Saturday, July 29, 2017

Diamond Sounds

It’s always a treat to discuss one of Kagen Sound’s fine boxes.  He has made a reputation for himself as one of the world’s foremost puzzle box makers.  The description doesn’t quite do justice to his work.  His designs are an evolution of his background in mathematics, and he identifies himself as a mathematician who has channeled that intellectual pursuit into his wood working.  But he is also a formidable master craftsman recognized by his peers around the globe for his skill.  His creations achieve the pinnacle of quality and beauty and can be admired for their form alone as objects of art.  Yet they contain delightful, logical, and often mesmerizing movement within them, to actualize their purpose, and “open”. 

Diamond Box by Kagen Sound

Kagen Sound’s name is also tied to his work and life ethos.  He and his wife changed their last names together when they married, choosing a word which reflects their character and the quality of their life’s work.  It’s a beautiful daily affirmation.  I can see it in the Diamond Box, a true diamond in many ways.  The puzzle box is as elegant as you would expect from this artist, crafted from gorgeous figured west coast big leaf maple and walnut.  It features an ebony diamond centered on the lid, showing through a patterned window.  The box shimmers with the finished polish typically reserved for fine musical instruments.  Playing this instrument takes some practice as well, but once mastered, it sounds like a diamond.

The maker's mark

To toast this sound creation I present the Ruby Diamond, a cocktail created by Matt Ducker, a food and lifestyle multimedia editor and columnist, which combines two unlikely allies – gin and mezcal.  Classic cocktail contain a single “base spirit” – such as gin in your Martini, or rye whiskey in your Manhattan.  Modern mixologists began to combine base spirits in a single drink a while back, producing interesting and unusual results.  Some combinations work better than others, and some just seem like a bad idea – at least in theory.  Gin and Mezcal, surprisingly, work incredibly well together, creating complex layers of flavorful interplay.  The drink is essentially a sour with these unusual base spirits, plus a healthy dose of Italian Amaro to make things truly interesting.  Ducker’s recipe calls for Cappelletti, similar to Campari but less sweet, and I used Meletti, again like Camapari but more complex with added flavors of grapefruit and saffron.  The drink is delicious – a diamond in the rough.

Ruby Diamond by Matt Ducker

Why pair the Diamond Box, with its ebony diamond, with the Ruby Diamond cocktail?  Once you solve the puzzle, and can open the lid, the ebony diamond changes to a vibrant pink ivory in a magical transformation.  It’s a brilliant touch from the master maker.  And that would be that, and it would be enough, if you’re not paying attention.  That’s all I’ll say for now.  Except to say that a secret box with a hidden secret of its own is a diamond indeed.  Cheers!

Two Diamonds in the rough

Ruby Diamond by Matt Ducker

1 ½ ounces gin
1 ½ ounces mezcal
¾ ounce Cappelletti (I used Meletti)
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice

¼ ounce fresh orange juice

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with diamonds and rubies.  Sound nice?

For more about Kagen Sound:

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Side Notes

I’ve been meaning to feature this little box for a while, as a way to say thanks.  The box in turn was a thank you gift from the maker, Tracy Clemons, who sent it as a companion piece to the original “Writer’s Block”.  I wrote about that incredible box quite a while ago now, calling it the ultimate “Boxes and Booze” box (an honor also bestowed on Kamei’s Whiskey Bottle, of course).  The Writer’s Block is a seriously large and sturdy piece from Clemons which resembles a hefty chest. On the front it has an imposing wooden padlock keeping it all closed up tight.  To start, you must discover hidden tools which are helpful in picking that lock.  Once released, the box opens along a diagonal hinge to reveal that it is a functional writing desk, with two separate compartments which are, of course, locked.  There’s a lot more to discover and the erstwhile writer is eventually rewarded with something to help loosen his tongue – there are two whiskey glasses and a bottle compartment (yes with a bottle stashed – did you seriously have to ask) secreted away inside.

Writer's Block 2 by Tracy Clemons

One detail I never mentioned about that box was how it arrived the first time I received it from Tracy.  As stated, it’s very large and heavy.  The contents had shifted significantly and there was some damage to the box and internal contents. The padlock had snapped right off and the box was in two pieces.  A few other pieces had broken. One of the glasses had shattered.  Needless to say I was a bit disappointed.  The box was sent back and eventually returned, better than before and with some new improvements.  A few months later, something else arrived from Tracy - a little “Thanks for your patience, sorry that happened, and here’s a side piece to go with the original” gift.  

A traveling kit for when inspiration strikes while on the road ... or for when it fails to strike ...

