Maine is a hotbed of hot sauce lovers — and makers.
- BY: VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
- PHOTOGRAPHY BY: BENJAMIN MAGRO
Who could have guessed that the best hot sauce of the 2011 Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in New Iberia, Louisiana, would come from Maine? Perhaps its creator, Dan Stevens, could. After all, Captain Mowatt’s Canceaux Hot Sauce had beaten out the festival’s hometown favorite, the venerable Tabasco, the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that.
“I find that people are not so much surprised by the fact that good hot sauces are made in Maine as they are by the number of Mainers who love hot sauce,” says Stevens, whose W.O. Hesperus company makes nearly twenty hot sauce varieties, as well as a number of spicy barbecue sauces, jerk sauces, and condiments. “You don’t think of Maine as being a hotbed of hot sauce lovers, but it is.”
Don Plaisted agrees. Maine’s hot sauce fanatics help keep him and his wife Sandy in business. A sign outside their gift shop, Rock Lobster on Exchange Street in Portland, boasts of the hot sauce collection within, but visitors are nevertheless in awe when they first encounter the colorful hot sauce wall. “They come down those stairs and go, ‘Wow!’ ” says Plaisted, who estimates that he sells more than five hundred varieties. “They don’t expect to find such a selection in Maine.” Maine brands account for only a small fraction of Rock Lobster’s collection, but they sell better than any of the other sauces the store stocks.
Most of Maine’s hot sauce businesses are one-person affairs. Peter Dockendorf, a chef and stay-at-home dad, brews his Nogginflogger out of his home in Cumberland. Likewise, Scott Waldron, who works full time as a UPS driver, crafts Lost Woods Hot Sauce at his house in Buxton. Even Stevens, who probably creates about three-quarters of Maine’s hot sauce varieties, has just one employee, his son. All three men started making hot sauce as a hobby, a personal quest to create something better than the national brands were delivering. And that, says Stevens, is the secret. “I know people out there making sauce and they don’t even like it,” he says. “If I make a sauce that I don’t enjoy, I won’t make it again. I only make what I like.”
On the day the Down East editors taste-tested twenty-five hot sauces, our office furnace was on the blink. The temperature dipped to fifty-five degrees in some parts of the building, and we had spent the morning working in our winter coats. Within twenty minutes of starting our tasting, however, the coats were off. Our bodies were radiating so much heat we could have created our own microclimate — Hey, everybody, there’s a Caribbean oasis growing on the third floor!
Nine of us participated. We represented a range of experiences with hot sauce, from the occasional, fairly timid user to the true connoisseur. We had spent the better part of the day before shopping for as many hot sauces as we could find, the only criterion for selection being that they must be made in Maine. We poured the hot sauces into cups and placed a sheet of paper beside each so we could record our impressions. Every sauce was tasted the same way — on a plain tortilla chip — so they were all on equal footing. Between tastings we cleansed our palates with sips of milk (well, some of us did; a few rejected the very idea of milk and hot sauce existing in the same room). Herewith, we present our favorites.
Sweet and spicy hot sauces are in a category unto themselves, and they inspire entirely different ways of turning up the heat.
Captain Mowatt’s Luscious
Fruits: pineapple, papaya
Tasters’ comments: “Apt name!” “Very fruity!”
How to use it: blend with cream cheese for a hot, fruity, tangy dip
Captain Mowatt’s Blue Flame
Fruits: Maine wild blueberries
Tasters’ comments: “Yum!” “Too mild.” “An excellent glaze with a touch of heat.”
How to use it: as a glaze for chicken or ribs
Captain Mowatt’s Scarlet Blaze
Tasters’ comments: “Peppery!” “Layered — nice kick, not too sweet.” “Mild, subtle.”
How to use it: as a glaze for roasted pork tenderloin, turkey, or duck
Captain Mowatt’s Scurvy Dog
Fruits: lemon, lime
Taster’s comments: “Tart and sweet.” “Light.”
How to use it: as a cocktail sauce for a Maine shrimp boil
The Best All-Purpose Hot Sauces
These are the sauces that you keep on your dining room table alongside your salt and pepper. Use them as a condiment like ketchup or as an ingredient in homemade salsas, barbecue sauces, and dips.
Nogginflogger Hot Sauce
Crafted in Cumberland by Peter Dockendorf, a chef and stay-at-home dad, Nogginflogger is reminiscent of Tabasco, only better and gentler. Its tangy-sharp flavor is perfect for everything from jambalaya to scrambled eggs. ($5.50 for 5 ounces, nogginflogger.com)
Key ingredients: aged cayenne peppers, dried peppers, vinegar.
Tasters’ comments: “Classic.” “Vinegary.” “A good base for Buffalo wings.”
