some like it hot

NYLON, june/july 2016

Nothing changes your perspective quite like watching 10 people speed-eat hot wings until their snot, sweat, and tears are in freefall.

I learn this fact of life while standing in a dense crowd at the fourth annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo in Brooklyn, a celebration of spice for heat seekers of every stripe. The competitors in the wing-eating contest—which is presided over by a leather-and-spiked-choker clad hot sauce celeb who goes by the name “Defcon”—have just wolfed down chicken slathered in a sauce so potent that they had to wear rubber gloves while eating. Heavy metal blares in the background as they descend into condiment-induced ecstasy.

I can relate. Like them, and the rest of the Expo attendees, I’m a member of a community that’s willing to risk a little pain for its pepper passion—the kind of dedication I’ll venture to say is unmatched in the rest of the foodie world. In recent years, our cult has grown and diversified; all over the world, more and more people are beginning to realize that they can—and should—spice things up, and with more than just Tabasco (although it is delicious). Hot sauce is in our bags (ahem, swag) and popping up in everything from museum exhibits (like a recent show at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles) to fast-food joints (see: Burger King’s new “Angriest Whopper”). And we enthusiasts are all convening on social media and IRL in a quest for the hottest Carolina Reaper, the sweetest Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, and the ghost pepper with the deadliest kick. 

So why is everyone getting on the sauce? Here, three heat heavyweights speak to the appeal of some spice. 



The founder of and a sommelier (yes, sommelier) at Brooklyn-based Heatonist, the world’s only small-batch hot sauce shop

What made you open Heatonist?

I wanted there to be a place where you could try it before you buy it. I reached out to the big hot sauce distributors, but then a friend said, “You’ve got to check out this hot sauce from my hometown in Colorado.” I got a bottle and it was delicious and totally unusual. I talked to the founder of the company—it was just him and his sister—and they’d been making this hot sauce from scratch. I started to research and dig into it, and found this small-batch craft movement in hot sauce.

What’s the most surprising place of origin represented in your sauce selection?

One of our most popular lines is from Sasayama, Japan. It’s by a farmer known as “The Habanero Man of Japan.” He’s all about DIY: He grows the peppers, makes the sauces, designs the labels, and packages it. 

Why do you think hot sauce has seen such a boost in popularity in recent years?

With the rise of diverse types of foods that use spice, it gets people more accustomed to it. Now, people are saying, “Wait a minute. Let me be creative and make the sauce a really interesting, fun part of the meal.” There are so many new hot sauce companies, too—every week we get emails from companies that are starting up. There’s a lot more out there and there’s a bigger diversity of flavor.

What’s your pepper of choice?

I cook with ghost peppers all the time. I love them. 



The founder of Culley’s, a major hot sauce brand in New Zealand (and a testament to the fact that hot sauce heads are popping up all over the world)

What’s the hot sauce community like in New Zealand?

It’s growing enormously. Both the younger and the older generations are really getting into the scene. The interest we’re getting from overseas is amazing, too, so it’s a rapidly growing industry. 

When did you start noticing this growth?

In 2010—that’s about the time we started.  

What makes the peppers in New Zealand different?

We grow them on our farm—it’s 100 yards from the ocean so it has natural fresh air and they grow like wildfire. The New Zealand chili is sweeter and smoother.

Why do you think people are so interested in peppers and hot sauce now?

It’s actually kind of an addiction, since people get an endorphin rush from it. It’s quite a craft industry, as well, so it’s got a craft feel. Social media and its online presence are adding to that. People are exposed to different kinds of peppers because of it. 



The owner of CaJohns Fiery Foods and a member of the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame

How did you end up creating your own brand of hot sauce?

I started by selling other people’s hot sauce. I really liked it hot, and there were certain areas where I thought there should be a hot sauce type, but it wasn’t available, so I’d fill in those gaps. 

How do you stay up to date on what’s happening in the hot sauce world?

I’m involved with the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. I have access to their research, so I can see what the trending peppers would be and bring that pepper to the market. We were among the first to have ghost chili, Carolina Reaper, and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion products. 

What’s your prediction for what the next big pepper will be?

There are some really hot jalapeños that are yellow and orange that will be out this year, and we’re currently working with the 7 Pot Primo. 

Why do you think hot sauce has become so popular in recent years?

We’ve been riding the Sriracha wave. For older generations, hot sauce was vinegar-based, salty, and sharp. Sriracha, on the other hand, is sweet, thick, and garlicky. It’s made with ripe red jalapeños—a lot of people didn’t know that jalapeños, if left on the vine, turn red and get sweeter. People thought there were just cayennes out there and things of that nature, but then you find out that there are different peppers. The challenge these days is to hit a uniqueness in flavor, not just a uniqueness in heat. 

I’m sure the health benefits help, too.

Absolutely. I’m a cancer survivor myself—the doctors really thought that it was beneficial to me to have been consuming that much capsaicin [the chemical compound that makes peppers spicy]. It stops cancer cells from dividing. 

How has the popularity of hot sauce been translating to your sales?

Our customers are veering mostly toward the exotic sauces. Tiki Bar is a Polynesian-style sauce—it’s one of our best sellers. Our Oaxacan sauces are very popular—they’re Mexican-style. But I really like where we are with hot sauce right now, where it’s not just about what is the hottest pepper. People are actually looking for something different.