I Tried 12 Store-Bought Cocktail Sauces — And 2 Clearly Stood Out from the Rest

published Dec 6, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Shrimp cocktail on ice with different types of store bought cocktail sauce.
Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

I have always loved shrimp cocktail. When I was a kid, I would pack the SauSea jars of shrimp cocktail in my lunch, meeting skepticism and scorn from the other 8-year-olds in the cafeteria; but I was unfazed. The combination of plump shrimp and a zesty, tomato-based sauce has always ranked highly on my favorite foods list. (Sadly, SauSea no longer makes the jars of shrimp in cocktail sauce, but you can still find the little glass jars in thrift stores, and they make excellent juice glasses.)

I also have dear memories of making cocktail sauce at home with my dad and stepmom. Mine was heavy on the ketchup and lemon juice, while theirs was practically white from an abundance of horseradish. While I usually make my own horseradish, it can be helpful to have a jarred version on-hand, especially when entertaining a crowd, so I set out to find a store-bought sauce that could rival the homemade version, sampling a dozen varieties to determine the ultimate winner. Here’s how it went.

How I Tested the Cocktail Sauces

I began this cocktail sauce journey with some good old-fashioned internet research. I typed in “cocktail sauce brands” and was met with more options than I could have ever possibly imagined. What I found was that brands that make similar sauces — ketchup, hot sauce, barbecue sauce — tended to be the biggest players in the cocktail sauce arena. 

I knew I needed a decent sample of sauces to make useful comparisons, so I first looked at local grocery stores (for me, that meant Kroger, Wegmans, and Whole Foods Market) to see which brands were readily available on the shelves. That’s where I found both well-known and newer brands, as well as a few from stores’ private-label brands. Next, I looked online, yielding selections from emerging brands.

I sampled these sauces in two separate tastings to avoid blowing out my palate. I first tasted each sauce the way most people encounter cocktail sauce — on boiled, peeled shrimp. I wanted to get the full picture of the sauce with its most reliable accompaniment. Next, I tried a small sample of the sauce on a spoon so that I could taste it without any competing flavors. As I made my way through the tastings, two sauces stood out clearly from the rest as my favorites.

For me, a great cocktail sauce starts with a bold tomato flavor, which is balanced by the right amount of acid, usually from lemon juice, sometimes vinegar; a little tang from Worcestershire; plus sinus-tingling horseradish. I was surprised that so few of the sauces I sampled really delivered a punch of horseradish, which is the flavor I associate most with cocktail sauce. Many of the cocktail sauces tended to be on the milder side, some veering dangerously close to ketchup or even more of a barbecue sauce flavor in some cases.

Texture was also an important factor. I wanted something that would cling to a piece of seafood, nothing too runny or loose — a sauce that had a little heft to it. Plus, I wanted to see the horseradish, not just a homogenous red sauce.

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

Best Cocktail Sauce: SauSea Cocktail Sauce with Extra Horseradish

In the end, this tub of refrigerated horseradish from SauSea delivered the most of what I was looking for in a store-bought cocktail sauce. There are only a few ingredients, and tomato paste and horseradish are the chief among them. The horseradish was present, but not overpowering, and although there is a bit of sugar in this sauce, it manages to avoid tasting cloyingly sweet.

Most of the cocktail sauces I sampled were shelf-stable, meaning they didn’t require refrigeration until after they were opened. But SauSea’s cocktail sauces (both this and the classic) require constant refrigeration, and as a result, the flavor seemed fresher. I would guess that’s because the recipe doesn’t require preservatives, so the other flavors are able to shine.

Find in stores: SauSea Cocktail Sauce with Extra Horseradish at Hannaford, Price Chopper, and Stop & Shop

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

Runner Up: Kelchner’s Cocktail Sauce

Another fully refrigerated selection, Kelchner’s, like SauSea, had a fresher flavor than some of the other sauces I sampled. And perhaps because this brand is known for horseradish, which it’s been selling since the 1930s, their cocktail sauce gave me that kick in the nostrils I was looking for. I also really appreciated the chunky texture of this cocktail sauce, which can be scooped up easily by shrimp or calamari or dolloped on oysters.

In the great venn diagram of cocktail sauces, Kelchner’s and SauSea have a lot of overlap. Both are horseradish-forward with a tangy tomato base; but Kelchner’s is more widely available, making it a good choice for folks who love bold, kicky cocktail sauces and don’t live near the markets where SauSea is sold.

Buy: Kelchner’s Cocktail Sauce, $3.49 for 7 ounces on Instacart

Did your favorite make the list? Tell us about it in the comments.