How Old Bay Created an Overnight Hot-Sauce Sensation
Instantly sold out when it launched as a limited-edition product in 2020, Old Bay Hot Sauce is now back for good
Crafted from a unique blend of 18 herbs and spices more than 80 years ago, Old Bay seasoning is named after a steamship line that once traveled the Chesapeake Bay between Maryland and Virginia. Originally called “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,” McCormick & Company’s spicy blend is a standard seafood topper that has also become a popular flavoring for things jerky, popcorn, peanuts and even beer.
Beginning a little over a year ago, Old Bay has also served as the basis for one of the hottest selling products McCormick & Co. has ever offered up to condiment lovers: Old Bay Hot Sauce.
Almost instantly sold out online after being launched as a limited-edition product in winter of 2020 and relaunched with limited availability in mid-summer, the sauce is now back for good and being used to spice up chicken wings, nachos, eggs and Bloody Marys across the nation.
Developed over the course of five years and formulated to work as an ingredient, topping and standalone dipping sauce, the hot sauce isn’t the only time Old Bay has tried to go spicy. But it is the first time the brand has had a great deal of success turning up the heat, according to McCormick executive chef Kevan Vetter.
“Our Old Bay Hot Seasoning itself didn’t really find the niche that we thought it was going to. It just didn’t really take off the way we thought,” Vetter tells InsideHook. “It took taking it to the next level in a hot sauce to really catch people’s attention. I think that has a lot to do with hot sauces being used in so many different ways today. We know from consumer feedback within the hot sauce category that folks are shifting away from hot sauces that are just blow-your-head-off hot. It’s really about having a great balance of heat and flavor. Our hot sauce fits perfectly in that wheelhouse because it blends tangy and heat but has enough of that Old Bay flavor to satisfy Old Bay lovers. Hot sauce was the perfect format to add another iconic item into the Old Bay family.”
The subject of entire festivals, a hugely popular web series and an ever-growing market within the culinary world, hot sauce has become the craft beer of condiments in recent years, and Old Bay is certainly capitalizing on that.
“The spicy category, in general, has really taken off. I think it just shows the flavor evolution,” Vetter says. “We were talking to folks and they said they’re wanting to become more adventurous. I think hot sauce is a way to do that. Adventure comes in flavor and adventure comes in heat as well. Our sauce meets in the middle because it’s got that rich Old Bay flavor but is also bringing a nice balance of heat without overwhelming the palate and drowning out the flavor of the food you’re eating.”
Also, though it wasn’t planned, the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic also may have helped make the spicy sauce a hotter seller than it would have originally been.
“Across consumer cooking behavior, we know that they are cooking more at home and we know they’re looking for ways to liven up things that are in their normal rotations and also looking for new things to cook,” Vetter says. “Old Bay Hot Sauce has found its way to the table in dishes that were mainstays for families but also some new dishes as well. People are looking for easy ways to add flavor. Hot sauce becomes a go-to because it lets you easily add flavor while you’re cooking or at the table.”
The folks at McCormick lean into that process by frequently posting new Old Bay Hot Sauce recipes on their site.
“We’re looking to help people use the product in ways they might not have thought of like mixing it into sour cream or adding it into salad dressing. If somebody uses a store-bought Caesar salad dressing, they can kick it up with a little bit of hot sauce. It just brings another dimension of flavor into something they might already have in their pantry or have in their fridge. Our hot sauce allows people to customize flavor for their own personal taste.”
With Old Bay Hot Sauce now here to stay, people no longer have to sweat about losing that new “dimension of flavor.” They should still worry about how heavy they’re going with the pours, though. That donkey can kick.
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