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Cholula: The billion-dollar Mexican hot sauce with a cult following

Cholula: The billion-dollar Mexican hot sauce with a cult following

The tale of a Mexican hot sauce brand that built a cult following.

From viral TikTok videos and designer cocktails to desserts and even Beyonce's handbag, Cholula Hot Sauce can be found everywhere.

Despite only breaking into the US market 30 years ago, it's the third-most popular hot sauce in the country where it sells more bottles than anywhere else in the world.

However, Cholula's roots are firmly embedded in Mexican culture.

The sauce is believed to have been invented more than a century ago in Chapala, a town in the central Mexican state of Jalisco. Anyone who lives there knows that it is renowned for its pepper cultivation.

The story goes that the family matriarch, Camilla Harrison (who was also the José Cuervo family cook and, supposedly, whose likeness can be found on each bottle) enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen.

One day, when she was looking to add ingredients that would complement sangrita (a typical tequila chaser), she devised the first edition of Cholula. It consisted of a perfect blend of spicy pequin pepper and chile de árbol native to Jalisco along with citrus juices.

However, its versatility and exceptionally well-balanced flavor profile quickly led to it being added to a wide range of dishes, from eggs to tacos to enchiladas.

It wasn’t long before executives from Mexico City-based tequila company José Cuervo (which also has its roots in Jalisco) heard about the hot sauce. Seeing its potential, they bought the license for its production and, soon after, Cholula Hot Sauce could be found in Mexican markets and stores all across the country.

As well as its distinctive taste and vibrant bottles that conveyed a real sense of Mexico, it became instantly recognizable by its wooden caps.

Cholla Hot Sauce

"It’s the best out there"

After acquiring the brand from the Harrison family in the 1980s, José Cuervo introduced the hot sauce to the US Southwest in 1989 via specialty shops, food trucks, and restaurants.

The expansion into the US was motivated by the growing number of Latinos in the country and the impact our communities were having on the culinary scene. Suddenly, spicy food was hot and, as expected, Cholula was a runaway success.

"It's the best out there," a representative of Habaneros Grill, where the sauce was on offer, said at the time. "We buy it by half gallon."

In 1998 José Cuervo altered his marketing strategy by hiring Charlie Watkins. 

A well-known Houston chef and co-owner of Sierra Grill, Charlie embarked on a tour of 12 US cities to cook dishes that incorporated Cholula Hot Sauce for food editors and TV shows as a way of putting out the word and promoting the brand.

Adverts were also placed in trade magazines and coupons were placed in local newspapers with the slogan "The perfect complement".

In addition, a 22-page recipe booklet was produced and included famous drinks such as the Mexican Standoff, which combined José Cuervo tequila, grapefruit juice, and one teaspoon of Cholula Hot Sauce.

Cholula Hot Sauce reaped the rewards as their sauce offered something different from the norm. It was the hot sauce that could be used in a starter, main, dessert or drink and allowed consumers to experiment in the kitchen.

Part of its success comes down to its balanced flavor profile and the fact that it’s not too fiery or fierce. Made from only six ingredients (water, peppers, vinegar, garlic powder, spices and xanthan gum), the smoothness of the blended sauce is what really sets it apart from competitors, such as Tabasco.

As Cholula Hot Sauce chef Charlie explained in a Freedom Magazines article: "Tabasco ages mashed peppers and salt in white oak barrels, then blends the two with vinegar, which then dominates the taste. Cholula is better than Tabasco, because you taste the peppers, not the vinegar and wood."

Cholla Hot SauceSpicing it up

To boost brand recognition in the US and establish itself globally, Cholula Hot Sauce also got involved in the great American pastime: baseball.

After baseball star Noah Syndergaard declared that Cholula Hot Sauce was part of his day before, during and after a game, the company started erecting concession stands that sold branded foods at games.

Tagged the "flavorful fire", Cholula Hot Sauce also sponsored a variety of other professional sporting events such as the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach, as well as snowboarding competitions such as the Cholula Triple and the New York Mets.

Over the years, Cholula Hot Sauce has remained innovative with its marketing and offerings. In 2007, it teamed up with Papa John's pizza to offer complimentary sauce packets with its pizzas, while an advertising campaign in 2018 encouraged consumers to create "your own mashups" by blending Cholula Hot Sauce with other everyday condiments.

And, during the pandemic, a 60ml bottle was released to boost sales and touch-free dispensers were introduced into restaurants.

Today, there are six Cholula hot Sauce flavors: Original, Green Pepper, Chipotle, Chili Lime, Chili Garlic and Sweet Habanero. Each with a distinct colored cap.

And while ownership has changed over the years, the recipe and packaging has remained true to the original.

After the initial acquisition by José Cuervo, private equity buyout firm L Catterton bought Cholula Hot Sauce in 2018, and moved the company's headquarters from New York to Stamford, Connecticut. 

On November 24th, 2020, McCormick & Company acquired the sauce and added it to its extensive portfolio of sauces and condiments.

The company has big plans for the little pepper: according to a recent article in Bloomberg, McCormick is aiming for Cholula Hot Sauce to become "the next ketchup".

But Cholula is also so much more than just a hot sauce. Cholula stands for authentic Mexican cuisine, heritage and culture, and provides many immigrants with a taste – and link – to their home country.

Sebastián Fuentes

Sebastián was born in Mexico City and enjoys traveling to meet family and friends in the US. He has written for Orgullo Latino since 2022.

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