Saturday, February 25, 2017

Top Shelf

We’re celebrating a few luminaries this week at boxes and booze. Going all the way back to the origins of the Karakuri Creation Group, we have another puzzle box by the legendary Japanese artist Akio Kamei. In the early 1980’s Kamei began creating his unusual style of puzzle boxes, which pushed the boundaries of what had been done by the classically trained artisans for the past century. His designs often reflect the everyday form and function of common objects, with opening mechanisms which rely on how these objects would naturally be utilized in real life.  The results showcase his virtuoso skill as a woodworker and his clever mechanical mind.  

Top Box 3 by Akio Kamei

One of his earliest original designs was the “Top Box”, which he created in 1983.  This unassuming box was merely a square wooden box with a top – a two toned lid which would not come off. The top box was revolutionary in its design and mechanism, the likes of which had never before been seen.  Kamei said of his creation, “You can’t imagine the movement, because [it] has a common shape. If you can’t understand how to open it, you’ll never open it, even by chance.” He goes even further to say that trial and error won’t help – to open it requires “a flash of genius”. Over the years Kamei recreated a few of his boxes as “popular” editions.  In this case, Top Box 3, released in 2001, was a smaller version of the original (Top Box 2 was a companion to number 1, with a completely different opening mechanism).  Like the original, Top Box 3 is a square box with a lid, crafted in contrasting light and dark walnut and shina woods. It resembles a little “candy jar”, which is the name it was given in a subsequent mass produced reproduction run by the “Bits and Pieces” company.  There are a few classic moves which all puzzlers usually attempt when trying to open a new box. We have the Top Box to thank for one of those moves – his “flash of genius” remains as brilliant today and reminds us why he is the "top” man.

How do you open the top?!?

To toast this Top Box I need to take you on a little journey back to the turn of the twentieth century, when cocktails were still in their original, pre-prohibition heyday.  Harry Johnson, a legendary barman of historic significance, is cited as the inventor of the Bijou, a thoroughly modern creation at that time which first appeared in Johnson’s 1900 edition of his Bartender’s Manual.  Swanky clientele who frequented the posh hotel bars of New York and Boston wanted sophisticated European flavors, and the Bijou provided with Italian vermouth and herbal Chartreuse combined with gin and a dash of orange bitters. Johnson was quite literally expanding the “color palette” of his cocktails in appearance and flavors, and created the Bijou to reflect these new tastes with three “gems”: gin for diamonds, sweet vermouth for rubies, and green Chartreuse for emeralds. He named it the Bijou, which is French for “jewel”.  The drink was immensely popular at the time and might be considered the “cosmopolitan” of the day.  

The Tailspin circa 1930

A very similar cocktail (practically identical) emerged a few decades later, named the “Tailspin”.  It first appears (as far as one can tell) in the 1936 edition of Mr. Boston’s DeLuxe Official Bartender’s Guide, and was essentially the Bijou with a different name.  This nonsense went on for some time, but eventually the Tailspin distinguished itself with the addition of a little Campari.  Two more luminaries merit mention ere we’re through with this tale.  Dale DeGroff, known fondly as “King Cocktail”, resurrected the Bijou in the 1980’s, around the time that Akio Kamei was creating his Top Box, for the newly reopened Rainbow Room in New York City, where the modern cocktail renaissance was reborn.  Not to be outdone, his friend and fellow vintage cocktail fanatic, Robert Hess, ensured the Tailspin’s survival with a contemporary spin – a rinse of Campari in the glass prior to adding the other ingredients.  Thus both classics survive today.  Here’s to new spins on old designs and keeping our passions on top – cheers!

A couple of classics


1 oz dry gin
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz green Chartreuse
1 barspoon Campari
Lemon peel

Coat a favorite glass with the Campari.  Stir the gin, vermouth and Chartreuse with ice and strain into the glass.  Express the lemon peel over the drink and garnish.

For more about Akio Kamei:

For prior Kamei puzzles see:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fangs Alot

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  An old saying which means, of course, appreciate what you were given, don’t be rude, be polite, say thank you.  Don’t pry open that old mare’s jaw and confirm your suspicion that this lovely looking stallion may not be what it appears – at least not right in front of the giver.  For example, let’s just suppose, hypothetically speaking, that you are thrilled and excited to have received an exclusive hand crafted wooden box from a puzzle maker who only makes a few of each design and only gives them to lucky recipients as gifts. It would be very rude, don’t you think, to appear anything but thankful, even if, hypothetically speaking, you have this nagging, sinking suspicion that maybe, just possibly, you aren’t completely, exactly “lucky” – maybe that wouldn’t necessarily be the perfect word. But it would be impolite to look that gift horse in the mouth, I know. In the case of the “Viper”, a new box from Shane Hales, you can’t really look inside anyway – he’s gone and covered the openings with a brush curtain which blocks the view.  

