We’re living in a golden age for hot sauce – something you may not realise if you’ve never looked beyond Tabasco or Huy Fong sriracha (actually just one of many srirachas out there).

The way Mat Garthwaite sees it, there have been three distinct waves. The first consisted of bright, vinegar-forward sauces with “not much else going on”, such as Tabasco, Frank’s and Louisiana. The second (regrettable) wave saw makers going to extremes, making their sauces as spicy as possible at the expense of all else. Remember those tacky bottles labelled “death sauce”, “devil’s breath”, “ass burner” and the like?

The third wave, happening now, prioritises flavour and ingredients, eschewing gums, preservatives, capsaicin extract and unnecessary fillers. It’s this branch of hot-sauce production that Garthwaite specialises in with his online store, Mat’s Hot Shop.

“I’m not interested in burning any of my customers’ faces off,” he says. “I like to help them find where they feel comfortable heat-wise and then explore all of the amazing flavours we have available.”

Launched in February last year, the site stocks about 120 hot sauces at any one time, from about 60 different makers in the USA, Canada and other countries. Australia is well-represented via brands such as Sabarac, SSB, Changz, Melbourne Hot Sauce and the Mat’s Hot Shop house label. Garthwaite tastes every sauce and writes helpful, entertaining notes for the site.

In addition to more conventional sauces, the store carries a bunch of oddities, including a Japanese-inspired hot sauce containing tamari, miso and shichimi togarashi (a Japanese chilli mix); another featuring dill pickles; a coffee and Mexican ancho pepper sauce; and Mike’s Hot Honey, a cult spicy honey from New York. The stock list is always evolving, but Garthwaite keeps it relatively small to avoid double-ups.

“I don’t want the customer to get confused and see four of the same style of sauce,” he says. “Most of them just want to know which one is the best. And that’s my job as the curator of the shop.”

Until recently, Garthwaite worked as a touring DJ while his girlfriend lived in New York. This saw him visiting the Big Apple every couple of months, getting deep into the hot-sauce scene there (which is several years ahead of ours).

“We went to this hot sauce expo in New York and I said to my girlfriend, ‘As a joke, let’s pretend that we have a hot sauce store in Australia and we’re looking for products. We’ll talk to all the makers and get their business cards,” he says.

He thought nothing more of it and later applied for a job in New York, hoping to move there permanently. When the offer fell through at the very last minute, taking his permanent visa with it, he remembered all those business cards and friendly faces. Mat’s Hot Shop was born a few months later.

Accordingly, the store is dominated by Mexican- and American-style salsas and hot sauces, though Sichuan chilli oils and fruity Caribbean sauces do pop up. Variety is the key.

“Hot sauce is definitely not just that red sauce you find on the table anymore,” Garthwaite says. “There are so many weird and wonderful combinations. I love it.”

Mat’s Hot Shop ships nationally with a $10 flat rate. Shipping is free for orders over $100.

Five hot sauces to try, as recommended by Mat Garthwaite

For sweet tooths – Mike’s Hot Honey
“Born out in Brooklyn, New York, Mike’s Hot Honey combines two of nature’s unique and delicious foods – honey and chilli peppers. It’s a genuinely dynamic condiment made of Mike’s signature infusion of New York wildflower honey and Brazilian chilli peppers, creating a perfect balance of sweet followed by a slow building heat. Sweet heat is the number one flavour of the National Restaurant Association’s ‘What's Hot’ 2020 list.”

The all-rounder – Secret Aardvark Trading Co Habanero
“This would have to be one of America’s favourite table sauces out right now. Made in Portland, Oregon, this Caribbean/Tex-Mex hybrid uses flavourful habanero peppers, roasted tomato, mustard, carrots and onions. Fun fact: you can spot a bottle of Secret Aardvark in each episode of the show Portlandia.”

The fruit-focused – Mat’s Hot Shop Peachango Tango
“The first original sauce from Mat’s Hot Shop, which recently won third best medium-heat hot sauce in Australia and NZ at the Mr Chilli Awards. This little number will make you want to dance with its sweet heat thanks to a mix of peaches, mango and fiery habanero peppers.”

The foodie sauce – Shaquanda’s Pepper Sauce
“Born in Brooklyn, but with roots planted firmly in Barbados, Shaquanda’s is a celebration of flavours and seasons and life! A luscious blend of scotch bonnet and habanero peppers opens the door to the other tastes of the islands, such as ginger, turmeric, mustard and lemon.”

The barbeque sauce – Humble House Ancho & Morita
“Straight out of Texas, this hot-sauce-barbeque-sauce hybrid is rich and smoky from the mild morita pepper (a smoked red jalapeno) and slightly sweet from the use of tamarind. Use this as a glaze for pork belly or baby back ribs, but don’t say we didn’t warn you when you start putting it on everything.”

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