Tabasco® is a popular brand of pepper sauce products and related items manufactured by the McIlhenny Company, a privately held, family-owned business headquartered on Avery Island.Tabasco sauce is found in homes and restaurants around the globe, and its diamond-shaped logo is one of the world’s most recognized trademarks. The spicy condiment has gone to war with US soldiers, has flown into orbit aboard NASA spacecraft, and has appeared in movies and on television.
Tabasco sauce was invented by Edmund McIlhenny (1815–1890), a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, who settled in Louisiana around 1840 to work for the Bank of Louisiana. By the eve of the Civil War, McIlhenny had become a successful independent banker with offices in Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville, Alexandria, Opelousas, and St. Francisville. In 1859 he married Mary Eliza Avery, whose father, Judge D. D. Avery of Baton Rouge, had through marriage acquired a south Louisiana sugar plantation at Petite Anse Island, later known as Avery Island.
When the South’s economy collapsed after the Civil War, McIlhenny lost his banking business and unsuccessfully sought a new career in postbellum New Orleans. Although family stories differ, one account maintains it was there he received a handful of red pepper pods from an ex-Confederate returning from self-imposed exile in Mexico. McIlhenny planted some of the Capsicum frutescens pepper seeds on his Avery in-laws’ plantation and used the offspring to experiment with making a pepper sauce for the family table. Selecting and crushing the reddest peppers from his plants, he mixed them with Avery Island salt and aged this “mash” for 30 days in crockery jars and barrels. McIlhenny then blended the mash with French white wine vinegar and aged the mixture for at least another 30 days. After straining it, he transferred the sauce to small, cologne-type bottles with sprinkler fitments, which he then corked and sealed in green wax. The sprinkler fitment was important because his pepper sauce was concentrated and best used when sprinkled, not poured.
Pleased by the positive reaction to his fiery condiment, McIlhenny grew his first commercial pepper crop in 1868 and the next year sold his first bottle of sauce, dubbed “Tabasco” sauce. (Tabasco is a word of Mexican Indian origin meaning “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.” It is also the name of a federal district within Mexico.)
McIlhenny initially offered the product for sale through Gulf Coast grocery houses in cities such as New Orleans, New Iberia, and Galveston. In 1870 he secured a patent for the sauce and shortly thereafter entered into distribution agreements with northeastern entrepreneurs, who helped him introduce Tabasco sauce to major American markets throughout the country. In late 1873 and early 1874 McIlhenny first exported Tabasco sauce overseas to France and England.
After McIlhenny’s death in 1890, his two eldest sons, John Avery McIlhenny (1867–1942) and Edward Avery McIlhenny (1872–1949), successively ran the business, modernizing production and expanding sales through marketing campaigns. Subsequent family leaders, including retired Marine Corps Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny (1910–1985), continued to find new markets for Tabasco sauce and to increase its reputation as a culinary icon. The US military has contracted with the company to supply 1/8th-ounce bottles of Tabasco with every MRE (meal ready to eat) field ration, creating lifetime fans of the hot sauce among veterans.
More than 140 years after McIlhenny experimented with his hot sauce recipe, Tabasco sauce is made much the same way, except now the aging process for the mash is longer—up to three years in white oak barrels—and the vinegar is high-quality distilled vinegar. McIlhenny Company today manufactures more than 700,000 bottles of traditional red Tabasco sauce per day, which it complements with a variety of other flavors, including green jalapeño, chipotle, and habanero. It permits other well-known consumer brands, such as Slim Jim®, Spam®, A1® Steak Sauce, Heinz® Ketchup, and Cheez-Its®, to use Tabasco seasoning and to cobrand these products with the Tabasco trademark. McIlhenny Company also produces a number of ancillary Tabasco products, including steak sauces, kitchenware, and clothing.
TABASCO® is a registered trademark and service mark exclusively of McIlhenny Company, Avery Island, LA 70513.Author: Shane K. Bernard
Cite this entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Bernard, Shane K. "Tabasco." In knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published February 4, 2013. http://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/tabasco-sauce.
Bernard, Shane K. "Tabasco" knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 4 Feb 2013. Web. 23 Jun 2018.
Bernard, Shane K. Tabasco: An Illustrated History. Avery Island, LA: McIlhenny Company, 2007.
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