The Surprisingly Interesting History and Production of Tabasco Pepper Sauce
August 21, 2012
This spring I went to Avery Island, Louisiana, to see how Tabasco pepper sauce is made.
Avery Island isn't really an island, but more of a dry mound (a salt dome) surrounded by wetlands. It's about 165 feet high and that makes it the tallest point in the Gulf Coast.
The island is owned entirely by the Avery family, of which the McIlhennys form a branch. The first of them on the island was a man named Marsh, who built the Marsh House in 1818 that is still used for family weddings and other gatherings. Marsh wasn't a pepper sauce maker, but grew sugar cane on the part of the island that he owned. There are remains of three sugar refineries still on the island, and sugar cane is still grown in the surrounding area.
Marsh's son-in-law, who was an Avery, bought the rest of the island. This Avery's daughter married a McIlhenny, so that's where the families come together. And it was this McIlhenny who invented Tabasco sauce.
At some point, they discovered that the island was rich in salt deposits. Salt is still mined on the island by the Cargill company, and they've now drilled to 2000 feet below ground to do so. Every night, they detonate an explosive underground to ready some more salt for harvest, and sometimes you can hear the boom from the Marsh House.
During the Civil War, the families fled New Orleans to live on the island and escape the conflict. But armies need salt, for preservatives and for animals, so the war soon came to them. They were making salt for the Confederate army and the Union army tried to seize the island in a conflict that came to be known as "The Great Salt Expedition." Though this was a victory for the Confederates, the Union won the island just six months later.
After the Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny, a banker whose industry had been destroyed by the conflict, succeeded in his venture creating a pepper sauce. (It wasn't the first pepper sauce in America, though they were not common. It was said people initially complained that the sauce was too hot, as they applied it in quantities like the ketchup they were used to.) He grew peppers and developed the recipe from 1866-1868, and sold his first Tabasco sauce in 1869.
Unlike most brands who tout their recipe as being identical to the original, Tabasco has definitely changed. Initially, the pepper mash was aged for 30 days in jars, then vinegar was added and it aged for another 30 days.
Today, Tabasco sauce is a global business, but all of it still originates and is processed on the island. The seeds for all the peppers grown for Tabasco originate on the island, picked from the best plants, then peppers used in the sauce are grown in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.
Around the world the peppers are all hand-picked, ground up, have eight percent salt added (in South America, the salt they use is actually sent from Avery Island), and then the peppers ferment for a month before they're shipped back to Avery Island.
Back on the island, the "pepper mash" is aged in ex-bourbon barrels- about 50,000 of them here at the warehouse. The barrels are first de-charred and re-hooped, as the acidity of the mash would eat right through the typical barrel hoops. The pepper mash then ages in a barrel for three years on Avery island, stacked six-high on top of each other.
Not only is there salt used in the pepper mash, salt is added on top of each barrel. The barrels have a valve on top that releases carbon dioxide from the fermenting peppers, and it bubbles through the salt. When the fermentation is done, the salt forms a hard rock salt puck on top of the barrel, helping to seal the valve.
The three-year-old pepper mash is then added to vinegar and aged for up to 28 days before bottling. Peppers make up about twenty percent of the final product.
The actual peppers register from 40,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville scale, but after aging and dilution the final Tabasco sauce is around 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville heat units.
Inside the warehouse, we were able to taste the pepper mash- just putting a bit on our tongues and then spitting it out. As expected, it's hot as heck. But as a reward for doing so, we are given a necklace with a spoon attached, engraved with N.S.A.O. N.S.S.S. - allowing us membership into the The Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.
My fellow Tabasco taster Amy Sherman made an illustration of me undergoing the initiation.
After they make the Tabasco sauce, the spent peppers are sold to a pharmaceutical company that makes things like pepper spray and medicinal applications.
Types of Tabasco
The main line of Tabasco sauces now includes the Original, Green (jalapeno, the first sauce extension from 1993), Chipotle, Buffalo, Habanero, Garlic Pepper, and Sweet & Spicy.
But a trip to the gift shop on Avery Island shows just how many other brand extensions there are: Tabasco has hundreds of products it co-brands with, including A1 steak sauce, Hormel Chili, Cheez-Its, Slim Jims, and SPAM. They're all there, along with Tabasco-branded clothing and accessories and just about everything you can put a logo on.
They also sell some other sauces not available everywhere, like a Raspberry Chipotle and a Family Reserve that's aged up to eight years. They always seem to keep experimenting, and we got to try some prototype sauces.
