Those glorious, frenetic weeks just before and after Labor Day — when the nights get longer, the days get cooler, football kicks off and baseball's division races heat up — also happen to be my happiest and most stressful time of the year. Happy because an amber flood of fantastic bourbons and ryes hits the marketplace all at once, tantalizing our taste buds six ways to Sunday. The possibilities are damn near endless. And that's why it's also stressful. Where to put them all without turning my home into a big liquor warehouse? How to drink them all while maintaining a semblance of sobriety? And here's the kicker — a good chunk of the Labor Day whiskeys are limited editions, bound to disappear, whether it's in a day or six months. And as a certified hoarder (my wife certified me, in case you're wondering), that makes the situation even more nerve wracking. Pick up one bottle or two? Crack it open or let it sit? I'm not proud to say I've spent entire evenings agonizing over what to open and whether to open it, and wound up drinking nothing as a result.

But not this year! I've taken the cream of the new crop of whiskeys and not only opened and sampled them all, but I've even taken the time to write about them, to spare you at least a little of the agony I go through every September. There are no duds to be found here, but I've tried to keep it to the best of the best. Most of the whiskeys here are limited to 15,000 bottles or less. If 15,000 sounds like a lot to you, trust me, there's far more than a hockey arena's worth of booze-o-philes with the money and desire for these offerings in a nation of 330 million souls. So don't be lackadaisical, lest you miss out.


WILD TURKEY MASTER'S KEEP: CORNERSTONE RYE (aged 9-11 years; 54.5% ABV, $175, about 16,000 bottles available)..The fourth Master's Keep selection, which focuses on master distiller Eddie Russell's favorite aged stocks in the Wild Turkey rickhouses, is also the first rye to boast the Master's Keep name. It's also the oldest and highest proof rye WIld Turkey has ever released, which is saying something because Wild Turkey has been making rye for many a decade. And to add yet another wrinkle, it's barely a rye by legal standards, carrying just over the bare minimum of 51% rye required in the mashbill. So don't expect the big, peppery spice you'll get from high-rye brands like Whistlepig or Bulleit. What you do get is soft and creamy, velvety on the tongue, with notes of butterscotch and hints of apricot, followed by a finish that's dry and tingly without being overly tannic. Cornerstone belies both its age and its high ABV — adding water here is totally unnecessary.. It's an elegant, complex sipper that may fool some people who are expecting the "whomp" of a big, bold rye. But I can't get enough of it. At $175, it ain't cheap, but it's also not like any other rye on the market.


BOMBERGER'S DECLARATION BOURBON: LEGACY RESERVE 2019 (no age statement; 54% ABV, $90, about 2,500 bottles available). Bomberger's is best known as the brand that sparked a legal battle a few years back. The eventual victor was Chatham Imports, which owns Michter's as well as some of the other names by which it's gone over its 200-plus year history — it was called Bomberger's roughly between 1860 and Prohibition. Today's Bomberger's, transplanted from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, doesn't have much in common with its predecessor apart from the name, but more importantly, it's a damn good bourbon, and quite different from Michter's flavor-wise. This limited edition version is bottled at a higher proof than standard Bomberger's (108 vs 100). It's also aged in both traditional quercus alba American white oak and Chinquapin oak, which, according to Michter's Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson, imparts distinctive fruity notes to the final product. Sure enough, Declaration is a dense, concentrated whiskey with strong notes of dried fruit, along with brown sugar and baking spices. Even at 108 proof, there's not a trace of heat or harshness on the finish, which is clean and surprisingly short considering how flavorful it is. But it just makes you crave that next sip all the more. To further explore Chinquapin-influenced whiskeys, check out the Legacy Reserve edition of Shenk's Homestead Sour Mash, another Michter's offshoot which is also lip-smacking good.


FOUR ROSES 2019 LIMITED EDITION SMALL BATCH BOURBON (aged 11-21 years; 56.3% ABV, $140, about 13,400 bottles available). Brent Elliott had some mighty big shoes to fill when he succeeded the legendary Jim Rutledge as Four Roses' master distiller. But he's been knocking 'em out of the park consistently, with limited editions like the 130th Anniversary Small Batch and Al Young 50th Anniversary Small Batch bourbons that have rightfully taken their place in the pantheon of classic Four Roses bottlings. Depending on how big a fan you are of the brand, you may be familiar with their ten-recipe method (two different mashbills and five yeast strains) which are combined at different ages and in different ratios to create each new expression. This one is a blend of four different recipes, aged from 11 all the way up to 21 years — one of the oldest bourbons I can remember them using. Along with the inevitable oaky notes that that accompany such an elder statesman, you get a mouthful of rich chocolate, baking spices, toffee, and just a hint of orange peel. It runs a wee bit hot, but a splash of water smooths it out and brings up buttery vanilla notes as well. The finish is dry and lingering and almost makes my mouth involuntarily form the words, "You know, a cigar would be wonderful right now." A big, delicious bourbon that's not for the faint of heart or weak of liver, and another home run for Brent Elliott.


