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Look, we know what you’re thinking: This is by far one of our worst pun-based ideas. But Greg gets real pissy if we don’t let him just go to town roasting something, both literally and figuratively, every thirty days or so. And so we present: an article not even written by Greg! That’s right, we made him write an article while he was busily expelling all the food in his stomach from every available orifice, then took his signature column away from him the moment he was feeling better. Why? Eat shit, loser, that’s why.
I’m just going to come out and say it: I love eating spicy stuff.
It doesn’t even have to be that great – take an otherwise mediocre dish, add a couple hundred thousand or so Scoville units, and suddenly I am deeply interested in whatever you’ve shoved in front of me. I’ve done spicy wing challenges, spicy soup challenges, spicy chip challenges, and many more over the years, and while, admittedly, I haven’t finished all of them – the One Chip Challenge had me scrambling to down an amount of milk that I immediately regretted – I tried, and that’s what counts, allegedly.
Most of the time, though, I’m not just in it for the pain. There’s a lot of stuff out there that just isn’t complete if you get it without any heat. Sure, you can probably find an Indian place near you that serves a vindaloo that doesn’t kick even a little bit as it goes down, but there’s something fundamentally missing when you take a dish that’s traditionally made with a bunch of spices and then go out of your way to avoid half of them. When I order something with a couple chili pepper icons next to it on a menu, it’s usually not because I’m intentionally trying to cause myself severe gastrointestinal distress, but rather because that’s how it’s meant to be served.
This isn’t to shame people who don’t like or can’t handle the heat, but simply to point out the simple fact that there are certain dishes that they will never experience in their purest form before sanitized Western corporate drones got their hands on it, in the same way that I will never have the experience of what an award-winning muffuletta tastes like because I cannot abide the taste of black olives. No judgment here if this isn’t for you.
So while there is something to be said for sitting down in front of an otherwise flavorless dish that serves as nothing more than an incubation vector for the most painful shit you will ever take in your life, for me, more often than not when I’m eating something spicy, it’s because it’s something I actually enjoy in its own right, and maybe kicking up the spice a little bit because the sauce I’ve chosen goes well with it.
There’s a problem there, though: a lot of people, including Hot Sauce-Likers, seem to have internalized this idea that the only point of hot sauce is to be hot. There are any number of unreasonably spicy sauces with names like “COLON CRUSHER” or “ASS BLASTER” or some other terrible butt-derived name pulled straight out of an elementary-school-aged wannabe edgelord’s Trapper Keeper. And they’re all basically the same: they have no flavor to speak of, and are more akin to vinegar thickened with pain than they are to anything a real human person would ever voluntarily put in their mouth if they weren’t getting a dollar or two out of the deal. As a result, it’s really not that hard to find a sauce that is hot, but depending on where you’re at, it can be actually kinda difficult to find a real Hot Sauce worthy of the name.
So whether you’re a spice-curious person looking for a sauce to really kick off your Heat Odyssey, or you like the burn but haven’t quite found your daily go-to sauce, or are even fully inducted into the Cult of Spice and just looking for a new sauce to shake things up for a bit, never fear: as always, we here at Goonhammer are here for you. We’ve gathered a few members of our local contingent of iron-gutted heroes to take through some of our favorite hot sauces – the ones that strike such an excellent balance between unabashed gut-melting heat and finger-licking flavor that even the more spice-averse readers amongst us might consider giving a shot. If you can handle the heat, these definitely deserve a place in your kitchen.
Condit’s Pick: Scorned Woman
I was first introduced to this little number when I was in law school. May 5th rolled around, and one of my friends decided to throw a party for Cinco de Mayo. He made fajitas for the group, and, being a fellow hot sauce connoisseur, as he put the serving plates out, he offered his bottle of Scorned Woman. I readily accepted, poured what I felt was a reasonable amount on my food, and started in.
That’s when I learned how good this stuff is. You can definitely tell it’s got a vinegar base, but the smoky and roasty flavors it brings with it do a great job of balancing that out, and it’s got just enough heat to make you think twice about really opening up the bottle if you’re not really in the mood to get spicy. About the only knock against it is that, on certain dishes, the flavor can be a bit overpowering, and so it’s not the best option to slather on everything unless you’re absolutely wild about the flavor. I went back for seconds, then thirds, and then promptly lost count.
