The Geography of Hot Sauce

Reflections on regional variations in heat tolerance

Hot-SaucesHot sauce has probably been around as long as chili peppers themselves, or about 6,000 years. The first commercially bottled hot sauce appeared in Massachusetts in 1807, and the ever-popular Tabasco made its appearance in 1868. Despite proprietary claims to the contrary, the ingredients (water, chilis, salt and vinegar) are not complex.

The most popular hot sauce in America is Cholula, crafted in Mexico and licensed by Jose Cuervo. It comes in five flavors besides the original: green pepper, chipotle, sweet habanero, chili lime and chili garlic. Frank’s RedHot, which claims to be the main ingredient in the original recipe for Buffalo wings, is second in popularity, followed by Sriracha and Tabasco. In terms of the greatest number of internet searches, Cholula was the most searched-for sauce in 41 U.S. states (courtesy of

The spiciness of hot sauce is measured by Scoville Heat Units (SHU), based on the concentration of capsacins (the active ingredient in chili peppers). Comparatively speaking, the top sauces are fairly tame. Cholula has a rating of 3,600 SHUs, compared to Tabasco (2,500), Sriracha (1,000-2,500) and Frank’s (a measly 450). The hottest hot sauce in existence is Mad Dog 357 No. 9 Plutonium, which comes in at a staggering 9,000,000 SHUs. It costs $130 per ounce on Amazon, but one ounce would probably go a long way.

Salsa-Hot-SaucesCorrelating the number of internet searches by state is an interesting exercise, which may or may not indicate actual consumption. Even so, the dominance of Cholula is unexpected. There were other surprises—Crystal Hot Sauce eclipsed Tabasco in its native state of Louisiana, which is no small feat. In Texas, where they presumably know their hot sauce, the preferred brand was El Yucateco. The Rapture, which registers a whopping 1.2 million Scoville units, came out ahead in New Mexico, Indiana and Arkansas.

A fair question is why use hot sauce at all, since it seems like the culinary equivalent of those contests where people see who can take the hardest punch in the arm. Even though Indian and Mexican chefs are constantly telling us not to confuse heat with flavor, it’s pretty certain that Mad Dog 357 would obliterate any taste sensation in its path. Someone with a classical palate weaned on French or Italian cuisine would probably avoid it at all costs. Perhaps the appeal has something to do with the way someone is brought up, and possibly the explanation lies in good, old-fashioned masochism.


Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.

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