Lem's Meat Varnish Sweet with a Lot of Heat
A fan of The Meatwave hit me up on Facebook and told me I needed to try out Lem's Meat Varnish. At the time, there was no website with online ordering, so I inquired about getting some jars with the creator directly, Chris Lemon. Only one of his three sauces were available then, so I waited until they were all back in stock to place an order, and by that time he had his website up and running too. While the site is new, Lem's Meat Varnish is not, getting its start back in 2014, founded as a competition team of the same name. In 2017, Lem's opened up as a take out restaurant and catering venture in their home base of South Charleston, WV. That incarnation of the business appears to have lasted about two years, and Lem is now focusing primarily on his sauces, which are done in small batch production, letting him concentrate on the quality of the ingredients and recipes.
A balanced blend of sweet and tangy with a strong fruity tomato character are the first notable traits in the aroma. It doesn't take a much deeper whiff of this sauce for the savory Worcestershire to make itself known and do most of the heavy lifting in adding complexity. Next comes a little tingle in the nostrils that, without a very strong vinegar presence, is a clear indicator of the peppers that lie within. There's also the common garlic and onion combo hanging out in the background along with a mellow smokiness that seamlessly blends with the other components.
Thickness & Texture
This maroon sauce has a very glossy sheen and mainly smooth texture that's only broken up by larger white and red spice bits that clearly look like pieces of pepper. Those are easy to make out, and thanks to the semi-opaqueness of this sauce, you can also see some smaller orange spice bits as well. This sauce's thickness sits a couple notches north of medium and, paired with its heavily syrupy consistency, the sauce falls in large drip followed by a fast and steady steam from suspended spoon. Four or five slower drips then release before the sauce ceases its flow and a medium coasting is left clinging to the silverware.
Out of the Jar
A very sweet ketchup-like tomato taste starts off the flavor profile. The thick, syrupy consistancy of this sauce coats the tongue in sugar first, and after a few seconds of settling in, that strong Worcestershire present in the aroma comes in to add a lot of depth and complexity. The sweetness is still persisting at this point as a mellow tang provides a little contrast to the sugar and some mellow spices and smokiness add fleeting additional notes just as the peppers start to work their magic. At first it's a medium, fruity heat that's experienced, melding extremely well sweet tomato base, but then the spiciness is dialed up as the sauce makes its exit. It's at this point that the sweetness finally fades and a strong mouth burn takes hold in the aftertaste.
Slathered & Cooked
This sauce coated the chicken in a medium, even layer that baked down exceptionally well over indirect heat. This led to no sauce loss when the leg was moved to direct heat, and while the sauce is clearly sugary and that equated to quick caramelization, there was no burning at all. Like out of the jar, the initial flavor was sweet tomato, but there was an added brightness to it that made the fruitiness pop more. Right away, the complexity from the Worcestershire kept the sauce from having a singularly sugary profile, and after a few bites, that faint smokiness and mellow heat joined the party. Due to a boost in the the sweetness, the heat never built up to the same level as it did in its raw state, but by the time the leg was all consumed, there was a good contrast to the sweetness and little heat-induced tingle left on the lips.
Put to Use
With its super syrupy consistancy and sweet base, this sauce was undoubtably formed originally for competition where sugar and shine wins awards. While the initial flavor of this sauce treaded the familiar line that sometimes veers too sweet for backyard applications, Lem's heavy usage of Worcestershire and its strong heat gave it enough depth to make it more versatile and create a flavor that had me eating spoonful after spoonful. Now I'm sucker for the sweet and spicy mixture, and the expertly crafted balance between the two cemented this sauce as high ranking for me early on, but what pushed it to the top was the fact that it also performed swimmingly on the grill. You might think such a sweet and syrupy sauce would burn quickly over high heat, and many do, but this one caramelized beautifully without burning and stayed completely in tact—all traits that not only would serve you well in competition, but also make things more fail safe for backyard grillers. It also means this sauce can pretty much handle almost any challenge you throw at it whether it be a rack of ribs, dip for chicken, spread for burger, and so on. The only thing I would caution is the intense heat out of the jar might be a bit much for some, but after being cooked I think the sweet and spicy balance probably hits perfectly for most taste buds.