When the contractor on her stately 110-year-old Minneapolis home called two weeks ago, Mary Shanesy steeled herself for the worst. "The most amazing thing I've seen in 10 years in construction happened at your house today," said Noah Day of Blue Construction Inc.

But, no, the claw-foot tub had not fallen through the floor. Day's news was far wilder, and it made Shanesy's spirits soar.

Hidden inside a knee wall on the third floor, an air-conditioning worker had struck gold. Amid the duct work, he found four cases, 15 jugs and 30 bottles of liquor, including gin, cognac, Scotch whiskey, Jamaican rum, French brandy, vermouth, even medicinal stomach bitters, some wrapped in straw, behind a small bead-board door.

A recent stash? Hardly.

Several bottles carried a sticker indicating the buyer paid the liquor tax of 1919 -- one year before Prohibition. While some labels are no longer identifiable, others are positively pristine, including those from Martini e Rossi, James Buchanan, John Walker & Sons and John Dewar & Sons.

Were the bottles simply forgotten, or was something naughtier going on? Shanesy certainly hopes it's the latter.

"The owner could have died, but I like to think he was run out of town," she said with a laugh. "You know, it's just such a fun thing that's totally unexpected."

The entire collection, including some now-empty bottles that evaporated over time and some formerly fine wines that are now "really, really, really distilled wine vinegar," Shanesy said, have been moved to the Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis. Much of it will stay there, so everybody can enjoy it. At least enjoy looking at it.

The museum's executive director, Jada Hansen, will drink to that. She already has an archivist in hot pursuit of the booze's back story. Who owned the home? Was the liquor to be consumed quickly, before Prohibition would ban the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol for consumption?

"People who were upper class did amass a lot of alcohol for entertaining," she said. But, like Shanesy, she wouldn't mind a seedier story. The early 1900s, "was a very fun and sexy time," Hansen said. "If we can help people relate to history better, we'll try to take advantage of it."

Only one bottle has been opened, a cognac sent to one of Day's friends in the liquor trade. He deemed it "phenomenal."

Shanesy, a psychologist, moved to the Twin Cities from Madison, Wis., one year ago to do an internship at Oak Park Heights correctional facility. She rented a house in St. Paul before falling in love with a stunning 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home in Lowry Hill, built in 1900.

Before moving in, she was having some updating and repainting done. The biggest job was putting in central air.

Two weeks ago, Mike Sullivan of Sayler Heating & Air was working away when his blade hit something. "I stopped," he said, "thinking it might be a water line." Then he spotted the "moonshine-looking jugs" and started hauling them out. "I just kept finding more and more as I went in," he said.

Sullivan, "a cold-beer guy," admits he had no idea of the potential value and was more interested in just getting the stuff out of the way so he could keep working. Contractor Trevor Ogilvie of Blue Construction wandered upstairs to see how Sullivan was doing.

"Don't touch it!" Ogilvie said. That day, they changed the home's lock box.

The previous owners might not want to hear this story. They added three rooms, including one that was framed just feet away from the booty, but they never discovered it.

Shanesy appreciates that she might never have discovered it, either, had she hired dishonest contractors.

"I am the luckiest. They wouldn't have had to call me," she said of Day and Ogilvie. "Besides being fabulous contractors, they are wonderful human beings." (And, yes, they will be rewarded.)

Shanesy, the mother of two young-adult children, grew up in a family of non-drinkers, with the exception of an Italian grandfather who attempted to make wine in his basement.

"Everybody just got drunk off the fumes," she said.

She has a soft spot for martinis, but is eager to taste the cognac and brandy. She doesn't mind waiting. After all, those bottles have been waiting a long time to be opened.

"When you see this and think that it's been up in that attic for 90 years. ..." Shanesy said. "It's wild, just wild. I haven't been able to stop grinning."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com