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:

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