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Tabasco Sauce: Origins

Avery Island isn’t really an island, but the locals like to call it that.  It’s really the dry land on top of a salt dome, surrounded by marshland, so in a sense, the term island is accurate.  Staying high and dry on the Gulf Coast is something worth noting, so Avery Island might as well enjoy island status.  At 163 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in the Gulf Coast area, though with all the flora in the marsh, one can easily fail to notice the rise in elevation.

The salt trade has long been central to Avery Island.  The Chitimacha people first inhabited it.  They didn’t mine the salt, but they took advantage of the salt springs there, and would extract salt from the water.  They did a lucrative business, trading salt with other native American peoples as far away as what are now called Texas and Ohio.  As white settlers from France, Spain, and later the United States moved in, they pushed the Chitimacha out of their ancestral lands and focused more on growing a cash crop: sugarcane.

The Darby Home, one of the first buildings on Avery Island, 1813.

By the 1820s, Avery Island had gotten its name from the Avery family, who took over the land.  The Averys had two other branches, the Marshes and the McIlhenneys.  The sugar industry was good to them, and they grew rich from it.  They not only grew the sugarcane on Avery Island; they also had three refineries working to process the cane into sugar.  All the members of this extended family weren’t into agriculture, though.  One of them, Edmund McIlhenney, preferred the business side of things and went into banking.

The Civil War ruined bankers and farmers alike, and by the time General Lee surrendered, McIlhenney and his relatives were in trouble.  Their business was, anyway; they still had the family island and the houses on it, so things could be worse.  With business not so good and plenty of time on his hands, McIlhenney could keep an eye out for something else to do.  Opportunity presented itself one day when he met a Confederate veteran, also down on his luck.  The veteran had a bushel of peppers of uncertain origin.  All he knew was that they were from Mexico.  McIlhenney bought them from the soldier and took them home.  Though not a farmer, McIlhenney did enjoy gardening, and he raised even more of these peppers.

At home, he experimented with the peppers.  He eventually hit upon a pretty simple recipe.  He’d take the peppers, some of the local salt, and mix them with vinegar.  He’d age the mixture in wooden casks for thirty days, then for thirty more in glass jars.  Eventually he hit upon a recipe that he liked.

Friends and family tasted the sauce and they approved.  McIlhenney decided to ramp up production and try selling them.  To age the sauce on a larger scale, he purchased used oak barrels from Kentucky bourbon distillers and aged his sauce in them.  He acquired a number of cologne bottles that would serve as the first containers for his sauce.  All he needed was a name.

Since the soldier who sold him the peppers said they came from Mexico, McIlhenney figured they ought to have a Mexican name.  He consulted a map of Mexico, looking for a name.  He settled on the name of the state of Tabasco because, well, because he liked the sound of it.  That’s it.  He had no reason to believe the peppers came from Tabasco, though it’s entirely possible.  Of course, Mexico has thirty other states the peppers could also just as easily have come from, but Tabasco won out.  We wouldn’t know Veracruz Sauce or Jalisco Sauce or Aguascalientes Sauce or Chihuahua Sauce: it would be Tabasco Sauce.

Edmund McIlhenny (left), first bottle of Tabasco Sauce (center), current bottle design (right).

In 1869, McIlhenney was ready to start selling the sauce.  He’d prepared 658 bottles and sold them at a dollar apiece to wholesale grocers in the local area, and also in New Orleans.  Tabasco Sauce was well received, though it took some getting used to.  It wasn’t the first pepper sauce known in the country, but it was hotter than many of its predecessors.  This caused some people to complain about it, since they were used to needing to slather their food with the weaker pepper sauces, applying it with the same quantities that you would expect of ketchup.

An early Tabasco Sauce advertisement featuring a devilish caricature of McIlhenny, warning you to go easy on the stuff!

By the 1870s, Tabasco Sauce was available and in demand all over the United States, and even in parts of Europe.  Production remained a strictly local enterprise, with all peppers being grown on Avery Island, and all the salt used being mined from the salt vein underneath Avery Island.  The specifics of the recipe changed, once demand for the product grew.  The salt and peppers would come to be mixed into a pepper mash, and the mash would be stored in oak barrels for three whole years before being mixed with vinegar and aged for the requisite thirty days in another oak barrel.  This is still the process used today.

Pepper fields of Avery Island today.

As national and international demand grew, one thing had to change: it was no longer possible to grow enough peppers on Avery Island alone.  Pepper planting was expanded to Central and South America, to handle the volume, and later to southern Africa.  The peppers might be grown in eleven different countries today, but every plant is grown from the seeds of plants on Avery Island itself.  The peppers at the foreign sites are typically turned into pepper mash where they’re grown, but the salt used for the mash is shipped there directly from Avery Island.  Once the mash has fermented, whether it’s in Avery Island or Guatemala or Peru or Zambia or wherever, it’s shipped back to Avery Island and turned into Tabasco Sauce there.  The bottling plant on Avery Island is a surprisingly small operation, considering that every single bottle of Tabasco Sauce is actually bottled right there!  Bottles are labeled in 22 different languages and today are shipped to 180 different countries.

When Tabasco peppers are the same color as the stick, they’re ready to be harvested.  This system has been used since the 1870s.

Tabasco Sauce is the first pepper sauce to really hit it big in the United States.  Its name is still a byword for potent, spicy food.  Yet despite its reputation, at 2,000 Scoville units, Tabasco Sauce is a far cry from the hottest pepper sauce on the market.  For comparison, there are other sauces available that reach several million Scoville units, and if you’re really looking for that sweet burn, you can go much higher than that.  The hottest hot sauce in existence is Blair’s 16 Million, which clocks in at 16 million Scoville units, making it 800 times hotter than Tabasco Sauce.  Blair’s 16 Million can’t be beaten, since 16 million is the highest point possible on the Scoville scale.  In fact, Blair’s 16 Million isn’t even a sauce, but rather a vial of pure capsaicin crystals.  The bottles of this stuff aren’t exactly flying off the shelves.  At $3000 apiece, they’re out of most people’s budgets.  Blair’s (which produces a line of other hot sauces, all of which are more potent than Tabasco) produced its 16 Million in a limited run of 499 numbered bottles.

Blair’s 16 Million Reserve.  Is it a sauce, or is it a chemical?

Blair’s isn’t the only hot sauce maker to reach for such extremes.  Tabasco, however, seems to have no intention of heading down that path.  They’re willing to experiment, currently producing eight different varieties of their famous sauce (none of which exceed 2,000 Scoville units).  Tabasco Sauce also appears in a line of Cheez-It™ crackers, salsa, and even ice cream.  It might one day experiment with a high-test formula, but considering how crowded the hot sauce market is these days, and considering how much of the hot sauce market Tabasco dominates, it seems the Marsh-Avery-McIlhenney family (which still owns the company) doesn’t feel it has anything to prove.


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