Behind the Scenes: Making Tabasco Sauce on Avery Island, LA

[Photographs: Naomi Bishop]

Picture this: a family-owned business dating back to the Civil War era, responsible for a sauce so iconic you may very well have put it on your eggs this morning (or used its byproducts in everyday first-aid products like Ben-Gay). Forget apple pie—Tabasco sauce is a distinctly all-American food, with a fascinating history and a touch of the antebellum South in every bottle.

The McIlhenny Company and just over 200 employees make Tabasco on Avery Island, Louisiana. The names McIlhenny (as in the sauce's inventor, Edmund McIlhenny) and Avery (Judge Avery, McIlhenny's father-in-law) are on every bottle, belying the stalwart ties every bottle has to the bayou country from which it comes.

Each bottle of sauce passes through the Avery Island production facility, under the watchful eyes of "the family," as they're called. Every morning, CEO Tony Simmons or Senior Vice President Harold "Took" Osborn, the two family members currently working for the company, must approve the 180 barrels of mashed, aged peppers going into production that day.

Edmund McIlhenny's original Tabasco recipe

Both Simmons, who took over as company head after the death of his cousin, Paul McIlhenny, earlier this year, and Osborn are great-great-grandsons of Edmund McIlhenny. Only those related to the original Averys and McIlhennys can approve the barrels. Only family members can own land on the island (though there is subsidized housing leased to employees). And only family members or those who they have given shares to can own any part of the company itself.

In some ways, it's novel: a large brand that's still bound by such strong family ties. In others, it's a little tightly wound: a conversation with Simmons revealed a Godfather-esque oversight of all young family members to see which ones would or would not be future-executive material.

The family backstory, now kept by the company's full-time historian, goes back to the pre-Civil War era, when the Averys settled on the island. It was here that Edmund McIlhenny developed the recipe for the pepper sauce that is still followed today. But the island today produces more bottles every day than McIlhenny made in his entire life. While the aging time has extended from 30 days in stone jars to three years in used bourbon barrels, but the mashed pepper to salt to vinegar ratios remain virtually unchanged.

A rainbow of mechanically picked peppers, demonstrating why all peppers for Tabasco sauce are picked by hand

Where Edmund McIlhenny first found the peppers is still a mystery, but the same pepper (Capsicum frutescens variety tabasco)—and only that pepper — is still used today. In fact, since the peppers are not grown commercially by anyone else, there is no funding for research on increasing yield of the plant, disease prevention for it, or a mechanized picking procedure.

The company does some of their own research and development on Avery Island, not always successfully: for example, a prototype machine currently stationed in the fields proved unable to match the peppers to the precise shade of red they must be before getting picked. As a result, all of the peppers are hand-picked, with employees checking the hue of the plant against a colored stick.

A single tabasco pepper

Luckily for fans of the sauce, the one part of the Tabasco puzzle that doesn't come directly from the island is the peppers themselves. Tabasco manages pepper farms throughout Latin America and a few in Africa, where peppers are grown and picked to spec before being sent to the production facility.

And then what happens? Check out the slide show to see how Tabasco sauce is made!