Thursday, October 28, 2004
McIlhenny Company Turns Up Heat to Meet Competition
By ROGER M. GRACE
Ultra-hot sauces, aimed at the masochistic, became a rage in the early 1990s. Not a momentary fad, the craze continues. Tabasco Sauce, long denominated “hot,” has become, by contrast, lukewarm.
The new products bear names like Mad Dog’s Revenge, Blair’s Mega Death Sauce, and Crazy Jerry’s Brain Damage Hot Sauce.
Comparisons to Tabasco Sauce are frequent. Chet’s Gone Mad, for example, is touted as “700 times hotter than Tabasco Sauce.”
Chet’s product is 1.5 million “Scoville heat units,” or “SHU.” Just as rival diet products trumpet how few calories they contain, contemporary hot sauces boast of the points they register on the Scoville scale. The higher the number of units attributed to a sauce, the braver the warrior who endures the swallowing.
(Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacologist working for Parke Davis, in 1912 developed a system for measuring the “hotness” of peppers. Scoville’s purpose was to assure uniformity in the strength of his employer’s product Heet Liniment, which derives its pain-killing properties primarily from capsaicin, contained in peppers. Scoville used human tasters; today, sophisticated gizmos do the sampling.)
Up until the 1990s, the purpose of hot sauces was to enhance the flavor of foods. Tabasco used the advertising slogan in its early days, “One drop works wonders.” The aim of these trendy new hot sauces, however, is simply to be hot—hot to the point of inducing pain. Pointing to the potency of a single drop is no longer a boast as to efficacy in flavoring but serves as an admonishment as to danger; the label of Dave’s Insanity Sauce reads: “Warning: Use this product one drop at a time….Not for people with heart or respiratory problems.”
In the July 4, 1993 edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the McIlhenny Company’s fifth president, Ned McIlhenny Simmons, a great-grandson of founder Edmund McIlhenny, was quoted as saying that his outfit would not follow the trend because “flavor is our contribution rather than heat.”
By the following year, however, the company saw that it needed to meet competition and was developing a sauce made from habaneros, the hottest of peppers. But it did not contemplate sticking a Tabasco label on that product.
Paul McIlhenny, another great-grandson of the founder, was the company’s vice president (he’s now president) when he told the Los Angeles Times that the forthcoming habanero product would not be sold in the long-necked bottles associated with Tabasco Sauce. He was quoted in the Times on June 2, 1994 as saying:
“[W]e do not plan a hotter version of Tabasco. We consider that sacrosanct.”
Again, however, the company did an about-face. Sold today in narrow-necked bottles identical to those containing McIlhenny’s original Tabasco Sauce is McIlhenny’s habanero sauce, bearing a “Tabasco Brand” label.
Tabasco Habanero Sauce was introduced on a limited basis in late 1995, with mass distribution commencing the following year.
The new product registers 7,000-8,000 Scoville heat units, contrasted with the traditional Tabasco Sauce’s reading of 2,500-5,000 SHU.
It’s hotter than the original, but not scalding. The McIlhenny rendition of an habanero sauce, buffered as it is with fruit extracts, is mild in relation to straight-from-Hell versions marketed by others.
“Blair’s 6 A.M.” is billed as “The world’s hottest sauce!” A small bottle contains 16 million Scoville units. An advertisement on the Internet reads: “Okay, so it’s not really a sauce, it’s an extract, a food additive only, but who would want to put this kind of heat in their food?”
This “limited edition” shock-value product, admitted by its maker to lack utility, sells for $179.95 per potion.
The brands are so numerous that Farmer’s Market has a small store featuring nothing but hot sauces. Labels feature depictions of devils, explosions, skulls and crossbones, and so on.
There’s one sauce with the brand name “Pain and Suffering,” its label bearing the cartoon likeness of a woman scantily clad in leather, wielding a whip. The slogan is “It hurts so bad.” Labels and brand names get more (much more) risqué from there.
The McIlhenny Company thus bowed to consumers’ craving for hotter sauces without going to an extreme and without getting bizarre.
At the same time that McIlhenny Company’s habanero sauce was unveiled, its garlic-flavored variety (1,200-1,800 SHU) debuted. A mild, green jalapeño sauce had been launched in 1994 (600-1,200 SHU).
In 2002, McIlhenny added to its line of products a sauce made from smoked and dried chipotle peppers (1,500-2,500 SHU). Milder and thicker than a hot sauce, but hotter than a steak sauce, it’s splashed onto food rather than being administered in drops.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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