A visit to Avery Island and the McIlhenny Company

by Matt on March 31, 2011

Oh, Tabasco, how much do I love thee?

The narrow bottle, wedged next to the napkins and salt and pepper, has always been a part of my earliest food memories and proceeds almost anything else on the table. It is a sauced etched in my mind, its hot and tangy flavor surely a part of my DNA by now. I suspect it’s this way for millions of people, too. I’ve just never been able to get enough of the stuff.

I recently spent a few days in Avery Island, Louisiana, home to the McIlhenny Company that makes the Tabasco hot sauce. It’s been made here since its invention in 1868, its recipe unchanged for over 142 years. And if something is good, why change it? To make Tabasco sauce, you only need a few things: peppers, salt, vinegar and time. But Tabasco does indeed have a secret ingredient that makes it so extremely special: the people that have made the sauce for generations.

(and no, there are no people IN the sauce, please don’t get all Sweeny Hot Sauce Todd on me, please)


To visit Avery Island and the McIlhenny Company is like walking into a textbook on regional Louisiana history, followed by a textbook on American history. It’s a family-owned company that was founded by Edmund McIlhenny and is still run by the family today. In fact, many of the employees have been with the company for generations. And Avery Island itself is quite special. Located in Iberia Parish, Avery Island is located on top of a salt dome and has been involved in the salt trade even longer than the production of Tabasco. These two things go hand in hand, we’ll get to that in a few.

The history of this place and the company itself is so rich, so deep, I couldn’t even scratch the surface in a blog post. If you have a chance to visit I encourage you to do so and while you’re at it, take a look at this book. I’ve just finished reading it and my head is spinning.

I spent some time exploring Avery Island and touring the production facilities, but I think this was the best way to explore involved one giant airboat.

Dizzy yet? I sure was and it was fantastic!

Kip White grows the Capsicum frutescens peppers needed to make Tabasco sauce

 

So, back to the making of Tabasco. It’s a very simple process but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Capsicum frutescens are grown on Avery Island, tended and cared for in greenhouses scattered around the island. Because the demand for Tabasco is so big, seeds are then taken from the plants and sent all over the world to be grown into pepper plants. This allows for year-long growing in places like Central and South America because these plants need ample heat and sunlight to grow. Once the plants produce the peppers needed for Tabasco, they’re sent back to Louisiana where the mixing and aging process begins. Here’s where the magic happens!

Took Osborn, Vice President of Agricultural Operations, explains the process of making Tabasco

The peppers are mixed with a tiny bit of Avery Island’s own salt into a mixture called mash. This mash is placed in white oak barrels, covered with salt (it acts as a natural barrier) and then allowed to ferment for up to three years.  Under the direction of Master Cooper Hamilton Polk, a few barrels were opened up for us to taste and see just how much the mash changes over the course of time.

But first, Mr. Hamilton Polk.

What a beautiful man with a beautiful name. He’s been with the McIlhenny Company for over 40 years and has even been the face of several advertisements. He graciously explain how oak barrels, once used for whiskey and bourbon, are retrofitted and reinforced to handle the acidic and spicy conditions of mash fermentation.

I was lucky enough to taste the pepper mash and folks, let me tell you something: IT IS HOT. It’s much hotter than what’s in the bottle, but that’s only because it hasn’t had time to mellow with age nor be balanced with vinegar. It’s freaking hot. I MEAN HOT. Diane, you’d be in heaven :)

Troy Romero explains the very specific process of taking the pepper mash, adding vinegar and salt and mixing it

 

Under close supervision and plenty of time, the mash is then taken out of the oak barrels and mixed with vinegar. It’s stirred constantly for several weeks and then strained of its seeds and skins and then bottled. This is the bright red sauce that you and I know and love but did you know it is sold in more than 160 countries and that the factory produces over 720,000 bottles a day? That’s a lot of peppers. I’m glad to know they are keeping up with my demand for the stuff.

