“Hi, I have a question,” I said into the drive-thru speaker.
I was at a McDonald’s in Plymouth, Wisconsin, about 140 miles away from my hometown of Chicago. My fiancée and I were up there to visit her family, but I was on a top-secret secondary mission.
“Do you guys have the Hot Mustard dipping sauce?” I asked, then held my breath.
The voice on the other end of the speaker said, matter-of-factly, “Yes, we do.” Oh shit. I wasn’t prepared for the word “yes.” I decided to test my luck.
“Okay,” I responded, “In that case, can I buy 30 of them?”
A slight pause. “Let me check with my manager.”
After 30 seconds of pure pessimism, I was instructed to pull up to the window while the price popped up on the screen—just under $5.
Before I knew it, I had 30 containers of Hot Mustard in a bag sitting on my lap. I felt like I’d pulled off the impossible. Because in a way, I did. Back home in Chicago, there was no way I’d be able to get even one little tub of McDonald’s Hot Mustard. But why?
For those of you who’ve never had it, or even seen it, McDonald’s Hot Mustard is a quiet legend. It shouldn’t be confused with the Honey Mustard dipping sauce, which is its own separate type of mustard dipping sauce that’s totally fine, but not memorable.
If you look carefully on McDonald’s dipping sauce webpage, however, you’ll notice something curious: Hot Mustard isn’t on there. In fact, if you try to order it in person at many McDonald’s locations across the country, some employees might not even know what the hell you’re talking about.
That’s because McDonald’s widely discontinued its Hot Mustard dipping sauce in 2014. I remember there was a small fuss about it back then, but after a while, Hot Mustard became but a faint memory. It was legendary to a few people, but most of the population forgot about it entirely over time. I thought it was gone forever, like the Sweet Chili and Chipotle BBQ dipping sauces, and I wasn’t the only one; even Delish wrote about its dwindling existence in 2017.
The initial reason for my search was because I had been reminded of its existence last year by an Instagram post from a friend of mine, Michael Nagrant, former Chicago Sun-Times food critic and current food writer around Chicago. He posted a picture of his haul: nine dipping cups, beneath which the caption read, “Tell me you left Chicago without telling me you left Chicago.”
Wait. Hot Mustard still existed? It wasn’t extinct?! This was like suddenly finding out that a small population of dodo birds are alive and well in a tiny enclave on an abandoned island or something. I prodded Nagrant for details.
It turns out that Nagrant had found McDonald’s Hot Mustard all the way over in Hawaii last August while on vacation and brought it back home to enjoy. I asked him how he even thought to seek out the stuff to begin with, and he responded in an email:
Pre-pandemic, I traveled a lot for my day job. As I did locally, I threw a Hail Mary with my sauce order at some drive-thru in like California or somewhere one night while on a work trip and I found pure liquid gold, aka OG Hot Mustard, in my bag. I do this everywhere I travel for work, and I’m pretty sure in almost every state I’ve asked for it, they have it, except for Illinois. I don’t know if it’s against state laws, but I’m basically a part-time hot mustard bootlegger.
So it sounds like Illinois is out of luck for some strange reason. But I’d also heard chatter indicating that people in many other areas of the country can’t seem to get ahold of the elusive Hot Mustard either. This was starting to get bizarre. There had to be some kind of reason for the patchwork availability of Hot Mustard across the country.
Then I realized I had an inside source: Mike Haracz, a former coworker of mine. He used to be the corporate chef at the company we worked at together, and eventually became the corporate chef at none other than, you guessed it, McDonald’s. While you may not know him by name, Haracz is the guy responsible for that enormous Szechuan dipping sauce debacle in 2017.
I reached out to Haracz to see if he had any insight as to why Hot Mustard is so hard to find. His response:
I believe it is available in certain regions, but the owner operators in these regions vote on if they want it on their menu. Since McD is in super simplification mode as you can tell by their marketing initiatives, sauces are definitely the most simple items to bring in and out of restaurants, but it’s all based on supply and demand.
As I’d suspected, availability has to do with sales. Despite the condiment’s cult following, apparently there isn’t enough demand to keep Hot Mustard stocked in all McDonald’s locations.
Also interesting is that Haracz mentioned it’s a regional decision to stock it or skip it, which means that if Hot Mustard is available by you, it’s probably available at multiple stores nearby as well. That explains why there are entire swaths of the country without the stuff, yet clusters of locations that are rich with it. It always comes down to money.
During my visit to Wisconsin, I casually brought up the subject of McDonald’s Hot Mustard to my fiancée’s family after dinner one night. My future sister-in-law, Mandy, grew visibly animated and I immediately realized I had another Hot Mustard superfan in my life.
A few weeks later, I emailed Mandy for more details about her passion for Hot Mustard sauce. More people had feelings about this condiment than I knew.
“Why do you love Hot Mustard dipping sauce so much?” I asked her. “Do you have nostalgic feelings about it?” She wrote back:
Cuz it’s awesome! Yes, I have nostalgic feelings though. Before I discovered all the dipping options, I started with hot mustard. Outside of ketchup, I was a dip virgin. My brother and I would get treated to McDonald’s for some special occasion and we would get nuggets with hot mustard. The dip cups seemed bigger back then and we never finished it so we’d end up dipping our fries in it. Pretty soon, we’d get a cup just for the fries. When the fries were done we’d lick the cups clean.
That’s love if I’ve ever seen it. When I asked what she uses the Hot Mustard for primarily, she responded in no uncertain terms: “Fries, of course! I love it on the hash browns and with the McMuffin. But not the sausage McMuffin. Sausage is one of the things I don’t like it with.”
She also had the unique suggestion to pair the Hot Mustard with McDonald’s seasonal Filet-O-Fish.
“The mix of crunchy breading, tasty tartar sauce and tangy spicy mustard” makes it a favorite, she says. “I use it on fish sticks at home too!”
I remembered that I’d liked the McDonald’s Hot Mustard very much, but it’d been so long, I wasn’t sure if my memories of it were correct. After I got back home to Chicago, I dropped by my local McDonald’s and picked up some Chicken McNuggets for a taste test.
My memory hadn’t served me wrong at all—the Hot Mustard was as good as ever. It has a slightly dark yellow color to it, and it’s very sweet, though also sharp, with some nice substance due to the inclusion of soybean oil and egg yolks (so basically mayonnaise). The Hot Mustard has a touch of a bite without being nose-clearing; labeling it “hot” might be overstating its flavor profile.
But in no uncertain terms, I’m going to have to say that it honestly is delicious, and it may now be my favorite McNugget dipping sauce, if and when I can get it. Plus, it’s great with fries, just like Mandy promised.
I reached out to McDonald’s to see if representatives could shed any extra light on why the Hot Mustard is such an elusive item. McDonald’s promised an answer was forthcoming; I waited for weeks. Finally, over five months later, I was given a curt explanation: although Hot Mustard was taken away as a nationwide option back in 2014, it’s still available in over 50% of all U.S. locations. Suddenly it didn’t feel quite so elusive anymore.
So if you’re on the hunt for Hot Mustard, you’ll have to speak up. Ask for it directly, no matter where in the country you find yourself. This is what Michael Nagrant does, and now I’ve made a habit of it too. There’s a chance you’ll strike gold; the odds aren’t terrible by any means.
And hey, if you end up snagging 30 of them, like I did, you can dole them out as gifts to your loved ones in Hot Mustard–deprived cities and act like you have discovered artifacts from a long-lost civilization. Because you sort of did.