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The Fiery and Fascinating History of Tabasco Sauce

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

“Cajun Ketchup” on display.

“Cajun Ketchup” on display.

Have you ever wondered about the origins of hot pepper sauce? Of course you haven’t; so here’s the story. It’s really quite interesting. Tabasco Sauce is made from a pepper called―drum roll please―the Tabasco pepper. It originates in the Mexican state of―another drum roll―Tabasco.

The Home of Tabasco Sauce

Avery Island lies deep in southern Louisiana. It isn’t really an island though; it’s 2,200 acres (890 hectares) of higher ground surrounded by wetlands. Lousianatravel.com tells us that the island “sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mount Everest is high.” It takes its name from the Avery family that owns it.

In 1849, the businessman and politician Colonel Maunsell White had a visitor at his Deer Range Plantation near New Orleans. This visitor wrote “I must not omit to notice the Colonel’s pepper patch, which is two acres in extent, all planted with a new species of red pepper, which Colonel White has introduced into this country, called Tobasco red pepper. The Colonel attributes the admirable health of his hands [i.e., slaves] to the free use of this pepper.”

Using an earlier misspelling of the pepper, the Colonel was making and selling his Concentrated Extract of Tobasco Sauce.

Believing in the therapeutic value of Tabasco peppers, the colonel distributed seeds to his friends. One of the recipients was Edmund McIlhenny who had married into the Avery family.

However, the official history of Tabasco Sauce from the company that makes it neglects to mention the contribution of Col. White. It simply says “A food lover and avid gardener, Edmund McIlhenny was given seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers that had come from Mexico or Central America.” That’s a little bit naughty.

McIlhenny, a banker by trade, saw potential in making a hot sauce and he perfected the recipe between 1866 and 1868. The first batch of sauce numbered 658 bottles that sold for a dollar each. Today, annual sales top 50 million bottles.

Edmund McIlhenny.

Edmund McIlhenny.

The Allure of Hot Peppers

A lot of people like hot, spicy food. I have a friend who sloshes Tabasco Sauce on bacon and eggs; he’s otherwise nearly sane.

With Tabasco he’s getting what the experts call a hot pepper. Heat is measured by the Scoville Scale, developed in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. Tabasco Sauce clocks in at between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). That’s about the same potency as Jalapeño peppers.

But, a person with masochistic tendencies can take a chance with survival by chomping on a Naga Viper pepper (1.3 million SHU) or the Carolina Reaper pepper (2.2 million SHU). There are disquieting videos on the internet of folk with judgement issues trying these and fairly quickly regretting the decision.

The Making of Tabasco Sauce

In the wild, Tabasco peppers deliver a mouth-numbing 30,000 to 50,000 SHUs.

Fortunately, the makers of the condiment take mercy on consumers and dilute the pungency with distilled vinegar.

Read More From Delishably

The peppers are grown in several countries in Latin America and southern Africa. After they are picked they are ground up, mixed with salt, and fermented for a month.

Tabasco peppers are quite harmless as long as they remain unpicked.

Tabasco peppers are quite harmless as long as they remain unpicked.

Then, the mash is shipped to Avery Island where it is packed in re-purposed bourbon whisky barrels and left to age for three years. The steel hoops on the barrels have to be replaced with stainless steel because the acidity of the mash corrodes the original bands, telling us it’s pretty ferocious stuff.

Vinegar is added and a further month of maturing takes place before bottling. Tabasco peppers only account for about 20 percent of each bottle of sauce.

A Sincere Form of Flattery

The success of Tabasco Sauce brought others into the trade. Let’s call them competitors because copycats is a kind of ugly word. The website hotsauce.com features “hot sauces from around the globe with over 120 brands of hot sauces, fiery foods and seasonings to choose from.”

Among the offering are Spontaneous Combustion, Bone Suckin’, or Whoop Ass; all in the 50,000 to 250,000 SHUs, range.

For some folk, these choices are thought to be too tame; these macho types want something that will take the paint off a battleship.

This is where we meet Blair Lazar, who invented his “Death Sauce” as a way of clearing his bar of drunks at 2 a.m. Eat four of Lazar’s Death Sentence wings and the lushes were told they could stay. It worked a treat and emptied the pub on time. You can now buy Death Sauce 2 AM on the open market; we’re talking 900,000 SHUs.

But, even Death Sauce consumers might still hear the word “wuss” spoken about their choice of hot sauce.

The sauces with the most torrid bite all have names that speak of imminent gastrointestinal calamity to follow:

  • Meet Your Maker Retribution Sauce checks in at five million SHUs;
  • Get Bitten Black Mamba Six Hot Sauce offers six million SHUs, and finally,
  • Mad Dog 357 No. 9 Plutonium at nine million SHUs.

Remember where this all started with Tabasco Sauce described as being “hot” at just 2,500 and 5,000?

Bonus Factoids

  • During the Civil War, the Avery family left their home and took refuge in San Antonio, Texas. They returned to find that Union soldiers had ransacked their home, but the pepper patch was yielding a healthy crop.
  • The annual Fiery Foods Show is held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The show offers more than 1,000 different products.
  • They held a “world’s hottest chilli” contest in Edinburgh’s Kismot Indian restaurant. The 2011 competition featured the “Kismot Killer Curry.” Two contestants ended up in hospital in serious distress. The winner gulped down four bowls of the curry and ran outside to vomit; apparently, this was not a violation of the rules.

Sources

  • “Tabasco Peppers: All About Them.” Michael Hultquist, Chili Pepper Madness, December 17, 2020.
  • “Was Col. Maunsel White the True Originator of Tabasco Sauce?” Roger M. Grace, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, July 15, 2004.
  • “The History of Tabasco Brand.” tabasco.com, undated.
  • “The Surprisingly Interesting History and Production of Tabasco Pepper Sauce.” Camper English, alcademics.com, August 21, 2012.
  • “The World’s Hottest Hot Sauces.” Taylor Rock, the dailymeal.com, December 20, 2019

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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