“Lookin' for some hot stuff baby this evenin'; I need some hot stuff baby tonight”
State 28: Louisiana February 1, 2018
We woke up at a Walmart in Lafayette having had a restful night sleep. Yesterday, we learned about the violent history of the Louisiana Capitol, and today we were in search of a more peaceful experience. The first task of the day is a 29 mile drive South to Avery Island for the Cross Country Couple's “Made in the USA tour”; Tabasco Sauce.
The year was 1865. The South lay in economic ruin after losing the Civil War. Edmund McIlhenny found himself in a similar predicament as his fellow Southerner's. Prior to the Civil War, Mcllhenny amassed a fortune as an independent bank owner. However, after the defeat of the Confederacy, Mcllhenny was broke, lived at his in-law’s house on Avery Island, Louisiana, and found himself tending to the family garden. Sometimes, being hopelessly engrossed in the dark shadows of adversity proves to be the catalyst for one’s greatest success. One of the crops Mcllhenny grew on the Avery Island was the tabasco peppers, and in 1868, he developed the recipe for Tabasco Original Red Pepper Sauce. Named after the Mexican state of Tabasco, Tabasco Sauce contains 3 simple ingredients: salt, vinegar, and tabasco peppers, and for the past 150 years, the tabasco sauce recipe has been passed down from generation to generation. Even to this very day the company is still family-owned and operated, and all the tabasco sauce in the entire world is still made on Avery Island, Louisiana. Today, Tabasco Sauce is labeled in 22 languages, sold in 185 countries, on restaurant tables literally everywhere, included in US, Australian, British and Canadian military’s rations, served on Air Force One, in Buckingham Palace to the Queen, and even to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Who would have known a business born from the ashes of the Civil War, would ultimately become one of America's most iconic and beloved brands?
After paying our admission of $5.50 per person, we were given 2 tiny Tabasco Sauce sample bottles of the Original Red, and Green Hot Sauce, provided a map, and then began our exploration of Avery Island. The Tabasco factory tour is a self-guided walking tour consisting of 10 separate stops, and best of all pictures were allowed! If you are ready, let’s go learn how Tabasco Sauce is made together!
Stop 1: Tabasco Museum
The Tabasco Museum provides the history of 7 Generations of CEO’S from the Mcllhenny family, overview of the production process, displays the oldest known intact bottle of Tabasco Circa 1875, displayed pictures of 4 US presidents partaking in the famous red sauce, and even a bass guitar in the shape of a Tabasco Sauce bottle owned by Michael Anthony Bassist from Van Halen. Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Bush, Peter Jennings, Madonna, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey are just a few of the many celebrities who have publicly professed their love for Tabasco. Each year, thousands upon thousands of fan letters pour into Avery Island, and some even include pictures of Tabasco Sauce tattoos! Please see the pictures below!
Stop 2: Greenhouse peppers
After exiting the museum, we walked down a paved path, and over a bridge before arriving at a greenhouse full of peppers. Originally, all peppers used in Tabasco Sauce were grown on a 5 acre plot of land on Avery Island. As demand increased, the peppers grown on the island only used to produce seeds, which is then shipped to growers in Africa, Central and South America. The more predictable weather and available farmland in these regions allow for a constant year round supply, and ensures the availability of peppers should severe weather or other problems occur at a one growing location. An interesting fact about the tabasco pepper is it always grows with its tip pointing up! Please see the pictures below of the tabasco peppers in the greenhouse!
Stop 3: Barrel Aging
Upon leaving the pepper greenhouse, we entered a nearby building to the barrel aging warehouse. From pepper seed to jarring, the process of making Tabasco Sauce takes 5 years, and the longest part of the process occurs in barrel aging. First, the oak barrels are prepared by shaving off the top layer of wood, charring the barrel with a torch, and then it is thoroughly cleaned. Tabasco peppers are handpicked at the peak of ripeness, salted, and then ground into a mash on the same day of their harvest. The mash is placed inside the prepared barrels, the lid is topped with salt, and the barrel is placed in storage where it ages for 3 years. Although oak barrels can be reused for decades, when barrels reach the end of their useful life, they are sold as flavored wood chips for BBQ's. Please see the pictures below of hundreds of barrels of tabasco pepper mash.
Stop 4: Blending
After exiting barrel aging, we walked 200 feet to the Tabasco Sauce main production building where blending occurs. Blending is the process where the pepper mash becomes Tabasco Sauce. This is where all the magic occurs! After aging for 3 years in an oak barrel, a Mcllhenny family member personally tastes and inspects each barrel of pepper mash for flavor and heat and consistency. A professional hot sauce taster! Wow, what a job!!! After receiving the family stamp of approval, the pepper mash is removed from the barrels, placed in 1800 gallon containers, mixed with distilled vinegar, and stirred intermittently for 2-3 weeks. Before being sent to bottling, laboratory tests are performed on each batch to confirm the color, consistency, heat levels and other qualities are all within specifications. The resulting liquid is strained to remove skins and seeds, and then piped into the bottling line. The tabasco seeds and skins filtered out of the pepper mash are dried and sold as seasoning. Nothing goes to waste on Avery Island!
We entered the blending facility, and ascended a large staircase, while massive peppers dangled from the ceiling above our heads. Upon arriving at the top of the stairs, over one hundred 1800 gallon containers were visible from behind a glass wall. On the wall was a sign which read, “PUSH BUTTON TO START” “smell the smell, feel the burn” I pushed the button as it seemed like the thing to do. It turns out the button activated an exhaust fan, which flooded the observation space with the strong pungent fiery smell of the air from inside the blending area. The smell sent Lori running down the stairs coughing and choking in search of fresh air. I on the other hand, found the aroma of the blending of over 1.8 million gallons of tabasco sauce quite intoxicating. Please see the pictures below.
