Solution to Top Shelf

Authors: Laura Martini and Kyle Buza

The solver receives a puzzle with two parts:

  1. An image with 32 unique bourbon bottles lined up on a counter, with their labels easily legible, and two empty shelves behind the counter.
  2. A set of 31 short narrative descriptions that contain two things: enough information to uniquely identify one of the bottles (or, in a couple of cases, two bottles from the same distiller), and enough information to determine a number to use to index into the name of the bourbon. The format is a discussion between a bartender and a customer.

How to solve:

  1. Identify the bottles on the shelf.
  2. Map each bottle to one narrative description. One company has two bottles in the set (Sazerac), and both bottles share a single narrative description, meaning that there are 31clue phrases for 32 bottles.
  3. Determine the proper name for the bourbon by using the enumeration written below each bottle in the enlarged version of the image. This version is viewable by clicking on the row of bourbons in the original "thumbnail" image on the main page of the photo.
  4. Extract the correct number from the description by taking the length, in words, of the customer's response to the bartender's description. Use this number to index into the bourbon's name. This will give you a single letter.
  5. After performing this step, you will have the phrase: "BASOMURUBGONWISTOUDMEMPOICSTRATO".
  6. Have the "aha" that you need to separate the bourbons into top shelf (expensive) and bottom shelf (inexpensive) groups. This is clued by the name of the puzzle being "Top Shelf."
  7. Determine whether the bourbon is a "top shelf" bourbon or a "bottom shelf" bourbon.
  8. The top shelf bourbons spell: BOURBON IS TO DEMOCRAT and the bottom shelf answers spell: AS MUGWUMP IS TO.
  9. Dust off your memory of American history, or Google to determine the answer: REPUBLICAN.
Bourbon Enumeration Shelf Phrase Letter Index Clue Order in Photo Order in Final Clue Phrase
Blanton's 8 top B 1 For instance, this bourbon comes only from barrels aged at the center section of warehouse 'H'. 1 1
Old Heaven Hill 3 6 4 bottom A 6 Would you believe that this bourbon is made by the only remaining family-owned distillery in Kentucky? You'd think after all these years they'd know how to make better bourbon than this. 2 20
Cabin Still 5 5 bottom S 6 This 80-proof bourbon was a good brand before the current company bought the name. 3 21
Jefferson's Presidential Select 21 10 12 6 2 top O 8 This one is good, but I actually prefer the younger 18-year-old variety. 4 2
Jeremiah Weed 8 4 bottom M 5 Not one of my favorites, but named after a Kentucky recluse. 5 22
William Larue Weller 7 5 6 top U 11 This wheated bourbon is the fifth and final bottle in the Antique Collection. 6 3
Willett Straight Kentucky Rye 24 Year 7 8 8 3 2 4 top R 10 If you're familiar with the Velvet Glove, this is very similar, just a year older. 7 4
Ten High Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey 3 4 8 7 7 bottom U 12 The name of this bourbon supposedly comes from a poker hand, in reference to a type of straight. I wouldn't bet on it if you're trying to impress a date, however. 8 23
Bulleit Bourbon 7 7 top B 1 And this one – after a century-long hiatus,this family returned to making whiskey using the original recipes. 9 5
Old Grand-Dad Whiskey 3 5 3 7 bottom G 4 I was pretty surprised when I learned that this one here was Harry Truman's favorite bourbon, given the type of clientele who want to drink it. 10 24
Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition 4 5 6 6 7 7 top O 2 For a long time the distiller behind this bottle was known to produce a lot of rot gut whiskey. It's really turned itself around. I think being purchased by a company from the Far East helped. 11 6
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old 3 6 7 7 2 5 3 top N 3 Some people think this is Pappy, but it's really just a Van Winkle. 12 7
Evan Williams 4 8 bottom W 5 They also make honey, cherry and cinnamon versions of this guy, but I think it's terrible to do that to a bourbon. I stick with this label. 13 25
Willett 21 Year 7 2 4 top I 2 Would you believe me if I told you that a limited number of bottles of this vintage of Willett actually came from the Stitzel Weller mashbill? 14 8
Sazerac 18 7 2 top S 1 Did you know that these two are made by a company named after a mixed drink that included absinthe? They're both part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. 15 9
Colonel E.H. Taylor, Warehouse C Tornado Surviving 7 1 1 6 9 1 7 9 top T 10 You could say that this is as rare as it gets. Only an act of God could produce something like this. 16 10
George T. Stagg 6 1 5 top O 3 This is another from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. It ages for no less than 15 years. 17 11
Wild Turkey 81 4 6 2 bottom U 6 Rumor has it that a groove metal band from the early eighties named an album after this bourbon. 18 26
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 3 8 8 7 top D 3 They release this once a year to celebrate an event in early September. 19 12
Mellow Corn 6 4 bottom M 1 Don't judge a whiskey by its color. This stuff isn't fancy, but it's aged at least four years. 20 27
Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old 5 4 2 4 3 top E 1 I see the younger version of this in liquor stores all the time, but this version is part of the Antique Collection, and is much harder to find. 21 13
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 3 6 6 7 3 top M 12 Rumor has it, the rye in this bottle is much older than the label indicates. The age listed on the bottle refers to the youngest of the whiskies inside. 22 14
Penny Packer 5 6 bottom P 1 The funny thing about this Kentucky bourbon is that it's shipped over to Germany for bottling. 23 28
Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve 6 9 5 5 7 bottom I 2 This one is only semi related to the superior 'A.H.' variety. 25 29
Rock Hill Farms 4 4 5 top O 2 I actually had a chance to visit the Kentucky land that this whiskey was named after. It's a beautiful spot along a river. 24 15
Michter's 8 top C 3 I personally prefer the rye of the same name and age from this distiller. 26 16
Jack Daniel's 4 7 bottom S 11 You'll see this one on t-shirts over at MIT a lot. It's the alter ego of a floor in the East Campus dormitory. 27 30
Kentucky Gentleman 8 9 bottom T 4 I had to stock this when I read the reviews: "It tastes like the sweat of a hobo who got drunk on bourbon." 28 31
Parker's Heritage Collection 7 8 10 top R 3 The previous year's release of this bourbon is still one of my favorites - finished off in cognac casks. 29 17
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year 5 3 6 2 4 top A 2 This one's so popular even billionaires can't find an unopened bottle of it to buy. 30 18
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac 6 1 5 7 top T 1 (see Sazerac 18) 31 19
Old Crow 3 4 bottom O 1 This bourbon was reportedly a favorite of Ulysses S Grant. It seems the quality has deteriorated somewhat since his day. 32 32


Laura Martini and Kyle Buza could not have created this puzzle without patient help from key solvers and editors, including Chris "Scooby" Lyon and his "puzzling juice", Jason Juang, Aaron Bader, Chieu V Nguyen, Roger Hanna Morash and Teasha Feldman-Fitzthum.