castle salon now and sit by the fireside while we enjoy a fitting toast to these fine castles. This drink is from Erick Castro, proprietor of one of my favorite bars in the world, San Diego’s Polite Provisions. It’s named after one of the most iconic necktie knots, the “Full Windsor”, which is itself named after the Duke of Windsor, whose title refers to the Castle itself (also no stranger to turrets). The drink is Castro’s delicious riff on the New Orleans classic Vieux Carre, a cocktail that features rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. 

An incredible Vieux

Interestingly, the drink was invented in 1930, the same year the Duke of Windsor brought his sartorial sensibilities to American collared shirts. Castro swaps the rye for a lightly peated Scotch, and the cognac for applejack, a classic American elixir made from apples and originally distilled by process of “jacking” – freezing fermented apple cider and then removing the ice, thereby increasing the final alcohol content. The drink is a beautiful adaptation full of crisp fruit flavors and a pleasing hint of smokiness. Try one next time you entertain the Duke. Class dismissed – cheers!

Windsor Castle

The Full Windsor by Erick Castle

1 oz Scotch
1 oz applejack
¾ oz sweet vermouth
¼ oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir ingredient with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Orange twist garnish.

For prior lectures from the Summer at Berkeley Series:
The Heir Appearent
Over a Barrel

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Over a Barrel

Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 2
"Over a Barrel"

Barrel and Ball by John Berkeley for Donay

Small wooden household and domestic objects were referred to as “treen” in the nineteenth century and earlier, a word derived literally from “of a tree”. Tableware, plates, bowls, snuff boxes, needle cases, handles and the like were all “treen”, created mostly through carving and turning techniques. Small treen containers shaped like barrels with simple lids were quite popular and commonly made to hold all manner of things such as tobacco, string or other knick knacks. 

African Blackwood with Boxwood stopper

It’s no wonder that a treen barrel which did not open simply, as expected, would be an amusing diversion in those days. The Barrel and Ball Puzzle, described by Hoffman (1893), was one of the most recognizable and original puzzles of the Victorian era, consisting of a typically appearing treen barrel with a ball inside. The object was, of course, to get the ball out.

Cocobolo with Blackwood stopper

When Donald Goddard met John Berkeley, it was the start of something special. Appropriately enough, the first Hoffman puzzle that Donald requested from John was the Barrel and Ball.  He sent a photo of a vintage piece, and John reproduced it in a number of beautiful woods. Boxwood is a typical light tan wood that is easy to turn, and what most treen objects were made from in the nineteenth century, but John used Pink Ivory in most of the barrels he made in order to set them apart and lend an air of high quality. These were unusual and had blackwood stoppers (and balls) that came out of the top of the barrels. People tended to lose the stoppers, so in later versions, he added an internal screw to the end of the stopper on the inside of the barrel, so they couldn’t fall out. 

Miniature in Pink Ivory with Blackwood stopper

Another project that Donald and John embarked upon was a series of miniatures. They intended to reproduce twelve of the Hoffman puzzles in tiny versions, but in 2003 Donald sadly died before some of their ideas were complete. Nonetheless, John did finish some tiny barrels, the nicest of which were done in Pink Ivory wood.

Barrel Aged Spiced Negroni

I thought that a “barrel-aged” cocktail would be appropriate to pair with these puzzles. Barrel aging should be a fairly familiar concept to most people, since even people who don’t drink alcohol have often heard about how wine or spirits are typically stored and aged. The process of placing wine or spirits into a wooden barrel is fairly straightforward and can easily be understood in historical context for storage and transport purposes (the earliest vessels for wine were made of clay). However the chemical process of barrel aging is highly scientific and interesting. Barrel aging slowly imparts oxygen, adds flavor, aroma and finish, and reduces the harsh ethanol content over time, resulting in smoother and more desirable characteristics. Depending on the spirit, there may be rules in play as well for barrel aging. For example, bourbon is by law only supposed to be aged in newly charred American Oak barrels. These are then used to age and flavor other spirits after, like cognac, sherry, or even wine.

