Not all BBQ sauce is the same.
Even if condiment aisles at the grocery might make you think so. So many bottles looking and tasting the same. Revved-up ketchup. Sweet. Smoky. Almost always tomato based.
As it turns out, what BBQ sauce means to people in one part of the country can mean something entirely different to folks in another.
Great BBQ sauces are a lot like great craft spirits. The best ones are influenced by their surrounds. Reflect local customs. And speak to native sensibilities.
Most Americans agree that cooking meat low and slow over an indirect flame yields moist, tender results. But getting them to agree on the right way to sauce it is another matter entirely.
When you think ketchup, you think sugar, spices, vinegar and tomatoes.
But the very first ketchups didn’t contain tomatoes at all. In 17th century China, kê-tsiap was made from fish brine and pickled crustaceans. Closer in taste and consistency to soy or Worcestershire.
The British likely first encountered kê-tsiap in Southeast Asia. Returned home anxious to replicate its distinct, fermented flavor. Then Westernized the pronunciation.
They added ingredients like mushrooms, shallots and even walnuts. To the point that any number of thin, dark sauces were duly known as ketchup.
Biritsh colonists took these tuned-up recipes with them to the Americas. And by the early 1800s, mashed tomatoes were being incorporated into ketchup recipes that included other unlikely ingredients such as anchovies, brandy; even cochineal.
By mid-century, tomato-based recipes became the norm for ketchup in the U.S. A handful of companies began producing and distributing ketchup nationally. But most varieties were still made and sold regionally by local farmers.
Until 1876. When the H.J. Heinz Company introduced Heinz Tomato Ketchup, their definitive take on the progressive condiment. And the base for most modern BBQ sauces you find for sale at the supermarket today.
Most of these ketchup-based, supermarket sauces we’re talking about are derivative of the Kansas City style. And what most people think of when they hear the words BBQ sauce.
Molasses adds thick sweetness, giving the Kansas City style it’s heavier consistency. Liquid smoke, Worcestershire, brown sugar, vinegar and dry spices are common ingredients in these recipes. A tangy classic.
Straight Rye Whiskey by Elevation 5003 Distillery
Served straight or blended in a Rye Manhattan, the maple syrup notes of this straight rye whiskey pair sweetly with the molasses-smack of Kansas City BBQ sauce.
Western Carolinians enjoy ketchup in their BBQ sauce too. But just a little bit. Small amounts of ketchup and sugar are added to simple, vinegar bases. Giving them a touch of sweetness.
Called “dip”, this thin and penetrating Carolina Red Sauce is ideal for mopping and finishing. Cayenne and crushed red pepper provide a heat that complements the meat’s flavor without masking it.
Bourbon Whiskey Finished In Hard Cider Barrels by Bluegrass Distillers
This aged bourbon is finished in hard cider barrels, that imbue it with rich flavors that balance the sour, acetic vinegar-sting of Carolina Red Sauce. Pour neat and enjoy.
In Eastern North Carolina, a vinegar sauce that doesn’t include ketchup or tomatoes is prefered. Thin, watery and perfect for soaking meat before it cooks - and as it cooks.
A mix of vinegar, and spices like crushed red pepper, black pepper and cayenne, the Eastern North Carolina style moistens meat as it cooks over the flame. Infuses flavor. And adds heat.
C.B. Fisher’s Straight Rye Whiskey by Fainting Goat Spirits
A real North Carolina-crafted, straight rye whiskey that would go nicely, served neat, alongside the peppered spice and slightly sour acidity out of North Carolina.
Down in South Carolina, mustard is the base condiment of choice when it comes to BBQ. Resulting in sauces that taste and look different to what you might be used to.
Sweetened with honey. Some tang from apple cider vinegar. The spice of red pepper flakes. South Carolina-style BBQ sauce is a golden alternative to more traditional read sauce fare.
Cherry Whiskey by Grand Traverse Distillery
Mustard pairs beautifully with fruit. Making this whiskey, infused with local, tart cherry juice during its last month of aging, an ideal companion to the South Carolina style.
In Texas, BBQ is all about the beef. So thinner, less sweet, mopping sauces are used to keep prime cuts moist as they smoke. Without covering the flavor of the meat itself.
These basting sauces are made using tomatoes and stock. And include ingredients like vinegar and Worcestershire; spices such as salt, pepper and garlic. Almost a gravy, they make fine finishing sauces too.
Austin Reserve Gin by Revolution Spirits
The crisp bite of juniper berries, notes of Texas grapefruit and pink peppercorns make a simple gin and tonic the perfect counter to the rich, savory twang of Texas BBQ culture.
“Alabama White” is another tomato-free BBQ sauce; one that uses mayonnaise for a base. More of a dipping sauce than the others, Alabama White is often served on the side.
Lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and horseradish are included in some recipes. Others call for spices like cayenne, and black pepper. Alabama can be served thick. Or whisked to a more creamy consistency.
Wheated Bourbon Whiskey by Ragged Branch
Something with a high proof will play nicely off the mustard taste and custard texture of mayonnaise sauce. Made using locally-sourced ingredients, this Wheated Bourbon is 90 Proof.
Regional flare, resident preference and geographical conditions share responsibility for the different BBQ styles we have across America. And the countless recipe variations that fit inside each distinct category.
Likewise, we have the five base spirits in gin, rum, tequila, whiskey and vodka. But when you start to explore the endless variety of any one type that exist, you discover the cavalcade of craft spirits nearly infinite.