Food & Drink

How Smokin’ Ed Currie Created the World’s Hottest Peppers

The man who developed the “hottest pepper in the (known) world” is the legendary farmer and pepper-sauce manufacturer and self-taught plant geneticist Ed “Smokin’ Ed” Currie of Fort Mill, South Carolina. 

His world-beating pepper, the cultivar “Pepper X,” was named the spiciest by the Guinness Book of World Records, considered by pepper- and chile-heads to be the definitive authority of the globe’s hottest pepper, in August 2023.

It made global headlines.  

Briefly to the stats, then: Pepper X clocks in at a staggering 2.69 million Scoville Heat Units, or SHUs, which are the metric for the power of the capsaicinoids within peppers. Capsaicin is the biological compound in the fruit that activates the pain sensors on our palates and in our bodies, creating the “burn,” so to speak. 

The burn is a central bulwark of a pepper’s flavor and popularity among pepperheads, although, as a whole, the flavor of individual peppers is a complex matrix of other factors and compounds native to the fruit in addition to the burn. In a word, Scoville units don’t measure taste. They’re a metric of the pepper’s action on the pain sensors alone. Jalapeños taste different from habañeros, but it’s not just because habañeros are “hotter.”    

The two hottest peppers on Earth, the Carolina Reaper and Pepper X, both hail from Ed Currie’s Puckerbutt Pepper Company.

Food & Wine / Getty Images / Puckerbutt Pepper Co.

For comparison, an ordinary non-craft jalapeño that we might pick up out of the bin at the supermarket carries an upper range of 6000-8000 SHUs, considered baby food by true pepperheads. One cayenne clocks in at an average of 50,000 SHUs, or some 54 times less hot than Pepper X. A garden-variety habañero will weigh in at 100,000 Scoville units, give or take, or about 27 times less hot than Pepper X. Against Pepper X, every pepper in your grocery store is light work.  

Last August, Pepper X dethroned from the Guinness pedestal a pepper called the Carolina Reaper, which had held the record since 2013 with its then-world-beating 1.64 million SHUs. Pepper X trounced the Carolina Reaper by a margin of 1.05 million Scoville units. In other words, Currie’s gargantuan winning margin of 1.05 million Scoville units beats the chile world’s definition of a stand-alone “super-hot” pepper, defined as any pepper bearing over 1 million units. Pepper growers refine their hybrid cultivars for years to exceed that 1 million bar.  Smokin’ Ed’s Pepper X dwarfed the international standard.  

The second reason that Pepper X stunned the aficionadi last October is that the dethroned Carolina Reaper was also an Ed Currie cultivar. This fact only buttressed Currie’s legend as the very baddest of the autodidact-geneticist-farmers, gunslinging with peppers for the Guinness record. Before Currie, no other cultivator had ever had a pepper to hold the Guinness record for a decade and then topple that with a cultivar registering over a million Scoville units beyond it. It was the pepperhead equivalent of Michael Jordan’s run during his Chicago Bulls years. 

“The Carolina Reaper is where it all started,” explains the celebrated Currie in an interview with this correspondent for Food & Wine. “But it really started before that, in the years before we had a farm, when we were growing peppers in our neighbors’ backyards and making hot sauces and selling seeds. This was about 2002 to 2003. We had this banker friend we took some of our hot sauce to and she brought us a yellow Scotch bonnet from St. Vincent, in the US Virgin Islands. So I ate it, liked it, saved the seeds, and cross-bred them with nine other peppers, Nagras, Scorpions — anything within the chinense species. One of those plants’ fruit was especially ugly — big fat body, and a long tail. Year-to-year it kept turning out peppers that looked and tasted exactly the same.”  

“Smokin’ Ed” Currie developed both the Carolina Reaper and Pepper X — and now, he’s looking to beat his own record.

Courtesy of Puckerbutt Pepper Co.

