The pungent smell of peppers and the tangy bite of vinegar hang in the humid air and greet visitors driving up the gravel road. Centuries-old oak trees laden with moss shade the drive and walkways weaving throughout the island. Since the Civil War, the McIlhenny family have called Avery Island, Louisiana home and, for five generations, continue to oversee the production and quality of their globally-recognized sauce, TABASCO©. Not much has changed since the first bottle of TABASCO© was produced and today visitors can experience first hand, from seed to sauce, the steps it takes to bring it to the world.
In 1868, years after the Civil War ruined his career as a successful New Orleans banker, Edmund McIlhenny concocted a fiery pepper sauce to excite the bland post-war diet that plagued the south. Using old and discarded cologne bottles, he distributed his sauce among family and friends as gifts. Today’s bottle is a nostalgic nod to TABASCO’s earliest bottling practices.
Word quickly spread of McIlhenny’s coveted condiment and within 6 years TABASCO was exported to England and France. By 1888 it could be found in Himalayan basecamps and a year later in the uppermost regions of the Nile. By 1906 it was being shipped to West Africa and China. In under 40 years, this modest relish became a global pop culture icon. Today it is labeled in 22 different languages and can be found in 180 different countries.
As demand grew the McIlhenny’s had to expand their pepper fields beyond Avery Island to small family farms and co-ops in South American, Central America, and Africa. Once the peppers turn from green to yellow and orange to vibrant red, they are harvested, crushed and mashed, then mixed with salt mined right there on the island. This mash is then transferred into oak barrels, (like whiskey) and covered with a layer of salt that forms a crust over the top. You can see rows upon rows of salted barrels when you visit the mash warehouse.
The mash is then allowed to age in the barrels for about 3 years. After the aging process, the barrels are opened and a member of the McIlhenny family approves the mash for blending. It’s then blended with distilled vinegar in 1,800 gallon vats where they are intermittently stirred for 3-4 weeks. The completed mixture makes it way through the straining process, bottled, and shipped.
The Country Store is the perfect place to taste test all the different varieties, such as the sweet and smoky Raspberry Chipotle Pepper Sauce and the thicker Buffalo Style Hot Sauce. You can even try TABASCO© ice cream. Next door to The Country Store, the 1868 Restaurant dishes out some authentic Louisiana favorites, seasoned with an array of TABASCO© products of course.
While much of the world may know that Avery Island as the home of TABASCO©, most have scant knowledge about the island itself. The 2,200 acre island is actually a dome of salt protruding up amid the surrounding marshland. The salt deposits that make up Avery Island left behind from ancient oceans are thought to be as deep as Mount Everest is high. Rising 160 feet above sea level in an otherwise low-lying flat inland marsh, this geological anomaly remains an alluring sanctuary to be enjoyed by all.
The Jungle Gardens, created by Edward McIlhenny, ensure that generations to come can study and admire both Louisiana’s natural beauty as well as his personal exotic collection. The Jungle Gardens claim over 600 varieties of camellias, thousands of azalea plants in every color imaginable, and hundreds of species of birds and water fowl. There is even an authentic 900 year old Buddha peering out over a reflection pond.
For a glimpse of all that embodies Louisiana – bold, globally-influenced cuisine, adventurous and innovative spirit, and a deep appreciation for natural history – exit Interstate 10 in Lafayette, follow the signs, and head south on Hwy 329 to Avery Island.