Minnesota Hot Sauce Spotlight: Bernie Dahlin of Double Take Hot Sauce (and the Hard-Hitting Heat of His X Sauces)

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Photo: Tyson Schnitker of Skaalvenn Distillery after trying Double Take’s Carolina reaper sauce

Double Take Hot Sauce owner Bernie Dahlin brings up the sales adage of selling emotions rather than products. He says the name Double Take is descriptive of the reactions he’d see when people tried his salsas for the first time. There would be a bite, a smile, a couple of steps away from Dahlin’s sampling station, and a look back.

“They’re kind of shocked about how good it was or how spicy it was,” Dahlin says. “I see it happen all the time.”

For many years, Dahlin suffered blah salsas – runny, watery, shallow in flavor, you know what I mean. About a decade ago, he decided enough was enough and took matters into his own hands. He was working in real estate at the time, but experimented with salsa recipes on the side for about a year and a half. When he finally hit the bulls-eye, he got his salsas market-ready and debuted at local farmers markets.

Dahlin chose two markets specifically: Linden Hills, where he grew up; and Northeast Minneapolis, where a craft mentality had taken root in local brewery taprooms. He says the craft beer industry was a big inspiration for him, specifically Jim Koch’s entrance into the beer market with the Boston Beer Company.

“People told me that people would never pay X amount for salsa and I tell them, when [Boston Beer Company] came on board, people said that about them too,” he says. “Why is anyone going to spend $4.99 on a beer when they could spend $1.99 on a Coors Light? Well, because it’s better.”

If you’re just used to the brands that pull up when you Google “cheap salsa,” a scoop chip loaded with Double Take will be a whole ‘nother world. One of his salsas, Aces and Eights, is made with sweet corn; another, Bewitched, is made with black beans. Machismo is the spiciest of the bunch, but a mild version of it is available. You can see all of the salsas on the Double Take website.

After a year of building the brand, Dahlin began tinkering with hot sauce recipes. This was still back when you had to go online or hit up the Pepper Palace if you wanted exotic hot sauces. The window for innovation was open, and Dahlin dove through it with offerings like a pale-colored coconut lime hot sauce and a mellow cilantro avocado sauce.

Forming a circle around the logo on his bottles are the words FLAVOR FIRST, HEAT SECOND. Dahlin says his hot sauces are meant to complement food rather than single out the flavor of a specific pepper – but for those seeking the heavy metal, he’s also got sauces made with Carolina reaper and ghost peppers.

As the business gained momentum, Dahlin found himself at a crossroads: was it time to leave the real estate world, where Dahlin had spent 12 years, and go all-in on Double Take? The answer was yes.

“I thought to myself, I need to try this,” he recalls. “I can’t not try it. I can always come back to real estate. I’ve got to try it.”

Now, more and more people are making those double takes – and a good number of their faces are wet with tear trails.

OUR FIRST DANCE WITH DOUBLE TAKE: THE REAPER

Long before he was letting a dangerously delicious habanero rum loose on the Twin Cities, Skaalvenn Distillery co-owner and head distiller Tyson Schnitker was seeking out and enjoying the kinds of food that makes your mouth so hot, the rest of your body gets chilly. It’s a painful, yet oddly satisfying, fascination. He says it really took off after he and his wife met. 

“I thought I could take heat,” he says, “and then I met Mary.”

He recalls one of his first experiences with Mary’s family. There was a big dinner. They had some kind of soup, with some kind of peppers. He tried eating one of those peppers, and wound up in one hell of a pain. He remembers having to yank that pepper out of his mouth, and then being warned not to eat those.

“Two of those peppers made the whole family meal hot,” he recalls.

Since then, Schnitker began seeking out the endorphin rush that accompanies hard-rocking heat. He says his tolerance for hot peppers now might even surpass that of Mary’s family. When he hears about a friend researching local hot sauces, he wants in.

The first time Schnitker and I get together at his distillery for this research, I bring eight different bottles of hot sauce. We first try them on plain white rice, supplied by a nearby restaurant, but we eventually ditch the rice and start taking sauce by the spoonful. This is how we try Double Take’s Carolina reaper sauce. 

Flavor comes first. It’s smoky, mouth-watering, but with a hint of citrus. Delicious. We have more. The tagline doesn’t set too high an expectation for danger but it delivers on Flavor First. That much is for sure. Little more? Yeah. Little more.