PARKER'S HERITAGE COLLECTION 13TH EDITION: HEAVY CHAR RYE WHISKEY (aged 8 years, 52.5% ABV, $150, about 15,000 bottles available). A No. 4 char on a whiskey barrel, also known as an "alligator char" for the texture after it's been flamed, is pretty much the limit for whiskey makers. It imparts the ideal balance of hemicellulose and tannins — meaning vanilla/caramel flavors and dry woody notes— that we look for in a good bourbon or rye. So what happens when you use a No. 5 char? I don't know if I'd ever even seen an example of it before the latest edition of Parker's Heritage, Heaven Hill's annual salute to its late great distiller, Parker Beam. I feared the worst — a rye that would taste like licking a piece of charcoal. Fortunately, I was way off base. Heavy Char Rye is indeed dry and spicy, especially on the finish, but for the most part it's smooth and supple, with notes of maple syrup, brown sugar and cloves offsetting the oak. A splash of water helps smooth out the spice on the finish, though I like it just fine unadulterated. Actually, my favorite way to drink it is in an Old Fashioned, though the price point doesn't exactly make this a mixing rye. Still, keep in mind that a portion of the proceeds go towards ALS research — it's the disease that killed Parker Beam. So you're not just buying a whiskey, you're doing a good deed at the same time.


OLD FORESTER BIRTHDAY BOURBON (aged 11 years; 52.5% ABV, $100, about 13,200 bottles available). Bourbon fans know the drill by now — to celebrate founder George Garvin Brown's birthday (which he's no longer around to celebrate, alas, having died more than a century ago), Old Forester releases a limited edition bourbon, all of which was distilled on the same day and aged in the same spot in the warehouse. It means you'll get a unique bourbon, and one whose flavor can vary wildly from one year to the next. I recall 2012's Birthday Bourbon as one of the very best whiskeys I've ever had, while 2015 was an oaky mess. But advance word on this year's batch — coming in at 11 years old and the highest proof of any Birthday Bourbon in its 19-year history — was that it was a winner. And while I love being a contrarian, that analysis is spot on. It's a complex balance of sweet and dry, with fruit and baking spices contrasting with oak and leather, culminating in a lingering finish with hints of caramel and white pepper. If it were a year older, I suspect it'd be too tannic, but distiller Chris Morris and taster Jackie Zykan plucked this one at just the right time.


WELLER FULL PROOF BOURBON (no age statement; 57% ABV, $50, "limited quantities" available). If you're a Maker's Mark fan and want to take the next step into the world of wheated bourbons (in which wheat, rather than rye, is the secondary grain used after corn), Weller is there waiting for you. Made at the venerable Buffalo Trace distillery, Weller is a most well-regarded bourbon — and one of the most affordable as well. Weller's new limited edition Full Proof is bottled at the same ABV at which it went into the barrel, 114 proof. Most notably, unlike your standard Wellers, it's non-chill filtered, which sets whiskey nerds' hearts a-flutter. I'm a wheater agnostic, but lemme tell you, this is a stunning bourbon. It's creamy and smooth, sweet and rich, like apricots drizzled with caramel. Dark chocolate, nuts, and a hint of oak come through on the back of the tongue, and the finish is dry but light on the tannins. This will be an annual release, but it's too tasty to wait until next year for a bottle.


WHISTLEPIG OLD WORLD CASK FINISH RYE: WHISTLEPIG X FLAVIAR CHEF'S BLEND (aged 12 years; 43% ABV, $125, 1,000 bottles available). I don't necessarily trust a chef to make a great whiskey, any more than I trust a distiller to cook a delicious meal. And four chefs collaborating on the damn thing... don't they say too many cooks spoil the stew? But in this case, I've gotta tip my touque to Michael Gulotta (of Maypop in New Orleans), Jamie Malone (Grand Café in Minneapolis), Justin Woodward (of Castagna in Portland), and David Posey (of Elske in Chicago). This isn't the Whistlepig you're probably familiar with. The mashbill is slightly different, the proof is lower, and of course it's finished in four different casks — all of them wines associated with food (you see what they did there?). The exact blend is 40% Madeira finish, 30% sherry finish, 10% Suaternes finish, and 20% port finish. The nuttiness and salinity of the madeira and sherry come on strong, with the rich, deep fruitiness of the port not too far behind. Only the Sauternes gets a little lost in the shuffle, and while I wish its presence was more felt, I can't say it's missed all that much, because this is a beautifully balanced blend. It's available exclusively through Flaviar starting in October, so don't even bother hunting for it in stores.


SMOOTH AMBLER OLD SCOUT BOURBON (aged 5 years; 49.5% ABV, $45, hopefully enough bottles available). With any luck, this won't be a limited edition, but it wasn't supposed to become one back in 2016, either. Smooth Ambler (which also makes some fine whiskey in its own West Virginia distillery) sourced a good amount of excellent bourbon from Indiana's famed MGP distillery several years ago and released it under their Old Scout moniker. Bourbonheads loved it — so much, in fact, that the aged stocks ran out three years ago, resulting in the mothballing of Old Scout. Thankfully, it's back, and hopefully the supply is more reliable this time. While there's no age statement on the bottle, I've heard that it's aged for five years, where the final bottles of the old Old Scout had gotten up to seven. But I don't miss those extra two years, because this bourbon is damn near perfect. A high-rye mashbill (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) results in a whiskey that's spicy and full-bodied but also rich and creamy, with dessert-like notes of chocolate and caramel up front and a gorgeous, lingering wood/tobacco finish. This is a perfect everyday sipper or mixer, and it's priced so you can afford to pick up a bottle as needed.