From the royal kitchens of England to Nasa’s space shuttles, there's no place the iconic 60 ml Tabasco bottle hasn't been. The vinegary hot sauce has been in production for almost 155 years, barrel aged, and true to the original recipe. In this article, we will take a look at the company’s rich history, from the origins of the infamous Tabasco pepper, to how the McIlhenny have concocted and sold the hot sauce bearing the Tabasco name for over five generations.
The exact origins of the Tabasco pepper (Capsicum frutescens) remain unclear. It is believed the pepper originated in South America, where it grew in the wild before making its way to the state of Tabasco, Mexico. It was there that the pepper was selectively bred over time in order to enhance its pungency and spiciness. We don't know how the pepper reached U.S. shores either: for the longest time, it was believed that Edmund McIlhenny, the brand's founder, was the first to grow the peppers. However, historians now believe that Col. Maunsel White, a politician based in the city of New Orleans, grew the peppers and made his own hot sauce well over two decades before Mcllhenny did. Locals at the time also believed that White gave Mcllhenny the peppers along with his hot sauce recipe (The Mcilhenny family have repeatedly denied these claims).
White may have been the first to bottle the sauce, but he never produced it at scale or sold it for a profit. The colonel used the concoction to flavor the many dishes he served at his grand dinner parties, and would also bottle it for his guests if they so requested it. White’s descendants would later take up the task, and sell a hot sauce using his recipe in 1864, a year after his death, only to cease production in the late 19th century.
In the meantime, Mcllnenny, a businessman, was busy tinkering with a hot sauce recipe. He was convinced that a hot sauce featuring the peppers would do well in the market. A huge part of Mcllnenny’s reasoning for the same could be attributed to the diet of the south at the time, the reconstruction era, following the civil war, saw the average American resort to eating bland food prepared from state issued rations. The Tabasco sauce was just what the southerners needed, just a few dashes of the concoction could bring any dish to life, adding notes of acidity, spiciness and salinity. Mcllnenny would grow his first crop in 1868, on Avery Island, located about two hours from New Orleans. Workers on the plantations were given little red sticks, or 'le petit bâton rouge', in order to identify peppers that were ready for harvest. The following year, he sent out exactly 658 bottles of the sauce to grocery store owners across the gulf coast. The concoction was sold in cologne bottles, complete with the spray fitting (sealed off using wax), as manufacturing specialized bottles proved impossible following the aftermath of the civil war.
The hot sauce sold out across the coast, and began to gain renown all over the country. Mcllhenny would obtain a patent for the sauce, and partner with E. C. Hazard and Company to scale up manufacturing and distribution. He would also contract farmers across the state of Louisiana to produce the pepper. Following his death in 1890, The company would see two of his sons take the reins, in succession. The eldest, John Avery McIlhenny, would modernize and scale up the business over a period of eight years, after which he left the company to join the then president Theodore Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry regiment. His brother, Edward Avery McIlhenny, a naturalist, would follow in his stead, and further scale up production, bottling the hot sauce in custom made bottles, and expanding distribution to Europe and the UK. The company is still family owned today, helmed by fifth generation scion Harold Osborne.
The basic recipe for the hot sauce remains unchanged, salt, vinegar, and tabasco peppers, aged in white oak barrels. The company has tinkered with certain facets of the recipe over time, namely replacing the mass produced vinegar with a high grade distilled vinegar, and aging the mash used for making the hot sauce for up to three years in ex-bourbon barrels, as opposed to the original time period of one month. The company has also expanded their offerings over time, with nine different flavors available today, namely, red pepper (the original), green (jalapeno), sriracha, chipotle, habanero, scorpion, buffalo style, sweet & spicy, and cayenne garlic.
Over the years, Tabasco hot sauce would gain a number of distinctions. The first of which was the bottle’s journey into orbit, as a part of the menu of the first NASA space shuttle mission in 1981. The hot sauce remains a part of the menu today. Tabasco is also extensively found in US MREs (Meal Ready to Eat) kits, the company also runs a program that allows active duty service members to purchase the sauce for free. In 2009, the company was issued with a Royal Warrant, making it the official hot sauce of the royal kitchens of England.