He and I got through almost all of that 5 oz. bottle of Scorned Woman that night. Between the sheer number of fajitas we ate and the amount of hot sauce we covered them in, the end of the evening saw the two of us splayed out, each on one of the couches in his living room, alternating between remarking on how fucking good those fajitas had been and groaning in solidarity at how upset our respective GI tracts were at what we had just done to them.
As an indication of just how fucking good this sauce is, it’s the one that finally made a convert of my brother-in-law and left him chasing his own pepper-derived dragon. Prior to my introducing him to Scorned Woman, it was pulling teeth to get him to season food even with salt and pepper, and anything with any recognizable spice would cause him to start sweating so profusely it was legitimately concerning, then push it away and go back to eating unseasoned chicken breasts or whatever the fuck.
Ever since I introduced him to Scorned Woman, though, he’s fallen deep down the rabbit hole to the point of even starting his own hot sauce collection, and we swap recommendations on the regular. He’s even found a few that have made it into my regular rotation. He still sweats like crazy when he eats something with any recognizable heat, but now he does it to himself intentionally because he enjoys it.
I still can’t get him to season his goddamn chicken though. Baby steps, I guess.
Raf’s Note: One of the only real benefits to being an editor of this damn site is the Top Secret Editor’s Chat that is mostly used to dodge our actual real day jobs. Condit convinced me to give Scorned Woman a shot and I’m willing to back him up that this is a good sauce. I do want to point out how discordantly weird the vinegar and roasty notes are. This is a sauce that hits with the vinegar up front and then abruptly shifts into roasty black pepper flavors mid chew. Never had anything like it.
Condit’s Honorable Mention: Virginia Gentlemen Bourbon Chipotle Hot Sauce
Back in my younger days, I spent my summers working at a summer camp out in the Appalachian mountains, and one of my least favorite parts of the gig was the food they served. It’s not that it was particularly bad – U.S. Foods provides a reliable, if unimpressive, product that checks all the boxes for Minimum Viable Lunch – but after 3 or 4 weeks of having essentially the same food day after day and coming to the realization that there was still another 4 to 5 weeks of this bullshit to go, you start to look for something to keep things interesting.
Enter Virginia Gentleman: a sub-third-string bourbon distillery who only sits on a different shelf from Aristocrat because it’s priced out of the “broke college student trying to get hammered in public without having to re-up their student loans” market. For some reason, they let someone make a hot sauce with it, and for some reason, I decided to try it. Compared to anything else in this article, it’s not spicy at all, packing what has to be precisely the minimum amount of heat to credibly bear the “Hot Sauce” label. But the flavor is just excellent – it’s a solid chipotle sauce backed up with some interesting notes from the bourbon that’s used to set it apart.
It’s worth noting that, while the bourbon is Virginia Gentleman, the sauce is Virginia Gentlemen, which implies at least a 100% increase in the number of Gentlemen who consulted on the hot sauce. And honestly, that’s not surprising, as the first guy was probably desperate for a way to get the stuff to sell so he could open his shelves up for more creepy shrines to Stonewall Jackson or whatever the revanchist “lost cause” shitheads are working themselves into a lather over these days.
This sauce got me through several seasons of otherwise-boring food at that summer camp, and definitely helped out with the dining hall food once I went off to college. It also works well as part of a marinade for fajitas, if you’re looking to try something different – mix it up with some oil, add some salt and a few spices, twist in a lime, then dunk a flank steak or two in there and grill it. I cooked up a bunch of these for my sister’s high school graduation, and they vanished nearly before I had a chance to try any. Solidly the best use case for Virginia Gentleman in recorded history next to serving as a cautionary tale to other distilleries.
