In the spring of 2012, we planted what seemed like 4,000 tomato plants in our garden, figuring that would be enough for a bunch of tomato juice for canning. After jarring what we needed for the year we still had a bunch of tomatoes left……so what to do?? We settled on what any reasonable person would use them for, BBQ sauce!
By 2012 we were cooking a few catering events per year and most of those events were whole pigs. Since most people like to sauce their pulled pork, we decided to create our own signature flavor. We wanted something sure to be a little different and unique. What we ended up with was a thin, vinegar based, spicy BBQ sauce. This sauce was good, but may have been a little too hot for some people.
After 2012 we started making our BBQ sauces several times through the year as our tomatoes ripened. Along the way we took notes about the recipe, cook times, flavors, yield, consumer feedback and basically anything that we felt was important. I kept all my notes in my red spiral notebook, also known as my “BBQ Bible”. We tracked these recipes by a numbering system, it was our way of having a lot number. We would write the year and the run number on the lids. So, the first run of 2012 would end up with the lid numbered 121.
By 2014 we started to zero in on a recipe that we really enjoyed. By the second run of the year we had a keeper in “142”. After catering the rest of the year with it, we had a few people comment that it was a little too spicy for their taste. I was discouraged but welcomed the criticism. So, in 2015 we went back to the drawing board and created sauces 151, 152, and 153. These were more tomato flavored with less vinegar and pepper flavor. These sauces were more center-of-the-road flavored but were still distinctly ours. Over the next few years this would become our house BBQ sauce, although I personally never really “loved” it. The sauce was still different from what you could buy at the store and our customers liked it. We didn’t hear any complaints about it being too hot, but I always wished we could go back to the 142 recipe.
In 2016 and 2017 we made our catering BBQ (about 50 gallons per year) to the 152 recipe but continued trying new recipes in small batches. One of these recipes was a sweet chili-based BBQ sauce. I only made about 20 quarts on a whim and handed them out to my friends to try. The only requirement for using the sauce is that they gave me feedback. Good or bad, I needed to hear it all. One such friend was Danny Thomas.
In the fall of 2017, Danny qualified for the 2017 Jack Daniel’s Invitational with his own accolades in competition cooking. He thought enough of our BBQ to suggest he take one down and enter it for his team in the sauce category. The sauce he ended up taking was the sweet chili version from earlier in the year. After the dust settled, we ended up 33rd out of 76 sauces entered that year…..pretty good for our first crack at it.
Then, last year happened…..
After earning another invite for “The Jack” in 2018, Danny again offered to take a sauce down to be entered. Really wanting to beat 33rd and with some quality feedback we decided to start over on our BBQ. I checked my notes from every single batch of BBQ we had ever made and opened my trusty red bible up to a new blank page. I wrote down a new recipe that I thought would be a good starting point. Later that weekend we started on the batch, lo and behold, 181 was created. After a day of stirring, adding a little of this and a little of that, we had a sauce that tasted different from anything we had ever made. With high hopes, we made 50 gallons of the sauce in that batch. The plan was that we would use it for the upcoming catering season, praying everyone else liked it as much as we did.
A few weeks later, Danny took the sauce with him to Lynchburg and entered it. Judging was on Saturday October 27th 2018, and we were catering for a wedding. I was nervous all day waiting for a text or call from the guys. Finally, just after we got the main course off at the wedding, my phone rang. Another close friend of mine that traveled with Danny was calling. I answered with “Hello” to which I was greeted with “you just won the Jack Daniels for sauce!” To be honest I didn’t believe Randy because these guys (and myself) are always messing around and are generally highly sarcastic to each other. I made him take a picture and send it to me. Then I asked for another picture, and then one more, and then it sunk in, we really did win. We beat out 90 other entries with a perfect score of 180. Needless to say, I wasn’t much help to the catering crew for the rest of the night.
In the next few months we toyed with the idea of making and marketing the sauce locally. There was a lot of soul searching and second guessing, but in March of 2019 I decided to gamble on myself, invest heavily in our company, and push this whole thing forward. With that gamble, 181 was sent to production, and taken to market.