Boston Herald: Hot-Sauce maker goes for the Burn

Boston Herald, Sunday, August 20, 1995

Not surprisingly, it’s called Inferno and it’s searing sauce maker David Ashley’s name onto the culinary map.

The 45-year old mastermind behind the Mad Dog line of sauces couldn’t be happier.  After nearly five years of running the business out of his Brighton living room, Ashley is beginning to rack up accolades (his Original Barbecue Sauce was named Best Sauce in this month’s Cook’s Illustrated).  He also is about to turn his first profit.

Though Ashley’s other products -- including three barbecue sauces, two teriyaki marinades and a milder hot sauce called Liquid Fire -- rate above average in flavor and texture, Inferno is the one causing heads to turn (and palates to burn) around the country.

The fiery sauce, introduced in December, has sold 14,000 bottles in half a year and shows no signs of slowing, Ashley said.

“It’s the flavor that sets it apart,” said Lamme of Le Saucier.  “Some of the really hot sauces have no flavor at all.  But it is different.”

Creating the ultimate hot sauce was no easy task, said Ashley, describing the two years of labor that went into Inferno.

The first step, he said, was buying a gallon of oleoresin capsicum, the heated extract from hot peppers.  “I got this stuff and I started tinkering.  It was horribly bitter.  The most bitter thing that exists on the planet,” he said.

Though he worked at it for months, Ashley said he couldn’t remove the bitter flavor.  Then, in a semi dream state at 2:30 one morning it came to him: The answer was using molasses instead of tomato as the base.

The final breakthrough, he said, occurred one day while he was “sniffing around” in an Indian spice shop in Central Square.  There he found a clove-based powder, combining several spices, that gave the sauce the flavor he’d sought.  The difficult part, he said, was duplicating it.

The result is one of the hottest sauces on the market.  Measured in Scoville units representing how many drops of water it takes to completely dilute one drop of hot sauce, Inferno measures about 200,000.  Tabasco, by comparison, measures only 4,500 Scovilles. “First you taste the coolness from the molasses, then the cloves and then the heat kicks in,” Ashley said.

To demonstrate, Ashley took out a toothpick and gingerly dipped the tip into a fresh bottle of Inferno.  He then placed the toothpick on my tongue.  True to his word, the sauce didn’t burn immediately.  But within seconds, the cool flavor gave way to a sizzle, for which the only remedy appeared to be immersing my tongue in an ice-cold glass of milk.  All that from the minutest drop administered from a toothpick.

“One bottle is a lifetime supply,” he said, laughing and offering more milk.
Though Ashley seems natural in the world of spicy sauces, his introduction to the business was as much a product of chance as it was planning.

As someone with an interest in natural foods, Ashley couldn’t find a flavorful barbecue sauce made without chemicals, additives, and sugar.  And when he started making his own, friends and relatives would consistently rave.

“The last time I made it at home,” Ashley said, “I made 120 gallons of the stuff on my stove.” By that time, Ashley said he knew he had a good thing going and started to look into producing his sauces commercially.

The final impetus came when an Everett bottler referred Ashley to Dean Christie at Christie Food Products Inc. Christie was impressed enough to take on the Mad Dog line. But the leap into the business didn’t lessen Ashley’s control over what went into the sauces.  The top-grade molasses, for example, is imported from Canada.  The tamari sauce used in his marinades is imported from Japan, where it is aged for three years in underground wooden barrels.

“Its aging and fermenting process is as good as any wine,” he boasted.
As with many small businesses, the first years have been tough on Ashley, who worked two jobs to help pay the bills while starting up Mad Dog.  “Thank God for credit cards,” he joked. While Ashley has long since left his other jobs to devote himself to Mad Dog, he has yet to turn a profit on his investment.

“If I knew then what I know now, I don’t know that I’d do it again,” he said.  “Fortunately, I’ve started at a good time and I’m good at networking.”

With the advent of Inferno and the steadily increasing number of Mad Dog devotees, the return on his investment seems closer than it once did.

“His sauces do very well in our store, “ said Lamme, who also distributes by mail-order catalog.  “The good thing about them is that when people buy them -- particularly the Original Barbecue Sauce and the Liquid Fire -- they always want to know where to get more.” “If you make a quality product, you should get the respect you deserve, and he’s got that reputation now,” she said.

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