As the Tabasco tour guide gives me earplugs and a hairnet, his Cajun drawl delivers a message: “You’re about to clear your sinuses.” The door swings open, and a slight breeze carries a spicy and undeniable nose hair-singeing Tabasco bouquet. My olfactory burns. Soon, I’m standing over a vat of pepper juice sloshing and turning, permeating spice vapors so strong I now understand why cops carry pepper spray. I’m coughing, gasping, and my tear-filled eyes only see the person in front of me.
The quick tour is over, and the muggy Louisiana air fills my lungs with welcomed pepper-free oxygen. A few coughs later, my sinuses are cleared — a formal welcome to Avery Island, La., the 2,200-acre private salt dome surrounded by bayous and home to Tabasco since 1868.
When New Orleans banker Edmund McIlhenny married Mary Eliza Avery in 1859, he took the first step to the seven mainstay Tabasco flavors, a clothing line, and hundreds of co-branded products. Her father, lawyer Daniel Dudley Avery, owned a major sugarcane plantation on Petite Anse Island (now Avery Island) and gained even more wealth with salt mine discoveries during the Civil War.
But, upon the war’s end, McIlhenny returned to a New Orleans that would rather hire carpetbaggers for less than a local middle-aged man.
Out of work, McIlhenny started experimenting with Tabasco peppers on his father-in-law’s plantation, mashing and mixing with vinegar and salt. Nobody knows exactly how McIlhenny obtained this Mexican-native pepper species, which grows its fruit upright and ripens at different intervals. But, he started bottling a sauce in used cologne bottles and giving to friends and family in 1868.
In 1869, he took 658 Tabasco bottles to sell in New Orleans. Twenty years later, his production — 41,472 bottles — indicates Tabasco, originally called “Petite Anse Sauce,” was taking off.
McIlhenny also brought aboard his sons — Rough Rider John A. McIlhenny and artic explorer Edward A. McIlhenny — forging a long family line that still runs the McIlhenny Co., the parent company of Tabasco.
The fact that this is still a family-ran company was never more apparent than when its long-time CEO Paul McIlhenny, whom employees affectionately referred to as “Mr. Paul,” passed away in February 2013.
Known for spilling hot sauce on his shirts so regularly he wore bibs, Mr. Paul gave employees grammar lectures, specialized in the lost art of Cajun joke telling, and was as comfortable sitting with the Queen of England (Tabasco holds a Royal Warrant from the Queen) as a ditch digger.
“Mr. Paul started work [in 1967] when my mother and father worked here,” says Rita Floris, a 38-year Tabasco veteran. “It was like losing a family member.”
Under McIlhenny’s 13-year reign, Tabasco reportedly achieved 25 percent worldwide hot sauce market share, created a wide assortments of hot sauces from online- and gift shop-only Raspberry Chipotle to mainstay Buffalo Style and became a loud fashion statement with its colorful shirts and ties. As one of the most identifiable food products on the planet, Tabasco boosted its presence in grocery stores cobranding with liquor, potato chip, and ketchup companies.
“Paul was so prolific at making new products that we have a big staple of products,” said CEO Anthony “Tony” Simmons, the seventh Edmund McIlhenny descendent to run the company. “My job is to make sure they get the distribution.”
Simmons has another important job. After the peppers are picked, they are mashed with Beech wood vinegar and a touch of Avery Island-mined salt and stored in used Kentucky bourbon barrels for three years. Before the barrel contents move on to become Tabasco hot sauce, Simmons samples the three-year-old mash, looking for unpleasant aromas, off colors, and should-be retired barrels that push unwanted flavor notes into the mash. If something’s off, he’ll flip the barrelhead and warehouse crews fix the problem.
Of course, this isn’t typical CEO work. He just likes being physically connected to his family recipe.
“There’s an art to making this product and a significant amount of family involvement,” Simmons says.
Despite receiving monthly acquisition offers, the 130 all-family Tabasco shareholders don’t plan to sell anytime soon. Could a non-McIlhenny descendent take the heat? I certainly couldn’t.
Fred Minnick is the author of “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey” (Potomac Books, October 2013; not available at Costco).