Like so many things, it gets better with age

Barrel aging cocktails is another creative way to change the flavor and texture of a drink. There are plenty of examples of technically barrel aged cocktails in the archives, such as the “Swedish Punsch” mixture of Batavia Arak mixed with tea and spices that Swedish merchants would enjoy on the long sea journey home in the seventeenth century. But the modern concept of a barrel aged cocktail can be traced to Jeff Morgenthaler, the creative force behind many modern classics cocktails. He took an idea he saw in 2010 at a high concept bar in London, and modified it in a truly American way. The result, his Clyde Common barrel aged Negroni, was an instant success and ignited a global trend. I’ve created a spiced Negroni, adding a touch of ginger liqueur and allspice dram to the mix, and aging it for about 3 weeks to let things soften. Small barrels for home creativity will age drinks faster so you don’t have to wait as long. There’s also nothing quite as convenient as a premade cocktail. Class dismissed – cheers!

Having a ball with these barrels

Barrel Aged Spiced Negroni

(For a 750 ml barrel)
200 ml Bombay Sapphire or other juniper forward gin
200 ml Aperol amaro
200 ml Cocchi di Torino vermouth
 50 ml Barrows Intense or other ginger liqueur
25 ml Besamim or other aromatic spiced liqueur such as allspice dram

Pour all ingredients into a cured oak barrel and wait approximately 3 weeks before decanting to a clean bottle. Enjoy over ice.

For Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 1:
Heir Appearent

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Heir Appearent

Summer at Berkeley Series, Lecture 1
"The Heir Appearent"

The Donay Pear (She Oak) by John Berkeley

We’re taking a sabbatical abroad this summer at Boxes and Booze to visit England and shine the spotlight on a very special wood turner named John Berkeley. Many will know his work as the best modern example of Victorian era wood turned puzzles. The original creations, produced in England in the late 1800’s, were marvels of lathe wood turning and featured finely carved “hand-chased” threads, hidden layers, and other secret devices. They required exceptional skill to create but sadly the original artists took no public credit. We know about these puzzles thanks to an English lawyer and avid magician who published a number of books on magic and one seminal work on puzzles of the day. “Professor Louis Hoffman” was the nom de plume and stage name of Angelo John Lewis, (1839 – 1919) who disguised his identity to protect his daily law practice, perhaps surmising that people might not want a lawyer who was also well practiced in the deceptive arts. His compendium “Puzzles Old and New”, F. Warne & Co., 1893, cataloged most of the known puzzles of the 1890’s London Victoria era, and remains the definitive source for these historical items today.

More than meets the eye - three separate compartments with unique locking mechanisms

John Berkeley tried his hand at many trades before finding his true calling later in life. He was a farm laborer, an insurance agent, a Police Constable, and a salesman of many things, including electronics, cigars, tobacco, pipes, fancy goods, jewelry, and even baby chicks. Eventually he settled as a restorer of metal antiques, which is where our story really begins. He was asked by a friend, who had a vintage cribbage board which was missing its pieces, if he could make a set of crib pegs for it out of bone. John’s outlook on life is that “if you do not know you cannot do something, then you probably can” so he took up the challenge. These lathe turned bone pegs led him to working with wood, which he found much more versatile and beautiful. At some point fate and a friend led him to a little antique game shop along the Camden Passage in Islington called “Donay”, where he discovered many vintage cribbage boards in need of sets of pegs. The owners, Donald Goddard and his wife Carol, were delighted to find someone with this skill. A year of cribbage peg making led to chess pieces (“can you make them?” I didn’t know that I couldn’t, so, “Yes, of course”), and one day, to a question about cutting threads in wood.

What's this Napoleonic coin doing inside a Victorian puzzle?

Donald Goddard, an antiques puzzle and games dealer, of course knew all about Professor Hoffman’s catalog of Victorian puzzles, and had already worked with a wood turner named Bill Jones (one of Berkeley's mentors) to re-create some classic Cannons. In John Berkeley, he found the artisan he had been searching for all along. When John said, “Of course I can” to the question of cutting threads in wood (which he had of course only read about) Donald sent him a photo of a Hoffman puzzle. The perfectly turned puzzle John created led to an initial series of six vintage puzzle reproductions, which led to an entire set of twenty-four, all based on photographs of original Victorian era creations that were compiled by collector Edward Hordern in his updated and revised edition of Hoffman’s classic book. 

Extra credit for the Jubilee Penny

These exceptional hand made puzzles were produced by John in various exotic hardwood upgrades (which would have been unavailable in Hoffman’s time) and marketed under the label “Donay Hoffman Puzzles”. After the set of Hoffman puzzles was complete, they undertook another project – creating a series of novel wood turned puzzles in the style of Hoffman but of their own design, to add to the “canon”. Donald Goddard would suggest the ideas, and John Berkeley would “turn” them over in his mind and figure out how to bring the ideas to life in wood. Their first effort, the Donay Apple, won an honorable mention at the inaugural International Puzzle Design Competition in Tokyo, Japan, 2001 and cemented John’s reputation as the world’s “master turner”.

