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Ring of Fire

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Photos by Jonathan Boncek
Photo by Jonathan Boncek

From Top Counterclockwise

Granddaddy’s Sweet Southern HeatMidland, TX
This excellent sauce hits you with its garlic, molasses, ground pepper, and hickory smoke, all balanced with a kick of cayenne, a closely guarded recipe that’s been in this Texas family for fifty years. Perfect on steaks, burgers, and anything that begs for a good peppery barbecue flavor.

Captain Redbeard’s Savina HabaneroEdgewater, FL
Launched in the mid-1990s by a sea captain who whipped up his own concoctions in the ship’s galley, this sauce gets its strong heat and rich red color from ripe savina habanero peppers. The brand has exploded into a series of fiery sauces (try the Sharkbite Garlic Cayenne) and even a bottling service for wannabe makers.

Henry’s Jamaican Lime ChileBasye, VA
Father-son team Ernest and Bob Henry grow this all-but-extinct native Virginia pepper on their farm in the Shenandoah Valley, which they call the “Napa Valley of hot peppers” for its perfect growing conditions (a rich soil high in limestone and a mountain’s shade that allows the peppers to cling to the morning dew). Be warned: one drop can flavor an entire meal. The pepper has a natural citrus bite, perfect for seafood.

Farmer’s Daughter Sweet Potato HabaneroHillsborough, NC
A friend handed me this bottle straight from a farmers market in Chapel Hill. The habaneros give the sauce a bright fruity heat tempered by the mellow base of the sweet potato. Sauce maker April McGreger learned from her mother and grandmother in rural Mississippi (yes, she really is a farmer’s daughter) and brought her talents to North Carolina’s Piedmont. Try her pickles and preserves, too!

Mile High Hot SaucePikeville, NC
M.P. Cooper’s years in the US Air Force took him across the globe where he sampled a wide variety of peppers and sauces. Retired, he planted some peppers in his back yard and started tinkering with sauce recipes. He now grows 30,000 jalapeno plants on five acres of airport property. The sauce is fresh, robust, and zesty.

9°80° Wild CilantroMt. Pleasant, SC
Award-winning Southern chefs like Robert Carter, Mike Lata, and Kevin Johnson like this sauce so much they use it at home, says its creator Smith Anderson. Anderson and his Panama buddy and business partner Alexis Gallardo have released three sauces and have five more flavors in the works, all fresh, all natural, all delicious.

Palmetto Pepper Potions Molten GoldenForest Acres, SC
A friend gifted some chile pepper plants to Mark and Julie Riffle. After a lot of experimenting with blends of herbs, seasonal fruits, and fresh veggies, the Riffles hit on four different sauces with brilliant flavor. Molten Golden is my favorite: a mustard-based sauce with mangoes, cumin, and curry that has garnished multiple awards from the fiery-food authorities.

SuckleBusters Habanero Pepper Sauce / Coppell, TX
This sauce packs some serious heat. It can leave you gasping, yet it’s rife with awesome flavor from its all-natural, simple blend of garlic, onions, peppers, and spices. Dan Arnold makes this blisteringly good Texas brew. Dash it on a burger and thank me later.

Williamson Bros. Hot SauceMarietta, GA
These guys had little more than a 1988 Chevy Blazer, which they won with a hundred-dollar raffle ticket, when they opened their barbecue joint just north of Atlanta. Now their business is thriving and their cayenne hot sauce can be found in certain Whole Foods stores.

Cat 5 Hot Sauce Food PolishRockport, TX
Chef Tony Legner started experimenting with fiery table seasonings just as Hurricane Katrina was barreling toward the Louisiana coast, thus the name of his popular line of sauces. His hot sauce is carrot based with a blend of strong peppers: pequins, jalapenos, habaneros, and ghost peppers.

Henry’s Ghost ChileBasye, VA
The ghost pepper until recently was thought to be the hottest pepper in the world. Most sauce makers order theirs dried and powdered direct from northern India. But Ernest Henry and his son Bob grow theirs right on their Virginia farm. They maintain a seed lineage, given that most of the peppers they grow are not commercially obtainable. This stuff is potent and pure: just one drop will splinter your tongue (or mine anyway), so use with caution.

Stevie Mac’s Serrano SurpriseLargo, FL
The Serrano pepper isn’t commonly featured in the hot sauce industry. Steven McPherson was given one by a friend, tossed it in a pot with a few other ingredients, then fell asleep on his couch. When he awoke to great smells in his kitchen, he knew he was onto something. His “Serrano Surprise” won a Scovie Award in 2012, and his hot sauce success led to the opening of his own restaurant in North Redington Beach, Florida.

peppers on plate_2_jwb
Photo by Jonathan Boncek

Other notable sauces 

Smoking J’s Fiery FoodsCandler, NC
A seriously tasty, all-natural line of sauces from a family-owned and -operated company in the mountains of western North Carolina near Asheville. They grow many of their ingredients on their ten-acre farm. Their Jamaican Ginger hot sauce won an award at North Carolina’s annual hot sauce contest. Smoky Mango and Roasted Ghost are also excellent. You can’t go wrong with this line of sauces.

Tahiti Joe’s Tropi-GarlicWest Palm Beach, FL
Some of Joe Turner’s hot sauce labels may be outrageous (think gastronomically), but don’t blame him. Blame the consumer. The truth is, he makes some of the freshest, best-tasting sauces on the market. When one of his award-winning sauces wasn’t selling, he renamed it “Wet Fart” just to see what would happen. Sure enough, it started flying off the shelves. So don’t shy away from his labels. Just try it, and you’ll be glad you did (but watch out as some can be seriously hot). Turner’s signature ingredient? Clam juice.

Toad Sweat ElixirCharlotte, NC
In 1996, Todd Guiton won acclaim for his key lime habanero cheesecake. This led to a line of dessert hot sauces, a nod to the ancient Mayan and Aztec tradition of spicing up their chocolate. The sauces go down smoothly (with a kick) and are great on ice cream. And the name? Todd, whose nickname is “Toad,” was trying a particularly hot blend once, and his coworker remarked, “That sauce is so hot it’s even making Toad sweat.”

Cin Chili Hell’s Passion / Houston, TX
This Texas-based family-owned hot sauce company has its roots in international chili competitions. Cindy Reed Wilkins’s family has been winning chili championships for generations. She branched out and is now winning Scovie Awards for her hot sauces. Her “Hell’s Passion” habanero hot sauce is heavy on the black pepper flakes with a good habanero-cayenne heat.

Ed’s RedPort St. Joe, FL
Gulf Coast native Ed Creamer saw the world while in the Navy, trying different sauces at every port. He calls his Louisiana-style cayenne-vinegar-based hot sauce “an oyster’s best friend.”

Race City Sauce Works Jalapeno Sour AppleCharlotte, NC
This Charlotte company cranks out unusual flavor combinations such as “Green Fairy Absinthe Inferno” and their tart-sweet-hot jalapeno sour apple sauce, both of which have won them many awards. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Big Papa’s Mangonero PeachNew Smyrna Beach, FL
David and Gloria Early had a son on a Navy sub who complained about the blandness of the food and begged for his dad’s hot sauce. The Navy cooks got a hold of it and convinced Mr. Early to go into the sauce business. His “Mangonero Peach” sauce won him a Scovie Award this year, yet he still hasn’t quit his day job at the Kennedy Space Center.