Joe Mandlehr doesn’t even like extreme spice. For him, it’s more about growing the hot peppers, experimenting with flavor combinations and enjoying the process of turning his peppers into a flavorful sauce.
He points out a super-hot, pepper-infused pickle juice he made as an experiment and says, “I can’t eat that stuff.” But a spicy take on a blueberry-infused barbecue sauce? Yes, that’s right in his wheelhouse and just one of many flavors he hopes to roll out locally in the coming months as part of his new project, Kentucky Pepper Company.
Mandlehr has been growing peppers and turning them into sauce for a decade, usually just for fun and experimentation. But like any would-be entrepreneur, he had friends and family who encouraged him to bottle his creations and sell them. So, he decided to go for it.
Working with Pop’s Pepper Patch, Mandlehr recently signed off on the first test batch that is slated for bottling. The sauce is a blend of ghost pepper and pimento, but don’t recoil in fear — Mandlehr knows how to blend his sauces to keep the heat at bay while highlighting the flavors.
As a result, the ghost pepper-pimento sauce bursts with sweetness and pepper flavor and delivers a nice bite on the back end. You won’t even need a glass of milk.
He chose that sauce to release as the flagship in part because it is sort of an ode to a Kentucky classic — pimento cheese — with sweetness added by a touch of honey and cane vinegar. (Mandlehr suggests mixing it with Greek yogurt to make a marinade for chicken wings.)
By day, Mandlehr is a lawyer for LG&E, and he’s also a home brewer and woodworker. His only experience in food service was working as a busser as a teenager, but his fascination with the culinary world is one of his main interests — sit down with him and you’ll likely hear about his many favorite ethnic restaurants around the city.
“Peppers were a passion that gave me the opportunity to get into an industry I’ve been interested in my entire life,” he explains.
If you stop into Another Place Sandwich Shop downtown for lunch these days, you’ll likely find a couple of bottles of Kentucky Pepper Company products on tables. Mandlehr is friends with Brian Goodwin, who owns the business and building, and the sandwich shop has provided something of a test market. Once the flagship sauce is released to retail, expect it to be a staple.
Before finalizing recipes, he also sent sauces to friends all over the country to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Trial and error can work wonders.
One of the more intriguing flavors is a blueberry habanero sauce that features more of the former ingredient than the latter, but as with the flagship sauce, there’s a sneaky kick on the back end.
“It’s really good on chicken and waffles,” Mandlehr says.
Another is a classic arbol-style sauce, made with tomatoes, cilantro and habanero, among other ingredients, which would be perfect for tacos.
Another one of his creations is a garlic “confit,” which is basically raw garlic he reduces in a clay pot with olive oil. A little dried cayenne gives it a hint of heat, and the result is pure deliciousness.
Mandlehr says his plan is to do a production batch of the flagship sauce for rollout to the public in early March. When the sauce hits retail, likely in April, he hopes to get it placed in local stores with the eye toward getting larger markets like Kroger to carry it.
Meanwhile, he anticipates giving away plenty of test bottles as samples with the hope of future retail placement. Ultimately, he says, he would love to see Kentucky Pepper Company products available on Amazon. Why not? There are thousands of other hot sauces on the retail market.
“I don’t think there’s a cuisine in the world that doesn’t offer the opportunity to add a pepper to it,” he says. “I think it could do well, and I think I’m going to have a lot of fun with it. If not, I’ll just have a lot of bottles of hot sauce sitting around.”