A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from June 16, 2012
Top Shelf (premium or best quality liquor)

’Top shelf” means “top notch,” or something that is premium or high quality. “Top shelf” has been cited in print since the 19th century, but “top shelf” (or “top-shelf") drinks have apepared in print since at least the 1950s. “Top-shelf whiskey” has been cited since at least 1954, “top-shelf Scotch” from 1970, “soniewhat-lower-than-top-shelf tequila” from 1982, and “top-shelf vodka” from 1984.

The top shelf is harder to reach, so minors are less likely to get to it. Also, the best quality (and highest priced) liquors are served less often than the common drinks on the lower shelves. The term “top shelf” has become diluted, however; no drink claims to be anything less than top shelf.


GoodCocktails.com
Top Shelf
Top shelf means premium. It means to use the best liquors available at the bar.
Example: Top Shelf Long Island Iced Tea

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
top–shelf adj \ˈtäp-ˈshelf\
Definition of TOP-SHELF
: of the best quality
First Known Use of TOP-SHELF
circa 1892

(Oxford English Dictionary)
top shelf n. the uppermost and least accessible shelf; also attrib. in fig. expressions:  (a) as in top-shelf book, a book seldom used, or that is to be kept out of the way; (b) first-rate; cf. top notch n.
1808 G. Ellis Let. in J. G. Lockhart Mem. Life Sir W. Scott (1837) II. iv. 145, I should have ranked it..on the very top shelf of English poetry.
1891–2 Lupton Bros. Catal. Dec. and Jan., Gentlemen requiring scarce and top-shelf books.
1905 E. W. Hornung Thief in Night (Tauchn.) 12 ‘Nice house?’ said Raffles… ‘Top shelf,’ said I.

30 September 1954, Janesville (WI) Daily Gazette, “Chief on Stand at Whitewater; Never Drank While on Duty, Asbury Tells Hearing,” pg. 1, col. 7:
“When I feel like a drink I go into a tavern and have one,” Asbury said in answer to a question. “My drink normally is whiskey and water—top-shelf whiskey.”
(Police Chief Russell Asbury—ed.)

4 September 1957, Santa Fe (NM) New Mexican, “Wine in the Home” by Vic, pg. 5, col. 8:
But if you like Scotch, even a Royal Warrant isn’t really necessary to plug Vat 69. It has a firm stand on the top shelf of Scotch whiskys.

Google Books
Here Goes Kitten
By Robert Gover
New York, NY: Grove
1964
Pg. 52:
Nevertheless, here she indeed was, guzzling drink after drink of top-shelf whiskey. With a coke chaser, of all things! Surely a sickening combination for the cultivated imbiber to contemplate, whiskey and coke chaser.

27 December 1968, Evening Times (Trenton, NJ), pg. 10, col. 3 ad:
A fifth (1-5) of “top shelf” whiskey for every four people.
(Gaslight Beef & Ale—ed.)

Google Books
Lord of Dark Places
By Hal Bennett
New York, NY: Norton
1970
Pg. 112:
He always drank top-shelf Scotch, he said he thought beer was weak.

21 October 1982, Lockhart (TX) Post-Register, “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas” by James Naples, pg. 2A, col. 5:
The ceremony was concluded with the pinning of a badge which proclaimed me a Green Horn Texan, and (my favorite part) the downing of a couple of shots of soniewhat-lower-than-top-shelf tequila.

Google News Archive
7 December 1984, Record-Journal (Meriden, CT), “Boycott of Soviet vodka fades fast” (United Press International), pg. 56, col. 1:
Moreover, the boycotts at their height had only a minimal impact on “Stoli” sales, and failed to dim Americans’ thirsty yen for the top-shelf vodka so popular among the upwardly mobile.

Google Books
15 April 1996, New York magazine, pg. 85, col. 1:
There’s the predictable line of single-malts and bourbons, but also a healthy selection of top-shelf tequila.

The Webtender
Subject:  Re: Long Island Ice Tea
From:  nyguy79
Posted:  Sat Nov 18. 2006, 05:24 UTC
Followup to:  “Re: Long Island Ice Tea” by Cheryl Charming (Fri Nov 17. 2006, 20:10 UTC)
(...)
“Top Shelf” means high quality...Cointreau could be considered “top shelf” triple sec...you will pay more for “top shelf” liquors and spirits…

NJ.com
Low-cost liquors that go easy on wallet and palate
Published: Friday, November 14, 2008, 4:23 PM Updated: Saturday, November 15, 2008, 1:35 AM
By Kimberly L. Jackson/The Star-Ledger
Hey, have you heard the one about the failing economy?

As we sink further toward a recession, people probably will be drinking more. It’s not just a cliche, it’s fact: Historically, sales of alcoholic beverages grow during recessions. And not just the cheap stuff. In a recent survey conducted by Zagat and liquor giant Diageo, 58 percent of Americans said they would be willing to pay more to have a cocktail made with premium, “top-shelf” brands, even during an economic downturn.

That may be true, but one thing I have learned through writing this column is that no one agrees on exactly what top-shelf means. For some it means $100 cognac or Calvados; for others it’s $35 craft-distilled gins.

musikgraph
Interview with Top Shelf Jazz
English Version
5. Juni 2011
(...)
How come your band name is “Top Shelf Jazz”?
The phrase “top shelf” in the UK cultural context is a classic British double-entendre for the pornographic publications on sale in News Agents – they are always on the top shelf so that children could not reach them. And so, as young boys in Britain, from early puberty, we would be obsessed with the mysterious magazines that we were unable and prohibited to see!!! And that’s what our jazz is all about: the illicit, the prohibited, the taboo. Hidden pleasures that are suddenly and often graphically (in this day and age!) revealed in all their carnal splendors. Amusingly, though, in the USA “Top Shelf” means that it is of the highest level of quality! Ok. We will accept that. And in Australia, it means all the spirits and liquors along the top rack of a bar – that’s us too!! What implications does this phrase have in Deutschland? I hope it is naughty!

Anarchist of Good Taste
Monday, May 14, 2012
The Thing One Over Hears at the Bar
(...)
“Top shelf means they use a better Tequila, hence the meaning “top shelf”. When ever you here them say that the liquor is of better quality compared to, say, the bottom shelf. It also means it is more expensive.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (0) Comments • Saturday, June 16, 2012 • Permalink