The pepper sauce that Edmund McIlhenny created in 1868 on Avery Island is much the same TABASCO® Sauce that is produced today, on that very same site. The basic recipe, the process by which it’s made, and the ingredients remain virtually unchanged. And five generations of McIlhennys and employees have dedicated themselves to preserving its legacy.
Detail of the original recipe in Edmund McIlhenny’s handwriting.
The changing shades of a pepper plant on Avery Island, LA.
McIlhenny employees discuss the details of aging mash in the warehouse.
Salt cultivated from the salt mines that lie under Avery Island plays an integral part in the TABASCO®-making process.
“le petit bâton rouge”
Edmund McIlhenny was given seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers that came from Mexico or Central America, and he first planted them on Avery Island, Louisiana, over 140 years ago. Today, just as then, when the peppers reach the perfect shade of deep red and are at their juiciest, they are carefully picked by hand. (Young peppers are green and then turn yellow, orange and, finally, deep red as they age.) When in doubt, pickers can gauge the color by comparing it to a small wooden dowel, “le petit bâton rouge,” painted the preferred hue of TABASCO® red.
In 1965, McIlhenny Company ran out of room on the Island and started growing additional peppers in Latin America. (All the seeds are still grown on Avery Island before being sent to Latin America, where they are planted and grow into peppers.) When those peppers are harvested, they’re shipped back to Avery Island for the next step in the process.
Walter McIlhenny inspects a barrel of aged mash in the McIlhenny warehouse in 1967.
After the peppers are picked, they are mashed and then mixed with a small amount of Avery Island salt extracted from the salt mines that lie beneath the Island. The pepper mash is placed in white oak barrels, and the wooden tops of the barrels are then covered with more Avery Island salt, which acts as a natural barrier to protect the barrels’ contents. The mash is allowed to ferment and then age for up to three years in the McIlhenny warehouse.
The mash is inspected by a member of the McIlhenny family. When approved, the fully aged mash is then blended with high-quality distilled vinegar. Numerous stirrings and about four weeks later, the pepper skins, pulp and seeds are strained out using three different-sized screens. Then the “finished” sauce is bottled by modern methods, labeled in 22 languages and dialects, and prepared for shipment to over 165 countries and territories around the world.
Tony Simmons, McIlhenny Company CEO and fifth-generation McIlhenny family member, marks the best pepper plants for the next year’s seed crop.
The following year’s pepper crop is insured by the McIlhennys, who personally select the best plants in the field during harvest. The pepper seeds from those select plants are treated and dried for use the following year, and then they are stored both on the Island and in a local bank vault as a hedge against any disaster that might befall future crops.