And that’s when the heat comes. Our faces turn a blush red. Some eyes water, some eyes cry, and the heat lasts. We learn a valuable lesson that day. For some of Dahlin’s sauces, “Flavor First, Heat Second” is a mission … but, at in the case of his Carolina reaper sauce, this tagline is a warning.

DAHLIN’S MONDAY MORNINGS, FRIDAY AFTERNOONS

Double Take owner Bernie Dahlin

“Every morning is Monday morning,” says Dahlin, “and every afternoon is Friday afternoon.”

When I ask Dahlin about his day-to-day, he lists everything from cooking to marketing, date-stamping bottles to late-night emails. His wife, Adina, has a sauce company of her own. It’s called Mama Kicks and specializes in jerk sauce, berbere sauce, and chimichurri. You can find more information on Mama Kicks here, and you can keep an eye out here for a story on Mama Kicks in the future.

Starting very soon, The Dahlins will have a lot more space to work with – they’re moving into a new production space in Eden Prairie, one they’ll have to themselves. They had been working in a shared kitchen previously, and Dahlin is excited to see a lot of inefficiencies go by the wayside. Most notably, he expects a reduction in drive time – a massive reduction.

“This is crazy to think,” he says. “I drive over 30,000 miles a year, but I don’t leave the Twin Cities. I’m in the car, on I-94 or 35W, probably three hours a day because I didn’t have a space where I could have everything delivered. I had three racks worth of storage space [in the old kitchen]. That’s like nothing.”

He’ll now have labeling, cooking, and bottling on site. Distances that used to be measured in miles will now be measured in feet. He has enough storage now to warrant getting an electric palate lifter. He also has an electric palate lifter.

He says it can be as busy as he wants it to be. When I ask him how busy he wants it to be, he says even busier still.

“I don’t want to stop growing yet,” he says.

OUR SECOND DANCE WITH DOUBLE TAKE: THE X BOTTLES

Nick Weber (Instagram: @imsorrythatigotfat)

The next time we sample hot sauces at the distillery, Schnitker and I are joined by Nick Weber. You may know Weber as @imsorrythatigotfat on Instagram, or you might know him as the guy who wore the leather vest and posed with a bottle of vodka on the Skaalvenn Insta feed.

We’ve got 19 hot sauces and two bags of tacos spread out across a plastic folding table. Weber talks about first having hot sauces and tasting only blank heat, but coming to appreciate the depth of flavor that accompanies a well-executed hot sauce. The citrusy kick of habanero peppers, in particular, hooked him. Now, he puts hot sauce on practically everything.

We eventually reach three bottles of Double Take hot sauce with giant Xs in marker across their labels. These Xs weren’t written on mistakenly – they’re made with ten times as many peppers as the regular varieties. We’ve got amplified versions of the signature sauce, ghost pepper sauce, and Carolina Reaper sauce.

Schnitker recognizes Double Take as the brand that left him in tears last time, acknowledges the meaning of the big markered X, and takes a big bite out of a burrito smothered in the signature sauce.

He notices no heat at first. He wonders aloud whether he didn’t use enough, and applies more. Weber says the ghost pepper sauce has great flavor, and applies more of that to his burrito. Everything is going swimmingly, just like it was the first time. I have the Carolina reaper sauce and, well, mine is starting to work. Still, I apply more to my burrito. 

Three minutes pass. We’re wondering if the beans in our burritos are dulling the heat, and whether these beans could be used to dull the pain of a wound, and then it kicks in. The crescendo is gradual. One moment, we simply notice; then, heavy breathing and hurried drinks of whatever beverage we’ve got; finally, Schnitker and Weber are driven out of their seats in search of more beverages.

“I’m not dying, I’m just uncomfortable,” says Weber. Schnitker is speaking almost exclusively in moans and gale-force exhales. 

We are exactly the people Dahlin did this for.

“There are always those people who say something that is pretty darn spicy is mild,” he says, and refers to his statement about selling emotions. “I did that to make those people happy.”

I mean, hey: we were in pain but we were happy.

Along with 10X versions of his Carolina reaper, ghost pepper, and signature sauces, Dahlin makes a version of his cilantro avocado sauce with just twice the peppers. He says these amplified takes aren’t going to be mass-produced, but rather done in small batches and sold every so often. You can find all of Double Take’s hot sauces here.

On the labels of Double Take bottles, you’ll find a warning: “Not for drinking straight!” Did I drink the 10X Carolina reaper sauce straight at home one night anyway? Yes. How much chocolate peanut butter gelato did it take to dull the pain from that? About one third of a pint.


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