Viper by Shane Hales

Viper is an unassuming little rectangular box with a hole in each end and a dark provenance which forces one to contemplate the depths of one’s own puzzle psychology. How badly do you really need to solve this?  Why not just leave it alone? Haven’t you heard about the prior lives this has claimed?  But it seems so gentle, a little box with some holes. What could be the harm? Of course, the holes are covered, so you can’t see inside.  There’s some notion that something opens, but there’s nothing to be done outside the box besides rattle whatever it is inside making the noise. Doing this seems to upset the Viper, which makes a sort of hissing sound at this point. Definitely not an inviting sort of situation which would make you particularly excited about sticking your body parts into the holes, although this seems to be the direction things are going. The only other really good option is to leave the puzzle sitting out for your spouse and let her take the bait – unfortunately she’s not interested in puzzles. Hmmm, what about the children? Yes, they’re resilient, and not paying rent … Not a bad idea, but what if one of them died? She would never forgive you. 

Face the dark hole of destiny

Damn it, ultimately there’s nothing left to do but follow Shane’s hale advice (see what I did there?) and stick your fingers inside the holes. He points this out in the letter which accompanies the box. In fact he says that you have to stick your fingers in the box, and that you should stop being a wimp. Yes, but of course he’s going to say that – he wants you to suffer! Perhaps I should have taken the “caution”, “live cargo” and “this end up” warning stickers on the international packaging more seriously.  But I’m so trusting.  At least I’ve lived to tell the tale. So none of you has to suffer the same bloody finger fate.  Unless you’re all fools. Beware. What’s worse, Shane leaves an extra surprise inside “to help” you – only, it’s an empty, empty promise.  I’m typing with one hand, by the way. Shane. So now it’s my turn to get you back. I’m curious to know why you seem to be obsessed with sticking things into dark holes, hmmm? Yes, you say you were inspired by Stephen Chin’s Mouse House, or at least you hint at it, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say something scandalous. You got stuck in a Chinese finger torture toy as a child, didn’t you?

Lest you forget your tormentor

Bravery rewards you and eventually, after losing a few fingers and some other pointy bits, you might even manage to open this dangerously clever puzzle box. You probably could use a drink, and possibly a transfusion.  I took some inspiration for this toast from a classic concoction called the Snakebite, which you may know is half lager, half hard cider.  Go ahead and pour yourself one of those while I get some bandages.  

The Viper

There’s also a lesser known Snakebite combination of honey whiskey plus Rose’s lime cordial which is served as a shot in finer establishments.  I turned that into a bona fide cocktail, using bourbon and honey-lime cordial.  I added a splash of blood orange juice for good measure (it was actual blood the first time I made it, thank you Shane).  I call it, the Viper.  It’s dangerously delicious.  Here’s to clever bastards, crafty craftsmen, dangerous delights, and bloody good gifts.  Thank you Shane, I raise my glass to you (with 3 fingers). Cheers!

This pair is bloody good 

The Viper
2 oz bourbon
1/2 oz honey-lime cordial
¾ oz fresh lime juice
1/4 of blood orange juice
Orange peel viper garnish

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Twirl the viper around the glass and hang the head over the side.  Blood (orange) drops for extra gruesome effect.

For more about Shane Hales:

For prior Halespuzzles reviews:

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Heart Shaped Box

To love, that power of the universe, in all its forms and frames.  Last year for Valentine’s Day, I explored the likely origins of this commercialized holiday, with a slightly cynical eye.  If that wasn’t enough, I even objectified it completely into mathematical geometrical formulas.  You might have enjoyed my observations, they were rather entertaining.  But don’t get the wrong idea from all that, I’m really a sentimental fool.  To prove it, I’ll embrace this year’s Valentine’s Day full on, with the perfect puzzle box and love potion pairing.  There’s no chance you won’t be smitten.

Valentine's Day by Tatsuo Miyamoto

There are many heart-shaped puzzle boxes to choose from, including the Love Box No. 5 by Akio Kamei which I featured this time last year.  Tatsuo Miyamoto, another long-time Karakuri Creation Group artist, has also created a few such boxes, but he even went so far as to name his most recent one the “Valentine’s Day” box.  So of course, that’s the one we need to discuss.  How could we not? Not only is it a heart shaped box, but it has an adorable motif as well.  Two lovers (one reddish, one brownish – we are not going to gender assign or stereotype here) adorn the top of the box, separate but yearning to do whatever it is these lovers wish to do.  If you could only help them, the universe will reward them, and you, with its secrets.  Secret compartments, at any rate.  The Valentine’s Day box was the “Waku Waku” prize winner of the 7th annual Karakuri Idea Contest, based on an original idea by Mineo Kumagai which was brought to life by Miyamoto.  “Waku waku” translates roughly as the feeling of being happy or excited.  I have to agree, this box is so cute, and makes you happy.

A secret love ...

Now, what would be just the absolute, most perfect potion pairing for this Valentine’s Day puzzle box?  I’ll spare you the suspense, since we’re all about the happy feelings right now, and introduce you to this cocktail, created by Brad Farran and featured in the Death and Company Modern Classic Cocktails book. 

