Saturday, September 28, 2019

Hammer Time

“It’s better to be the hammer than the anvil.” – Emily Dickinson

Where's My Hammer by Dee Dixon

It’s always cause for celebration when a new puzzle box artist emerges in the world. Boise, Idaho’s metropolitan area is known as the “Treasure Valley”, and now there’s one more reason for the name. Dee Dixon is a truck supervisor at an excavation company and has a small workshop in his garage where he creates his beautiful boxes. He started out making small keepsake boxes and other items over the past few years. He also made puzzle boxes and gave them as gifts until recently, when his wife Denise encouraged him to put some up for sale. His boxes are all made from beautiful exotic hardwoods and feature elegant little details that differ on each box. From the outside, most of his boxes look like lovely hand crafted keepsake boxes, and the unsuspecting puzzler might assume there is a simple, well known mechanism at play, maybe one of the handful of well-known and familiar devices. But Dee’s boxes are all different. He makes each one individually and each is unique. He will occasionally recreate a mechanism, or improve one, and has started to name his boxes accordingly (e.g. “Blinded” and “Blinded II”). If you manage to open one, you will be met with a complex collection of wood, metal and acrylic parts inside, with a range of fairly simple to devilishly complex devices in the style of sequential movement and sequential discovery puzzles.

A gorgeous mosaic of exotic wood details

“Where’s My Hammer” is one of Dee’s newest boxes, and one of his most striking. It features several types of hardwoods including leopard wood, sapele, tiger wood, black walnut, maple, and blood wood, arranged as a mosaic across the top and sides of the box. There are beautiful mitered corners with maple key accents. The box alone is a work of art, but the puzzling aspect makes it particularly appealing. This is a 7-step sequential discovery puzzle box, with well-hidden secrets and a clever combination of items to find and use to open it. Dee’s oldest son is one if his puzzle testers, who can usually open his boxes and suggest a difficulty rating. This box caused so much frustration that his son declared, “Where’s my hammer!” That endorsement alone ought to pique the interest of most of my readers. I don’t usually talk about my own personal solving experience, but in this case it’s a funny story. I was sure that I had solved the puzzle completely, and had some critiques on how to make it perfect. I sent them to Dee, and he politely suggested that I was on the right track. It turned out that the puzzle worked exactly as I had envisioned, I just hadn’t solved it yet. Where’s My Hammer is a fantastic puzzle box. It was then that I realized that Dee will be very popular, and very busy with orders. I suspect he’s just getting started with some great ideas.

The Hammer Highball

I’m toasting this brilliant box with a variation on the classic highball. The highball is a great example of how a few simple ingredients and a straightforward recipe can create something more than the sum of its parts. Whiskey and soda, a time honored working man’s drink that’s also the height of elegance and precision. The story, which any truly great cocktail must have, attributes the “invention” of the highball to Patrick Gavin Duffy, bartender at Manhattan’s Ashland House in the 1890’s. Putting whiskey, ice and soda (or ginger ale) together was not a thing people did back then, until then. A highball was a railroad term for the ball connected to a float inside a steam train’s water tank,that indicated when there was enough water in the tank for the train to head out. The conductor would signal the all clear with two short and one long blast on his horn. That’s the classic ratio in a highball – two short of whiskey, one long of soda. The highball faded from fashion in the US after a time, but was picked up by the Japanese, who refined it to a sharp point in the 1920’s when whiskey production began to take off in Japan. Like a tea ceremony, building a proper Japanese highball involves meticulous attention to details such as the glass, the ice, the temperature, even the number of times the drink is stirred.

The only Hammer you should use on this box

Highballs are back in fashion again. Modern day bartenders can argue all night long about the proper ingredients, ratios, and build technique in a good highball. They are a fantastic and refreshing way to enjoy a whiskey, or any other type of spirit, on a hot summer afternoon. I’ve created a warm and savory variation on the theme, to extend the pleasure of this long drink into the cooler months. This highball is built around the peaty single malt Lagavulin, an incredible scotch probably best enjoyed neat, but let’s make things interesting. To that end I’ve infused the scotch with some seriously decadent bacon using the standard fat-wash technique to create some smoky, bacon-y goodness. Maybe I’m just hamming around here, but it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s a damn fine drink to enjoy while looking around for a hammer to use on this puzzle box. Cheers!

