Subtlety and understatement are not exactly mantras in the modern hot sauce biz, especially when you look at bottles boasting slogans like "100% Pain" and "Insanity." It should be no surprise, then, that we're in the middle of a Scoville Scale arms race—a chile pepper blitzkrieg that can feel more like a death march than a road to enlightenment, as companies vying to outmaneuver their competitors keep pushing the heat levels to the extreme outer-reaches.
But while these "warnings" only seem to encourage more and more YouTube dares, hot-sauce wasn’t always a game of one-upmanship. Historically speaking, hot sauces began where hot peppers grew, in Central America, perhaps some 2000 years ago, deployed sparingly to add flavor to a humdrum meal. Centuries later, companies like Tabasco and Huy Fong's (Sriracha) broke through the mainstream, setting the stage for a global interest in hot sauce.
The widespread interest has also primed us for a certain type of chilehead with the courage to sign a legal disclaimer before entering the "XXX Hot" category of hot-sauce tasting. As more product enters the market, one way to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack is by ratcheting up the Scovilles in novelty bottles—seemingly lethal formulas that sometimes hover in the seven- or eight-digit range. (For perspective, a humble jalapeño is around 10,000 Scoville units.) Not everyone considers those things “sauces” though, as they can only occur courtesy of extracts, the HGH of the spice world.
"A 10-million Scoville sauce would be made from only Oleoresin Capsicum, an extract from chiles that distills their pure heat," Noah Chaimberg tells me. He’s the world’s first hot sauce sommelier and owner of Heatonist, a hot sauce specialty store in Brooklyn that carries First We Feast's Hot Ones blend. He adds, “It's what pepper spray is made from.”
So what’s the point of a hot sauce if we’re not getting some flavor with the burn? Indeed, almost all of those so-called sauces that sky past one-million Scoville units have to use extracts to pad those numbers. Chaimberg and many other experts believe most of those are food additives at best. That’s why they’re often packaged with a medicine dropper—to be applied a mere dash at a time—simply meant to add heat without flavor. (If anything, many folks get a kerosene or metallic note from extract, due to the solvents used in the extraction process). We clearly have no interest in touting those in our top 10.
Below, are the hottest hot sauces—in descending order—that aren’t 100% extract, and ones that you can actually purchase today. While many of the top hot sauce-mongers have a variety of sauces that could qualify, we’ve only included the single hottest, regular-released offering per company. Keep these scorching sauces in mind when you pass by the Hot Ones crew November 5-6 at ComplexCon, where progressively hotter wings bring out the
worst best of your favorite celebrity guests.
NOTE: in some cases Scoville units are estimates.