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A bottle of Cholula Hot Sauce against a plain backdrop

Cholula: The Billion-Dollar Mexican Hot Sauce with a Cult Following

How a Mexican Brand of Hot Sauce Built a Cult Following.

From viral TikTok videos and designer cocktails to desserts and even Beyoncé'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.

So, how and why did Cholula make its mark on the global market? 

Cholula’s Origins & Legacy

Cholula's roots are firmly embedded in Mexican culture; it’s believed to have been invented more than a century ago in Chapala, a small town in the central Mexican state of Jalisco that’s renowned for its pepper farms.

Like any good Mexican recipe, this one has been passed down for generations. Allegedly, the credit for Cholula, as we know it, goes to Camilla Harrison. Harrison was the family cook for José Cuervo (yes, that José).

The story goes that she was looking for ingredients to complement a sangrita (a typical tequila chaser), when she devised the first edition of Cholula. Using what she had to hand, she invented a perfect blend of spicy pequin pepper and chile de árbol - both native to Jalisco - along with citrus juices.

Given the family ties, it wasn’t long before José Cuervo executives got excited about the sauce’s potential. They quickly got the ball rolling and, in the blink of an eye, 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.

Cholula hot sauce varieties, including original and green pepper flavor, stacked on a supermarket shelf.

Cholula's Journey into the US Culinary Scene

Motivated by the growing number of Latinos in the country and the impact our communities were having on the culinary scene, José Cuervo introduced the hot sauce to the US Southwest in 1989 via specialty shops, food trucks, and restaurants.

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

In 1998 José Cuervo hired 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 spreading the word about the brand.

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

Cholula Hot Sauce reaped the rewards as their sauce deviated from the norm. It was also incredibly versatile, allowing consumers to experiment in the kitchen with starters, mains, desserts and drinks alike.

Unbeatable Flavor: Cholula's Distinctive Edge over Competitors

But there’s no denying the role of flavor in Cholula’s unprecedented success. Firstly, its balance: it’s not too fiery or fierce, meaning it’s perfectly palatable for taste buds around the world.

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 one Cholula Hot Sauce chef claims in a Freedom Magazine 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.

A row of sauces. From left to right: vinegar, a homemade sauce, Tabasco, Cholula, Lea & Perrins, extra-hot Tabasco and soy sauce.

Firing Up the Game: Cholula Hot Sauce's Sports Sponsorships and Marketing Innovations

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 pre and post-match routine, the company started erecting concession stands that sold branded foods at games.

Dubbed 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. 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 even 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.

The Future of Cholula

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".

Cholula transcends its role as a mere hot sauce, embodying the essence of authentic Mexican cuisine, heritage, and culture. For many immigrants, Cholula serves as a flavorful connection to their homeland, evoking a sense of nostalgia and preserving a taste of their heritage.

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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