Everything is done on Avery Island, including the bottling. Yes, I sang the theme to Laverne & Shirley but luckily the whizzing of equipment prevented me from making too much of a fool of myself. Schlemiel, schlimazel, hassenpheffer incorporated, I am so gonna do it.

Oh, did I mention lunch? Because many workers also live on Avery Island there’s a Tabasco Deli where we stopped for lunch. Can you imagine all the Tabasco condiments you could ever want, in every variety, on the tables for you to use? I had to sprinkle a little bit on my Boudin Po’Boy, of course. I was in heaven.

I think this sums up the kind of place this is, a company where people love what they do and it shows:

Allen Duhon and his Tabasco tattoo

 

And how about more of the wonderful people I met at McIlhenny Company?

Heath Romero drove the airboat and was kind enough to let me snap his photo. I'm surprised I didn't fall over after the ride!

 

Clockwise: Wendy Benoit, Lashaver Ledet, David Guy, Beverly Rhoades. Such lovely folks, thank you!

Thank you to the gracious people of Avery Island, Paul McIlhenny, and the team at Hunter for allowing me to share this wonderful experience. You made this Tabasco lover mighty happy! In accordance with the FTC guides on full disclosure concerning endorsements and testimonials, travel expenses were covered for this post.


 



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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Sally - My Custard Pie March 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm

The photographs of your visit are great – especially Mr Polk.

Faith Kramer March 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Matt
Great piece, beautiful photos.
I’m a Tabasco lover from way back — even wrote a history of it for a food encyclopedia. Let me know if you would like a pdf of that.

Kiran @ KiranTarun.com March 31, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Awesome post! Wow, it ain’t easy to make Tabasco huh?!

Michelle March 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Great photos… I had no idea…

Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) March 31, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I love the Tabasco tattoo. Classic.

And being that I am Averie, one day I will have to visit Avery Island. Looks like an awesome place!

Thanks for the wonderful post, Matt :)

Franklin Park March 31, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Love this, as much as I love Tabasco. Nice piece. Looks like it was a great experience.

The Innkeeper's Daughter March 31, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Okay, as often as I have spent a long weekend in the big easy, I keep bumping this visit down the list….bumped back up to the top. Thanks for the reminder. Love the live oak pix, just gorgeous! Yolande

Alishka Anand March 31, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Wow Matt. Tabasco is a must have at my house, and my mom cant survive without it. Such a great trip, lovely pictures & am happy to see the passion behind this amazing sauce…

Helena April 1, 2011 at 3:10 am

I love your photos, specially Mr Polk’s one, his eyes sparkle in a very special way. Congratulations for being able to capture these beautiful moments and people, Matt!
Thank you for a very good and spicey post!

Sarah - A Beach Home Companion April 1, 2011 at 7:56 am

I sell Tabasco for my day job, there is always a case in the trunk of my car, so it’s cool to see it from this perspective. Love the Tabasco tattoo, but I think I’ll hold out on that. :)

Charles April 1, 2011 at 8:27 am

I don’t believe I have ever been without a bottle of Tabasco. Great stuff! Grat photos and article too!

kellypea April 1, 2011 at 9:04 am

I’ve always wondered about this place and wanted to visit, so thanks for this! Had a boy in one of my classes who said his family was connected somehow, and I thought, “Really?” Sort of like royalty when you consider there’s always been a bottle in the house my entire life. Thanks for sharing what these awesome people do. Fabulous photos.

Alana D April 1, 2011 at 9:46 am

Looks like spice heaven, I know you were in ur element.

Wandering Educators April 1, 2011 at 9:54 am

matt- i just LOVE this. my whole family just abt bathes in tabasco, so it’s fun to hear the backstory!

Angelica April 1, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Something tells me the flavor of this Tabasco will take on a whole new meaning next time I use it, know that it is made with love and dedication makes it a bit sweeter.

