The story of the Tabasco Company started with a handful of seeds and grew into a legacy—a legacy held by strong family roots and loyalty to where it all started. It’s a legacy of hard work and giving back to the land that gave so much—and, not to mention, one heck of a sauce.
Originally from Maryland, Edmund McIlhenny moved to New Orleans in 1840. A prominent banker, he married the wealthy Mary Eliza Avery in 1859, just two years shy of the start of the Civil War. When war broke, McIlhenny and his bride, along with her family, moved to Texas where he served the Confederate Army as a civilian, sharing his banking experience as a financial agent. After the war, he moved his young family to his in-laws’ sugar plantation on Avery Island.
An avid gardener himself, McIlhenny had been given a small supply of Capsicum frutescens peppers that were said to have come from Mexico or elsewhere in Central America. The salty, fertile soil of the island, mixed with a lot of TLC, produced a bright red pepper with a kick. And in the era after the Civil War, the food was known to be bland, as the Reconstruction South was lacking many of the spices Southerners had become accustomed to having imported. A kick was needed indeed.
McIlhenny made his first batch of what would be the famous sauce by making a mash from only the reddest peppers. He added a touch of none other than Avery Island salt and let it age for thirty days. Then he added vinegar and let it sit for another month before straining and bottling the spicy concoction. Each bottle was fitted with a sprinkler fitment, because, as any Tabasco lover can tell you, it was meant to be sprinkled, not poured.
The sauce was a hit with friends and family. But in 1868, McIlhenny turned his hobby into one of the greatest business ventures in Louisiana history by planting his first commercial crop. The following year, Tabasco sauce hit grocery store shelves throughout New Orleans and a few select stores along the Gulf Coast. He sent just 658 bottles out that first year. The following year his recipe was patented, and he began selling throughout the U.S.; and by the late 1870’s McIlhenny’s sauce was on tables even in England (Tabasco now has a warrant declaring it the official supplier to Queen Elizabeth II).
Today Tabasco is sold worldwide in more than 180 countries and labeled in twenty-two languages. It’s still mashed and bottled on Avery Island, and it’s still owned and operated by the McIlhenny family. While the peppers for the sauce are no longer grown on Avery Island, the seeds are. The current CEO and seventh direct descendant of Edmund McIlhenny, Tony Simmons, personally picks the highest quality of peppers from the Avery Island crop to ship to their South and Central American growers. The recipe itself has changed little in the nearly 150 years since that first little bottle hit shelves, except now the mash is aged for up to three years in white oak barrels. And yes, each batch has family approval before it ever gets sprinkled on your favorite dish.
But the magic behind McIlhenny’s creation goes further back than sowing a handful of seeds and a legacy created through family efforts to keep a tradition alive. A part of the magic of Tabasco is hidden deeper in the soil and into the heart of McIlhenny’s legacy—Avery Island.
Avery Island is, in fact, less island and more of a salt dome. It’s actually one of five salt domes off the Louisiana coast, believed to be formed from salt deposits from an ancient saltwater ocean that used to cover what is now Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Below the island is a salt mine discovered during the Civil War. The same salt that seasons Tabasco is also sold as rock salt, clears ice-covered roads, and creates a rich, fertile layer of soil on top of the salt dome.
Where once a sugar plantation thrived, now a thriving pepper business sits, along with a sweet paradise for visitors and local flora and fauna alike. After McIlhenny’s death, his sons John Avery and Edward Avery McIlhenny took over the company, adding modern technology to expand the business. Edward Avery (E.A.) especially focused his attention not just to growing the family business, but the island itself.
In the late 1890’s E.A. noticed the local egret population was in decline due to hunters killing the birds for their feathers, which were fashionable at the time in ladies’ hats. He found two nests among the swamps of the island with four young snowy herons in each. He raised the birds until they were old enough to migrate. Before their return the following spring, he created what would be known as Bird City, a nesting area created in the middle of what was Willow Pond. More than a century later, the spot is a sanctuary to the area waterfowl, seeing thousands of snowy white egrets return annually.
In 1935, E.A. invited the public to enjoy yet another one of his Avery Island projects with the opening of Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre botanical treasure featuring exotic plants from around the world, including towering oaks, multiple varieties of azaleas, irises, and camellias. It is also a safe haven for local fauna such as deer and (note to tourists not familiar with Gulf Coast swamps and marshes) Louisiana alligators.
Perhaps the oddity and one of the surprising highlights of Jungle Gardens is the giant statue of Buddha. Avery Island legends say the more-than-900-year-old statue was sent to the U.S. by a Chinese warlord in the 1920’s. For years it sat in a New York City warehouse until friends of E.A. purchased the statue as a gift. It sits center-stage at the gardens in a glass-enclosed temple. Surrounding the temple, E.A. designed an Asian garden complete with bamboo, a long forest pool, and “Seven Hills of Knowledge.”
It’s hard to say whether Avery Island made Tabasco or if the sauce made Avery Island what it is today. The two have become so interwoven with deep roots that you can’t fully enjoy one without appreciating the other. Together, Tabasco and Avery Island have formed a legacy through the ingenuity and devotion of the McIlhenny descendants, along with a sweet profit for the family to enjoy.
And a kick of something spicy for the rest of us!