Is it possible to imagine a world without Tabasco sauce? Oysters without a drop to sharpen them up? Bloody Marys without the zing? Creole shrimp without the warmth. Salsas without the beat? Betty Grable’s Spanish hash? Or Pat Nixon’s corn soufflé? No Tabasco to bring zip and heat to a dull dish? I can’t. Tabasco has become synonymous with chilli sauces in the same way that Fridgidaire was with fridges, Hoover with vacuum cleaners and Heinz with tomato ketchup. It is one of the supreme brands of the modern era, and one of the most mysterious.
Paul McIlhenny, cookbook writer, ex-Rex of Mardi Gras and someone who takes a formidable pleasure in life, is the president of the Tabasco Company. He’s a large man with hooded eyes that move lazily but that miss nothing. He dresses in comfortable country gear, with an open-necked shirt and twill jacket with a zipper up the front. He speaks in an easy drawl, with self-deprecating humour, but exudes a sense of shrewdness, authority and power as he moves about the Tabasco headquarters set among the sculpted acres of Avery Island, tucked away among the bayous of Louisiana.
Avery Island is an unlikely centre of industrial production. You approach it across flatlands, laid out in open rectangles. Each rectangle has been combed into green-and-black stripes, green of sugar cane, black of earth. Between each rectangle is likely to be a line of fluffy green trees – white oak, flowering dogwood, hickory, yellow poplar, southern pine – and sometimes there are houses scattered like bits of cardboard around the edges.
From this modern world of industrial agricultural production, you cross a bridge over a bayou, are checked as if you were going through passport control, and pass into a hushed, landscaped parkland, where trees trail Spanish moss from their branches, verges are manicured on either side of sweeping roads, where quiet offices look like large family homesteads and where large family homesteads could be offices. There are houses for employees, a visitor centre and a Tabasco shop. Everything is well spaced out, design co-ordinated, orderly. Even the factory buildings have an aura of quiet purpose rather than vulgar commerce.
It feels more like the private kingdom of a benevolent 18th-century autocrat with a keen interest in conservation – the McIlhennys combine being ardent conservationists with being equally ardent hunters and fishermen – and botany. The impression of benevolent feudalism is borne out by the fact that a good many of the company’s 240 employees are the fourth or fifth generation to do so. It’s a family estate, a model community for workers and a theme park for tourists. It works to its own rhythms and rules.
“We’ve been here for 180 years,” says Paul McIlhenny. “It kind of gives you a feeling for a place. We have a responsibility to it.”
McIlhenny is sixth president of the Tabasco Company and a direct descendant of the man who first made Tabasco on Avery Island, Edmund McIlhenny. The legend is that Edmund created the sauce that is the source of the family fortune in the 1860s, after his successful banking business was destroyed by the American Civil War. Initially, he and his family had taken refuge on Avery Island – he had married the daughter of one Judge Avery, who gave his name to the island – but the discovery of a salt on the island, the very same salt used in the production of Tabasco today, turned Avery Island into a strategic target for the Union forces, causing Edmund and his family to take refuge in Texas. When he returned to Avery Island after the end of the war, unable to find a job, he took to cultivating his garden, and in particular the chillies, which, family legend has it, were grown from seeds provided by an old Confederate soldier recently returned from Mexico.
He began experimenting with the formula for a chilli sauce, which were already popular in the south, and eventually came up with Tabasco, which, another legend has it, he packed inside scent bottles with the sprinkler system in the neck so it could be distributed drop by precious drop.
“He called the product Tabasco because he liked the sound of the Mexican-Indian word,” McIlhenny says. “It means ‘land where the oil is humid.’ ”
Edmund started marketing the sauce in 1869. He died in 1890, and just over 100 years later the company he founded and the process he designed is still producing the sauce he developed in the place where he grew his first chillies. Only it’s producing more in a day than he did in over 20 years, and presumably making rather more money.
One hundred and fifty million bottles of Tabasco are now sold every year. Each bottle contains at least 720 drops of sauce – that is 108,000,000,000 drops in all. Tabasco has only three ingredients: chillies, salt and vinegar. Nor is there much mystery about the manufacturing process. There are only six stages in it. There is only one Tabasco factory, producing between 500,00 and 700,000 2oz bottles, or 7,812.5 gallons, a day. That may seem to make the Tabasco operation the very model of modern production, the relentless rattle and rasp of machinery monitored by the unblinking watchfulness of computers. The truth is rather quieter.
Not that there’s much reason for bustle. The manufacturing process is largely made up of waiting. Each year’s crop of chillies is grown from the seeds of the previous year’s production to ensure consistency of flavour. Those seeds are taken from chillies grown on Avery Island that have been specially selected. The seeds go to small farmers in such countries as Honduras, Ecuador, Columbia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Peru. There are roughly 3,000 acres of chillies in all. The seeds are planted in January and the seedlings moved to the fields in April. When they’re red and ripe in August, they’re picked and transported back to Avery Island.
There they are mashed up with a little salt, which comes from a salt mine conveniently situated on the island, and packed inside old bourbon whisky barrels (the odd drop of whisky in the barrels is poured off and served to visiting journalists, from an old Smirnoff vodka bottle, oddly enough). The barrel has its old top banged into place, and is then covered by a thick layer of salt. The barrels are stacked on top of one another in a warehouse, and left to ferment for three years. Vapours rise up through the wood and are absorbed by the salt, which solidifies to form a thick crust.
After three years, the mash has gone a deep brick red. It is transferred to a vat, mixed with vinegar and stirred by giant paddles for 30 days. The mixture is then passed through a series of meshes that gradually separate the chilli liquid from the chilli seeds and other matter – Tabasco is the only chilli sauce to use this particular refinement. The liquid is pumped to further vats. It’s ready for bottling, which, inevitably, is the only part of the whole operation into which noise seems to intrude in any way. Finally, the bottles are labelled in any one of 19 languages and packed ready to be sent to any one of 160 countries that crave a hit of the hot stuff. The debris is carted off to another company, where pure capsaicin is extracted from it and turned into pepper spray and other industrial and medical products.
“We don’t like to waste anything,” says the sixth president.
He is proud of having introduced modern management systems. On his watch Tabasco has extended its product range, boosted the sales, marketing and PR teams. And he’s recruited his two cousins, Tony Simmons and Hank Osborn, both great-grandsons of Edward McIlhenny, into the company.
But then it isn’t surprising that the company should turn to its own for top management. Tabasco is wholly owned and run by the McIlhenny family. Every significant job, from seed selection to production control to CEO, is carried out by a McIlhenny. There are 11 family members on the board. No one, except the family, really knows how much the company makes each year. Tabasco doesn’t publish accounts. Very little is known about its inner workings. Aside from one short interregnum, it has always been run by a McIlhenny.
“That seems just about right,” says the sixth president. “You’ve got to understand Tabasco. It’s in the blood.”