Hot Sauce History

Sometime in the 1860s a Mr. Edmund McIlhenny of Avery Island, Louisiana acquired some capsicum frutescens, commonly known as Tabasco peppers, planted and harvested them near his home, aged their pulp in white oak barrels, and then blended them with vinegar and salt. And Tabasco hot sauce was born.

Today, this strain of peppers – all derived from the original few he received – is still grown, pulped, and aged 2-3 years in white oak barrels on site on the island along with salt harvested from the mines there. After being taste-tested by living members of the McIlhenny family, the mash is sent to be blended with vinegar and more of the local salt for a few weeks and then bottled. Distribution, according to the museum tour, is to over 185 countries, with labels of all the varieties printed in 22 languages.

We visited the museum as one of our first stops upon arriving in Louisiana, as eager to see the process of making hot sauce as we were to walk the extensive gardens adjacent to the factory. I did a predictably terrible job of taking photos of the factory tour and history exhibits, but I did manage to capture to gist of the process and learn that the “island” is one of five salt domes extruded from the west side of the Atchafalaya Basin; at 160 feet tall and surrounded by wetlands, bayous, and cypress swamp, this upland of salt extended far underground and has been mined for hundreds of years prior to Europeans arriving. This salt is still used to cover the mash itself and seal the barrels while the pepper pulp ages to perfection. The unique character of this salt along with the use of this uncommon strain of pepper is presumably the basis for the distinctive taste of Tabasco hot sauce.

After our self-guided tour of the museum and factory, we retrieved Allie from the truck and proceeded to begin our walk through the 170 acres of the so-called Jungle Gardens. First established as a wildlife sanctuary by the second generation of McIlhennys (and federally recognized as such in 1895), the gardens continue to function as a bird sanctuary for snowy egrets as well as a hatchery for many botanical species. While possible to drive a loop road through the gardens, we of course elected to walk the three mile loop which led us through cypress swamp, along swampy bayous, around massive live oaks draped with Spanish moss, into cultivated gardens, past historical structures, and by features such as the Buddha Temple which houses a 900 year old statue. It was a fantastically scenic walk, one that gives visitors not only a taste of Louisiana with it’s bayou overlooks and characteristic live oaks but of some rare and interesting flower and plant species.