The Hammer Highball

1-2 oz bacon infused Lagavulin (1 oz is modern, 2 oz is classic)
4 oz soda water
4 dashes celery bitters

Build ingredients over ice in a highball glass. Stir slowly 12 times for luck. If you want to be really pompous, stir the whiskey, bitters and ice first to chill then pour the soda water down the length of the stirring spoon.

For more information and to order Dee Dixon’s boxes see:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Good as Gold

“Notice that autumn is more the season of the soul than of nature.” – Friederich Nietzsche

The Golden Ratio Box by Peter Wiltshire

Autumn is upon us again. Which means, this year, it’s time for some mathematics! Let’s contemplate ratios for a moment – specifically, when two quantities have a ratio that is equal to the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. In other words, for a>b>0, when a+b/a = a/b.   Sometimes referred to as φ (phi), this ratio can be solved by the quadratic equation x2 – x – 1 = 0 and has a value of 1.618 …. (I could go on, but let’s not be irrational.) It may not be a number as familiar, famous or “easy as pi”, but phi has fame far reaching and ubiquitous throughout nature, history, art, architecture, culture and aesthetics. You might say it has a golden provenance.

There's something so pleasing about the proportions ...

This magical ratio, the “Golden Ratio”, was also the inspiration for one of the wonderful creations from Canadian cinematographer, magician and woodworker Peter Wiltshire. The box is beautifully crafted from Roasted Birdseye Maple and features ribbons of Paduak wood wrapping all around – in a perfect ratio, of course. Curly Maple lines the well hidden internal compartments (four in total), and the box requires nine to ten moves to reveal all of its secrets. The box is incredibly pleasing to look at, because the overall size, and the subsections created by the ribbon, are all proportioned in the Golden Ratio, which has been considered to be perfectly pleasing throughout the ages. The stunning choice of woods doesn’t hurt either. Peter typically likes to design his puzzles the old fashioned way, with pencil and grid paper. But for this box, he knew he wanted to incorporate the Golden Ratio exactly, so used a computer in the planning for the first time. More specifically the box is a Golden Rectangle. If such a rectangle is divided by a line into a square plus a smaller rectangle, the resultant smaller rectangle is also … a Golden Rectangle. Keep going, and going, and a Golden Spiral is created, like a nautilus shell. The puzzle box employs a highly unusual and unexpected mechanism to keep its secrets, while at the same time being an homage to the traditional Japanese puzzle box. Most who experience it find it to be … golden! Peter received a “top ten” vote award for the box at the 14th annual Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.

Fibonacci in Autumn by Paul MacDonald

To toast the Golden Ratio box we need to continue along the mathematical theme, and introduce another famous construct “discovered” by a thirteenth century Italian fellow with a preoccupation for rabbit reproduction. He put the theoretical sequence of rabbit population expansion down on paper, explaining how it followed a pattern where each subsequent rabbit pair would be the sum of the prior two. Starting at 1 the “Fibonacci” sequence is: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 etc …. Unbeknownst to Fibonacci, this sequence is directly related to the Golden Ratio. Dividing each number in the sequence by the prior number quickly approaches a certain ratio as follows: 1/1 = 1, 2/1 = 2, 3/2 = 1.5, 5/3 = 1.666…, 8/5 = 1.6,  etc.. The ratio of the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence are an ever closer approximation of the Golden Ratio.

A surprising mix of diverse spirits

Whew! We deserve a drink after all that math. There was actually a point to introducing the Fibonacci sequence here, and we are getting to it now. Philadelphia mixologist and head bartender at Friday Saturday Sunday Paul MacDonald has a few claims to fame. One of them is his invention of the “Fibonacci Cocktail”. Cocktails in general rely on certain proper ratios of spirit, citrus, sweetener and modifying agents to make a well balanced drink. Ratios such a 2:1:1, 1:1:1, 8:2:1 and others are part of the canon. MacDonald thought he could extend the idea to incorporate a Fibonacci ratio, using his ingredients in a 1:1:2:3:5 proportion. It makes a lot of sense for cocktails too, and he has come up with a “number” of fantastic drinks which showcase the concept.

