Avery Island, Louisiana isn’t on the way to anywhere. A salt dome disguised as a junglescape paradise, it lies amongst the bayou and channel encircled hinterlands of the state’s southern heel. Although it’s only a two-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans, you have to be going to Avery Island on purpose.
Which is why it’s even more puzzling to find one the headquarters of one of the world’s most recognizable food brands there. While it’s been nearly 150 years since Edmund McIlhenny sold his original pepper sauce recipe in used cologne bottles, his company still ships its famous Tabasco red sauce (and 6 others now) from a large brick warehouse on the island. One of the few differences: it ships to over 180 countries now from Sweden to Saudi Arabia.
While I was on Avery Island recently, I toured the Tabasco facility with my new best friend Dave Landry. Dave worked at Tabasco for more than 30 years, and although he’s retired now, you wouldn’t know it. He grew up on the island with a French-speaking family; his mother worked on the bottling line of Tabasco, and he himself worked several different areas from scooping pepper mash into barrels to managing the warehouse. He still lives on Avery Island (as do the 5th generation proprietors of Tabasco) and gives encyclopedic tours to some of the 150,000 people who visit annually. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the most famous pepper sauce in America is made.
Tabasco grows their heirloom namesake pepper from seedlings in greenhouses on Avery Island and sends them to countries like Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, even Zimbabwe to grow into full size pepper plants. They’re all harvested by hand using an incredibly high tech-tool: a stick painted a specific shade of red so pickers can match it against the color of the pepper and determine whether it’s ripe enough. Once the peppers are picked, they’re sent back to Tabasco headquarters.
Back in Louisiana, the pepper mash is packed into barrels (reused from bourbon, wine, and beer producers) with salt mined from underneath Avery Island and put in another warehouse to age for three years. At this point there’s only two ingredients in this process, the third and final ingredient, vinegar, is added to the pepper mash in sauce mixing tanks. I was lucky enough to get a special, hair net-required tour of this part of the building even though I was overcome by coughing due to the vapors let off by the peppers and vinegar blending together in the oak thanks.
Next it’s bottled into tiny versions as small as 3.7 mL to gallon jugs for restaurant service. I watched the standard 5 oz. bottles go down the line with employees monitoring every step of the process from the labeling to the packaging to where it will end up. Some of the bottles I saw were going as far as Japan.
Dave grabbed me a one straight off the line for a souvenir. I haven’t brought myself to open it yet, but I have a feeling it will add something special to my scrambled eggs this weekend.