Lexi April 2, 2011 at 1:14 am

This is the coolest ever! I love Tabasco so, so much – but I’d never considered getting a tattoo! So nice to see how hands-on the whole process is. And gorgeous pictures. Thanks!

Lexi April 2, 2011 at 1:14 am

This is the coolest ever! I love Tabasco so, so much – but I’d never considered getting a tattoo! So nice to see how hands-on the whole process is. And gorgeous pictures. Thanks!

Barbara Orr April 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm

When is the annual Chili Cook – off for 2011

Figs and Artichokes April 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Love the picture of the Tabasco bottles stretching off into infinity. I am glad to learn that the company is still family owned and that the employees are so loyal. Gives a whole new perspective on a condiment usually taken for granted.

Miri Leigh April 3, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Wow, looks like a great trip. Thanks for sharing!

snippets of thym April 3, 2011 at 7:11 pm

What a great article. I just posted an article on my recent visit to New Orleans. I was raised in Louisiana but had not been back since I was 18. I remember field trips every year to Avery Island to get out little Tobasco bottles. Somehow, we all ended up munching on sugarcane on the way home!

Tammy N. April 3, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Great info. You have sealed the deal. I considered going down there during my last visit to NO and never got around to it. Next time, for sure.

Cecilie April 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Wow, thanks. …..even if the video made me seasick!

memur alimi April 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm

that was a great experience for you, Matt. i want to go there, too :(

TheGourmetCoffeeGuy April 4, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Matt, this is a great post with fantastic photos of the people who work for the McIlhenny Company and live in Avery Island. My family has been a Tabasco loyalist for generations who prefer Tabasco over any other hot sauce anytime. It really has a special flavor that is like no other. Your post certainly promotes a visit to this interesting island with a visit to the Tabasco processing plant. Sounds incredibly interesting. Found the mention of sending the seeds and growing them in foreign lands very interesting. Happy to hear the actual production is all in the USA. Thank you for sharing your insights.

Michelle April 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm

I would have loved to meet you while you were in the state. Perhaps I could have successfully gotten you some of my sauces since the mail failed so badly last attempt.

bing April 6, 2011 at 11:11 pm

oh where would a virgin mary be without tabasco???

tia April 6, 2011 at 11:12 pm

not to mention a taco..!

lars April 8, 2011 at 10:42 pm

tabasco heaven! ive always loved thier logo too!

fleur April 8, 2011 at 10:43 pm

ive never tried the green bottle – what is it???

Amber April 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Thank you Matt for your disclosure at the end of the story. It didn’t make the story any less wonderful to read and it’s so nice to know that you are an honest person brimming with integrity. I had never heard of Avery Island – looks like a beautiful place!

marla April 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Love this! What a trip. Never knew Tabasco was barrel aged for 3 years. Those photos of the folks that work there are wonderful. Such character. Sounds like Avery Island is super neat. I have not been on an airboat since I was a kid. Have fond memories of being with my family touring around the everglades looking at gators.

The Quest For Zest April 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Great article Matt. This was a nice mix of entertaining and informative. I struggle with that, so it”s nice to read good examples like this from time to time. It helps me learn and makes me want to tour some of the hot sauce plants in Mexico.

Mrs Teresa A Strong February 14, 2014 at 6:04 pm

My husband and I visited Avery Island today and we didn’t get a tour like you describe. We were horribly disappointed. I will never buy that product again, I felt so insulted.

Monty Howard March 17, 2014 at 10:16 pm

In response to Mrs. Teresa A Strong, it is sad to see people come online and post as you have. I could not help but ask myself what you did not understand about the author of this blog and his treatment while topuring Avery Island preparing for the blog. Obvisould the McIlhenney family members working at the plant wanted to impress him, they wanted a positive blog and who in their right mind would not want that. From bits of the story above you should have picked up on this and realized the authors tour was likely not the same as tours offered individuals, groups, and families wanting to see the plant first hand.

otr214428 August 22, 2014 at 7:46 am

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