The Spotlight by Jeff Lyons

A follow up to the Apple was another fruit, the Donay Pear. Many of the planned "one hundred" Apples were made, but only a very few Pears were ever created. These fruit puzzles were actually three puzzles in one, using classic Hoffman era puzzle mechanisms in new ways (and one that Donald and John invented) to create three distinct chambers which hold little vintage coins. John went through many iterations and shapes for the pear before settling on the final version. He relates that “most other turner’s pears were shaped like a light bulb rather than a pear. My first attempt … was only a little less like one. I eventually modeled mine on a Rocha pear, which involved quite a bit of carving and great care to allow space for everything inside.” The pear’s internal mechanics were also refined over a number of attempts. Initial prototypes included a maze-like opening for the two halves, which later evolved into a simpler gravity pin design. Those familiar with the Hoffman “Invisible gift” puzzle would have found something similar in an early prototype, which later changed to a device that Donald and John devised themselves. Finally the spinning bottom chamber initially used a restrictive “washer” system that John ultimately replaced with a brilliant ball-bearing mechanism. The production Pears were made from African Blackwood (with a silver stem) or Pink Ivory (with a Blackwood stem). John also loved to use lustrous She Oak wood for his puzzles, and made a single Pear in this wood as his final pre-production piece, identical to the others except for the unique wood.

A drink that pears nicely

Shining the spotlight on this master artisan has never tasted so good. Here’s a wonderful drink with which to toast one of his masterpieces from San Francisco Bay area bartender Jeff Lyons. It has the prerequisite pear ingredient, in this case in the form of a potent pear brandy from Clear Creek Distillery. The pear brandy is a modifier here, however, meant to offset the base of very dry Manzanilla sherry. Rounding it all out is a little sweetener, provided by spicy ginger liqueur, and finally the perfect balance is achieved with a few dashes of savory bitters. It’s an elegant cocktail for an elegant piece of puzzle history. Class dismissed - Cheers!

Almost a full house

The Spotlight by Jeff Lyons

2 oz Manzanilla sherry
½ oz pear brandy
½ oz ginger liqueur
2 dashes celery bitters
Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass over a large cube. Garnish with a thin slice of fresh pear.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Beware the Stare

There’s a fantastic origin story behind this award winning puzzle maker (it's appropriate that he has an origin story, given his almost supernatural abilities). American artist Lee Krasnow, who hails from the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest, relates that when he was around twelve years old he watched a Sixties era movie called “The Village of the Damned”. It’s a campy sci-fi thriller featuring a strange cohort of Aryan-esque children from a remote town, all born on the same day, who have eyes that glow brightly as they harness their strange powers of mind control. “Beware the Stare”, warns the movie trailer, or it might spell your doom. But what Krasnow found most interesting in this movie was a brief scene depicting a Japanese sliding puzzle box opening to reveal a hidden drawer. He played this scene back, over and over on his VHS tape, reverse engineering it until he had worked out a way to create one for himself. Talk about powers of mind control.

Clutch Box by Lee Krasnow

Lee has come a long way from the humble box he made when he was twelve. He is renown in the puzzle world for the impeccable precision he can achieve in his wood craft. Interlocking puzzles simply feel different if pieces are off by as much as one thousandth of an inch, and creating things with that degree of perfection is what Lee enjoys most about puzzle making. He also has a mathematical mind, which lends itself to designing brilliant puzzles like the Barcode Burr, which won an honorable mention at the 4th Annual International Puzzle Design Competition in 2004. But I’d like to talk about the puzzle box he created the year before that, when he was just starting out as a new puzzle maker, which won the coveted Puzzler’s Award, and became one of the most sought after puzzle boxes of all time. It’s a little box to hold onto rather tightly - perhaps you might even be inclined to “clutch” it.