Formally known as the “Writer’s Block 2”, this little wonder is also fondly called, at various times, the “ink blot”, the “traveler’s kit” and the “sidecar”.  It's small relative to its parent box, more the size of a standard puzzle box, and quite handsome.  With matching details and a similar design sense, the sidekick sidecar fits right in alongside the original.  On top sits a fountain pen, complete with metal nib.  The ink must be inside, obviously.  Only this is another Writer’s Block, so maybe not.  In fact there is a set of shot glasses hiding inside this clever companion piece.  The secret mechanism is wonderful as well, and perfectly ironic for the puzzle’s name.  No case of Writer’s Block would be complete now without this little bonus.

If only I could make this situation right ... err, write

I’ve also been meaning to write about another classic from the dawn of cocktails called the “Sidecar”, and this puzzle box has given me the perfect pairing opportunity.  The Sidecar is the fancy, evolved version of a prior original drink, the Brandy Crusta, which was invented in New Orleans in the mid nineteenth century by Joseph Santini.  It was then made famous by the “Professor” Jerry Thomas when he published the recipe in his 1868 cocktail book.  The Crusta elevated the cocktail game, which was typically a mix of spirits, sugar, water (ice) and bitters (i.e. the Old Fashioned), by adding some lemon juice and a sugared rim to a glass of brandy, curacao and bitters.  This was a turning point for cocktails and a leap forward, believe it or not.  If the Crusta was an evolved cocktail, the Sidecar was the refined finale.  Unlike the typical sidecar, which rides alongside the more prominent primary vehicle, the cocktail Sidecar stole the show.  The drink is of course almost identical, but as it came to life in Paris during the American Prohibition, it took on a more elegant and mystical air.  There, at the famous Harry’s New York Bar, it was made with cognac, and sweet orange Cointreau, along with the lemon juice.  The sugared rim acted as more than a flourish, providing an important additional component of sweetness essential to each sip.  The name, so the story goes, was for the Army captain who it was created for, who reportedly arrived to receive the tasty tipple in a motorcycle sidecar.  True story? Who knows.  It’s clear the drink existed as the Crusta long before the Sidecar showed up, but that’s the way the crusta crumbles.

Tantris Sidecar by Audrey Saunders

A classic sidecar would have been just fine for this pairing, but I felt like it needed, well, a little extra.  So I continued following the evolution and refinement of this drink into the current era.  Which brings us to one of the pioneering figures of the modern cocktail revival, a woman named Audrey Saunders.  Her Pegu Club bar set new standards when it opened in New York.  Through her exacting creative process she invented a handful of well known modern classics, including the “Tantris Sidecar”, an innovative and delicious update to the original.  This Sidecar once again improves on the original and takes center stage.

Calvados and Chartreuse plus a little pineapple make this sidecar take center stage 

Another apropos aside about the perfect pairing of the Writer’s Block 2 with the Sidecar pertains to the alternate meaning of the term sidecar in libation lingo.  The term was adopted by bartenders who would misjudge the amount of cocktail they were mixing, and have too much for the glass.  The extra would be poured into a shot glass and served alongside the main drink as a little bonus, a sidecar.  Some even suspect that this term is truly how the Sidecar cocktail got its name, too.  How perfect that the Writer’s Block 2, a true sidecar of a puzzle box, contains a set of shot glasses, just in case there’s a little extra liquid inspiration overflowing from the original box.  Here’s to the little extras in life – cheers!

These Sidecars are the main attraction

Tantris Sidecar by Audrey Saunders

1 ¼ oz. Cognac
½ oz. calvados
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup (1:1)
¼ oz. pineapple juice
¼ oz. green Chartreuse

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a sugar rimmed glass. Lemon peel garnish is traditional.  Make extra and add a little sidecar to your sidecar.

For more about Tracy Clemons:


For another Audrey Saunders modern classic cocktail:

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Born Again

Back from the Victorian Age where he got lost in a good book, returns American craftsman Jesse Born to his workshop in upstate New York.  You may recall his Victorian Book puzzle box, a beautiful and mysteriously ornate work full of secrets and surprises.  Emerging from that ancient era he has produced something rather logical – the “Sequence Logic” box.  A beautiful, polished box crafted from gorgeous exotic hardwoods including Katalox (Mexican Ebony), Tulip Poplar, Cherry, Maple and Bird’s Eye Maple, the Sequence Logic box is full of wonderful details both outside and in.  Most striking are the colorful banded dovetailed bars on the front, which are quickly determined to slide back and forth.  These seem to interact with the two sets of vertical bars which appear to be locking things in place.  Things start to happen as the various bars are moved, but it’s not so simple – as the name suggests, there’s a specific sequence to this logic which is required.  

