Megan Chong/Thrillist
Food & Drink

Boozy Hot Sauce Is About to Be Your New Obsession

No matter what your favorite hot sauce is, whether you’re a Tabasco die-hard or a Sriracha purist, you’re basically eating the same thing: hot peppers and white vinegar. Nearly every commercial hot sauce uses the sharp vinegar as a preservative, relying on the acetic acid in vinegar to kill off bacteria and make the sauce shelf-stable. The only problem with white vinegar is that, quite frankly, it’s better for cleaning toilets than complementing pepper’s natural flavors.

As with many of life’s problems, the solution is alcohol. A new brand of hot sauce, called Swamp Dragon, ditches the vinegar in favor of alcohol, which offers the same preservative properties without the nasty tang. Plus, the brand’s five flavors -- vodka, rum, tequila, ouzo, and bourbon -- give every dish a different boozy kick.

Founder Matt Beeson isn’t a food scientist, but as a native of New Orleans, he was raised on a steady diet of classic hot sauce brands. The vinegar flavor just never sat right with him. “I would spend a couple of days making a beautiful pot of gumbo, and it just seems against the divine plan to dump some vinegar in that just to get some spice,” he says. “The smell of it clashes. The taste of it doesn’t work with anything.”

Fed up, Beeson turned to vodka for help. “I thought, well vodka doesn’t go bad if you leave it out, so what if I switched vodka for the vinegar in a hot sauce,” he says. After a few years of passive market research, he realized that there were no true alcohol-based sauces available, just products infused or flavored with alcohol. So he seized that hole in the market.

Beeson collaborated with the Louisiana State University School of Nutrition and Food Sciences to create the world’s first alcohol-based hot sauce by simply blending together vodka, water, and a proprietary mix of peppers. (The current formula includes xanthan gum for texture, but Beeson plans to soon remove it and sub in crushed pepper seeds as a natural thickener instead.) The team at LSU subjected the vodka-based sauce to an accelerated shelf-life study, which Beeson describes as a giant anti-refrigerator where the lights are always turned up and the temperature hovers around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. After three virtual years in the simulator, the booze-based sauce not only tasted great, but retained its natural, vibrant color.

Beeson currently buys the alcohol he uses straight from the the grocery store, although he is currently seeking distilling partners to expand the operation. Clocking in at 20% ABV, the sauce won’t get you drunk, but it will give your mouth a nice buzz with slightly more heat than Tabasco.

Swamp Dragon bourbon hot sauce depiction with barrels, a glass, a lemon, and fire in background
Megan Chong/Thrillist

Beeson also points out that Swamp Dragon capitalizes on alcohol’s flavor-enhancing abilities. “It’s not just adding heat, it’s adding depth and complexity,” he explains. “Alcohol molecules bind to fat and water molecules. If you’re making a nice sauce and you throw some wine in it, suddenly your whole kitchen smells amazing. That’s the effect of the alcohol binding to those flavor molecules and pulling them up and out.”

The Bourbon Dragon works great in Beeson’s favorite gumbo, and you should absolutely follow traditional wisdom by slathering the Tequila Dragon on tacos. But nixing the vinegar from hot sauce opens up a whole new world of uses. Beeson has drizzled Rum Dragon to top gingersnap cookies and vanilla ice cream, and the anise-tinged Ouzo Dragon works well on everything from pho to sushi rice to baklava.

Even with all of its clear advantages, Beeson admits alcohol-based hot sauce can throw people for a loop the first time they try it. “We’re very conditioned to expect vinegar in a hot sauce,” he says. “Your first bite is a little weird, on the second bite your brain starts to rewire and understand, on the third bite the transformation is complete.” On the fourth bite, Beeson asks tasters to try their original favorite hot sauces again, and he laughs as they cringe at the vinegar bomb they never realized they were eating. “People go, ‘Oh my god I’ve been eating this my entire life and I can’t eat it anymore,’” he says. “After you get acclimated you won’t be able to go back.”

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Nicholas Mancall-Bitel is a writer and editor currently living in Brooklyn. He covers food and drink and travel and tech and health, but really he’s just taking this crazy world one daiquiri at a time.