So yeah, it turns out that Tabasco pepper sauce, something we see practically every day and never think about, actually has a fascinating history, production process, and global reach, all from this little island in the Louisiana bayou.
Love the pictures, Camper!
Posted by: Sylvan | August 21, 2012 at 09:56 AM
The usually untold part of the Tabasco story is that the family fled the island ahead of the Union army. Union soldiers burnt some parts of the "farm" and trashed other areas, what we refer to as "scorched earth" military procedure.
When the family returned later there was a whole mess of pepper plants growing and the broke family needed some way to make a living and hence they used what they had availible...peppers.
The rest is not history.
Posted by: Brian | August 21, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Awesome - thanks for that!
Posted by: Camper English | August 21, 2012 at 01:24 PM
Enjoyed the article. Here is some more info on the Tabasco Family.
Paul McIlhenny, chairman and CEO of the McIlhenny Co. was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from America’s Wetland Foundation, the New Orleans-based nonprofit created to raise awareness of the state’s rapidly disintegrating coastline.
Now, the leader of the family company that produces the famous hot pepper sauce is being lauded as a symbol of the effort to save Louisiana itself with his commitment to protecting Louisiana’s coast and the culture it sustains reaches much farther. For many generations, going back almost two centuries, the McIlhennys have been coastal restoration advocates and have taken extraordinary efforts to conserve some of the most critical areas of America’s wetland in Louisiana.
McIlhenny is the fourth generation in his family to run the McIlhenny Co. from Avery Island, a salt dome “island” set in the coastal plains of Iberia Parish. In addition to their company’s headquarters and factory, the family has also maintained Avery Island with lush gardens open to visitors and rookeries and wildlife areas for native species. The company’s operations also reflect progressive environmental thinking, with the use of recyclable glass for bottling and the composting of hundreds of tons of pepper seeds and skins each year.
Posted by: Diane and Logan | August 21, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Do you know what do they do with the barrels? I'd love to try a Tequila aged in former Tabasco barrel!
Posted by: Jonny | August 22, 2012 at 03:30 PM
They said they can sometimes use the barrels for 40-50 years, so I wouldn't hold your breath!
There used to be a Tabasco flavored tequila, which honestly was one of the most disgusting spirits I've tried in years, but I think it was probably made with cheap mixto tequila.
Posted by: Camper English | August 22, 2012 at 03:36 PM
i've re-distilled tabasco with gin (after neutralizing the vinegar). its amazing. what a corpse reviver!
Posted by: Stephen | August 23, 2012 at 10:51 AM
Wow, I should think so!
Posted by: Camper English | August 23, 2012 at 10:54 AM
White oak barrels used for aging our pepper mash are reused for up to 50 years. Even then, discarded barrels are broken up to build fences and tables, and to make wood chips for resale as a branded product.
Posted by: jwn | August 23, 2012 at 09:01 PM
I love a STORY! I didnt know how many Tabasco's there are, or that SPAM came in spicy! Seeing how its made is Cool too.
Posted by: Lisa Barnes Murray | August 24, 2012 at 07:23 AM
brian, watch yourself. we do employ a full time historian.. my history is secure, yours?
Posted by: cmm | August 24, 2012 at 09:43 PM
Who buys the aged salt puck?
Posted by: mike cohn | December 02, 2012 at 08:05 AM
I do not know what happens to the salt puck after it's done.
Posted by: Camper English | December 02, 2012 at 05:13 PM
I have the smallest little tabasco peper sauce soviener . I have it for about 15 to 18 years.
Posted by: Name christina sepulveda | April 27, 2013 at 03:15 PM
Tabasco is not so hot, try Habanero sauce, thats hot.
Posted by: Robert | July 20, 2013 at 09:10 AM
I tried a drink called Prairie fire....it was a shot of Gold tequila with some shakes of Tabasco...seemed extra hot !!
Posted by: Stewart Morris | July 31, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Robert - There is Habanero added Tabasco sauce. I use that and the chipotle sauce. The Habanero sauce goes great with chicken wings and the chipotle sauce is a bit more smoky. I use it with soups, pizza and as a dip.
Glaaaaaah. Sooo gooood.
Posted by: John | January 15, 2014 at 03:33 AM
I am a Tobasco Sauce fan, use it all the time on everything and have noticed quite a variation in the hotness of various bottles. I've never been quite sure if this variation is there at the first opening or changes depending on the way or length of time I store it. I've never been scientific about my testing, but there are definitely subjective differences in hotness from bottle to bottle.