spalted tamarindo, palisander rosewood, olivewood, koa and copper

The origins of the Clutch Box go back to the beginning of 2003, when collector and wood crafting hobbyist Dave Rossetti expressed an observation to Lee about a certain type of mechanism that many puzzles shared, and noted that there really wasn't anything he knew of that used the very opposite concept. Lee turned that spark of an idea over in his mind, and it eventually evolved into the central locking mechanism of the Clutch Box. Another component of the final box came from an idea Lee got after admiring a particularly rare puzzle box from Japanese artist and Karakuri Creation Group master Yoshiyuki Ninomiya. In fact, all puzzle boxes owe a debt to the Japanese masters who originated the art, but it’s particularly nice that this one has a direct link to one of the greats. The initial run of three boxes Lee made had hinged lids. The boxes have a beautiful stellate pattern in contrasting exotic woods on each side that is distinct from the main body of the cube, and on the very first box this pattern was applied on every side. On subsequent boxes, Lee decided to highlight the lid by creating a swirling spiral of the inlayed wood on that side, as if he had twisted the stellate pattern at the center. Lee relates that this was a bit of a “flex” at the time, some bravado showmanship of his meticulous and enviable woodworking skills. He was submitting these boxes for the International Puzzle Design competition, after all. Over time, along with age, he has developed enough satisfaction with his own reputation that he no longer feels this is necessary. In fact he prefers the perfect symmetry of having all sides the same, which also makes the puzzle just a bit more difficult.

Golden Handcuffs by Stuart Humphries

Lee made a few more changes to the design of the second and third box as well (besides the spiral lid pattern), including one suggested by Nick Baxter, which better protects certain components while simultaneously making other things easier to manipulate. It’s quite possible that Lee would have continued to make changes and additions to the box, but he was rushing to complete the project in time for the competition, and he also had to vacate his overpriced workspace and move to a new location among the redwoods of Santa Cruz. Another story for another time tells the tale of how the Barcode Burr came to be invented in that new workshop due to a chance observation. After Lee had resettled, he produced six more copies of a third iteration to the Clutch Box design which saw the hinged lid gone, replaced by one that can be removed completely, allowing for a larger internal space. The puzzle has a simple elegance to it, with three distinct phases that complement each other perfectly. Once the central mechanism had been perfected, Lee added the additional components in order to seemlessly hide each subsequent step. The initial secret is well hidden, clever, and unique, and is really only there to disguise the next step (the homage to Ninomiya), which is there to disguise the next (the namesake mechanism). I could say he did an admirable job of this, creating a scarce set of very beautiful boxes with a wonderful sequence of secrets, but I don’t have to say anything – the Puzzler’s Award really says it all.

A little one-two punsch

Here’s a toast to the Clutch Box, a drink I’ve been waiting to have for a long time. I’m sure Lee would approve – he knows how to enjoy a classic cocktail seasoned with a dash or two of fine bitters. This one comes from Houston native and local cocktail star Stuart Humphries, who got his start at Anvil Bar and Refuge, and has worked at notable bar programs here including Pass and Provision, Tongue Cut Sparrow, and Rosie Cannonball. During his time as head bartender at the now defunct Pass and Provisions, he created this delicious riff on a rum Negroni (or Manhattan - it’s rather hard to classify this drink, and it doesn’t really matter), using Plantation’s fabulous pineapple rum as the base spirit, and the soft amaro Aperol in place of a vermouth. For even more complexity, he turned to Swedish Punsch, itself a complex mix of spirits. Swedish Punsch originated in the 1600’s, when Indonesian rum known as Arak was commonly imported from Batavia (Jakarta) by sea merchants. The Swedish traders were fond of mixing the savory rum with other flavors of the Indies, such as dark sugar, tea and Java spices, into a “punsch” they would enjoy on the long sea trips back home. The punch became a social pastime and eventually a national obsession which found its way into many of the old classic cocktails. The modern day version, recreated by Swedish master blender Henrik Facile, is a blend of Batavia Arak with Demerara and Jamaican rums and spices. Like one of the classics of old that utilized this evocative historical spirit, Humphries modern take captures the essence in a way that will keep you coming back for one more sip. It’s definitely worth holding onto. Cheers!

A pair I'd like to clutch

Golden Handcuffs by Stuart Humphries
1 oz Plantation Pineapple Rum
1 oz Aperol
½ oz Swedish punsch
1 dash Angostura bitters
Garnish: Aleppo dusted orange wheel (or a namesake lemon twist)

For more from Lee Krasnow:

N.B. Special thanks to Lee Krasnow for his insights and reminiscence on the history of this special puzzle box. For those interested, keep an eye on Lee's Etsy shop and Instagram for future puzzles and plans Lee has been working on ... the Clutch Box might just be on the horizon.