Hot Sauce Heats Up in Louisiana
A visit to the birthplace of Tabasco highlights Louisiana’s hot sauce history and the changing palate of America. But it’s not the only Louisiana-made sauce heating up taste buds.
Story by Erin Z. Bass
Hotsauce.com has more than 50 categories and features over 120 brands of hot sauce from around the globe. While hot sauce has become a major food category and a condiment almost as essential as ketchup these days, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when spicy food in America was credited to the Cajuns of South Louisiana, and Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce was the leader among pepperheads.
Developed by avid gardener Edmund McIlhenny in 1870, Tabasco sauce was first grown on Avery Island from Capsicum frutescens peppers thought to have come from Mexico. Sales grew and by the late 1870s McIlhenny had sold his sauce throughout the U.S. and in Europe. The sauce was bottled in small amounts with a sprinkler type opening, as it was best not to pour too much of the pungent concoction on your food. Tabasco’s green and red diamond label that adorns bottles today was developed in 1927.
Nearly 150 years later, the basic recipe for Tabasco, the production process, and the ingredients remain virtually unchanged. The aging process for the mash is a little longer, and more varieties of the sauce are on the market. What’s changed most is the visitor experience at Avery Island. Built on a salt dome, this popular tourist attraction also includes Jungle Gardens, which opened to the public in 1935, and Tabasco has been welcoming visitors since the 1970s. Fans have been able to experience plants and animals native to the area, a bird sanctuary and wildlife refuge at Jungle Gardens, and a Country Store at the Tabasco plant. But fans of the pepper sauce wanted more: They asked to see how the peppers grew, how the sauce was made and barreled, and get a taste.
In response to these foodie requests, in 2016 the McIlhenny family opened a self-guided, 10-stop Tabasco factory tour. Driving onto the property just seven miles outside of New Iberia feels like taking a step back in time and getting a peek at a private community. Many of the company’s 200 workers live on the property, so private homes and historic oak trees hanging with Spanish moss mingle with factory buildings.
Tours start at the Tabasco Museum, where exhibits include everything from the sauce in pop culture—Tabasco Barbie anyone?—to its global reach and the McIlhenny family. Next up is the pepper greenhouse and barrel warehouse, then a peek at the bottling line and a conservation exhibit that includes a walk through a recreated salt mine, complete with the sound of dynamite. Fans can then head to the Country Store for a taste of all eight sauces, along with Tabasco ice cream, soda and pickles. Next door, Restaurant 1868!, named for the year Edmund McIlhenny grew his first commercial pepper crop, has a spicy bloody mary bar and cafeteria-style menu of pepper jelly boudin, pepper barrel crawfish étouffée, and Avery Island red beans and sausage.
The $5.50 ticket price includes several samples of Tabasco, so you won’t go home empty handed.
Tabasco isn’t the only hot sauce South Louisiana has to offer. In the same parish, “Louisiana” Brand Hot Sauce has a 90-year history and also makes a Louisiana Gold Pepper Sauce version made with Tabasco peppers. Cajun Power, which hails from Abbeville, and Cajun Chef from St. Martinville, a city vying to become the “Pepper Capital of the World,” are two other popular varieties, while Crystal Hot Sauce is a milder version made in New Orleans for the past 96 years.
In more recent spicy news, horticulturist Troy Primeaux channeled Edmund McIlhenny when he developed what he believes to be the hottest pepper in the world. His 7 Pot Primo Pepper is 300 times hotter than Tabasco and is used to make his Swampadelic Sauce, which promises mind-bending swamp heat. Primeaux, who is located in Lafayette, is one of many small brands to enter the growing hot sauce market made more accessible by Sriracha and slowly see sales heat up.
The Wall Street Journal reported in June that retail sales of hot sauces reached $700 million in 2018, and small brands, like Primeaux’s, make up 41 percent of the market. Harold Osborn, who in June was named top executive at McIlhenny Co., is quoted as saying, “Everybody is making a hot sauce.”