I grow lots of peppers and notice that their hotness can change from day to day and plant to plant. I have always wondered how producers of sauces get any kind of uniformity of hotness in their products.
Posted by: Kenoli Oleari | May 06, 2014 at 09:13 AM
While I'm not sure how Tabasco keeps their hotness consistent from batch to batch I'm guessing that making huge batches at a time and blending the peppers that come in from around the world probably helps.
Posted by: Camper English | May 18, 2014 at 04:35 PM
I like Tabasco sauce but I can tell by the history comment above that CMMcIleny or whatever is a real douche. I presume he's either an executive himself foor a marketing guy. Then they send a marketing guy to put a whole post about there coastal efforts. wow really concerned about public image. Maybe that's why when they did their how it's made they made it look like all the peppers are picked on the island with the CEO throwing a piece of string over them that's bullshit The seeds yes but the peppers come from all over the world and how do they treat and pay their workers I'm more interested in that than the coast. I hope the CEO sees this and sends me a douche post amazing how a random schmuck like me has power on the internet huh
Posted by: Peter Fernandez | May 22, 2014 at 03:36 PM
HI I heard that if you look on the bottom of each bottle there is a number. This tells you the hotness of each bottle. Is this true? I have looked under a lot of bottles now and the number is always different. I have tasted several bottles with different numbers from #7 to #34 and there is a difference. I think it gets hotter as the number gets bigger. Just wondered if anyone else has heard this.
Posted by: Sonja | May 29, 2014 at 01:21 PM
Yes Peter, you do have quite a lot of power. Power to make yourself look like a knob. What a success you are!
Posted by: DB McIhenny | June 08, 2014 at 03:05 PM
As a side note, CBS 60 minutes, had a story on Tabasco and the
McIlhenny Company and the video story was excellent.
Posted by: Charles Brown | October 06, 2014 at 01:24 PM
Thanks for sharing the link!
Posted by: Camper English | October 10, 2014 at 03:24 PM
I love the original Tabasco sauce. Nothing else quite like it!
Tabasco is one of the elite American brands that endures and the fact that it's still a "Family Owned" business adds even more prestige to it in my mind.
They are proof that if you "stick to your knitting" you will succeed, even in the 21st century.
Posted by: T_Drude | October 23, 2014 at 08:26 AM
Does TABASCO actually own the botanical tabasco pepper (Capsicum annum) itself? Do they govern the pepper?
Posted by: Alice_T | October 29, 2014 at 05:04 AM
I am nearly positive that they do not have any claim to the pepper itself.
Posted by: Camper English | October 29, 2014 at 06:14 AM
great!!! thank you!!! thats what i needed to know :)))))
Posted by: Alice_T | October 29, 2014 at 11:59 AM
After watching "History at the Museum" about tabasco I Googled tabasco to see the wikipedia version. Whoever's version is right, its a great story! Mr. McIlhenny's tenacity and entrepreneurship were inspiring. Thanks for sharing.
Posted by: Pat | January 09, 2015 at 10:40 AM
I had the pleasure of working on Avery Island for Exxon in 1986. We drilled several oil wells on the backside of the island. A part that no tourist ever gets to see much of.
You can actually smell the pepper plants growing! The aroma of the peppers when growing is amazing. They have a heard of half wild deer on the island. The workers have to put up fences to keep them out of the pepper fields.
For a small town guy, I am really fortunate to have had this experience.
Posted by: Ed Jones | February 07, 2015 at 09:56 AM
Does anyone know, is the entire pepper included in the mash, including the seeds?
Posted by: Gary | February 15, 2015 at 07:38 AM
While I am not positive, when I zoom way in on my pictures I think I see seeds.
Posted by: Camper English | February 16, 2015 at 11:56 AM
CMM, Love it! stand up for your History! My entire family loves Tabasco........... YOU have a very long history, but I can say, I grew up on it and my extended family LOVES it!
Posted by: Kim/Larry Miles | October 04, 2015 at 02:58 PM
I once read the peppers were originally brought from Haiti after a visit by the McIlnney Clan. Can you confirm?
Posted by: GCG-hotsaucelover | January 18, 2016 at 01:05 PM
Just going on memory at this point, but I don't recall hearing that version of the history. So I can't deny it but I can't confirm it, sorry.
Posted by: Camper English | January 18, 2016 at 06:43 PM
Do you have your own cooperage or are the barrels out sourced after being used in the bourbon and whiskey industry?
Posted by: W. Gordy | October 26, 2016 at 07:49 AM
That question is answered in the post.