Sequence Logic Box by Jesse Born

It’s all complex and confusing enough that once you have cracked this code and revealed the beautiful interior of the box, set it aside for some time and returned, you may struggle again to determine the sequence.  Even better, once the box is opened, there is a lovely mechanism inside which allows you to reset the bars however you would like to create a completely different sequence.  It’s a really nice touch and adds an additional element of enjoyment and layer of complexity to this incredible piece.  Jesse spends a long time designing his boxes and often goes through numerous prototypes before he is satisfied.  For the Sequence Logic box he created no fewer than six prototypes, for example, before settling on the final mechanism and design.  All that effort and attention to detail clearly show. 

Beautiful details and exotic woods with a polished finish

To toast this fine box I’ll stick to the sequence and offer something equally special.  The “Exit Strategy” comes via Natasha David of New York’s Nightcap, who took her inspiration from the classic Manhattan but left it far behind.  At Nightcap, Co-owners David Kaplan, Alex Day (both from Death and Co.) and David focus on simple, elegant drinks which would be great for a last call – even if the night is still young. The Exit Strategy embraces this idea right down to the name.  

Exit Strategy by Natasha David

Originally based around the unique American craft brandy Germain-Robin, I substituted another incredible American craft brandy from Nappa Valley Distillery.  The “Grand California” is an infusion of their wonderful Sauvignon grape brandy with locally sourced orange peels, which is then aged to perfection in oak barrels.  The mixture of Amaro Nonino, with flavors of thyme, menthol and orange, and Amaro Meletti, with its delightful saffron, caramel and burnt orange flavors, create something truly spectacular with this brandy.  I added a few drops of Beehive Bitters’ incredible spiced orange bitters to seal the deal.  The drink is sophisticated, sweet and sultry, perfect for a little late night logic.  This is one exit strategy that will keep you coming, just so you have an excuse for going.  It might not help you find the exit to the Sequence Logic box, but you won’t mind.  Cheers!

The logical way to plan your exit

Exit Strategy by Natasha David

1 ½ oz Amaro Nonino
¾ oz Germain-Robin Craft Method Brandy (I used Grand Californian from Nappa Valley Distillery)
¼ oz Meletti Amaro
6 drops salt solution (I substituted Beehive Bitters Spiced Orange)
orange twist garnish

Stir ingredients together with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with an orange twist and start working on the exit strategy - for the liquid in your glass.

For more about Jesse Born:


To see the internals and logic bars of the Sequence Logic Box, click (SPOILERS) here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Pennies From Heaven

Who doesn't have fond memories of strolling along the boardwalk as a child?  If you were deprived of that wonderful experience, I can tell you it was a place full of magic, excitement, sweet delicacies and adventure.  If not, then you know what I mean.  One of the most enjoyable sections was the arcade, where skee ball and air rifles tested your skill.  Thomas Cummings, who makes wonderful puzzle boxes from his home workshop in Georgia, recalls the boardwalk fondly – especially the old ‘penny arcade’ games of his youth.  His “Eden Workx” puzzle boxes are like little arcade games as well, each requiring a different sort of puzzle to be solved before allowing the box to be opened.  Cummings also likes a bit of misdirection and foul play, which is all fair in my book.  

Penny Arcade by Thomas Cummings

His “Penny Arcade” continues his series with a nod to the nostalgia of the vintage boardwalk games he recalls.  The box is unique in that it features a small see-through window on top, with a dial visible through the window.  The dial and surrounding knob have odd notations, numbers and symbols all around them, which don’t immediately appear to make any coherent sense. Hmmm – cryptic clues, a viewport and a test of skill and wits?  Take my penny, I'd like to play!  And the fun begins.  Cummings has channeled his fond penny arcade memories into another great box which will test your cunning with a smile.  If you’re lucky, it might even read your fortune!

Step right up, turn the dial, and test your skill

To toast this nostalgic number we will reference another boardwalk favorite, the carousel.  Last seen whirling its way around Kelly Snache’s Carousel Box, the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone is famous for the Vieux Carre, an old New Orleans classic.  This update to that old classic swaps the cognac for pear brandy and the Drambuie for apricot jam.  Adding preserves to cocktails is a wonderful way to bring new flavors and textures to the drink, and no one does it better than star mixologist Jeff Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in Portland Oregon.  His “Copper Penny” ode to the Vieux Carre hits all the right targets and wins the prize.  Here’s to old times, new times, and fond memories both old and new.  Cheers!