The Heart-shaped Box by Brad Farran

The “Heart-shaped Box” is perfectly named and hits all the right notes for this holiday.  It’s built around cognac, which is rather elegant, and sweetened with strawberry (naturally), elderflower liqueur (how romantic) and cinnamon syrup (exotic, too).  Lemon juice brightens the mix, but not enough to let things go sour.  Finally a little secret ingredient, balsamic vinegar, really ties it all together in a sophisticated manner, and elevates this drink from superficial flirtation to complicated true love.  I’ve even created a little citrus cupid to go with the drink, made from lemon, lime and blood orange peels, with a brandied cherry noggin. If that doesn’t make you smile, go get yourself a hug, in a hurry. This Valentine’s Day, don’t be puzzled by love – it’s not something you need to solve, anyway. Here’s a toast to the ones we love – our friends, our family.  Cheers!

Open your heart to these heart shaped boxes
Wine comes in at the mouth, and love comes in at the eye; That's all we shall know for truth, before we grow old and die. I lift the glass to my mouth, I look at you, and I sigh.
-          William Butler Yeats

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind”

Heart-shaped Box by Brad Farran

1 ripe strawberry
2 oz cognac
¾ oz elderflower liqueur
¾ oz lemon juice
¼ oz cinnamon syrup
½ tsp aged balsamic vinegar
1 dash Angostura bitters

Muddle the strawberry in a shaker tin, then add remaining ingredients and shake with ice. Double strain into a favorite glass filled with crushed ice and garnish with another strawberry. Drink as many as required to find true love.

 For more about Tatsuo Miyamoto:

For last year’s Valentine’s Day offerings including the chocolate negroni:

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Let the Good Times Reuleaux

The Luddite's Mill by Thomas Cummings

Some might consider the love of hand-made, intricate wooden puzzle boxes to be old fashioned, and point to all the mind bending, eye popping software and technology in the world.  I’m not out to avoid or even destroy anything new, and in fact I adore new tech as much as I love the old school crafts.  So you could hardly call me a Luddite, but I’d like to appreciate one now.   Thomas Cummings produces his unique style of puzzle boxes under his Eden Workx label, turning reclaimed and recycled wood and brass into tricky little boxes.  Each of his puzzles features a distinctive mechanism, with rotating, sliding or shifting parts, magnets, and usually a sly deception in the end. 

An intricately carved Reuleaux adorns the top

His “Luddite’s Mill” box may be the most unusual yet.  The lid features a lovely curved triangular piece with beautiful carved details set into an elliptical groove.  There is also a brass rod protruding from the front, which doesn’t want to move.  Give the triangle a little push and it pivots on its axis in an eccentric sort of motion around the inside of the ellipse.  If you are particularly mechanical or engineering minded, you might recognize this construction as a “Wankel engine”, designed in 1929 by Felix Wankel as an efficient way to convert pressure into rotary motion, and still present in a few automobiles today.  Cummings has created a puzzle version, complete with the special three sided piece known as a “Reuleaux triangle”.  A Reuleaux triangle is constructed by rounding the sides of an equilateral triangle, and represents the central shared space created by three equally overlapping identical circles.  There are loads of interesting mathematical properties to be found in the Reuleaux, the most notable of which is its constant width between parallel supporting lines.  All of this makes for a fascinating and confusing puzzle mechanism, and it gets worse once the entire lid of the box starts to spin as well.  You’ll be going around in circles, or ellipses, or perhaps even epitrochoids before you crack the lid on this one.

Things really start spinning out of control ...

The Reuleaux triangle presents a nice opportunity for a “spin” on a classic three-part cocktail.  The Negroni is one of those acquired taste cocktails that can set you apart from the vodka martini crowd if you want to act pretentious and impress your fellow puzzlers.  It may be obvious by the number of Negroni variations I’ve featured on these pages, but I love them. It’s just so easy to play with the basic formula of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, and the classic proportions are equal parts for all three ingredients, so pretty much any measuring device or container will serve you.  

The Reuleaux cocktail

For the “Reuleaux Negroni” I really pushed the envelope – anchoring it with a base of mezcal and adding a few unusual items.  For the vermouth, I used Cocchi Americano, a crisp and citrusy aperitif with flavors of cinchona (quinine) and for the amaro I used Meletti, a lesser known alternative to Campari.  Meletti is unique as an amaro due to the prominent use of saffron in its flavor profile, and it is often described as caramel-y or chocolate-y.  I love the bright orange notes as well.  It really shines in this combination, but if you don’t have Meletti try Campari or Aperol instead.  Stir things up and let the good times reuleaux!  Cheers!

Take this pair for a spin!

Reuleaux Negroni:

1 oz Mezcal
1 oz Cocchi Americano
1 oz Meletti Amaro

Stir with ice to blend and dilute, then strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with a generous expressed orange peel and let the wheels in your brain start spinning.

For Thomas Cummings’ Eden Workx shop:
For prior puzzles by Thomas Cummings:

For more Negroni variations see: