We rank a lot of things around here on Uproxx Life — from jarred marinara to methods of cooking hot dogs and bacon. We’re just trying to make your lives more enjoyable, is all (bad mac & cheese can ruin an afternoon). And now, Despite it having rained for approximately the last 741 days here in California, it’s technically Spring.
Spring theoretically brings warmer weather and warmer weather brings grilling season. You see where I’m going with this? That’s right, I’m here to rank some barbecue sauces.
Ah, but hold your horses, cowboy. If you know anything about the internet, you know that expressing opinions about anything related to “barbecue” (and God help you if you ever refer to “grilling” as “barbecue”) is tantamount to breaking a whiskey bottle over a bar at a crowded saloon and telling the assembled cowpokes that you’re off to go pleasure their mothers unless any of them are man enough to stop you.
Please, fellas, don’t hurt me. I’m just trying to present this here offering to the Sheriff of #Content so that he’ll release my family.
Barbecue is so polarizing partly because there are so many different varieties of barbecue and sauce, and most of them are intensely regional. In terms of sauce, there’s everything from Kansas City-style (molasses, brown sugar), Carolina Gold (mustard-based), “Alabama White” (mayo-based), Lexington Dip (vinegar, red pepper, ketchup), St. Louis (sorta like Kansas City but without smoke), Texas-style (uh… disputed), and… probably about 20 more, depending on who you ask (don’t ask Kevin, you’ll be stuck there 20 minutes).
What We Included:
The sauces you can find at the grocery are largely Kansas City-style, but with about a thousand variations (sugar-free, no sugar added, spicy, bourbon, etc., etc). Meanwhile, more and more labels are branching out into other styles like Carolina Gold and others. That raised the question of what was fair for a test. I didn’t want to be the arbiter of “what’s better, Kansas City or Memphis?” and I had no interest in pitting 12 different varieties of Bullseye or Baby Ray’s against each other.
For this test, I tried to keep the parameters as simple as possible. If the label said “original,” “classic,” or simply “barbecue sauce,” I included it. If it had spice levels, I tried to find a mild or medium. Most other variations I left out. I was trying to compare flagship sauces to flagship sauces, as best as I could. If I left out your favorite, please remember that I did it specifically to spite you, personally.
I ended up with 25 sauces, which does feel like it’s approaching the upper limit of the number of sauces one can taste in a single sitting without getting molasses fever or the sugar leg or whatever. Yes, I made those up, but tasting this many versions of a very similar thing does do strange things to one’s palate.
The matter of whether a barbecue sauce should have smoke flavor or leave that to the meat, along with how sweet it should be, are all highly disputed. There were definitely sauces in this sample that tasted like they were trying to mimic meat flavor and I downgraded them accordingly. There is certainly a difference between a sauce that tastes good and a sauce that tastes good on meat. That being said, there are so many different uses for barbecue sauces, even beyond grilling and barbecuing (I like it on my chicken McNuggets too) that I couldn’t possibly account for them all in a single, fair test. Even speaking solely logistically, I couldn’t taste 25 different sauces on three or four different meats without dying of meat exhaustion halfway through (RIP to your mom, I hear meat exhaustion is how she went, too).
Instead, I went with the old standby for these tests: the squirt and spoon method. I tasted them all plain with a spoon, which certainly has some flaws, but ultimately still seems like the fairest way to do things.
I had my brother-in-law join me for the tasting, both to have another perspective and because he’s a bald guy, so when he starts to sweat from spicy food it’s really noticeable. During our hot sauce test, he had a tea towel wrapped around his head by the end.
- 365 Original BBQ
- Kinder’s Zero Sugar
- Noh Hawaiian BBQ
- Rufus Teague
- Sweet Baby Ray’s No Sugar Added
- Red Tale Ale
- Best Damn BBQ Sauce (Sweet Lady Love)
- G Hughes Sugar Free Original
- Everett & Jones Super Q
- KC Masterpiece American Original
- Sonoma Ranchers Original
- Charboys Sweet and Tangy
- Noble Made Classic Barbecue
- Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce
- Organicville Original BBQ Sauce
- Trader Joe’s Organic Kansas City Style
- Bull’s Eye Barbecue
- Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ Sauce
- Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce
- Rib Rack BBQ
- Primal Kitchen Classic Organic Unsweetened
- Kinder’s Organic Mild
- Lillie’s Smoky Barbeque Sauce
- Lou Biere Mild BBQ
- Sprouts Organic Bourbon BBQ
25. Noble Made Classic BBQ (Sample 13)
First Two Ingredients: Water, Apple Cider Vinegar
Price: $9.49 for 13 oz at Whole Foods.
This one is very red. It has a very apple sauce-esque purée texture, which looks like it’s separating. On the nose, it smells like marinara, with maybe just a hint of brown sugar in there?
Tasting it, this is definitely one of the no sugar added ones. It’s all tomatoes and vinegar. It’s not bad, but definitely hard to compare this to the sweeter ones.
Brother In Law’s Notes:
Tart!!! Vinegar like crazy. Just apple cider vinegar. Could see it on ribs over white rice.
Bottom Line: This seems like a “healthy” choice sauce for people watching their sugars and whatnot. I did not particularly enjoy the taste, smell, or texture.
24. Primal Kitchen Organic Unsweetened Classic BBQ Sauce (Sample 21)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Organic Crushed Tomatoes, Organic Balsamic Vinegar.
Price: $6.69 for 8.5 oz at Target.
This one is also red and very apple saucy, and is separating. On the nose, this one smells like cinnamon, clove, and maybe cardamom. It reminds me a little of Moroccan tagine. Definitely a no-sugar option. I would call this… interesting. It reminds me of Morroccan food, but not really barbecue.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Key lime, Citrus, spice. Forward spice and vinegar finish. All spice.
My brother-in-law rated this his fifth favorite sauce, proving that there’s no accounting for taste. It has coriander, cumin, and cinnamon in it, which would account for the Moroccan tagine flavor. It was way too out there for me, I’d say it’s strictly for the Keto weirdos.
23. (Sample 3) Noh’s Hawaiian Bar-B-Q Sauce
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, Brown Sugar, Sugar.
Price: $6.89 for 20 oz at Von’s.
This one is dark brown and more thick and gloppy, looks more like apple sauce. I think I even SMELL apples, though that could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. And of course lots of tomato. Yeah, this one kind of tastes like sweeter apple sauce to me. It’s missing something.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Sweet Tomato forward. Tomato paste.
This Hawaiian-style sauce simultaneously suffers a bit from being an outlier and lacks anything that would truly distinguish it. It’s tomato-forward and has a lot of the same ingredients as the previous sauce, and is pretty sweet and mildly smoky, but not as sweet or smoky as others.
22. Char Boys Smokey & Tangy BBQ Sauce (Sample 12)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, Light Corn Syrup, Molasses.
Price: $9.99 for 18 oz. on Amazon.
This one is a brown purée. On the nose I get brown sugar and tomato paste, it smells very sweet. On the tongue, it’s a little thin. It’s also definitely sort of one-note sweet, though not necessarily in a bad way. This one doesn’t have a lot going on, but it’s fine.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Charred cherries, good.
My brother-in-law had this ranked third. To mean it blended into the great amorphous middle section of sauces that weren’t terrible, just sort of shrug-worthy.
21. Sonoma Ranchers Original (Sample 11)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Brown Sugar, Tomato Paste.
This one is brown and on the looser side. The nose reminds me of Worcestershire sauce, so vinegar/soy/maybe a hint of fishy funk and black pepper. Tasting it, it reminds me of A1 steak sauce, which I’ve never especially loved.
Yep, this tastes just like A1, with some little chunks in it. Eh.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Heavy garlic and grilled tomato with brown sugar. Like it.
If you like A1 steak sauce you’ll probably like this one. I don’t especially like that particular variety of tang.
20. Lillie’s Smoky Barbeque Sauce (Sample 23)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Sauce, Brown Sugar, Apple Cider Vinegar.
Price: $6.39 for 21 oz. at Target.
This sauce is looser and reddish in color, with pepper flecks. Tomato-orange vinegar on the nose. This one is definitely an outlier, it tastes like an orange peppery stir fry sauce. I don’t hate it but it reads more like marinade than barbecue sauce to me.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Orange Julius. Love it. Sweet. Do it again.
This one was heavy on fruit juice followed by black pepper, which to my palate seemed more like a Mongolian BBQ stir fry kind of sauce. Supposedly it’s “Memphis-style.” For me, it didn’t really rate compared to the brown sauces, but it might’ve just been too weird.
19. Best Damn BBQ Sauce — Sweet Lady Love (Sample 7)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Sugar, Tomato Paste.
Price: $6.99 for 20 oz at Target.
This one is more reddish and syrupy and looks like fast food sweet-and-sour sauce. This one is hard to get anything on the nose, maybe a little vinegar and tomato? It’s barely there. On the tongue it tastes like… orange chicken. Not in a bad way. Just a very specific way. This seems like it’d make a good McNugget sauce.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Balanced spice. Hint of Hawaiian. Sweet. Orange. Great for a fast food chain.
We both got orange from this one, which actually seems to come from pineapple juice and tamarind. More like a tropical fruity option, so it ended up being a bit of an outlier here.
18. Red Tail Ale Original Tangy BBQ Sauce (Sample 6)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Concentrate, Evaporated Cane Juice, and Mustard.
This one is one of the darkest, sort of like a grittier ketchup in texture. On the nose, I get molasses, black pepper, and brown sugar, in that order. This one tastes heavy on the fake smoke, with little chunks. I feel like it’s trying to taste like the meat it’s supposed to go on.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Chunky, more burned oak barrel. Molasses. Not a repeater. Charred.
If you like your sauce super smoky, this is the one for you. It was too much smoke flavor for me.
17. Ray’s No Sugar Added Original Barbecue Sauce (Sample 5)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Tomato Paste, Distilled Vinegar.
Price: $3.49 for 18 oz at Target.
This one is a thick, very homogenous pile, like brown ketchup. The nose is molasses forward, with undertones of tomato paste and black pepper. On the palate this one is very tomatoey and feels like it lacks some complexity.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Slight smoke. Tomato bisque. Good.
With less sugar, there was more room for tomato flavor. The sweetness comes from allulose, “a low-calorie epimer of the monosaccharide sugar fructose, used by some major commercial food and beverage manufacturers as a low-calorie sweetener.”
It did better than I expected the “no sugar added” varieties to do, though not nearly as well as some other no sugar added labels.
16. Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce (Sample 14)
First Three Ingredients: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Tomato Puree, Vinegar.
Price: $1.72 for 18 oz. at Walmart.
Original Notes: Thick, brown, homogenous. On the nose, it’s a smoke-molasses bomb, with some black pepper creeping in. On the palate, this didn’t taste at all like I was expecting from the nose. It’s very A1/Worcestershire flavor, but also sweet.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Very sweet. Sangria. Did it have a vanilla finish?
This one was weirdly complex tasting, though mostly in a cheap processed kind of way.
15. Organicville Original BBQ Sauce (Sample 15)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Organic Agave Nectar, and Organic Tomato Paste.
Price: $4.75 for 14 oz. at Smart & Final.
This one is brown and pretty thin. On the nose, I get tomato paste and vinegar — standard, but more pronounced here. On the palate, this one is tomato heavy and only medium-sweet, with just a bit of black pepper. Comes on decent but kind of fades into the background without lingering.
Brother In Law’s Notes:
Looking for spice that didn’t come. Okay. Apricot? Blah.
This one just felt like it lacked identity. The flavors were timid. Part of the fun of a blind taste test is that cheap craft and “fancy” agave nectar sauce can wind up with almost the same ratings.
14. KC Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce (Sample 10)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Molasses.
Price: $1.89 for 18 oz at Target.
This one is dark and soy saucey, and very homogenous. Fruity-sweet-vinegar on the nose, almost like jelly. On the palate, I get… grape jelly and gatorade plus smoke. Fig! Figs with clove and cinnamon. Actually pretty spicy/peppery on the back end. This one is different, I’m having a hard time knowing how to feel about it.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Great balance. Grape jelly. Smoke. FIG!!!
This is one of those OG sauces I would’ve had in my fridge as a kid. It was surprisingly complex for such an old-school sauce, and both my brother-in-law and I went back a few times to try to figure out what we were tasting. Neither of us had it in our top picks though.
13. G. Hughes Sugar-Free Original BBQ Sauce (Sample 8)
First Three Ingredients: Vine Ripened Tomatoes, Cider Vinegar, and Modified Corn Starch.
Price: $5.30 for 18 oz from Smart & Final.
This one is red and syrupy with some chunks, like sweet chili sauce or sweet and sour sauce. On the nose, I’m getting oranges, pears… maybe canned peaches? On the palate, this is very fruity, with either honey or brown sugar. I like this better than the other Asian sweet and sour tasting one so far.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Chunks of onion. Definitely Hawaiian flavors. Canned peaches.
This one is sweetened with Sucralose, aka Splenda. It’s great if you like the flavor of canned peaches. Otherwise, meh.
