There are two components to great BBQ - smoked meat and sauce. I've spent many hours learning how to properly smoke meat and just as many hours working on my own BBQ sauce. Between the two, the real mystery and finesse is in the sauce. That's not to say I believe all BBQ requires a good sauce. To the contrary, I think properly smoked meat can stand on its own. But, folks expect sauce with their BBQ and that's where the boys get separated from the men.
Fresh BBQ sauces are a beast unto themselves. Once you've tasted a fresh BBQ sauce, you will never look at a bottled sauce the same way. To my palate, fresh sauces win the day every time. However, bottled BBQ sauce is an enormous market in the food industry these days. Just take a look at the multitude of varieties offered at your local grocer. One of the major signs that a restaurant, or a competition team, or a chef has risen in the food business is to see if they have their own sauce. Everyone is doing it these day. Emeril, Stubbs, Williamson Bros, Kraft, Bullseye, KC Masterpiece are just a few of the major players on the shelves.
The Big Dogs of the NYC BBQ scene these days are the Blue Smoke boys. Their restaurant launch was assisted my BBQ legend Mike Mills, and by all accounts these guys know how to do serious BBQ(even though they are from the North.) So, I was quite interested when I ran across a display of Blue Smoke BBQ sauces at my local Williams & Sonoma. You might say I was even excited. Mike Mill's account of the Blue Smoke launch is one of the highlights in his book, Peace Love and BBQ. I liked everything I read about Blue Smoke. They adhered to traditional Southern standards and methods, but looked outside the box for new combinations. I thought their sauces might offer something new and unexpected. When I picked up the first bottle from the shelf in Williams and Sonoma, I almost fell over when I saw the price - $9.50!!! These boys are MIGHTY PROUD of their sauce. At the same time, I had a pit in my stomach. How are you going to possibly live up to a $9.50 price tag when your high volume competitors are running at less than $3.00 a bottle? I had a hard time believing they could pull it off.
To test the Blue Smoke sauces, I ran down to my buddies at Sam and Dave's BBQ and picked up a half pound of pulled pork, chicken, and brisket. I ran home to conduct my taste test. I put the two sauces (Carolina Kick and Original Recipe) in a couple ramekins and laid the meat out. Each meat was introduced to each sauce. Between samples, I cleansed my palate with water. I jotted down my initial impressions on a couple post-it notes. Here's a direct transcription:
Carolina Kick - Wow! Vinegar. Mustard. Too much mustard. No tomato notes. No hot sauce flavor. Basically a mustard/vinegar sauce. But not bad. Very thin. Doesn't adhere to the meat.
Original Recipe - Hmm. Lots of bell pepper flavor. Not finding the tomato flavor. Not very sweet. Good viscosity and sheen. Not my cup of tea.
It took me a few minutes to gather my thoughts after the first pass of tastings. I felt let down. There were not any miracles here. I decided to read over the ingredient lists for each sauce while I decided which I liked best. That's when the big surprise showed up. I've read many a ingredient list on a BBQ sauce. This one was conspicuously devoid of fructose and other ominous sounding compounds. Everything on each of these lists was very familiar. The only things that sounded out of place were the xantham gum and the soybean oil, but I know those get included to increase shelf stability and viscosity. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the flavors, I could appreciate that these guys had taken the hard road in creating their sauce.
Over the course of the next couple weeks, I tried the sauces on a variety of other meats - rotisserie chicken, ribs, anything I could find. I really never gained a taste for either one, but I still respected them as good sauces. They just were not my kind of sauces. In the end, I threw them away when they were a little less than half full and returned to my homemade BBQ sauce.
So, the final verdict - - I like the Carolina sauce better than the original recipe. There's just something wrong with that original recipe for me. I don't know if it is a regional difference. I recall eating Dinosaur BBQ sauce (also from NYC and Syracuse, NY) a couple years ago and the Dinosaur sauce was the first thing I thought of when I first tasted the Blue Smoke original recipe. Maybe I just don't get Northern BBQ sauce. Beyond that, these boys need to find a way to lower the cost to the consumer. I'm sure I paid a premium by shopping at Williams Sonoma, but GOSH $9.50 is a lot to pay for BBQ sauce. So, I'll keep watching to see if anything else comes out from Blue Smoke and I encourage you to go out and try their sauces for yourself.