The History of Hot Sauce

Chilli Pepper plants, we’re told, have been around for 100,000 years and are believed to be amongst the earliest cultivated plants. In February 2007 an article in the journal Science presented evidence that chile peppers were domesticated in South America at least by 6,000 years ago (The Bahamas to the Andes). So it’s not unreasonable to expect that throughout the ages conserves would have been made from these.

The first commercially bottled cayenne sauces appeared in Massachusetts in 1807. Few of these early sauces survive; a lot of this early history is gained from advertisements for sauces in newspapers.

Sometime between 1840 and 1860, J. McCollick & Company of New York City produced a Bird Pepper Sauce, most likely made with wild chiles called chiltepins, or bird peppers.

The first recorded crop of tabasco chiles was in 1849, grown by a prominent Louisiana banker and legislator, Colonel Maunsell White. Interestingly, 1849 is also the year that England's Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was first imported into the United States via the port of New York.

By 1959 Colonel White is manufacturing hot sauce, the first using the "Tobasco" chile, and advertised bottles of it for sale.

The same year, 1859, Edmund McIlhenny obtains some seed from his friend Colonel White and starts farming chillies on his plantation on Avery Island, Louisiana. But by 1863 the Civil War forces him and his family out, they seek refuge in San Antonio, Texas. On returning home five years later he finds that the peppers plants are not only flourishing but also covered in tiny red peppers. He promptly manufactures a batch of sauce and sends out the first 350 bottles to wholesalers as samples, within weeks he has orders for thousands and Tabasco rapidly becomes the defining flavour of Louisiana. In 1870 McIlhenny obtains a patent on his Tabasco® Brand hot pepper sauce but interestingly the Tabasco brand was not trademarked until 1906.

In 1877, Chicago-based William Railton presented the first instance of an advertisement that positioned a hot sauce as an exotic variety with medicinal benefits.

A little later, between 1918 and 1928, a whole range of manufactures were turning their hand at creating hot sauces, some of the still well known brands like Crystal Hot Sauce, Bruce Foods Original Sauce and La Victoria Salsa Brava all started about this time. Then of course came the great Depression and nothing much happened until La Victoria introduced their innovative red taco sauce, green taco sauce and enchilada sauces in 1941, the first of their kind in the US. David Pace, now Pace Foods, launched his first picante sauce in 1947 working out of the back of their liquor store in San Antonio, Texas.

Of course hot sauces were being made at this time in other places such as the Caribbean but they tended to be family enterprises with recipes handed down from generation to generation. There are few records of full scale production, with the notable exception of the Pickapeppa Company of Jamaica that started manufacturing their still popular brand in 1921. Other brands well known today including Susie’s and Melinda’s also started in the ’60s.

Then in 1979 Dan Jardine began production of Jardine's commercial salsa in Austin Texas and promptly claimed Austin as the hot sauce capital of America. A title not unsurprisingly disputed, although Austin does have it’s own Hot Sauce Festival now.

The El Paso Chile Company, was started in 1980, by W. Park Kerr and Norma Kerr, and they came out with lots of new ideas in salsa such as adding cilantro and in another prickly pear cactus. The ‘80s was a fertile decade for salsa and sauces creators and saw the start of many of today’s big names; Panola, Franks, Montezuma.

Much of the hot sauce and salsa was being sold in specialist gourmet food shops but in 1988 Lisa Lammé opened Le Saucier in Boston, believed to be the first store dedicated to hot sauces. But the big event of 1988 was when Dave DeWitt organised the first National Fiery Foods Show in the town of El Paso, Texas. This show has become an annual mecca for fiery food lovers, still hosted by Dave DeWitt (known as the “Pope of Peppers") and his company, Sunbelt Shows, Inc., is now held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is this show that presents the Scovie Awards; these are really the ones to win. A Scovie is a badge of honour for a hot sauce.

The name Scovie comes from Scoville Unit, the measure of hotness of a sauce and gets it’s name from its inventor Wilbur Scoville who developed the test in 1912 to measure the heat of a pepper. Bell peppers range from 0-100 Scoville Units while pure capsaicin ranks about 16,000,000. Tabasco sauce is about 3 to 5,000, any sauce above 100,000 is getting seriously hot and just a Habanero pepper itself is about 300,000 scoville Units.

Then in 1989 Blair Lazar created the “Death Sauce” range of hot sauces in New Jersey, US. His first Reserve sauce was called 2AM, the name originating from when Blair was in the Bar Business, 2 a.m. was the closing time and this was the closest thing to legal he could use to get the drunks out of the bar. Apparently it always worked, he made 4 Wings with his potion and if the customer could eat all four they could stay all night, needless to say no one stayed. Blair is a master of marketing, went on to create the 3AM and limited editions 4, 5 and 6AM sauces, really food additives, 6AM is over 10 million Scoville Units.

In 1990 the first Austin Hot Sauce Festival, hosted by the Austin Chronicle, was staged. Another showcase for new produces and several of the first shows winners go onto commercial success. This cements Austin’s Hot Sauce Festival as a launch-pad for hot sauces.

Hot sauce is now big business in the US. In 1992 Salsa replaced Ketchup as Americas number one condiment. The race was on to cash in on the new ‘hot’ craze and by 1994 the Austin Hot Sauce Festival gets 350 entries into its competitions. Success at the show becomes a virtual guarantor of commercial success.

Also creating a buzz at this time was Dave Hirschkop. A similar story to Blair, Dave was running a Mexican restaurant in College Park, Maryland, called Burrito Madness. The food was obviously spicy and in an attempt to drive out the late-night unruly customers Dave started making his sauce hotter and hotter. Finally resorting to the addition of industrial flavour enhancer called oleoresin capsicum. This is concentrated heat, offering the ability to create a hot sauce above and beyond what can be manufactured from chillies alone, it’s like super-charging your sauce. Despite everything, this new ‘Insanity’ sauce gained a following and Dave entered it into the 1993 National Fiery Food Show. It didn’t win… better than that, it got banned… a marketing man’s dream. The reason for the ban was as a result of an incident involving a man with a minor respiratory problem. Dave’s bottle now contains the warning notice "Use this product one drop at a time. Keep away from eyes, pets and children. Not for people with heart or respiratory problems."

From this point on the race is on to produce mouth-searing sauces, hotter an hotter, driving the chilli-heads insane. Dave took to wearing a straight-jacket at hot sauce shows to underline how insane anyone would have to be to try his sauces. It certainly worked since Insanity is now one of the biggest brands in hot sauce.

Hot sauce is by now ingrained in the culture of America and is big business. In 1994 the two biggest players, Pace and Old El Paso controlled about half of the market for Mexican sauces in the US. The market was still growing and attracting outside interest. Two landmark deals saw both of these companies change hands in 1994. Pace was bought by the Campbell Soup Company for an astronomical $1.1 billion, about five times Pace's 1994 estimated sales of $220 million, an amazingly high sales multiple. And Pillsbury, a division of the giant British food and beverage company, Grand Metropolitan PLC, purchased Pet Foods, maker of Old El Paso Mexican foods for $2.6 billion. Terry Thompson, a spokesperson for Pillsbury, called Old El Paso "one of the crown jewels" of brand names.

And the final watershed in hot sauce history, the year 2000 sees the launch of Chilliworld.com and finally all these hot sauces become available to the European market.