Captain Mowatt’s Canceaux Sauce
Voted Best Hot Sauce at the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival four years in a row, Canceaux owes its depth to four different types of peppers. An initial sweetness gives way to a burn on the tip of the tongue, then a dose of garlic, and, finally, a pleasant, spreading warmth in the back of the throat. ($8 for 8 ounces, wohesperus.com)
Key ingredients: fresh jalapeno, African Birdseye, japone and cayenne chilies, sugar, garlic.
Tasters’ comments: “Thai-inspired.” “Shrimpy.” “Reminds me of sweet and sour.”
Tiger Teeth Pepper Fiery Habanero
Just a whiff of this gorgeous crimson sauce will make your face flush and you nose hairs tingle. Biddeford saucemeister John Farnsworth has adapted his Caribbean mother-in-law’s Scotch bonnet sauce to make this searing condiment, which is so thick it’s almost a relish. Dab it on raw oysters for a spicy, briny treat.
($8 for an 8 ounce jar, tigerteethpepper.com)
Key ingredients: fresh habanero peppers, vinegar, garlic.
Tasters’ comments: “A little salty, but neat consistency.” “Delish!”
Lost Woods Hot Sauce
Buffalo wings aficionado Scott Waldron created Lost Woods in a quest for a sauce that wasn’t overpowered by vinegar. One of the few sauces to receive unanimously positive reviews by our staff, Lost Woods enhances the flavor of chowders, stir fries, and, of course, chicken wings. ($7 for 8 ounces, lostwoodshotsauce.com)
Key ingredients: chili peppers, white wine, garlic powder.
Tasters’ comments: “Garlicky and flavorful.” “Oh, yeah!”
Buen Apetito Mexican Grill Jalisco Hot Blueberry
Don’t let the name fool you: this is not a fruity hot condiment. We love the way the heat builds after the first hint of sweetness. This flavorful sauce is made by Buen Apetito, a Mexican restaurant in Waterville. ($4.95 for 3 ounces, buenapetitorestaurant.com)
Key ingredients: red savina habanero peppers, carrot, apple cider, blueberry preserves.
Tasters’ comments: “Starts soft, then really kicks in.“ “A very effective hot sauce; I’d buy it.”
Captain Mowatt’s Vat 54
This is the champagne of the W.O. Hesperus line. Owner Dan Stevens ages seven types of chili peppers in a whiskey barrel for one year. Each batch, he says, is a little different, and quantities are limited. ($25 for 8 ounces, wohesperus.com)
Key ingredients: aged red chilies, vinegar, sugar, garlic, seaweed.
Tasters’ comments: “Good . . . but $25?” “Well worth it.” “Sweet, spicy, luxurious.”
Spicy Barbecue Sauces
We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Maine’s other hot pepper cottage industry: spicy barbecue sauces. If you prefer burning your lips on barbecue, consider trying DennyMike’s Hot ’n Nasty (dennymikes.com) and Cue Culture’s Pomegranate Jalapeno and Apricot Habanero Rum barbecue sauces (cueculture.com).
Captain Mowatt’s Private Reserve Jolly Roger Hot Sauce
The only sauce that ranked 10 on our heat scale, Jolly Roger forced a few of our tasters to take a break from sampling until their tongues recovered. Said one, “After one second: okay, not bad. After two seconds: uh, oh. . . . ” The cause of their pain: the Red Savina habanero pepper, which held the Guinness World Record for the hottest chili pepper for a dozen years (it has since been unseated by the naga jolokia pepper). Still, even the wimps appreciated that Jolly Roger’s fire does not come at the expense of a deep, savory flavor. A little Jolly Roger goes a long way, which makes up for the steep price. ($16.50 for 8 ounces, wohesperus.com)
These condiments have distinctive flavors that make them somewhat less versatile than their classic pepper sauce cousins, but no less delicious. Here are our suggestions for tasty matches.
Captain Mowatt’s Greenie
A very limey avocado-jalapeno sauce with a touch of cilantro. Use it on eggs, beef tacos, and anything that loves guacamole.
Stonewall Kitchen Habanero Mango Hot Sauce
Tastes like Major Grey’s chutney whirred in a blender with curry and mustard. Serve it with samosas and tandoori chicken, or use it in place of mustard in deviled eggs.
Captain Mowatt’s Cocoloco
A creamy, slightly tart coconut sauce — almost a comfort food! Use it as a dipping sauce for grilled shrimp or as a dressing on grilled chicken salad.
Mother’s Mountain Habanero Heaven
Mustardy with a good dose of habanero heat. Excellent on grilled garlic sausages.
Where to Buy Maine Hot Sauces
Rock Lobster, 8 Exchange St., Portland, 207-775-9101; Rock Lobster, 15 B Shore Rd., Ogunquit, 207-646-6616; Maine’s Pantry, 111 Commercial St., Portland, 207-228-2028;Flaming Gourmet, 28 Dock Sq., Kennebunkport, 207-967-8825; specialty food stores around the state; online at the manufacturers’ Web sites.