Lem's Meat Varnish Sweet with a Little of Heat
Chris Lemon is the man behind Lem's Meat Varnish, which got its start as a competition team in 2014 based out of Charleston, WV. With years of barbecue skills under his belt, Chris opened a take-out restaurant in 2017 that served the Charleston community for a couple years until its closing. The next incarnation of Lem's then took shape as Chris focused his efforts on his barbecue sauces, doing a small batch operation that could keep its focus on quality ingredients. He recently launched a new site that makes the three Lem's sauces available to purchase online, along with three rubs too.
The first whiff of this sauce is understated and mellow with a primarily bright and sweet fruity tomato aroma. It takes some deeper nosefuls to get beyond that ketchup-like character and bring out some barbecue depth that's an equal combo of mustard pungency, vinegar tang, and Worcestershire savoriness. There's also some oniony and smoky notes in the background, but no very definable presence of peppers or heat in the aroma.
Thickness & Texture
This sauce has a very glossy sheen and semi-transparent maroon hue which is light enough to see some white and black spice specs littered throughout. The sauce's consistency is super smooth and syrupy, with a thickness that hits right in the center of the scale. From a suspended spoon, this sauce falls in a quick and even pour that then changes to a stream of numerous slower drips before stopping and leaving a thin coating of sauce left clinging to the silverware.
Out of the Jar
A super sweet tomato start has a hallmark ketchup taste that gets an extra spike of sugar as it begins to settle on the tongue. At this time, the sweetness gains a molasses depth first, then a vinegar tanginess comes in that never balances out the sweetness, but at least provides some contrast to it. Next, it's a Worcestershire and mustard combo that adds a lot of the barbecue complexity with some extra help via oniony and smoky elements. Now, as the sauce begins its exit, the tartness takes a few steps forward to form an equal union with the still strong sugars, while a mild heat enters and turns the sauce just the slightest bit spicy in the aftertaste that still has good remnants of all flavors that had come before.
Slathered & Cooked
This sauce coated the chicken in a medium, even, and very glossy layer that baked down exceptionally well over indirect heat. This translated to no sauce loss when moved over direct heat, and there was only some caramelization here and there with no signs of burning at all. The flavor was very much on par with what was experienced out of the jar. A bright and fruity tomato started things off with a clean and straightforward taste, Then it took a few more bites to get the barbecue depth, but the vinegar, mustard, Worcestershire, spices, and smoke were all accounted for. It wasn't until the very end that any heat showed up, but it eventually did and tasted great alongside the final sweet bits I experienced as I licked each finger, which I was left with due to the stickiness of sauce.
Put to Use
With a bright and sweet tomato flavor and a picture perfect glossy appearance, there's no doubt this was a sauce crafted for competition. With a bit more depth than the standard competition sauce, and just a slight touch of heat, I can imagine Lem's Meat Varnish has adorned some award winning barbecue too because it delivers that judge-approved flavor with just enough complexity to make it stand out, but not enough to challenge the taste buds. Many syrupy, sugary sauces like this one have a tendency to burn easily over direct heat, but this one performed like a champ in that scenario, gaining attractive caramelization with no blackening at all. I think all these traits make this a good candidate to take that jump from competition to backyard— it seems pretty foolproof and all-purpose in either setting. Being a heat lover, I personally liked the Lem's spicy sauce a tad better, but I relent and recognize that this jar may be the one that finds more universal love, and it certainly deserves that. I think you'll find yourself with killer grilled and smoked goodies no matter what you apply to: chicken, ribs, pulled pork, burgers, seafood...and the list goes on.