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 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.
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.