A beautiful array of flavors and colors, like fall foliage, in the perfect ratio

One of my favorites is his Fibonacci in Autumn, and I’ve been waiting for months to feature this drink. The time has come! The five ingredients used, in a Golden ratio, are Cocchi Americano, Cappeletti Aperitivo, Laird’s 100 Apple Brandy, Green Chartreuse and Amaro Nardini. The flavors build from lighter in flavor profile to heavier, and are balanced by cutting the volume of the richer, darker and more potent flavors as the sequence progresses. There is a lot going on here, with two Italian Amari, the intensely herbal liqueur Chartreuse, and the aromatic infused Cocchi, anchored by a sturdy apple brandy. But, as expected, it works in a harmoniously golden way. I managed to substitute a few like-minded spirits from my cabinet – Amaro Averna for the Nardini, and Meletti for the Cappeletti – and everything still worked perfectly. It’s an incredibly delicious drink, a perfect fall sip and a stunning crowd pleaser that’s sure to impress your guests. Especially if you set it all up separately and then mix it all together. Here’s to the golden days of autumn. Cheers!

I have an irrational fondness for this pair

Fibonacci in Autumn by Paul MacDonald

¼ oz Amaro Nardini
¼ oz Green Chartreuse
½ oz Laird’s 100 Apple Brandy
¾ oz Cappeletti Aperitivo
1 ¼ oz Cocchi Americano

Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a perfectly proportioned citrus spiral.
To follow Paul MacDonald's cocktail creations:

For more from Peter Wiltshire:
Wheels in Motion
Business as Usual

N.B. Many thanks to AS for the use of his lovely puzzle box

Saturday, September 14, 2019


What’s Up, Doc? I’m dialing back into the Japanese Zodiac, all the way to 2011, the Year of the Rabbit. Currently we are in the Year of the Pig, but I promised not to make political jokes here (don’t be such a Boar). Shiro Tajima, former Karakuri Creation Group artist gone solo rogue puzzle maker, created a clever animal series of puzzle boxes based on the signs of the Japanese Zodiac. He made it through nine of the animals, some of which I have featured here before (the Rat (mouse), the Ox (cow), the Tiger, the Rabbit (this one!), the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep and the Monkey) and has theoretical plans to someday complete the set of the three remaining (the Rooster, the Dog and the Boar).

Magic Hat by Shiro Tajima

The Year of the Rabbit is one of Tajima’s most recognizable and adorable creations. I know it’s a fan favorite for many as there is a significant overlap between puzzle lovers and magicians, and Tajima’s “Magic Hat” bridges the two worlds nicely. It depicts the not-so-clever Baron Rabbit, who has gotten himself stuck half in and half out of the Magician’s Hat. His poor little front paws are barely sticking out, and his lower section is all but lost. At least he’s dressed appropriately, in his fine evening jacket. If you can help set him free and open the puzzle box, you might just get to see the rest of him, and be relieved that he hasn’t actually been cut in half. The puzzle is beautifully crafted from Katsura and Walnut, with what appears to be Redheart or Paduak for the jacket. It has a clever and fun mechanism which is quite dynamic and enjoyable.

Bad hair day?

To toast this magic rabbit we’ll tip our hats to the trendy new Peruvian inspired rooftop restaurant Cabra, Chicago’s new “cevicheria” where imbibers can soak in the views at the sensational bar. Lee Zaremba, the well-known Chicago mixologist and Head Bartender from Billy Sunday, helms the new bar and has come up with a summer stunner that’s just right for this pairing.

Cabra-Cada-Bra by Lee Zaremba

He does a little trick here with bourbon, which is always a great place to start, and creates a drink so delicious it will instantly disappear. The secret lies in the lip smacking fresh strawberry cordial which shines as the magician’s assistant and will misdirect you completely. To that he adds the alluring Cocchi Rosa aperitif and … abra-cadabra … the rest is simply magic. Cheers!