12. Rib Rack BBQ Sauce (Sample 20)
First Three Ingredients: Brown Sugar, Tomato Puree, and Distilled Vinegar.
Price: $6.49 for 19 oz from Sprouts.
Thick, brown, and homogenous. Heavy brown sugar, tomato paste, and molasses on the nose. This tastes ketchupy and cheap. It’s definitely lacking in complexity compared to a lot of them, kind of a sugar bomb.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Heavy molasses. Cherry finish. Mid-spice that ends. Good.
This tasted how I imagined most grocery store barbecue sauce would taste — sugary and cheap.
11. Bull’s Eye BBQ Sauce (Sample 17)
First Three Ingredients: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Tomato Puree, and Vinegar.
Price: $1.87 for 10.7 oz. from Walmart.
Reddish brown and medium thick and homogenous-looking. I’m getting mostly tomato paste and apple cider vinegar on the nose. Those flavors are thinner on the tongue, now I’m getting smoke and pepper, with a medium spice level. There’s an earthy spice in there that I don’t know how to define, maybe like turmeric. It didn’t taste the way I expected it to but it’s growing on me. Making me sweat.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Smokey black pepper nose. Orange soda flavor. Prunes? Good vinegar balance. Good.
This one was definitely in my refrigerator growing up. Of course, the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, I think that was a food group back then. It was spicier than I remembered and otherwise fine-not-great.
10. Sprouts Organic Bourbon BBQ Sauce (Sample 25)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Organic Tomato Paste, Organic Sugar.
Price: $3.99 for 19 oz from Sprouts.
This one is reddish and is separating a lot. Looks and smells very ketchupy. Tastes like sweet ketchup with a healthy kick of black pepper.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Sweet and sour. Pineapple and sweet chili. Canned Tomato soup finish. Good.
Our notes were sort of all over the place for this one, which tends to happen when you taste 25 barbecue sauces in a sitting. However, we both found it overly tomatoey in a cheap-tasting way. Neither of us got bourbon at all.
9. Rufus Teague (Sample 4)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, Sugar, Brown Sugar.
Price: $7.49 for 15.25 oz from RufusTeague.
Very dark brown, very vinegar-forward on the nose, with pepper and smoke sneaking in there. On the palate, this one definitely has a soy flavor to it, plus a vinegar tang and a moderate amount of spice. Something fruity in there as well, like a pear flavor. This one feels like it would make good beef short rib sauce. Lots of heat and pepper on the back end.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Sriracha spice. Garlic. Heavy spice at the end. Great. Try this one again.
We both mostly liked this one, which has a few “unusual” ingredients, like Tamari soy sauce and chipotle pepper. My brother-in-law had it ranked third. It was definitely spicy and complex, and at the very least comes in one of the cooler bottles.
8. Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ Sauce (Sample 18)
First Three Ingredients: Cane Sugar, Water, Apple Cider Vinegar.
Price: $4.73 for 19.5 oz. from WalMart.
Dark brown and on the thinner side, very homogenous. Sort of syrupy. This one smells the way I imagine store-bought bbq sauce would. Molasses and brown sugar. On the palate, sugar city! Sheesh, that’s like hummingbird feed. Maybe a dark cherry flavor in there? Too sweet for my blood, but good.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Rich dark cherry. Very good. Zinfandel. #1 with a bullet. Kool-Aid.
This one is great if you like a really sweet sauce. I have a lower sugar limit, though I still thought it was pretty good. If you asked me to describe the dominant flavors of Jack Daniels, I would also say cherry coke, so it clearly does a good job tasting like what it’s supposed to. My brother-in-law’s number one.
7. 365 Original BBQ (Sample 1)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, Brown Sugar, Molasses.
Price: $1.89 for 19.5 oz. from Whole Foods.
Reddish with some speckles, looks like sweet and sour sauce. Smells like straight smoke on the nose. On the tongue, it’s mostly brown sugar and black pepper, maybe some orange peel. Pretty solid middle-of-the-road option.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Sweet. Pineapple and golden raisins. Reddish color. Seems Hawaiian. Solid. Revisit.
This one definitely has a more sweet-and-sour sauce character to it. Otherwise, it’s fine but not particularly memorable.
6. Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce (Sample 19)
First Three Ingredients: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Distilled Vinegar, and Tomato Paste.
Price: $2.39 for 18 oz at Target.