Stop 5: Avery Island Experience
After exiting the blending area, we headed to another room to learn about the Avery Island Jungle Gardens. The Jungle Gardens are a 170 acres, and feature a botanical garden, wildlife refuge, Chinese garden, and bird sanctuary called Bird City. Created by the son of Edmund McIlhenny inventor of Tabasco Sauce, Bird City provides roosting for a wide variety of wild fowls, but the most noteworthy being the once endangered snowy egret. In the late 19th century, the snowy egret’s feathers were commonly used as adornments in ladies’ hats, and the bird had been hunted to near extinction. McIlhenny located eight snowy egrets, took them back to Avery Island, turned the birds loose in an aviary. After the birds had adapted to their new surroundings, they were turned loose to migrate for the winter, and in the spring they returned to Avery Island bringing even more snowy egrets. Over a century later, 100,000 snow egrets still return to Avery island every spring!
Stop 6: Salt Mine Experience
Much of the salt used in Tabasco production comes from an Avery Island salt mine, which is one of the largest in the U.S. While we were not permitted to view the actual salt mine, they had a life size display depicting a typical salt mine operation, and a massive slab of salt rock! Please see the pictures below!
Stop 7: Bottling Line
After exiting the salt mine, we walked down a long narrow hallway painted a very bright red, to see where Tabasco Sauce is bottled! Back in 1868, Edmund McIlhenny initially used discarded cologne bottles to distribute his sauce to family and friends. Although used bottles from the 19th century are no longer used in the production of Tabasco Sauce, the new bottles are still made in the same shape of the old cologne bottles keeping in line with tradition. Their manufacturing plant featured 4 production lines, and it was very interesting seeing the bottling process of Tabasco Sauce. My favorite part of the bottling line was a digital counter displaying in real time the number of bottles, which are filled, capped, labeled, sealed and produced each day! During my visit the count for the day was 241,120, but on the average day, over 750,000 bottles of Tabasco Sauce are produced!
Stop 8: Food Flavors, and Tabasco Today
Next, we headed into a room dedicated to the recent history of the Tabasco brand. Dominating the space was seven 7-foot-tall bottles of Tabasco Sauce. I immediately ran up the one of the bottles gave it a huge hug, puckered up, and gave it my best smooch. Interestingly, a 7 foot tall bottle of Tabasco Sauce is not the strangest thing I have kissed on my cross country trip, which you can read about by clicking here. Also on display was a TV screen showing a continuous loop of clips from TV and movies featuring the use of Tabasco Sauce. The most interesting of which was the 1997 Super Bowl commercial for Tabasco Sauce where a mosquito explodes in a fireball after sucking the blood of a man using the Avery Island pepper sauce. On the far wall of the room was a variety of recipes featuring the use of Tabasco Sauce, and two of which were actually vegetarian! When we find a new home state, I am going to have to make the vegetarian spicy grilled pizza, and the poor man’s ceviche. Please see the pictures below!
Stop 9: Country Store
From a Tabasco Sauce neck tie, to a gallon glass jug of the hot stuff, the Avery Island County Store possessed enough Tabasco paraphernalia to satisfy even the most discerning hot sauce aficionado. The best was yet to come! In the rear of the store was the crown jewel of the Country Store; samples of the entire Tabasco product line. Although I knew about their original red sauce, I was not aware of the dozens of additional products in the Tabasco family, which included: pickles, olives, green beans, relish, BBQ sauce, marinades, all 7 Tabasco sauces and much more! The most unique of their offerings was Tabasco Sauce ice cream! Sure, why the hell not! The heat of the pepper actually balanced out quite well against the sweetness of the ice cream, and it was surprisingly quite delicious. Lori and I both liked the garlic Tabasco Sauce, and the chipolte was quite tasty as well. I left with a red flushed face, sweating profusely, a seared esaphogus, and the worst heartburn of my entire life, but it sure was a delicious and fun way to spend a day in Louisiana! Please see the pictures below!
Stop 10: 1868 Restaurant
After leaving the Country Store, we walked next-door to the restaurant, but it was closed during our visit. I was very disappointed, because reviews stated the food was quite good! In addition, every Tuesday and Thursday Tabasco cooking classes are offered! Oh well, now I have a reason to one day come back!
I was never a lover of hot sauce until I became a vegetarian. Since vegetarian cuisine lacks animal fat, it can be quite bland. One of the ways to combat the lack of flavor is the 3 S’s: sauces, seasonings and spices! Tabasco Sauce is a very effective tool to pack a lot of flavor into a dish, because a very little goes a very long way! Surprisingly, Tabasco Original Red Pepper Sauce is not that hot compared to most peppers. Developed by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, The Scoville scale is a measurement of a chili peppers heat represented in Scoville heat units or (SHU). The Tabasco pepper sauce only measures 2,500–5,000 SHU, and their habanero sauce is quite hotter rating above 7,000 SHU. If the aforementioned is still too tame for your taste buds, in 2017, Tabasco released a limited edition sauce made with the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper with a 2,000,000 SCU, which I did not taste during my visit. While I am adventurous, I am not insane!
After departing the Tabasco Sauce factory tour on Avery Island, we drove 10 miles Northeast to a Walmart in New Iberia where we spent the night.