Secret Sauce

hot sauce

When Sam Barbieri opened Waterfront Ale House on Atlantic Avenue two decades ago, he wanted to distinguish the food at his then-cutting-edge craft beer bar from common pub grub. Enter Tim Stark, today a superstar farmer whose heirloom tomatoes and peppers are the most famous at Union Square. Back in 1995, Tim sold chile plants in front of the Brooklyn Heights bar during the Atlantic Antic (now celebrating its 35th year). Sam had a spicy idea: He proposed purchasing Tim’s whole pepper portfolio, including chocolate Scotch bonnets, Thai chiles, bird peppers and poblanos, to make a house hot sauce that would feed his own capsaicin fascination—and send the bar’s chicken wings soaring to something legendary.

Sam’s been making the sauce—now a cult favorite for local hotheads—ever since, blending it in the basement of Waterfront Ale House’s Brooklyn flagship (there’s a Manhattan branch in Murray Hill/Kips Bay). He makes a mash of peppers, salt and vinegar, loading it into a retired oak whiskey barrel borrowed from friends at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company, who used it to make their excellent Old Potrero whiskey. Sam ages the sauce in those blessed barrels for two years, giving it ample opportunity to develop an addictive depth and an oh-so-good burn.

The sauce makes many of the comfort food classics at Waterfront Ale House—from burgers to chili to house-smoked pulled pork (Barbieri is also a competitive barbecuer)—but the barrel-conditioned heat blast is also sold in 5-ounce bottles at the bars for take-away. For those who find the fiery blend too hot—poor things!—there’s a second style with garlic and tomatoes added to bring down the blaze. And for those who want it even hotter, Sam smokes a few chiles over hickory, grinding them into what he likes to call “gunpowder.” Fire away!

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Michael Harlan Turkell

Michael Harlan Turkell is a former photo editor of Edible Brooklyn, who walked the borough in sights of cultural cuisine at its best. Now he travels the world doing the same, bringing these ideas and foods to light as a photographer.