Tabasco Sauce: Preserving the Family Business Tradition with Fiery Spirit

IBM Chairman Thomas Watson Sr. once said, “To be successful, you have to have your heart in your business, and your business in your heart.” While there are a number of factors that determine whether or not a company will succeed, passion for the product and its quality is an important element for its success and survival. One family-owned company has demonstrated this defining characteristic with its brand of fiery pepper sauce for over 140 years, and that is the McIlhenny Company, known more commonly as the producer of Tabasco sauce.

The Story of Tabasco

The first bottle of Tabasco sauce was produced in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny. Originally from Maryland, McIlhenny moved to Avery Island, Louisiana in the 1840s when the South was embarking on the Reconstruction Era following the end of the devastating Civil War. According to the annals of company history, Edmund found Louisianan food to be bland and monotonous and attempted to right this wrong as an avid lover of food. It was at this time when he came across the seeds of the Tabasco pepper, a pepper plant native to Mexico and Central America. He immediately fell in love with the bold flavours of the spicy red pepper and became inspired to concoct a pepper sauce to help liven up the local cuisine.

The creation of McIlhenny’s signature sauce took over two months to develop. He first selected the reddest and ripest peppers from his garden and crushed them to a pulp. Then he added salt from the Avery Island salt mine and aged the mixture in crockery and barrels for 30 days. After the initial aging process, he added some French white wine vinegar to the mix and let it age for another 30 days. Finally, the pulp was strained and the remaining liquid was poured into small empty cologne bottles, which were stoppered with a plastic topper, as the sauce was very concentrated.

The resulting sauce became such a hit with his friends and family that McIlhenny was compelled to quit his career as a banker and instead pursue a business selling his product. He cultivated his first commercial crop in 1868 and began producing sauce for sales the next year at one dollar per bottle. In 1870, he acquired the patent for his sauce and filed for the rights to the name of Tabasco, which is believed to mean “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.” The Tabasco business became a flaming success and within a decade, the McIlhenny Company’s Tabasco sauce was being sold all over the United States as well as in England.

In the last 147 years, not much has changed for the company. With the passage of time, the recipe for the sauce has been tweaked, but only slightly, with the company swapping out the white wine vinegar for high quality distilled vinegar. Additionally, McIlhenny has extended the aging process of the sauce from two months to three years in white oak barrels.

More astonishing is the fact that the company has remained in the well-seasoned ownership of the McIlhenny family, which to this day produces the sauce on Avery Island. Half of the company’s employees live in Avery Island, as did many of their parents and grandparents, many of whom worked at the family company themselves. Today, CEO and Chairman of the Board, Anthony Simmons is the seventh McIlhenny in a line of direct descendants that have preserved the family legacy through its business.

These days, one is hard pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a bottle of a Tabasco sauce at every table, reflecting the impact that the family tradition of the McIlhenny’s has had on our dining culture. For fans of the iconic sauce who are in the mood to try something a bit different, the company’s current lineup of Tabasco comes in seven different flavours and they even carry an assortment of flavoured condiments and snacks, like Tabasco flavoured ice cream.