Copper Penny by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Copper Penny by Jeff Morgenthaler

¾ oz. rye whiskey
¾ oz. pear brandy, preferably Clear Creek
¾ oz. sweet vermouth, preferably Punt e Mes
1 ½ tsp. apricot preserves
¼ tsp. Angostura bitters

Shake ingredients together well with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Lemon peel garnish. Take aim and set your sights on sipping.

That's my two cents, for what it's worth

For more about Thomas Cummings:

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Small Things

Good things come in small packages.  Following on the heels of the Wizard of Awes we have another treat from the “Wizard of Wood”, North Carolina craftsman Eric Fuller.  Well known for his precision in crafting complex interlocking mechanical wooden puzzles, Eric has also created some of the most unique and beautiful puzzle boxes in existence.  His recent effort is a series of what he calls “button boxes”.  The idea came to him from another puzzle he created called the Reactor Box, a fantastically tricky little puzzle box which waits patiently inside another fantastically tricky box, the B-Box.  I’ve written about this dynamic duo before, an amazing combined double challenge.  The Reactor Box actually holds an even tinier box inside of it – making this puzzle a triple threat and the stuff of legends.  The tiny internal box floats in place due to strong magnets, and pushing on it feels a bit like pushing a springy button.  That feeling, and that mechanism, sent a few novel ideas bouncing through Eric’s brilliant brain and the button box series was hatched.

Small Button Box by Eric Fuller

The other thing about the idea of a button that appealed to Eric was how it could be used to exploit our natural human tendencies.  He likes to create puzzles which play with expectations and abuse them – I mean, fool them.  Reactor box was a perfect example of how he used expectations and misdirection to keep the solver stumped.  Small button box takes this game to a pure and simple level, with its single large button.  The box is small, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it is simple. It has a single red protrusion sticking out of it – the button.  Made from beautiful tan striped zebrawood (for the main box) and bold red Paduak (for the button), it uses the natural woods in perfect contrast. The game here is obvious – no one could avoid trying - it’s inevitable, and although nothing happens when you do it (i.e. the box does not open, and you didn’t really think it would), you can’t help yourself from repeating the effort over, and over, and over again.  Maybe somewhere, someplace in the world, like the old Stephen Wright joke, a light is turning on and off, on and off, and someone is yelling, “Knock it off!”

Go on ... push it!!!

The Small Button Box is a truly amazing little marvel. It’s difficult to fathom the level of precise complexity that is packed inside this tiny puzzle.  Every detail, and every specific movement, matter when opening it – in fact, ten extremely specific moves are needed.  These moves are not the standard slide this side down then this side over type, but rather the stand on your head while humming the Star Spangled Banner type.  I hope I didn’t just give anything away.  Suffice it to say that random moves won’t help and there’s a lot more going on here than what one typically expects from a puzzle box.  Eric has even devised a way, in his infinite mischievousness, to force you to fight against yourself in the final stage.  Small Button Box is a rather ironic name for this huge challenge.

Midnight Train by Lucinda Sterling

A while back Eric Fuller let me know that one of his favorite drinks is an Old Fashioned.  If you’ve been following along with me you will know that I am partial to this drink myself, and have featured a number of great versions, including the classic original along with its origin story.  For Eric’s Button Box series I thought I would do a series of Old Fashioneds as well, pairing each box with a nice variation.  Let’s start out small, with a simple and delicious summer twist on the old favorite.

Four Roses single barrel, one of my favorites, works quite nicely

This one comes via Lucinda Sterling, an acclaimed New York bartender who came from Denver to Manhattan and landed at the famed Milk and Honey bar in Soho.  The owner and originator of Milk and Honey was the legendary Sasha Petraske, a pivotal figure in the nineties cocktail revival and a mentor to many modern mixologists like Sterling.  She moved on to Petraske’s second bar, Little Branch, before becoming managing partner at Middle Branch, his third effort, where she has become a leading female figure in the industry.  Her Midnight Train is a simple, elegant riff on the Old Fashioned, which substitutes peach liqueur for the standard sugar cube.  With the right bourbon, this brings out flavors of vanilla and baked dough, and you might just think you are enjoying a warm summer peach pie.  Which sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Here’s to the small pleasures in life – cheers!

This pair push all the right buttons

Midnight Train by Lucinda Sterling

2 oz Bourbon (Sterling recommends Elijah Craig Small Batch)
½ oz Peach liqueur (Sterling uses Combier)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Lemon twist garnish and a smile.

For more about Eric Fuller:
Sabotage! (B-Box / Reactor Box)

For prior Old Fashioneds: