The full Tabasco lineup
The pepper fields on Avery Island are mostly a seed farm now, as the company is not able to recruit enough workers to pick the necessary quantity of peppers to grow them on the island.
While the peppers are grown mostly in Latin America (though all specifically for McIlhenny Co.), all are mashed the day they are picked and immediately sent to the Avery Island factory, where they're mixed with salt mined that day from the island (a salt dome) itself. The salt on top forms a hard crust, sealing in the peppers.
Once salted, the pepper mash ages for three years, usually in used bourbon barrels that have been scrubbed clean of any remaining char. One barrel holds enough mash to produce 10,000 of the two-ounce Tabasco bottles. Currently, there are about 53,000 barrels aging in the facility.
Each morning, one of the two family members who work for the company checks the 180 barrels that, having aged three years, are ready to become that day’s batch of Tabasco sauce. The rigorous quality checking is what keeps the sauce consistent.
The approved pepper barrels are dumped into bulk drainers made of stainless steel. Batches of peppers from different barrels and different origins are blended at this point, another way that the company works for consistency from bottle to bottle. After eight hours of draining, the mash has lost 25% of its weight and is washed out with vinegar and sent to spend three weeks in a 2000-gallon wood barrel.
At this point, the product has only been mashed and drained, so there are still solids like seeds and skins in it. A two-mill process deseeds and blends the solids. The potent pepper byproduct from the milling is used in products like the muscle relaxant Ben-Gay, as well as sold to companies like Kraft for making steak sauce.
A maze of pipes leads upstairs from the factory floor, through which the mash is pumped up. Here, in a scaffolding system holding giant, mechanically-stirred vats, the sauce is finished, and held until bottling time.
The sauce makes a quick stop in the lab on the way to the gravity-fed bottling line, where it’s tested for viscosity, salinity, pH balance, and examined organoleptically (by taste), to make sure it's consistent with the Tabasco standard.
Every bottle of Tabasco (including the jalapeño, chipotle, and other flavors) is bottled right on Avery Island. Even the multi-lingual bottles and boxes for international markets (Japan is the largest consumer of Tabasco outside of the US) are produced here.
In keeping with the close-to-home theme, Tabasco packaging doesn’t travel far. The tops come from nearby New Iberia, the labels from a little further—maybe thirty minutes—in Lafayette, Louisiana, and traveling the furthest are the glass bottles themselves, which are made in New Orleans, a whopping two-and-a-half hours away.
Even though the overwhelming majority of Tabasco’s production and sales are from the classic sauce, alternatives such as the green jalapeño sauce, the smoky chipotle, and the deeply-flavored, hard-to-get Reserve sauce (aged up to eight years, made with wine vinegar instead of beechwood vinegar) are gaining popularity. And the centuries-old family company has a few more things up their sleeves, including a competitor for one of the hot sauce market’s current crazes.