Hot sauce is a strange beast. Most people see it as just a condiment, a simple way to liven up food; dive deeper, though, and you enter a world of web forums, conventions, and stores devoted to the stuff. What makes hot sauce such a cult item? Some sauces are certainly a sort of physical challenge, a badge of pride that says “I can eat spicier things than you and therefore I’m more of a man”. We’ll leave those — the sauces and the people — alone. For us, it’s all about exploring the different varieties and knowing that no matter how bad our food is, we can make it better with a few flicks of the wrist.
But a cursory glance at these gourmet sauces reveals a rather grizzly truth. For reasons unknown, hot sauce marketing tactics are a pretty crass affair, with boundless ass jokes at every turn. Gear Patrol is (mostly) a classy organization, and we know our readers don’t go in for this bush-league humor. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of sauces that light a fire under all our specifications: they have to taste good, look good on the table, and lastly, not offend any minorities or people who voted blue in the past ten years (this narrows the search considerably). Grab your antacids and dive in.
Texas Pete Original Hot Sauce
For The Fan of SEC Football: Those of you looking for a hot sauce that will scintillate rather than singe your tastebuds better get to know Texas Pete. A longtime Southern table standby, the Winston Salem (not in Texas) based sauce goes well on everything from eggs to pizza. It’s less vinegary than Tabasco and tastes more like a proper hot sauce. As far as table appeal goes, Pete sits squarely in the middle of the pack. It’s not going to win any Red Dot awards, but it’s a classic design that will make your “cantina” seem a bit more authentic.
Tapatio Salsa Picante
For the President of the Casey Affleck Fan Club: Tapatio is another widely available hot sauce that outperforms many boutique sauces. With a fairly simple flavor profile, it’s comparable to a spicier version of Texas Pete. Aesthetically, the bottle is a masterpiece. It’s a simple design that lets the dapper man (who bears a striking resemblance to the younger of the Affleck Brothers) in the center do the talking. What’s he saying? “This guy knows his hot sauce, but won’t spend the whole night talking about Wilbur Scoville.”
Valentina Salsa Picante
For The Mexico Enthusiast: Another sauce praised for its flavor more than its heat, Valentina is great for making bad food good and good food better. Made in Gudalajara (that’s Mexico, hombre), Valentina is a slightly sweeter sauce than Texas Pete with a heavier pepper flavor and a bit more heat. It comes in a big bottle (12.5 or 34(!) ounces), so if you want to show off your liter of hot sauce, be sure to keep this one on the table. The Spanish label will get you autentico points too.
Red Lightnin’ Hot Sauce
For the Dog/Child in need of Headwear: This habanero pepper-based sauce is balanced and spicy. But let’s be honest. This is a design tour de force that should be the centerpiece of any cosmopolitan kitchen. Fact 1: The label is a surrealist masterpiece that might as well have been sketched by Dali himself. Fact 2: It comes with a hat.
Cholula Chili Lime Hot Sauce
For the Jet Set: Standard Cholula is probably the best widely available all-purpose hot sauce, and the Chili Lime edition adds a citrus twist to the wood-topped stalwart. The lime hit makes this sauce a good companion to chicken and seafood — but it really hits its stride in guacamole. Plus, the stuff is made on the north shore of Lake Chapala, which is like the Lake Como of Mexico, so this is probably the hot sauce that George Clooney puts on his food (note: this is probably not the hot sauce George Clooney puts on his food). The bottle’s a classic, so nobody will fault you for leaving it out on the counter.
The Unsavory Side of Hot Sauce
Dive deep enough into the world of hot sauce and you’ll encounter thousands of bottles you wouldn’t dare tell your mom about. We’re big proponents of the high road, but there were a few of these off-color bottles whose creativity we couldn’t help but note. Ass Reaper Hot Sauce With Skull Cap and Cape, Lady Liberty’s Fire 350ml (Statue of Liberty Hot Sauce) and Bomb Saddam Mad Blast w/ Beret Cap Hot Sauce all deserve a head-shaking, no-eye-contact round of applause.
Marie Sharp’s Habanero Pepper Sauce
For the Consummate Entertainer: Marie Sharps might as well be the national condiment of Belize. It’s also available in the U.S., and it’s delicious. The habanero version is spicy enough to send less capsaicin-tolerant friends to the dairy aisle, but its carrot, garlic, and lime flavors make it about more than just spice. The handsome bottle not only has “Product of Belize” printed on it (oh, you must be well traveled), it’s also got a nice image of all the relevant ingredients so you can give suspiciously insightful tasting notes.
Captain Spongefoot’s Cranberry-Chipotle Table Sauce
For the Haute Sauce Fan: If you’re bored with most hot sauce offerings, look no further than Colorado-based Captain Spongefoot. Their most interesting sauce is the Cranberry Chipotle Table Sauce (not technically a hot sauce, but whatever), which combines a fruity sweetness with a smokey, lingering heat from chipotle peppers. It’s far from traditional, but try it on chicken, fish or wings and see what you think. Do: show off its top-notch graphic design. Don’t: try to explain the whole “spongefoot” thing.
Virginia Gentlemen Bourbon Chipotle Hot Sauce
For the Yeoman Farmer: The key to this Virginia-made sauce is the bourbon. What would otherwise be a pretty standard chipotle hot sauce (smoky, not too hot) is made great with a dash of Virginia Gentleman 80 Bourbon Whiskey. Put it on steaks, pork chops, or other things Thomas Jefferson would eat. Aesthetically, this one is a star; proudly display it anywhere in your kitchen and try to avoid the temptation to peel off the plantation scene label and frame it.
Lottie’s Original Barbados Red Hot Sauce
For the Steel Drum Enthusiast: Straight from the South Caribbean, Lottie’s uses scotch bonnet peppers for a unique taste. It packs plenty of heat, but there’s enough flavor to keep things interesting. Leave this handsomely designed (if a little text-heavy) flask-shaped bottle out on your countertop next to your Mount Gay rum.
Dave’s Gourmet 2013 Limited Edition Private Reserve
For the Guy With a Hot Sauce Cellar: Every year Dave’s Gourmet formulates a new private reserve hot sauce, and this one’s a doozie. Featuring the infamous Bhut Jolokia or ghost pepper (400 times hotter than Tabasco), it supposedly has notes of passion fruit and citrus; however, it’s safe to assume that all you’ll be tasting are whirlwinds of tempestuous fire. The packaging of the Private Reserve is befitting a $40 hot sauce and features a signed and numbered wood box wrapped in caution tape. Just remember to go easy on it, hoss; people have reported cold sweats, uncontrollable shaking and temporary hearing and vision loss after a teaspoon of the stuff.