Very homogenous and brown. Can barely smell this one at all, just a little tomato paste/molasses. This is pretty sweet, not super smoky with just a hint of pepper. Very cheap tasting but good. Reminds me of McDonald’s BBQ sauce (which is my favorite nugget dip).
Brother In Law’s Notes: Lemon peel. Pepper. Balanced sweetness.
This is an OG and I usually have a bottle of it laying around the house. It’s sort of the cheap, processed-tasting thing you know.
5. Loubier Mild BBQ Sauce — Mild (Sample 24)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, Water, Brown Sugar.
Price: $7.49 for 14.8 oz. on Instacart.
Brown and a little loose, starting to separate a little. Brown sugar and tomato paste on the nose, in that order. This is thin and sweet, but has a nice umami roundness to it, like there’s maybe just a hint of soy. Solid.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Dr. Pepper. Carrots? Good. Minimal smoke. Bitter. Very good.
My brother-in-law had this as his number two, but we both liked it. It has Worcestershire, tamarind, and chili powder in there, which would account for the complexity.
4. Trader Joe’s Organic Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce (Sample 16)
First Three Ingredients: Organic Tomato Puree, Organic Cane Sugar, and Organic Brown Sugar.
Price: $2.99 for 19 oz at Trader Joe’s.
This one is gloppy and starting to separate, a darker brown and reddish color. Tomatoes and vinegar on the nose, very bright. On the palate, it’s sort of bright and sweet, leaving the smoke flavor to the meat. It’s very brown sugar-forward and sweet, but I like it. A little black pepper hits you in the throat on the finish. I went back for more, for whatever that’s worth.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Orange peel. Balanced smoke. Try again.
Most of these sauces were really similar and I was splitting hairs to try to rank them — as you can tell by the decimal-heavy rankings I was handing out. This is where we start getting into the “noticeably a little better” section of the rankings.
3. Everett & Jones Super Q Barbeque Sauce (Sample 9)
First Three Ingredients: Water, Tomato Paste, Brown Sugar.
Price: $6.49 for 18 oz. at Von’s.
This one is darker and soy-saucy-looking, with a slight reddish tint. Looks like a watery purée. On the nose, very smokey, with some molasses and black pepper. The smell reminds me of brisket. On the nose, it’s that same brisket essence plus sweet and heavy spice on the back end. Maybe the heaviest on the black pepper so far. This sauce is very much for beef.
I don’t think I would use this on pork. Chicken? Yes.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Blackberry. Long wait for the spice, but it comes. Molasses. Heavy black pepper.
I know I said I wasn’t going to reward the sauces that tried to taste like the meat, but this one tasted exactly like brisket and I couldn’t help liking it.
2. Kinder’s Zero Sugar BBQ Sauce — Original (Sample 2)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Puree, Allulose, Natural Smoke Flavor.
Price: $8.49 for 17.5 oz at Von’s.
This one is a reddish brown, sort of a loose syrup texture. Something deeper and umami on the nose, like soy sauce in addition to the smoke. This one is complex and spicy, I’m getting pepper and chili in addition to the sweet. Texture is maybe a smidge too watery, but very tasty, if you want a spicier option.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Spicy. Grape jelly. And Kool-Aid. Spice forward.
I don’t think I’ve ever had Kinder before so I didn’t expect to have it this high, let alone the fake sugar version. The only thing that jumps out at me on the ingredients list is roasted garlic and chipotle, which is pretty much my go-to combo for rib sauce, which may explain some things. My brother-in-law didn’t have it in his top five.
1. Kinder’s Organic BBC Sauce – Mild (Sample 22)
First Three Ingredients: Tomato Purée, Brown Sugar, Sugar.
Price: $2.78 for 20.5 oz at WalMart.
This one brown is thin, homogenous, and… weirdly hard to get on a spoon. Is it sticking to the cutting board? I don’t know. Super smoky and peppery on the nose. On the tongue, it’s mostly brown sugar and molasses that balances out all the smoke and pepper smell. This is very traditional and definitely very sweet, but the balance feels just right.
Brother In Law’s Notes: Pomegranates. Really good.
I was shocked that two Kinder labels ended up in my top two, since other than seeing the bottles, I don’t believe I’ve ever had it before. This one also doesn’t have roasted garlic and chipotle in the ingredients, which the no-sugar version did, so my theory there is all shot to hell.
As you can tell by the final rating, none of these really sent me over the moon. Most were average, with a couple slightly above average.
My Brother In Law’s Top Five:
1. Jack Daniel’s
3. Rufus Teague
5. Primal Kitchen Classic