The sensation started with a tingle on the end of the tongue.
Sweet notes of orange and pineapple struck first, causing mouths to pucker. Indiana honey provided a hint of sweetness. Then the habanero chili kicked in, finishing with a slow burn.
Jim Kirk watched as people sampled a few small drops of his Sweet Orange Oblivion on a cracker. He judged from their reactions whether his creation was too intense or not saucy enough.
“I’m not into making a hot sauce that’s the hottest thing you’ve ever tried, where your mouth is on fire. We’re more about taste,” he said. “I want hot sauce that’s warm, certainly, but not one that you’ll miss the flavor because it’s so hot.”
From the applewood aftertaste of Smokin’ Hot Double D to the Caribbean burn of Mean Mr. Mustard, Kirk has created a collection of fearsome yet flavorful condiments. Captain Jim’s Sauces take Indiana-grown peppers and other local natural ingredients such as onion, celery, garlic and honey to put a Hoosier spin on spicy fare.
The small-batch sauces have attracted a growing audience, being included in the top food shows throughout the country; and he has been recognized as one of the state’s premier artisan food producers.
“I’m from Indiana. If I was in Texas or Louisiana, maybe I’d make hot sauces that were a little hotter. But around here, this is what people like and what I like,” he said.
Kirk, a Beech Grove resident, has been known as “Captain” by family and friends for as long as he can remember. The nickname is a play on his full name, which matches that of the “Star Trek” character played by William Shatner.
He adopted a pirate theme after his experience leading a group of Indianapolis-area Parrotheads — fanatic enthusiasts of singer Jimmy Buffett. That all played well into his love of all things Caribbean, including hot peppers.
“I’ve always been a hot-head. I’ve always liked hot peppers and always liked spicy food. When we’d go on vacation, I’d buy sauces that I’d never seen before,” he said.
In his job at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Kirk had a co-worker who started growing hot peppers. The man had planted them to give some aesthetic beauty to his garden, but he despised spicy food and wouldn’t eat them.
Instead, he’d bring them in to work for others to sample or take home.
“Whatever was left in the bowl, I’d take home with me. I’d make Cajun food or Mexican food or salsa,” Kirk said. “But at the end of the season, he brought in whole bushels of them. I didn’t know what to do with that many, so I decided to try hot sauce.”
Doing some research on the Internet, he found recipes for different styles and intensities of sauces. He played with the different versions, adding some ingredients here and omitting others.
Kirk ended up making about 20 varieties. He taste-tested them and then focused on the strongest versions.
He started giving the sauces to friends and family for gifts. The more people sampled the flavors, the more they encouraged him to sell his products.
In 2010, Kirk and his wife, Kate, formed Captain Jim’s Sauces. The endeavor has been going strong ever since.
Kirk still uses the peppers brought in by his co-worker and experimented with growing his own cayenne, habanero and Scottish bonnet peppers. But the demand for peppers grew larger than his ability to get them, so he found a partner to help.
Randy Stout, owner of Melody Acres Farms outside Franklin, already grew peppers and other vegetables. Kirk provided seeds to Stout to plant and bought whatever he needed from the farm. Anything left over, Stout could sell on his own.
“He’s got one type of Scotch bonnet pepper that we’ve haven’t found commercially anywhere else. It doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t taste the same as other types,” Stout said. “That gives us another pepper to sell, and for people adventurous enough to try it, a taste they can’t find commercially.”
Hot sauce sales are warming but haven’t taken off enough for Kirk to focus on his business full time. The hot sauce production supports supplies, peppers and renting an industrial kitchen in Dayton, Ohio. But Kirk is set to expand his footprint in the hot sauce market.
He still works during the week as a natural science manager at the Department of Natural Resources and does tastings and specialty food shows on the weekends.
Captain Jim’s Sauces are available at locally, including at Easley Winery, Triton Brewing Co. and Goose the Market in Indianapolis. He also is working with area restaurants to have the sauces on tables for a spicy kick to their dishes.
“If we put them in enough places, people will try them and then go back to buy them. That’s how you get those repeat customers,” he said.
Captain Jim’s Sauces is a certified member of the Indiana Artisan program, which promotes high-quality goods made in the state. That’s allowed him to take part in specially marketed programs for artisan members and helped increase business.
Being included drew the attention of other vendors, including retailers wanting to sell his sauces. Two Cookin’ Sisters, a specialty food store in Brookston, started carrying Captain Jim’s Sauces as part of its effort to focus on “Made in Indiana.”
“We saw a lot of different hot sauces, but Captain Jim’s Sauces are unique. The heat, the taste, the ingredient combinations, they are all a little bit different than what anybody else is doing,” owner Kim Robinson said.