Posted by: Camper English | October 26, 2016 at 02:02 PM
I am curious...how many slaves/"indentured servants" did the Avery family own on this island to work in the production of the sugar cane and in the salt mines? I wonder because as I was sitting here eating my omelet, I saw the year 1868. I am pretty sure the family historian will be more than happy to share. :-)
Posted by: M W | December 04, 2016 at 11:46 AM
Really??? Please, eat your omelet and try to correct the wrong and sins of society past on another post. Like, say.... the Yahoo! home page. They'd love it! History happened, none of us here now were involved with anything of that time. No one needs to apologize. We (global collective) didn't do it, no matter what "it" was in 1868.
And Kudos to the McIlhennys for replying directly. Great product, great history and I go through 2 to 3 medium sized bottles a month!
Posted by: nevertoohot | September 07, 2017 at 10:54 AM
Bloody Marys on a Saturday morning, just wouldn’t be the same without the stuff. Nor half the stews I make. I use it like I would use any spice.
Posted by: Mikey | December 30, 2017 at 06:43 AM
Also not told is how the family used a corrupt Louisiana govt to prevent any competition fron using the word, "Tabasco", on a pepper sauce product.
Posted by: Bullet | May 21, 2018 at 06:28 PM
But sometimes it's not about "hot". Some people appreciate taste.
Posted by: Bullet | May 21, 2018 at 06:32 PM
So the fire story is incorrect? I think I heard that story on a TV program once. I thought it was so interesting. But if it’s not true I’d like to know because I was going to tell my young grandson about it. Thank you!
Posted by: [email protected] | July 08, 2018 at 08:36 AM
As a Marine, I've always been fascinated that Walter Stauffer McIlhenny (October 1910 - June 1985) served as president of McIlhenny Company, from 1949 until his death in 1985. He also distinguished himself as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve — receiving the Navy Cross for his actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal and retiring as a Brigadier General. I've always heard that Tabasco sauce was included in the military's Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) because of BGEn McIlhenny's influence. Any truth to that?
Posted by: John Miles | December 14, 2018 at 02:28 PM
Hi - I won't have the answer to that question but I've forwarded it to my PR contacts with the company. Not sure if they still handle the account but I'm giving it a shot and will follow up if I hear a response.
Posted by: Camper English | December 17, 2018 at 12:16 PM
This land was STOLEN from my Great-Grandmother's family.........native American/Black. SAD, that this part of the history is left out!!
Posted by: Stephanie R Butler | March 14, 2019 at 01:23 PM
My father served with Walter Mcllhenny during WWII.(3rd Batt. 5th Marines) He told me once that Walter would come to the Mess with a wooden box of bottled sauces he would use with his meals. Walter would sell some to others who asked. My father seemed to think sharing would have been more appropriate. My father did always have a bottle of Tabasco around and he used it on most everything occasionally. My father and mother went on a road trip from San Diego and planned to visit him on Avery Island but when they arrived he was so sick, basically on his deathbed, they did not intrude.
Posted by: Martin Beckner | September 16, 2019 at 11:54 AM
Not sure if you read these comments much, but considering this article of yours is dating back to August 2012 and continues to get comments, it is but a testament to a super nice article which is obviously of interest and edutainment for so many.
I just wanted to say THANK YOU for sharing this, it was a fun and interesting read as are many of the decent comments from people who visited the article.
Keep up the good work and may the Coronavirus not blow your way,
Posted by: Aidan Joyce | February 28, 2020 at 08:49 AM
Thank you very much!
Posted by: Camper English | February 28, 2020 at 09:04 AM
Good reply you gave to Peter Fernandez. I'm tired of all the
sourpusses in this world.
Posted by: New Iberia Resident | June 20, 2020 at 04:43 AM
I saw the video CBS/60 minutes did. It was so well-done.
I live in New Iberia and have been to Avery Island many times.
It's beautiful. I'm going to the "island" today in fact. I learned things
from the documentary I didn't know before. To anyone that
hasn't seen it, see if you can find it. It'll be worth watching.
Posted by: New Iberia Resident | June 20, 2020 at 04:47 AM
So. I just bought two (more) bottles of Tabasco sauce. One says "original" and one says "classic". Are they the same thing?
Posted by: Robert J Day | June 15, 2022 at 06:20 PM
This article says 8% salt is used. I've read percentages ranging from 2.5% to 10%. How much is actually used?
Posted by: John Fox | December 04, 2022 at 04:46 PM