Hot sauce is serious business. Just ask musician Ed Sheeran, who recently launched his own range of the spicy spice that he plans to sell worldwide. “I recently took them on tour trying them with all sorts of meals,” says the singer, claiming to use his Tingly Ted’s sauces with his three meals a day.
It’s quite different from when Michael (Mic) Wejchert, founder and chief executive of Mic’s Chilli, started making commercial hot sauce in Ireland in 2010. People told him he was crazy and his company was going out of business, “because nobody likes hot sauce in Ireland”.
Flip the clock forward 13 years and Mic’s Chilli makes 14 different hot sauces at its factory in Kilcoole, County Wicklow, with two more going into production in the coming months. The brand is instantly recognisable, thanks in large part to the Day of the Dead-inspired labels of leading Irish illustrator Steve Simpson, and it is exported across Europe and to the US.
Wejchert worked as a structural engineer before chasing his dream of making hot sauce, and when the 2010 recession hit, he used a severance package from his job to start the business. But his love of chili sauce goes back further, to a family trip to Belize in 1994, when he and his mother visited his sister, who lived there. “Each table I sat at had a bottle of sauce, which of course I took as a personal challenge to try them all.”
Initially his launch product was the approachable spicy Inferno sauce, with a heat rating of three chillies, but in case the Irish public found it too hot, he also made a light version (two chillies) and a family friendly Inferno. Junior (one chili). Now, due to public demand and a change in what he sees as the Irish people’s interest in hotter sauces, there’s an Inferno Extreme (four chillies), but that’s not even close to its most potent hot sauce.
I currently have over 150 pounds of hot sauce fermenting, and this won’t be enough… Customers give me their phone number so I can let them know when it’s ready
— Valentin Ivanceno
That accolade goes to three hot sauces he makes that connoisseurs crave: Voodoo Reaper (made with Carolina Reaper, the world’s hottest chili, with a seven chili on the label); Trouble in Trinidad (Trinidad Scorpion chili) and Naga Knockdown (Naga Jolokia “Ghost” Chilli). “These are made with the world’s hottest peppers, in serious amounts. They’re all over 50 percent peppers in the bottles, when people normally use half a percent,” says Wejchert. The peppers used in these sauces are single origin. “It’s all about promoting the flavor of the chili, as well as the heat.”
Less fiery, next month Mic’s Chilli is launching a spicy ketchup, Hotchup, which he describes as “really spicy, little spicy, delicious.” Later in the summer, Desert Island, a yellow scotch bonnet hot sauce with mango, hits store shelves. “It’s a summery, fruity, nice yellow hot sauce.”
Adding fruit to hot sauce is something Brian O’Neill of the Dublin Hot Sauce Company does often. His Scarlet for Yer Ma range has both a raspberry chipotle variety and a mango and pineapple variety. O’Neill, who lived in California for 20 years before returning to Dublin, spent eight of those years making reality TV shows in Los Angeles, which is where he developed his interest in the spice. “The crews bonded with hot sauce and the eternal hunt was for the best we could find in each new state or city.”
Back in Dublin in 2018, he spent a year researching and setting up his hot sauce business and the following year produced the first bottle of Scarlet for Yer Ma. It is still a one-man business, run from a commercial kitchen in Blanchardstown, Dublin. O’Neill estimates that he has single-handedly created, bottled, labeled and sold more than 100,000 Scarlet for Yer Ma sauces since he started the company.
The name distinguishes Scarlet for Yer Ma on its own and brings a smile to those familiar with the saying. “I came home from town one night and I heard two young boys on their bikes telling a story and one of them just said ‘scarlet for yer ma!’ and they both started laughing, and I thought that must be the name.
“It was a bit risky because I thought we’re taking this very seriously and we have a crazy name and I don’t know if that’s good in business.” The Poolbeg towers on the label have a family connection. “My Uncle Danny was their chief welder. So when I was a kid, we always thought they were his – Danny’s Chimneys.
