Saturday, October 29, 2016

Separation Anxiety

One of the charming things about most Japanese puzzle boxes is that in general, they are usually not very difficult to solve.   They provide just enough mystery to be entertaining but not frustrating.  There is great pleasure in discovering the secret mechanism, and these boxes indulge that feeling by providing the right amount of deception to keep you guessing briefly and then rewarding you. They are like puzzle box candy. Naturally, if this is the expectation, there is always the exception, at least with Japanese puzzle boxes.  Eric Fuller is not Japanese, so these rules don’t apply to him – he prefers to make the exception the rule.  Which is to say, he delights in making his puzzle boxes extremely difficult to open.  And of course, we puzzle box partisans rejoice.   

The Spline Box 3 by Eric Fuller

One of his design concepts involves the wood joinery detail known as a “spline”.  These accents can provide stability and strength to joints or simply add a decorative touch.  He has created a few puzzle boxes which incorporate these details in different ways.  Each is a wooden cube adorned with splines at each corner.  The “Spline Box 3”, the third in the series, has been a notoriously difficult puzzle to open.  I spent about a year and a half working on it, off and on, with no luck, convinced that it no longer functioned properly (damned Houston humidity), until very recently it finally yielded up its secrets (humidity be damned).  I had even deduced correctly how it worked and what was required, but even so, a year and a half.  There are plenty of collectors out there who have never opened their copy.  The mechanism is so specific, and the woodworking so precise, that the solution will elude you if you are even a fraction off the mark.  Eric envisioned it would be this way, and perhaps he succeeded better than he imagined.  I believe people have even sent their box back to him thinking it must be defective, only to have him send it back, assuring them that he opened it just fine, and that they are merely deficient.  I added that last part – now that I have opened mine I can poke fun at other people.  So if you really want to torture yourself, give the Spline Box 3 a try.  Just be sure to have a few Japanese puzzle boxes handy to ease your nerves now and then.

Gratuitous interior photo with no spoilers - it really does open!!

This puzzle was so difficult to open, and took so long, you might say it gave me some serious “separation anxiety”.  It tested my motto that “a good cocktail isn’t puzzling, but a good puzzle might just make you need one”.  So let’s indulge that sentiment, shall we?  This time of year is great for bourbon and autumn flavors.  The Lion’s Tail is a perfect classic cocktail for the season.  It features allspice liqueur (also called "pimento dram", because allspice is the dried berry of the pimenta dioica tree, not because it has anything to do with red peppers, of course, but I digress) which evokes flavors of allspice, cinnamon, clove and cardamom in a rum base.  Delicious but potent - a little goes a long way.  Add that to bourbon and lime for a very satisfying sip which first appeared in the "Cafe Royal Cocktail Book" by William J. Tarling in 1937.  To "twist the lion's tail" was to act particularly "British", suggesting this cocktail was the result of a prohibition era London-based expatriate, or so the prevailing theory goes.  

The "Separation Anxiety"

With the Spline 3 taunting us, rather than allspice liqueur, I substituted Besamim, an unusual spirit which is infused with a mixture of similar spice flavors including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.  Besamim (which means “spice”) is associated with the “Havdalah” ceremony which symbolizes “separation” – the word Havdalah translates as “separation”.  How could I not use a liqueur which symbolizes "separation" in a puzzle paired cocktail?  Besamim liqueur is made by the same artisanal distillery (Sukkah Hill Spirits) which created Etrog liqueur, another very unusual flavor that I featured in the Harvest Highball.  Let this Lion's Tail variation, which I call the “Separation Anxiety” cocktail, calm your nerves as you attempt to separate the Spline Box 3, or any other of Eric Fuller’s devious designs! Cheers!

True to my motto, this puzzle deserves its own cocktail

Separation Anxiety: 

2 oz bourbon
½ oz Besamim liqueur (or use Allspice dram)
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz demerara syrup
2 Dashes Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Extremely frustrating puzzle box optional.

For Eric Fuller’s website see:

For prior Eric Fuller puzzles see:

For more information about Sukkah Hill Spirits see:

For the Harvest Highball see:

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