Raf’s Pick: Melinda’s XXXtra Hot Habanero
Melinda makes a number of hot sauces at various heat levels and they’re all worth recommending, but my number one all time hot sauce is her XXXtra Hot Habanero (grey label). It’s hot enough to give your food a kick but mild enough to be a daily driver. I think the secret to this line of sauces is the addition of carrots and garlic to the standard mix. It adds a natural sweetness which brightens the whole thing up and allows it to complement whatever you stick it on. It also rounds the sauce out so you aren’t just blasted with capsaisin and vinegar.
I’ll note that it isn’t the best sauce in the world for heavy robust dishes like chili or gumbo. I reach for Melinda’s for things like eggs, tacos, and anything that you might squeeze a lime over.
Condit Note: Raf convinced me to try this out, so I ordered one of the gift sets online. They sent me a couple of solid flavors, and then like 3 extra bottles of their scotch bonnet sauce, which is absolutely delicious and packs a respectable amount of heat.
Raf’s Honorable Mention: House Autry via World Market Gift Sets
A few years ago my mother in law gave me a hot sauce gift pack from World Market. You’ve probably seen these before; generic looking sauces with generic names that you can’t get at normal grocery stores but somehow appear in gift shops and places like World Market. Well friends, I gotta say I was stunned by how good these are.
There’s nothing generic about them. They’re fruity, flavorful, and good all around sauces. They are targeted at Basic White Americans meaning they don’t provide the heat you’d expect (the Ghost Pepper sauce has the level of heat you’d expect from a jalapeno sauce or a mild habanero) but this does let you actually taste the flavor of the pepper. This is often hard to get when you’re talking about Ghost Peppers and Carolina Reapers, so they’re worth seeking out.
Fowler’s Pick: Alex’s Ugly Sauce Ghost
When the signal fires shot up for a roundtable about hot sauces, I immediately lamented the loss of my favorite. For the better part of a decade I have always had at least one bottle of Alex’s Ugly Sauce in my fridge. Unfortunately, Alex decided to call it quits… and I found myself lost and sauceless. Thanks to a bit of cheeky intel from a friend I was able to secure a variety of bottles from a secret stash, including my favorite – Ghost. Consider this a eulogy for righteous sauce.
While my first love was the Original variety, Ghost is where it’s at. It’s a little spicier than I would generally go for the aforementioned “daily driver”, but there are nice hits of vinegar and sweetness. Rounded out with habanero and cayenne, it delivers a pleasant burn without making me regret my life choices. Nice at jazzing up dishes that need more than just a bit of heat – a secret weapon in stir fries as much as for burritos.
Years ago when I was between office gigs, I got a job at a liquor store that had, among other things, a full aisle of hot sauces. What I learned pretty quickly is that most hot sauces that promise death or intestinal discomfort (I think this is a John Hodgman reference?) kind of lost the plot on the fruit contained therein. All of the Ugly sauces hang onto plenty of the fruit flavor of the peppers, Ghost especially so!
Chelsea Fire Wicked Hot Sauce
While I was slinging cases of Sam Light at the store I mentioned above, the quickest and most affordable meal was a slice of pizza from the deli counter. It was a perfectly alright slice, but unfortunately it got boring immediately. One day my friend from the food department sent up the alarm for free samples, and I walked away with a bottle of Chelsea Fire (thanks, John!). Cheap lunch immediately got a permanent upgrade. Over the past decade there has scarcely been a slice I have eaten at home that was not doused in this sauce. It is the ultimate pizza topping, in my humble opinion. Heaven may in fact be a Poopsie’s pizza with this sauce on it. Poopsie’s is the best bar pie. Fight me.
Nice mix of habanero and ghost pepper, with a heap of smoky garlic. Help your sauce norm friends who can’t quit Frank’s graduate to this. Seeing ghost and habanero on the ingredients list might be a bit scary for the uninitiated, but it‘s definitely not too hot. Contrary to Alex’s that shines when a bit of complexity is welcome, just pour this on stuff and it suddenly becomes better.
Thanks for sticking with us on this little adventure into the wonderful world of hot sauce. Got a sauce of your own you think is better? Comments about our rankings? Sad that Greg didn’t pitch in on this article? Whatever your thoughts, I’m sure they’re wrong, but feel free to send them to email@example.com anyway and maybe we’ll grace you with a response.