Before age 25, my threshold for chilies and heat was very low. Wimpy low. Not sure what happened, or what the internal catalyst was, but post 25, I have become what’s known as a “chili head” -- or plainly, a lover of heat, chilies, hot sauce, hot dishes, spicy sauces and salsas. To be clear, while my heat tolerance is considered high, even for a 10-year-plus rookie, I’m not a “the hotter the better” chili head. That distinction goes to Jeff Bustos, the general manager formerly at Vesta and now at Steuben’s. Jeff has the highest tolerance for spice I have ever seen. If Jeff says it’s too hot, I generally stay away. Regardless of our marginal degrees of tolerance, we inevitably find ourselves talking about all things spicy if for no other reason than it’s our common denominator. To finally illustrate my love of spice, I give you a quick conversation between my oldest daughter, Olivia and me: “You put hot sauce on everything,” she says. “No, I don’t,” I respond. “I just rarely eat the things I don’t put hot sauce on.”
As my love for heat progressed, my next logical obsession would have been hot sauce. About six years ago, the world of hot sauces, which had previously been a mystery to me, became a whole new culinary adventure. The evolution of the obsession, influenced by Vesta’s world-eclectic menu, and the development of Steuben’s menu, started with bottle upon bottle of varying world-spanning hot sauces, multiplying like bunnies in my home kitchen cabinets. The obsession peaked, I think, when I proudly took over three unoccupied shelves in the Steuben’s to-go area, which is now called “the hot sauce bar.” The Steuben’s hot sauce bar reflects my preferences and personal favorites, but has always been open to additions from all of the staff -- with one caveat: No rudely named, gimmicky hot sauces. My favorites? Some are pretty typical, like the extra hot Valentina, Texas Pete, Crystal, Sriracha, Tabasco, and Sambal Olek. Others fall into unusual, off the beaten path, in-the-know, or eccentric category. I love the Tabasco Spicy Teriyaki. An Indian peri peri sauce is sweet and spicy, albeit hard to find; Texas Pete Chili Vinegar is essential for collard greens; El Pato hot sauce is a Mexican favorite; and finally, we have featured some hot sauces that we’ve consumed, only to never find them again. A fiery Korean and onion paste haunts me. It is my Moby Dick. My hot sauce obsession reached its proud finale when I decided that it was time to make my own hot sauce -- not to try to make anything better than what I already loved, redo the hot sauce wheel, or even compete with anything on the beloved hot sauce bar, but because with Vesta’s arsenal of sauces backing me, the Steuben’s hot sauce was another accomplishment for us. Considering my newfound need for hot sauce in my life, it seemed like something I was destined to do.
The process started when I tried to decide what type of hot sauce I enjoyed the most. Louisiana? Mexican or Latin? Asian? I couldn’t decide. I love them all equally for different reasons. I then turned to the chefs in our company, and asked what they liked, or what they thought I should make. Chef Brandon at Steuben’s felt like something Louisiana, or American in style would fit the Steuben’s menu, while the Vesta chefs naturally believed an Asian, or Moroccan (think Harissa) hot sauce would better fit Vesta. Others suggested I try to come up with a sauce that combined the best of all worlds. This decision process became wildly debated, and the various sides passionately stuck to their guns. Eventually, it became clear that I simply needed to think about the components of a hot sauce that I wanted, rather than the style. The obvious components were easy: I wanted heat, but not “burn your face off hot”; I wanted vibrant red color; I wanted it to be smooth, but with texture, sort of like a cross between an Indonesian Sambal and Louisiana hot sauce. Vinegar? Yes. Sweetness? Yes, but only from the chilies. And then the idea that eventually defined what this hot sauce would become came to me: smoke. Not bbq smoker smoke, but barrel-aged smoke. I wanted to make a hot sauce, and barrel age it. Not just any barrel, mind you, but a whiskey barrel.
In 2009, Chef Biederman and I took a professional course in charcuterie at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Being upstate, we also wanted to take a tour of the Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farm http://www.hudsonvalleyfoiegras.com/index.html Before class one morning, Brandon suggested a tour of a distillery, where he happened to be friends with the son (and marketing director) of the owner. The distillery was Tuthilltown Spirits http://tuthilltown.com/ in Gardiner, New York. Steuben’s serves their whiskey, called Hudson Whiskey; the first legally distilled and aged grain spirit to be produced in New York since prohibition. Gable Erenzo, Brandon’s friend, gave us a cool tour, complete with tasting and gifts. Along the tour, I noticed…the barrels. Brandon asked if they sold and shipped the barrels. Gable said yes. We talked about the best barrel for the job. I wanted something char-burned on the inside, and, as luck would have it, Gable had just the right barrel.
As soon as we got back to Denver, I ordered the barrel. While I waited for it to arrive, I worked on the recipe…and the name. More on the recipe in a moment. The name was originally “Whiskey Barrel Hot Sauce,” which has a great sound to it. The more I pitched the idea to others though, the more I was asked, “How much whiskey is in the hot sauce?” I explained that there isn’t any whiskey in the sauce, but that the batch was aged in a charred whiskey barrel. I had to change the name. Thinking of Hudson whiskey, at some point, my thoughts turned to my grandfather, Alan Hudson. Big Al was the driving force behind my love of BBQ -- and BBQ sauce. I made the connection between BBQ sauce and hot sauce, and, from that, I came up with Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, as a way of paying homage to Tuthilltown Spirits and my grandfather. That’s the name that stuck in my head, and now we’re bottling it on a regular basis.
While I am usually more than willing to give out my recipes, I think that a barrel aged hot sauce sort of demands a degree of secrecy. I’d like to keep the recipe a secret, but will tell you that Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce is made with red Fresno chilies, onions and garlic. After 3 initial rounds of playing with the ratios, and technique, I’m proud to say that it was Vesta’s Chef Brandon Foster who finally nailed the blending technique that made the hot sauce the consistency I was looking for all along.
Telling this story had made me realize just how fortunate I am to be surrounded by incredible chefs, and passionate people. I’m excited to share with you more stories, both from me, and our staff, through this blog. And if you haven’t tried it yet, I’m excited to share Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce with you, whether you are at Vesta, Steuben’s, or visiting the Steuben’s truck.