Some Like it Hot

On one of the muggier days of July 2017, I walked into Heatonist on Wythe Avenue with the determination to fight heat with heat.

Heatonist’s appeal to hot sauce enthusiasts is the opportunity to try the sauces before buying them. Krysty Pringle, one of the “hot sauce sommeliers,” offered to guide me through the average tasting. At the front of the store is a bar with all the sauces on display. Each customer has a plastic spoon for the sommeliers to pour a few drops, just the right amount for the unseasoned palate.

“Some people come in a little overwhelmed, and we kind of guide them through flavor instead of guiding them through heat,” Pringle said.

The tasting is designed as a crescendo of spiciness. I started with Humble House’s Ancho & Morita sauce, which tasted like a smokier and sweeter barbecue sauce. Not too spicy.

Next was Queen Majesty’s Red Habanero & Black Coffee sauce. Erica, the hot sauce maker at Queen Majesty, brewed the coffee with vinegar in order to use it in her sauce. Spicier than the first. 

Finally, I tried Dawson’s Hot Sauce’s Heatonist #1, the result of a partnership between Heatonist and Dawson’s Hot Sauce, a sauce maker from Canada. With Szechuan peppercorns and ghost peppers, the sauce was remarkably spicy. The heat of the ghost peppers lingers in my mouth before taking me by surprise as it builds up in my entire body, leaving nothing but the urge to find something to soothe the burn.

My hot sauce experience is a familiar one at Heatonist. For example, when the store was celebrating the first anniversary of its tasting room in the spring of 2016, the sommeliers concocted a new sauce that would make its debut at this friends-and-family gathering. They served specialty Szechuan sausages, purchased from the Meat Hook, a local Brooklyn butcher, and spread the sauce on brioche buns.

They came up with the idea for the sauce while experimenting with various peppercorns for fun, and found that the mouth-numbing spice of the Szechuan pepper should be a key ingredient for a sauce. Anxious the sauce wouldn’t be spicy enough, they paired it with ghost peppers from India and Bangladesh, famous for having been ranked hottest peppers in the world by the 2007 Guinness World Record.

After slathering brioche buns with sauce, some guests went on to add more. “We didn’t realize how spicy the sauce would be for all the other people attending,” Pringle said. Things did not turn out the way they planned.

“The next morning we were getting phone calls from our friends, saying ‘What the hell! My stomach can’t handle this!’ ” she laughed. 

The Heatonist story began in 2013, with a cart that Noah Chaimberg, a hot sauce enthusiast from Montreal, rolled around the streets of Williamsburg. Soon enough, the cart proved too small; people wanted to try more sauces but the mobile only had the capacity for five of them.

Chaimberg was already selling sauces online from his apartment, so a brick and mortar shop felt like the optimal next step. The operation is still small to this day – the five person team still ships the hot sauces from their back room.

Heatonist opened its storefront and tasting bar in April 2015. Since then, it has been a purveyor of craft, “small-batch, all natural,” hot sauces. It now sells about a hundred different sauces from 60 different vendors, and customers can try them all.

Many come back: “We have one customer who lives around here, and a couple times a week, he’ll come in and buy five bottles: a couple for work, a couple for home…” Pringle continued. With the average bottle priced between $10 and $14, being zealous with hot sauce is more than affordable.

Pringle is no stranger to the passion of sauce makers. “They are really crazy people but really fun and genuine and sweet, and they’re so happy to be making this product that people are loving,” she said.

My tasting adventure was old hat to Pringle. On any given day, she tries at least 15 different sauces at lunch. Needless to say, her tolerance, along with that of her partners, is very high.

Heatonist is just one outpost of New York’s hot-sauce lovers. For the past five years, people have traveled to the city for the annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo. Over 50 makers gather in the Brooklyn EXPO Center for two days to participate in range of events, including hot sauce and pepper-eating contests or hall of fame introductions. The Hot Sauce Expo has since spread to California, Arizona, Oregon, and New Jersey, a testament to people’s love for hot sauces.

Steve Seabury created Hot Sauce Expo as a way to exhibit the various talents in the hot sauce business. He himself is in the business, having started High River Sauces in his hometown in Long Island, after years of cooking some for musicians on the road. He created the Hot Sauce Expo as a way to exhibit the various talents in the hot sauce business. “These sauce makers have the same passion as heavy metal musicians,”  he added.

Like Heatonist, Bronx Hot Sauce is an example of the local passion put into creating a sauce. With the help of GrowNYC and the New York Botanical Garden, more than 30 community gardens in the Bronx grow serrano peppers which they then sell to Chef King Phojankong, who creates the sauce. Proceeds then go back to those community growers and gardens.

“Some kids tend to the peppers so they each grow about 100 pounds, and then the money from the sauce goes right back into their pocket,” Daniel Fitzgerald, vice president of sales at Bronx Hot Sauce, said. “And to have $500 in their pocket, even if it’s not a lot of money, it’s something to show that if you work hard for x you can get y.”

“We’re not just in the hot sauce business,” Fitzgerald continued. “Our whole thing is our economic model: harvesting from urban farms to create a product... and we think we can do that in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC.”

For the past two years, Heatonist has hosted a big party with Bronx Hot Sauce. “We roast a pig, we serve their sauce, and we have a really good time,” Pringle said. “It’s a meet the maker, meet the chef, and it’s a way to grow their brand!” She added, “It’s so much fun to meet the person who is pouring their heart and soul into making this hot sauce.” 

Back at the Heatonist tasting room, I was still reeling from the heat of the Szechuan and ghost pepper sauce, when realized that water could not soothe me. “The best thing is something fatty like dairy: so, milk, ice cream, yogurt,” Pringle advised. “Honey also works because of the sugar, and then of course a high proof alcohol.”

“When I tried a Carolina Reaper for the first time, which is currently the spiciest pepper in the world, the spice and heat affected me so much. I felt a little bit above myself because [the heat] lasted for so long,” she laughed. “I had to take a sip of whiskey to soothe my mouth!”

On my way home, I decided to buy some ice cream.