When I first wrote about how I was dealing with the now-lifted sriracha ban, I got the strangest emails, tweets, and ideas on how to enjoy the sauce. Weirdly enough, too many of them involved whiskey. One guy suggested that I try a sriracha pickle-back shot: Fill an empty sriracha bottle with pickle juice, let it marinate, and use that as your whiskey-back. (He promised it would “burn so good,” which I’m assuming refers to the inevitable heartburn-back.)
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Lisa Murphy, a woman who offered to send me a jar of her whiskey-barrel-aged sriracha. The day after I got her version of the chili sauce, I put a spoonful of it on my morning sandwich: a whole-wheat sandwich with a slim slice of cheddar, a handful of fresh spinach, and an egg over easy. It was everything she had promised. A sweet and spicy sauce with just the right hint of smoked-whiskey flavors. It made the plastic-bottle stuff look like a pansy.
When I got on the phone with Lisa, I realized that she wasn’t just another person trying to capitalize on the put-sriracha-on-everything craze. This woman was very serious about sauces. She was even more serious about ketchup—and trust me, she is a lover, fanatic, and historian of ketchup—which she assured me is a sauce and not the $3 goo you keep in your fridge to mask the taste of overcooked burgers.
She used to throw “ketchup parties” for her friends as a hobby when she was still working for a high-tech startup. Her ketchup is orange, not red, because she uses local tomatoes that came in a variety of colors. As a side gig, she experimented and sold her orange—jarred, not bottled—ketchup in local specialty stores in San Francisco. At $7.50 a pop, the stuff sold out. When the storeowners reordered, she quit her job, spent the three months before tomato season in California traveling throughout Southeast Asia, and returned to start her sauce company, SOSU.
She used what she learned in Cambodia and Thailand to add sriracha ketchup as a complement to her orange ketchup, and now, her company has a Kickstarter to bring a better version of sriracha to the masses and fulfill her mission of reinventing condiments as healthy, delicious sauces. She believes that using jars instead of bottles will get people to think of condiments as sauces they can cook with, too.
Then, I tried to get her to tell me all her secrets about the whiskey sriracha that now completes my breakfast.
VICE: First, why don’t you tell me about your process and how you make this?
Lisa Murphy: We combined our philosophy of using fresh, locally sourced ingredients with the age-old craft of fermentation. We age our secret pepper mash in whiskey barrels for between one and three months. The sriracha takes on complex flavors from the oak barrels and the natural fermentation process. Absolutely no preservatives or additives go into our sriracha. Each bottle is handcrafted and made in small batches to ensure the most intense flavors.
I’m a little confused. How does the company feel about this? Are they trying to shut you down?
Actually, you're not the only one confused. Many people think that "sriracha" is a brand or a trademarked name because we have all become accustomed to only one brand of sriracha. It’s actually just the name of a Southeast Asian chili sauce that is prevalent in many parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and others. Many families have their own recipe of how sriracha should taste.
Why sriracha? Is there something that drew you to the condiment?
We decided to make our own sriracha sauce for a few reasons. First, we were already making our own sriracha. We had already been making our own sriracha for our Srirachup, a spicy combination of our own sriracha and ketchup for the past year. Our fans asked us to make a stand-alone sriracha to complement the Srirachup. Also, sriracha is great, but we felt it could be better. SOSU’s mission is to take everyday sauces and make them better. We felt that sriracha can be improved by using the old-age craft of fermentation and barrel aging to create complex layers of flavor without the addition of preservatives.
Lastly, when I was traveling in Southeast Asia, I discovered that there are different varieties of sriracha in different countries. For example, in Thailand, I discovered that they make a sriracha with fermented fish as a base. In Cambodia, because flavors tend to be sweeter, their sriracha was sweeter. The different variations inspired me to make my own sriracha with the flavors I enjoy.
What other sauces do you plan on making?
We have ketchup, sriracha, and are also planning to launch a barrel-aged hot sauce and sriracha cumin spice rub. We have thought about barbeque sauces, but no firm plans.
Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ketchup Conundrum”? It basically explains why mustard comes in different varieties but Heinz ketchup continues to dominate, because it hits all the different tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. What makes sriracha different from, say, ketchup?
Yes, I have read that essay. I disagree with Malcolm Gladwell. We have had many fans tell us that after they have tasted and tried our ketchups, they never go back to Heinz. When a consumer tastes a fresh tomato versus a paste, fresh tomato ketchup always tastes better. I think the main reasons why Heinz has succeeded in holding onto its market share is its price point and also because people are used to their idea of ketchup should taste like, but they haven’t tasted how ketchup can really taste when it is made with fresh ingredients. We are going back to the basics of making ketchup the old way and encouraging people to “rediscover ketchup” again.
When Heinz started making ketchup, it was made with fresh tomatoes. He was a pioneer and entrepreneur in incorporating high-quality ingredients in his ketchup. When he was around in the 1800s, a lot of the ketchup brands—and his wasn’t the only ketchup brand—came in this amber, pharmaceutical-type packaging, and the amber color would hide what’s inside so you wouldn’t see what stuff they were using. So Heinz stepped up and said, “I focus on quality. I use fresh tomatoes that I source from farmers, and I’m going to choose a clear bottle, because I want to show people what’s really inside my ketchup.” I admire the guy a lot. But if you look at ketchup now, it’s changed completely. It’s become ingrained in our mind that it’s just something that you have around in your fridge, that it shouldn’t cost more than $2.99, and when you look at the ingredients, it should have high-fructose corn syrup. That’s why when you taste ketchup, it just tastes very sweet, very processed, very glossy. You don’t even taste the tomatoes any more. Ketchup can be improved quite a bit.
Thanks, Lisa. Best of luck!
You can’t get the whiskey-barrel-aged sriracha in stores yet, but you can get a jar if you contribute to SOSU’s Kickstarter here.
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