In a matter of a few years, the hot sauce category has gone from an infrequently used condiment to a must-stock pantry item. The big names like Tabasco and Sriracha still dominate the market, but smaller, artisanal brands have started to make waves by dialing up the heat and offering unique flavor combinations. Shows like Hot Ones have only helped to fuel the hot sauce fire, giving a platform to some of the more “craft” hot sauce brands.
Many of the most popular hot sauce companies have developed like streetwear brands or craft breweries, delivering an element of exclusivity with each batch released. The push to achieve hotter heights and the hyped release means that the culinary experience isn’t often at the forefront of consideration for many hot sauce brands.
Charleston, SC-based Red Clay is a brand that grew from a partnership between a local chef and an entrepreneurial diner. Founders Chef Geoff Rhyne and Molly Fienning developed their offerings based on the hot sauce Rhyne had made for his restaurant. As such, Red Clay’s products are inherently food-driven with flavors meant to complement, not overpower, dishes. While other hot sauce brands might gain notoriety for taste bud melting heat, Red Clay seeks to find balance.
Red Clay’s core lineup of hot sauces includes the Original Hot Sauce, Verde Hot Sauce, and Habanero Hot Sauce ($11/bottle). The brand also occasionally offers new and limited edition flavors as well as pre-packaged gift sets.
I sat down for a conversation with co-founder Chef Geoff Rhyne to learn a little bit more about the history of Red Clay, how he developed his recipes, and what makes the brand so different.
Red Clay: A Chef’s Approach to Spicy Hot Sauce
Geoff Rhyne’s introduction to the culinary world was a little circuitous. His first pursuit in life was baseball, having moved to Tampa to play at the collegiate level. After transferring to Charleston, SC, a burgeoning foodie scene, Rhyne discovered his new calling.
“I started working in a restaurant and never went back to baseball,” Rhyne shares with a laugh. “You know, it was an interesting decision at the time. I still look back and think, ‘Huh. How did that all happen?’”
However, upon reflection, it’s not that surprising that Rhyne would find his way to the world of hospitality. He has deep, familial connections with the food industry. His grandparents kept chickens, his great grandfather was a watermelon farmer, his great-great grandfather was a pig farmer. And those legacies became foundational to the way Rhyne thought about food production and sourcing.
Rhyne spent several years in the restaurant industry working in some of Charleston’s most beloved kitchens. In that time, he developed what would ultimately become Red Clay hot sauce while working at The Ordinary, a seafood restaurant that he helped launch.
As a chef, Rhyne believes in something of a “low intervention” approach. “What I used to tell all the cooks was that our job's just not to mess it up,” he explains. “The product's so good. Let's just not mess it up.”
So, as a way to accentuate and enhance the quality of the food that he and his team were preparing, Rhyne developed an encyclopedic pantry full of condiments and sauces that pair well with his dishes. And thus began his love affair with hot sauce.
A regular diner at The Ordinary also started to take notice of Rhyne’s housemade condiments and was particularly enamored of the bright red hot sauce. In fact, Rhyne developed the name Red Clay because the color of the hot sauce reminded him of the South Georgian red clay soil, a nostalgic reminder of his grandfather’s farm. That diner turned out to be Molly Fienning, a local entrepreneur. And in 2014 Fienning and Rhyne launched the Red Clay hot sauce brand.
What Makes a Good Hot Sauce? Balanced Flavor + Heat
When it comes to making hot sauces, Rhyne’s method is the same as his approach to cooking. Achieve balance and do everything with care. As such, Red Clay hot sauce was very much a labor of love with Rhyne hand bottling every batch and prioritizing high quality ingredients over everything else.
While Rhyne no longer packages every single bottle by hand, that commitment to quality hasn’t wavered.
“Most big manufacturers that make hot sauce, they all use the same pepper,” Rhyne remarks. “They use a red jalapeno. They add sugar to it, they cook it, and then it gets, you know, a label that has a dragon and fire on and it goes out the door.”
Red Clay’s hot sauce, on the other hand, is fermented and requires a significant amount of care and some creative troubleshooting to get it packaged and sold. In fact, Rhyne had to start working with a kombucha maker to help the cold fill processes. These small steps go a great deal to differentiating Red Clay from the larger hot sauce producers. As does Rhyne’s culinary background.
“A chef is trying to find balance in a flavor,” explains Rhyne. “That starts with your ingredient selection. And I am bullish about particular ingredients. Like we don't use the red jalapeno, It's not the best pepper. Fresnos are so much better and they have a little bit of sweetness, yes, you get heat, but you also get complexities with a single pepper. We use white wine vinegar or cider vinegar or sherry vinegar, things that you would actually make in simple vinaigrettes. And that, that drives flavor and, and it accentuates your meal.“
When I asked what the philosophy is behind Red Clay’s products, Rhyne responded: “Ingredients and accentuating meals.” Rhyne isn’t concerned with off-the-chart heat or social media hype, he wants his hot sauce to work well with food. And it does. There’s a reason Red Clay’s hot sauces are used by other well-regarded chefs. There’s also a reason why it might not be one of the most hyped hot sauces on social media.
Red Clay grew slowly, organically, and has reached a following of foodies who are using hot sauces in simple dishes.
“If I was to sum up Red Clay,” says Rhyne. “It’s a discerning palate, great quality ingredients, and less is more.”
5 More Reasons to Love Red Clay Hot Sauce
- If you’re looking to show your love for Red Clay, the brand has some hot merch for you to rock including hats, totes, and a limited edition candle.
- Don’t take our word for it, Red Clay has gotten some serious praise from Food & Wine, The New York Times, and others. And the brand was featured in Martha Stewart’s holiday gift guide.
- In addition to a range of hot sauces, Red Clay has made some really exceptional hot honeys, spice blends, and conserves so you can add some heat to just about any dish or drink.
- You can buy Red Clay Hot Sauce from the comfort of your home, but you can also find it on the shelves of grocery stores like Whole Foods and Publix. Plus, thanks to Red Clay’s culinary origins, there are plenty of restaurants, especially in the Southeast, that stock Red Clay in their kitchens.
- Looking for some recipe inspo? Red Clay has plenty of tips, guides, and recipes for side dishes, cocktails, and dinner options.