The hottest thing in South Carolina-and the entire world, for that matter-is found on Main Street in downtown Fort Mill. In the midst of quaint cafes and antique shops is the PuckerButt Pepper Company, where employees readily dish out warm welcomes. Really warm.
The giggle-inducing name of the business is your first clue. What looks like an ordinary hot sauce shop is actually the site of human taste bud and intestinal warfare waged at atomic levels by proprietor and mad hot pepper scientist Ed Currie, aka "Smokin' Ed." After years of genetic tweaking, this banker turned pepper farmer developed the hottest pepper on the planet-the Carolina Reaper. Achieving this distinction required a "can do" attitude with a side of painful self-sacrifice.
"I ate one and hallucinated," Currie says of his infamous pepper progeny. "That's when I knew I had something really hot. Nasty hot."
When the hallucinations subsided, he sought to have the heat level confirmed. This is done using what's called the Scoville scale, a measure of the units of heat delivered by peppers. Researchers at Winthrop University undertook the lengthy, painstaking task. The Carolina Reaper, then known as HP22B (the HP referencing "God's higher power," a nod to Currie's exuberant Christian faith) measured a spine-ripping, skull-splitting, gut-busting 1.56-million Scoville units. Here's some perspective: The jalapeno shrivels in comparison with a measurement of just 600,000 units.
Doubters need only look to the Guinness Book of World Records for proof positive. After years of preparation, Currie submitted the paperwork and, in 2013, Guinness officials declared the Carolina Reaper the cruelest taste bud torcher on earth.
"I was arguing with a salesman and the phone goes off," Currie remembers. "It's an email and all I can see is ‘Congrats-you're amazing!' I opened it and read ‘You now have the hottest pepper in the world!' I fell to my knees. Everyone thought I was having a heart attack. An ambulance was called."
From the pepper mash, Currie makes condiments that are super tasty as well as hot. His award-winning, tongue-torturing sauces have caught the attention of national media and are stocked at markets across the country. People from all over the state and beyond bring their curiosity and hardcore palates to the shop to sample drops of serious sauces with whimsical names like "I Dare You Stupit," "Ben's Smokin' Hot Razz Booty" and "Voodoo Prince Death Mamba," each conveniently labeled with a heat index. The potential pain factor draws vengeance seekers looking to buy a little liquid retribution in a bottle, Currie said with a snicker. He recommends customers use good common sense when taste-testing.
"Just a drop on the tip of your tongue is more than enough," he says. "Anything more than that is, well, just plain stupid."
He also sells pepper seeds and stocks products made by purveyors who use his peppers for their sauces. One of the most intriguing uses for Currie's peppers, though, is something surprising and inspiring.
"I give peppers away to cancer researchers," he explains. "There are studies underway that point to hot peppers as being a potential cure for cancer. That's important to me as a human being in general, but personally, too, since cancer runs in my family and I've had it more than once already. I credit hot peppers for curing me."
Currie says he developed 170 different types of peppers, some of which are sorted and stored next door at PuckerButt's chile sorting operation. Inside, the air is eye-stinging and employees wear double-gloves for safe pepper handling.
"Don't touch anything or you'll have to use tongs when you visit the restroom," Currie warns, and he's not kidding. "Everything in here is covered with pepper residue."
Peppers in red Solo cups fill tables and shelves against the wall hold paper plates filled with seeds of peppers from Currie's farms. He has 14 in the state, their whereabouts a closely guarded secret.
"Competitors, you know," he says with a shrug.
And there are buckets of colorful peppers at every turn, including the Carolina Reaper, which looks much like habanero's ugly cousin: bright orange-red, wrinkly and bumpy. But it's not a beauty title Currie is after.
"Three years later, the Reaper still holds the world record for being the hottest pepper," he says. "And I aim to keep it."
Challengers beware. Should you attempt to dethrone Carolina Reaper, it's likely to be a futile effort.
"I haven't stopped crossbreeding peppers," confesses Currie with a sinister grin. "I've got at least four more right now that are hotter than Carolina Reaper. Try to take my record and I'm pulling out the big guns."