Strawberry delight

Cabra-Cada-Bra by Lee Zaremba

1 oz bourbon
1 oz Cocchi Rosa
¾ oz strawberry cordial
¾ oz egg white
½ oz fresh lime

Shake without ice then with to chill and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a few drops of aromatic bitters, or a wily rabbit in a hat.

Strawberry cordial:
1 cup fresh strawberry, tops removed, sliced. 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 lime zest. Combine ingredients and simmer over low heat until sugar has dissolved. Add lime zest and let cool. Strain through mesh and refrigerate for up to seven days.

This pair is magical

For more about Shiro Tajima see:
Monkey Business
Pooh Corner

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Born Supremacy

I’m going to let you in on a secret. But only if you promise to keep it, which I know is self-evidently hypocritical, but nonetheless. I’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy writing about one of Jesse Born’s new designs, because his name lends itself to clever wordplay. But this time, I’m going to let his work speak for itself – to tell you its own secret.

Secretum Cista by Jesse Born

Let’s begin with the name. The provenance of the name, “Secretum Cista”, is rather auspicious and steeped in mystery. From the Latin, “Secretum” has many translations, notably “secret seal”, or more simply just “secret”. But the name is associated with the “Secreta Secretorum”, the Secret Book of Secrets purportedly written by Aristotle to his pupil Alexander the Great and covering a host of elevated topics ranging from statecraft to the supernatural. The second part of the name, “Cista”, translates from the Latin to “basket”, or “box”, or in this case, “chest”. Secret Chest. There were other potential names, also derived from Latin, that Jesse was considering, but these shall remain a secret. You never know what other secret chests the future may hold.

Exquisite details like this "Tetris" yosegi and drawer with curved sides

Jesse was not thinking about creating a puzzle chest, and was initially resistant to the idea suggested to him by puzzle chest lover Matt Dawson. But as the idea infused his psyche, he decided to do what all successful visionaries know they must do – rise to the challenge. Jesse has an ambitious mind, full of creative ideas. He knew it would be difficult, but to his credit he didn’t waver. He met obstacles, set-backs, delays and design challenges. Each step was a new learning experience. In the end, he has created a masterpiece, so the journey was worth the effort.

Stunning ancient Mango wood, and inner drawer liners that hide secret mechanisms

His chest is simply stunning. It has layers upon layers to discover, marvel at, appreciate and enjoy. It is a woodworker’s show piece and a puzzle lover’s puzzle chest. The chest sits twenty inches high and weighs close to fifty pounds – it’s a solid piece of furniture. There are eighteen drawers awaiting exploration, each with a delicate hand turned Katalox drawer pull. The case is made from lustrous Wenge which emits a handsome warm sheen, and has raised through dovetail joints at the corners which lend a polished yet rustic feel. Each drawer is made from multiple types of wood. Some have surprising shapes on the inside, and all have an extra wood lining for additional elegance. On the top row, the drawer fronts are of Holly, with bespoke ribbons of Purpleheart and Wenge mosaic inlay using Jesse’s “Tetris” pattern – look closely and the classic shapes can be discerned. Inside, the Purpleheart drawers are curved on the sides and have a Poplar wood lining. The second row has two-hundred year old aged Mango wood fronts, Paduak drawers, and Cherry lining. The remaining rows all have Mahogany drawers and fronts which highlight the beautiful wood grain. Slightly darker Mahogany was used to offset the bottom row fronts. Inside, the third row has a Walnut lining, the fourth row has a Bloodwood lining, and the fifth row has a Red Oak lining. The bottom (sixth) row is unique in that the inner drawers are hexagonal, with Purpleheart sides and a Katalox lining. The hidden beauty of each drawer is one of the many treasures awaiting inside.

This drawer is key ...