As in art, in pepper cultivation, the definition of “ugly” can vary widely. But it’s generally true that misshapen, garish, or an aggressively-shaped growth pattern will indicate the presence of high numbers of Scoville units in the peppers. Hybrid cultivars are delicate starters and hot peppers are notoriously fickle in not being able to maintain flavor or heat profiles from generation to generation. Cross-breeding for certain characteristics such as Scoville units can be likened to the farmers being trapped in a vast tornado of DNA, grabbing as precisely as they can in the hundred-mile-an-hour winds at different strands of DNA whipping by in certain plants, hoping that that trait or those characteristics can be made steady in a chain of life. It’s what pepper farmers mean when they say a cultivar must be “stabilized.”  

Currie’s point is that the Carolina Reaper was not like that, being remarkably stable from the get-go. “I think about it now like an act of nature,” he says. “It was just the way Nature chose to work with that one. Along about 2009 to 2010 we invited some friends over to taste it.” 

By this Currie means eating the pepper raw.  

“They ate it, loved it, and every one of them fell down on the floor and vomited,” Currie says proudly. “And the plants just kept turning out that way. That’s when we knew we had something special.” 

It should be added that the aficionadi of great amounts of burn have a positive relationship with high-Scoville unit peppers’ amazing powers as an emetic. To them, becoming instantly nauseated as your body instinctively recoils from the pain levels triggered by the sheer volume and power of the capsaicin working its magic down through the digestive tract is an excellent thing — a sporting element of the chase for the burn. The process of eating a raw Carolina Reaper (or any pepper) does ultimately release endorphins, which is how the illuminating high that pepperheads so love gets made.     

It took a decade for the Reaper to get from its first hybrid generations to its 2013 Guinness triumph, and it sat atop the world for a decade after that. Smokin’ Ed’s the king the modern-day Gregor Mendel/Johnny Appleseed of chiles because he did that, then he repeated the process with Pepper X.  

And that’s also why Currie has such a fat red target painted on his back, metaphorically speaking. Every pepper cultivator worth his salt on at least three continents is gunning for him now. Guinness, itself, being an Anglo-Irish product, the pepper growers who vie for the record are primarily from the States, the UK, and Australia.  

Americans can be forgiven for not realizing the global reach and epic cut-throat parameters of the race for the Guinness record. We have generous pepper-growing seasons in the South and West and many fine craft hot sauces in our markets, to say nothing of those from Mexico or the Caribbean. But the race for the Guinness record is different, described by one Australian food journalist as: “a hugely controversial war — there are scandals, accusations of cheating, death threats.” 

Which is not to suggest that Smokin’ Ed has had any death threats since his reign began in 2013, nor are we suggesting that any of the preceding Guinness winners have engaged in any but the most sporting tactics in developing their peppers. Currie is highly aware that he’s Target No. 1, worldwide. After the Reaper made the Guinness record, Currie told a camera team that came down to visit him that “somebody else getting good is only going to make me better.”

In 2003 down in Fort Mill, a small town in what South Carolinians call the Piedmont, the hill country just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, Currie founded his PuckerButt Pepper Company – so called because the man is heartily forthright about the various bodily responses to some of his products.  His sauces and plants are popular. Over the twenty-one years he’s been in the game, he’s increased his acreage to the point that he’s shipping more than a half-million plants of all varieties annually, as well as selling seeds and hot sauces made in varying strengths from different peppers, including the notoriously named “Last Dab” sauce made from the Carolina Reaper, and now, a range of Pepper X products. 

For those who remain shy of his culinary derring-do, it’s reassuring to know that you can shop at PuckerButt according to the intensity of the sauce (as graded by the company) and that there are intentionally relaxed sauces and products for those who can’t stand the heat. Now, of course, the hottest PuckerButt sauces are the handful from Pepper X, including an American chimichurri and a so-called “Gator” sauce that, because of its muscular concentrations of Pepper X, packs a hefty bite. But more entertaining to Currie now is the process of creating sauces and products flavored with tiny amounts of the Reaper or Pepper X that are more mass-market.  

“You can really taste the flavors, the floral notes down in those peppers when you use them in this way. That’s what I’m going for now in the larger market,” says the farmer.  

To reassure the pepperheads among us, that does not mean that Smokin’ Ed is in any way getting softer or becoming an easier target. Not one to rest on his laurels, he’s at work now on a top-secret, super-hot variety culled and coaxed from his private library of seeds that he keeps in Fort Mill. 

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