“I want you to pay attention to what’s happening in your mouth,” says Harold ‘Took’ Osborn, senior vice president of the McIlhenny Company, with a silver scoop of chilli pepper mash in his hand and a look of devilment in his eyes. As I dig my finger into the vivid orange pulp and slap a way-too-big dollop into my mouth, I can’t not pay attention. A steady conflagration builds on my palate as if someone has set fire to a herd of buffalo and let them stampede all over my tongue. My vision goes blurry as tears form, and I get hiccups. The Tabasco mash I’m tasting is pure chilli pepper with a little salt. At 50,000 on the Scoville scale, it’s 10 times hotter than regular Tabasco. In other words, it’s hot. “If you wear contacts, good luck,” adds Took. “And if you go to the bathroom later it can be a challenging situation. So, please, wash your hands.”
It takes a few minutes to recover my composure after this little tasting session. But this is something Tabasco CEO Tony Simmons does every morning to check for consistency of quality here on Avery Island. For this is where every single bottle of Tabasco in the world is made, including the bottle in your kitchen cupboard. Every proper bloody Mary you’ve ever sipped contained Tabasco made on this salt dome island among the swamps and marshes of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. And I’m here for the grand tour.
It begins with a ride on a winding path through the lush vegetation of a jungle garden, where bamboo, bayous and Cypress trees drizzled with Spanish moss hide a multitude of critters. Musk rats, coyotes, black bears and banana spiders. Alligators lurk in soupy pools. But the island is also home to over 100 Tabasco employees.
At the on-site visitor centre and mini museum, I learn that the McIlhenny family have been here for five generations. It was banker Edmund McIlhenny who hit upon the idea of making and selling hot sauce over 140 years ago, on returning from the Civil War to find the southern economy in ruins. Avery Island sat on a solid rock salt column as deep as Mount Everest is high. The family were already mining salt here, but the rich soil and weather conditions were perfect for growing chilli peppers - capsicum frutescens from Central America, to be precise.
It was hardly an overnight success. Edmund experimented: mashing peppers, adding salt and then French white wine vinegar. He aged his sauce in jars for a total of 60 days, before bottling it up and unleashing it on an unsuspecting public. It was a slow burn, but the orders gradually came rolling in.
Today, Tabasco’s classic red sauce is made with the same three ingredients, but the mash is aged for three years in white oak barrels, once home to gallons of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey. At around 70,000 bottles, the factory makes more bottles of Tabasco in a single day than Edmund McIlhenny made in his lifetime. That’s a lot of hot sauce. Back in the mash warehouse, a consignment of chilli mash comes in from Nicaragua in a huge polythene sack known as ‘the bladder’. Though all the chilli seeds are grown on Avery Island, the majority are exported elsewhere for cultivation, from South America to South Africa. Peppers are picked when - and only when - they are the right shade of Tabasco red. Then they are pulped, exported back to the factory and transferred to whiskey barrels, cleaned thoroughly so as to be halal compliant. Each barrel is sealed with a layer of Avery salt packed on top of its wooden lid to prevent oxidisation. They are stacked five or six high, and there they’ll wait in fragrant humidity, slowly accruing cobwebs, while the mash ferments.
Three years later, 100 grain distilled white vinegar is added. Skins and seeds are removed. It’s meticulously tasted and tested in the lab. And then the final touches are applied before the famous pepper sauce is bottled, labelled with its distinctive triangular logo, and sold in over 180 countries worldwide.
Great-great grandson of Edmund McIlhenny, Tony Simmons confirms that the original red sauce is his favourite. As does Took. They probably had it sprinkled on their cornflakes as kids. But there’s six more flavours to investigate - from green pepper sauce and fiery habanero, to garlic pepper and chipotle. And those are just the widely available ones.
Like all good tours, this one ends in the gift shop. But for now, the Tabasco Country Store is the only store in the world where you’ll find Tabasco’s new secret weapons in the war on bland food: a raspberry chipotle sauce that’s as good on red meat as it is on ice cream; and a new sriracha sauce that will soon turn up the heat on the market leader. Trust Tabasco to fight fire with fire.