Each and every drawer in the chest is locked with an individual and unique secret mechanism, except for one. In the center of the chest is a Wenge drawer with an Oak circle. Pull on it, and the circle is revealed to be a solid Wenge cylinder, albeit with six empty sockets. What is this strange cylinder, with its empty sockets? Its central placement, at the heart of the chest, is more than metaphor. The chest is a metapuzzle, and the cylinder will be key to the solution before the final locked drawer can be opened and the puzzle completed. Some of the chest drawers are locked with independent mechanisms, and can be opened at any time, while some require the opening of other drawers first, in a linked sequential interplay. The full name of the chest, The Secretum Cista Mechanical Puzzle Chest, gives some hint into how many of the drawers are unlocked through actual mechanical movements within the chest. Another incredible addition to the design is discovered when the chest is turned around. Jesse has placed a glass back on the chest, allowing the inner workings to be visualized. A complex mechanical marvel crafted in colorful exotic wood awaits the observer, providing insights into how certain drawers might open but no clues as to how this might be accomplished. Once solved, however, the mechanisms come to life. Watching the workings move as the drawers are activated is magical.

The glass back allows a view of the magic

The chest is a treasure hunt. Opening each drawer serves a purpose, whether to whet the appetite for what is in store, to allow access to another drawer further along, to hide a tool which may be needed to solve a future puzzle, or to hide one of the master keys. It provides a wonderful journey with a mix of challenges that range from simply subtle to deviously difficult. The endgame is a perfect motivator to keep one going, and is immensely satisfying to complete, but the journey is the true pleasure. Secretum Cista is the stuff of legends.

Every row has a unique drawer composition with surprising details

Toasting a puzzle chest of this magnitude requires more than one drink. I’m not suggesting thirteen separate cocktails like I made to celebrate another legendary vessel, the Apothecary Chest, which is actually thirteen individual puzzles, after all. No, I’ve got something else in mind. The Secretum Cista is a single puzzle chest, self-contained, by one individual artist. But it does require the discovery of six essential keys. Yes, here is where we will need to introduce more than one drink. For assistance we will turn to the classic tome “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” by David Embury, 1948.

The Six Essential Cocktails of David Embury

I have a natural affinity for David Embury and his famous cocktail book. Embury was never a professional bartender and never worked in the spirits industry. He was a senior tax attorney in a Manhattan law firm and had a prominent and successful career. He also loved to make cocktails, and published, on the side, an encyclopedic volume of the twenty-first century cocktail which has become part of the classic cocktail cannon. A signed first edition of his book can fetch well more than the cost of a new puzzle chest. He insisted that there were six essential cocktails, to be known and loved, if one were to be taken seriously as an aficionado:  the Daiquiri, the Jack Rose, the Manhattan, the Martini, the Old Fashioned, and the Side Car. All other cocktails, in his estimation, are merely variations on the theme of these basics. Embury was also famous for placing all cocktails into two categories, either aromatic or sour, and for his formula of base spirit, “modifying agent”, and “special flavoring and coloring agent” in a strict 8:2:1 ratio. This ratio makes for very dry drinks with very prominent alcohol dominance, and has been adjusted accordingly over the years for modern palates and balance. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this exact proportion for these drinks now. But I present these essentials here in their classic form and ratio, in the true spirit of the game. Six keys for six keys, may they unlock all the wonders in the world. Cheers!

Hmmm, I could use some help here. Any takers?

Six Drinks from The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David Embury, 1948

N.B. All drinks to be shaken or stirred as noted with lots of ice to chill and strained into an appropriate glass.

The Daiquiri
8 parts white Cuban rum
2 parts lime juice
1 part simple syrup
Shaken, no garnish

The Jack Rose
8 parts Applejack
2 parts lemon
1 part grenadine
Shaken, twist of lemon

The Manhattan
5 parts American whiskey
1 part Italian sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
Stirred, maraschino cherry

The Martini
7 parts English gin
1 part French dry vermouth
Stirred, lemon twist or olive

The Old Fashioned
12 parts American whiskey
1 part simple syrup
1-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Specifically: Stir syrup and bitters in the glass, add about 1 oz of the whiskey and stir again, add two cubes of cracked ice and top with the remaining whiskey. Lemon twist and maraschino cherry.

The Side Car
8 parts Cognac
2 parts lemon
1 part Cointreau
Shaken, lemon twist

For more about Jesse Born see:

Natural Born
Born Again
Victorian Age