Scarlet for Yer Ma hot sauces are more accessible when it comes to chili heat. “We decided early on that a super hot sauce would alienate everyone but 1 percent and I wanted a hot sauce that was [for] breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea so we went with Mexican style hot sauce. I tried to make it more complicated in the beginning, but soon realized that simple was better.” Instead of raw distilled vinegar, O’Neill uses red wine vinegar which he says “rounds things off a bit.”
Valentin Ivancenco mainly uses apple cider vinegar, from David Llewellyn in the north of Co Dublin, for the myriad of hot sauces he makes at Fairmental, the deli and café he runs with his wife Mihaela, at 4 Grand Canal Street Upper, Dublin. A chef from During his career, Ivancenco lost his job during the pandemic and had time to return to the foraging and fermenting he enjoyed growing up in Romania. Sharing their yeasts with family and friends led to requests to sell them to others, and an online business was born.
In February they opened the café and deli, where Valentin’s range of fermented sauces are popular. “It’s the most popular product I’m making right now,” he says. “It’s become something for people to just come in and see what we have each week.” The range of hot sauces is constantly changing, with up to six variants on the way, at different stages of production. “At the moment I have a mushroom that is very popular, and wild garlic and mirin. And soon I will have a yellow habanero, which I just made today.
Fermentation is a skill that requires patience. “I currently have over 150 pounds of hot sauce fermenting, and this won’t be enough, as some of my sauces take up to two years to be ready,” he says. “Customers can see the jars in the store, see what’s coming, and we have people booking them. They give me their phone number so I can let them know when it’s ready.”
Instead of using it as a marinade, Ivancenco suggests mixing some of its hot sauce with soy sauce and butter (or honey, if you want a sticky finish), to use as a barbecue glaze. “It is very tasty with chicken and pork. You don’t want to spend 7 euros on a small bottle of chilli sauce and then burn it on the barbecue.”
Hot stuff: two Irish suaces to try
Two Boys Brew Hot Sauce, €8, twoboysbrew.ie: Taurean Coughlan and Kevin Roche started making hot sauce when they developed the recipe for an avocado casserole in their Two Boys Brew coffee shop. “The dish became such a staple on the Two Boys Brew menu that after many requests we decided to bottle the hot sauce and put it on our store shelves.” They make it themselves in their kitchen in Dublin 7 and it is now available to order for shipping across the country.
Conbini Condiments., $5.90, conbinicondiments.com: Chef Holly Dalton makes and sells a range of three condiments for her Japanese-inspired Conbini label, including Onsen Hot Sauce, which takes its name from Japanese hot springs. She says it’s “inspired by the satisfying, intense heat that an onsen brings.” The Conbini range can be purchased online and is supplied by independent food retailers across Ireland, as well as being exported to the UK and some retailers in France, Belgium and Germany.
Taste test: two Irish hot sauces against one from Thailand and one from Mexico
Sriracha Hot Chilli Sauce (Flying Goose Brand), €6.50, 455ml: The OG of hot sauces, this one has been made from sun-ripened chillies since 1999 in the Si Racha district of Thailand’s Chonburi province. It is quite a creamy sauce, quite sweet on the palate initially, with a second wave of heat.
Cholula Limón, €4.50, 150 ml: The cashier at Fallon & Byrne said that this Mexican hot sauce is one of their best sellers and needs to be refilled all the time. It has a fairly thin consistency, with a good citrus kick. Would be excellent on fish tacos.
Scarlet for Yer Ma (original), €6, 150g: Bright and fresh taste. This one is delicious, with an intensely fruity, not too hot flavor profile that will keep you coming back for more. Excellent.
Mic’s Chilli (Of Foam and Fury), €4.95, 155g: The most liquid consistency of the batch – all that double IPA concentrate from Galway Bay Brewery. The beer immediately stands out and adds grapefruit and hop flavor to the chili kick. An interesting combination.