Memphis Style Barbecue Sauce

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Memphis barbecue is unique and oh-so regionally wonderful. Don’t expect the acidic or mustardy sauces of the Carolinas, the ferocious sweetness of Kansas City, or the huskiness of Texas. This sauce showcases the thin, tangy-sweet tomato flavors that define Memphis sauces. You might think at first blush that this sauce is marinara-esque and it is, but instead of wine, it’s got a generous dose of aged, woody whiskey.


Memphis Style Barbecue Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, peeled and grated (about 1¼ cups)
  • 1 large red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (about ½ cup)
  • 3 stalks celery, leaves included, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 1 (28-ounce) can tomato purée
  • 1¼ cups ketchup
  • 12 cloves garlic, peeled and grated, any green centers discarded
  • 1¼ cups apple cider vinegar
  • ⅔ cup Tennessee whiskey
  • 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses or sorghum
  • 2 tablespoons mustard powder, mild or hot, or to taste
  • 1½ tablespoons celery salt or more to taste
  • ¾ cup dark brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 teaspoons tamarind paste
  • 1 tablespoon Tabasco or ½ cup other hot sauce such as Frank’s RedHot or Texas Pete Hot Sauce
  • 3 teaspoons roasted ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 4 to 5 shakes hickory-flavored Liquid Smoke, optional
  • 4 sprigs fresh oregano
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 large or 4 small fresh bay leaves


  1. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over high heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook, stirring, for 7 to 9 minutes, until the onion is golden brown and the vegetables are completely softened.
  2. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomato purée and ketchup and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
  3. Add the garlic, vinegar, whiskey, molasses, mustard powder, celery salt, brown sugar, Worcestershire, tamarind paste, hot sauce, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, pepper, and hickory smoke, if using, and stir well to fully combine. Add the thyme and oregano sprigs and bay leaves and stir. Cover, bring to a simmer, and simmer for 45 minutes.
  4. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and discard the solids. Serve immediately over pasta or refrigerate until ready to reheat and use. This sauce will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for 5 days. It can also be frozen for up to 2 months and reheated, but the flavor will be muted.

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