I recently did a side by side comparison of two Heaven Hill brands, Evan Williams black label (7 years old) and Evan Willams Single Barrel (9-10 years old). I believe the two whiskies are from the same mashbill (recipe). EW Single Barrel distinguishes itself, in addition to a couple of more years in the warehouse, as being the only vintage dated whisky on the market, meaning each year there is a new release, like they do in the wine industry. Of course there is a bit of marketing here; many mid to high end bourbons label the bottle with information such as when it was filled, from what location in the warehouse, etc. But the EW Single does provide a good amount of hand written info on the back of each bottle, including the date the whisky was "put in oak," the date of the bottling, and the barrel number. I had barrel #429 from the 2000 vintage for this tasting.
Back to the black label. Evan Williams 7 yr. is the $12-$15 bottle of whisky you can find in any liquor store in the country, and will recognize it because the label looks like a Jack Daniel's knock off. I believe it was the first whisky I ever bought back in college, probably lured in by that marketing technique, "It looks like Jack but at half the price..." Evan Williams black label pours a light gold color, and it smells like your average bourbon but with a faint cheapness to it. The taste provides a bit of sting, but not in a bad way. The corn is strong with just a bit of spice. Again, their is a faint cheapness to it, you will know what I mean if you've sampled bourbons from even lower shelves than this one. The finish is not as short as the price would suggest; it's not a long finish but doesn't vanish either. Overall I find it inoffensive at worst and bordering on the complexity of much better bourbons at best. A great value bourbon for a shrinking wallet or mixed drinks. It's simple, sweet, straightforward.
Single Barrel Vintage
I read one message board where someone asked if the single barrel is 2 times better than the black label. Comparing values is such a relative thing, but for me the single barrel is easily worth the upgrade. It may be the extra aging, or careful barrel selection, but this is clearly the superior whisky. It pours slightly darker than the black label, with a richer, sweeter nose. The taste is rich, with a lot of wood; the caramel and vanilla flavors bourbon is known for appear as you drink it but aren't immediate up front. The finish is substantial, like cinnamon in your mouth. It may not be the most balanced bourbon I've had, as the wood seems to dominate the subtler flavors. But for my money, this is the best value on the market at around $25 a bottle. The only other single barrel at a similar price point I can even think of is Elmer T. Lee, probably a couple of bucks more but another fine choice. I find EW Single Barrel rivaling bourbons at twice the price, and superior to many at its price point. The vintage dating is a lot of fun, too. I stumbled on a 1999 edition and snatched it up; I plan to get one each year for a few years and then have a tasting comparing them.
I came across a post on bourbonenthusiast.com that made an interesting observation. Heaven Hill has chosen to market their upscale brands as extension of lower shelf versions, like Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18. This is unlike Jim Beam, which created new brands for their small batch line (Booker's, Basil Hayden's, etc.). Jim Beam doesn't want to ruin the romance while you sip your Knob Creek with the knowledge that it is the same mashbill as white label. Wild Turkey has a similar approach to H.Hill, they proudly state "Wild Turkey" on all of their products at all price points. I don't really care one way or the other as long as the bourbon inside the bottle is good, but I actually kind of prefer the Heaven Hill way, it seems to take pride in their brand rather than hiding from it.