By Nathan Cobb, Globe Correspondent, 3/29/2003
DEDHAM — Poking through the various containers inside the large metal cabinet in the basement office of his rented home — the vinegars, the seasonings, the spices, and so on — David Ashley finally finds what he’s looking for. ”I need rubber gloves for this,” he says, donning latex and carefully lifting a dark brown bottle from the shelf with two hands.
It contains pure habanero extract, the essence of the hottest pepper on earth. Spill it on your hands and it will burn you. Spill it into your stomach and . . . well, take a guess. Ashley gingerly opens the bottle and puts his nose in its general vicinity. ”Whoa,” he says, drawing his head back quickly. ”Whoa”.
For the loquacious Ashley, 52, such jolts are part of the game. Ashley Food Co. Inc., for which he’s not only the full-time head honcho but the sole honcho, is a major player in the hot sauce arms race. In the niche market of ”superhots,” where concoctions have names such as Mega Death and Gourmet Insanity, his stove-top recipes more than hold their own among radical chiliheads. Five years ago, his Mad Dog Inferno was tested by one mail-order company and deemed to be the hottest sauce in the world at the time, and Ashley has since far outdistanced that creation with a liquid fireball called Mad Dog 357.
”I have a friend who really didn’t know what Mad Dog 357 was and marinated chicken in it,” recalls the heat meister. ”Her husband tried it and ended up putting his face under water for about 20 minutes.” Ashley, who sheepishly acknowledges he doesn’t eat a lot of spicy food, grew up in Chicago and Manhattan and has held a litany of jobs, including caretaker, hi-fi salesman, taxi driver, and courier. He readily reveals a past that included its share of alcohol and drugs. It’s perhaps no surprise that he feels many people are hooked on ingesting heat because it gives them an ”endorphin rush,” a natural high that results when hot sauces trigger the brain to produce pain-killing compounds. ”This stuff has become the drug of choice for people who don’t do drugs anymore,” he Contends.
In any case, these are not your father’s hot sauces. Consider that the heat level of a sauce is determined by its amount of capsaicin, the substance that makes peppers hot. Consider that a measuring system for capsaicin was developed in the early 1900s by a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville, and that the heat of peppers is still measured in Scoville units. Consider that Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce, most folks’ idea of a reasonably spicy concoction, has a Scoville level of 2,500 to 5,000. And consider that Mad Dog Inferno is rated at about 89,000 Scovilles, while Mad Dog 357 weighs in at, yes, 357,000 units. ”I’ve had 2.3 million Scovilles on my tongue,” Ashley says, ”and it was like dropping a cigarette ash in my mouth.”
Like a number of other hot sauce ”distributors” — his recipes are his own, but his mixing and bottling are done under contract in Florida — Ashley now markets pepper extracts, i.e. capsaicin. Sold as ”food additives,” his Mad Dog’s Revenge and 1 Million Scoville additives are rated at a million units each. Both — as well as his Mad Dog 357 sauce –include a disclaimer stating that the buyer agrees, by opening the bottle, that he is using the stuff at his own risk, will warn anyone he gives it to, won’t sue for damages, and isn’t inebriated.
Ashley’s journey along the highway of heat began more than a decade ago when he and his wife, Mary Ann, began cooking up a natural barbecue sauce on the stove of their tiny Brighton apartment. Friends liked the tomato-based preparation, with its hint of molasses and smoke. So in 1991, with credit cards providing the financing, a one-man business was born. Sales were only $8,000 the first year, but a home-brewed hot sauce called Liquid Fire (about 25,000 Scovilles) was added two years later, leading to a revelation. ”I noticed that heat was really, really selling,” Ashley recalls. ”People just loved hot stuff, and the hotter the better.”
Mad Dog Inferno, the molasses-based recipe that came to Ashley in the middle of the night and included pepper extract, was created in 1994. But it wasn’t until four years later, when the popular mail-order company Mo Hotta Mo Betta crowned this sauce the hottest of them all, that bottles flew out the door. ”My sales just rocketed,” Ashley says. ”In 1998 alone, I sold $70,000 worth of Inferno.” Today, Ashley says his five superhots, including the two food additives, represent about 35 percent of his total 2002 sales of $300,000.
But there are moments when Ashley, who is proud of his own cooking and of the flavors he has mixed into his less fiery sauces, sounds like Dr. Frankenstein fretting about the monster he has wrought. After all, what if someone takes a swig of one of these things? ”I do worry about that, to be honest,” he says. ”I never really wanted to go this hot. But the consumer wants it, and I’m in business to make money.”
Still, there are limits. For a while, Ashley says, he was considering marketing a 6 million Scoville additive, a product that would have been three times hotter than most self-defense pepper sprays. ”I was going to call it King of Pain,” he says. ”But then I started thinking. I mean, I have a 4-year-old son. Obviously, something like this could hurt a kid. I just didn’t feel right. Besides, 6 million Scovilles is just absurd.”And already passe. At last look, the hot sauce arms race had passed 7 million Scoville units and was still rising.
Discoveries appears on alternate Saturdays. Ideas for subject matter — unusual people, places, events, etc. — are welcome. Nathan Cobb can be reached at email@example.com or 617-929-7266.
This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 3/29/2003.