Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Avery Island & TABASCO®: Where Bourbon Barrels Find Rest

"TABASCO® Brand products are made by McIlhenny Company, founded by Edmund McIlhenny in 1868 on Avery Island, Louisiana. It was here that he developed the recipe for TABASCO® Original Red Pepper Sauce that's been passed down from generation to generation. To this day, the company is still family-owned and -operated on that very same island". -- TABASCO® Brand Website

During this trip to Cajun Country we allocated time to visit the TABASCO® Brand Factory Tour & Museum, located southwest of New Iberia on Avery Island. This is not an island in the traditional sense. Instead it is one of five salt domes formed as the weight of younger sediment pushed up a column of salt deposited over 165 million years ago creating a topographic rise. Locally, the geological formation is known as “island” because of its height relative to the neighboring land and insular appearance from a distance.  The five islands are also surrounded by salt marshes, cypress swamps, and\or bayous. Over the last two centuries these island have served as wildlife sanctuaries as well as salt and petroleum fields. Not without mishaps. During a visit to Jefferson Island and their gardens we learned of the Lake Peigneur catastrophe. 

Before the Civil War, Hagerstown Maryland born Edmund McIlhenny was a successful and wealthy independent bank owner married to Mary Eliza Avery -- who's family lived on a plantation house on Avery Island. By the end of the war and with the South's economic collapse, McIlhenny had lost everything. He and Mary Eliza moved in with her parents on Avery Island where McIlhenny started experimenting with Capsicum frutescens -- now known as Tabasco peppers. His goal was to invigorate the bland southern cuisine with a new pepper sauce.  

"McIlhenny grew his first commercial pepper crop in 1868. The next year, he sent out 658 bottles of sauce at one dollar apiece wholesale to grocers around the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans. He labeled it “Tabasco,” a word of Mexican Indian origin believed to mean “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.” McIlhenny secured a patent in 1870, and TABASCO® Sauce began its journey to set the culinary world on fire. Sales grew, and by the late 1870s, he sold his sauce throughout the U.S. and even in Europe".

While today the production process is mostly automated and the peppers are grown worldwide , the recipe and process are relatively the same as in the early years. Only the oak aging takes a little longer. The peppers are crushed and the mash is stored for three years in white oak barrels (which previously held bourbon or whiskies).  The inside of each barrel is de-charred (top layer of wood is removed), torched, and cleaned, to minimize the presence of any residual whiskey. In addition, the barrels are rehooped with stainless steel rings.. Once closed, the barrel tops are then sealed with salt to form a natural protective barrier that also allows for the release of gases produced during the slow fermentation process. After three years the mash is mixed with distilled vinegar and stirred occasionally for a month. The resulting liquid is strained to remove skins and seeds and then bottled as a finished sauce. 

The McIlhenny Company produced only the original version up until 1993, when the company released the Green Pepper Sauce. Today they have nine varieties, all conveniently available for purchase at the TABASCO® Country Store.  This store is located next to the museum entrance where the self-guided walking factory tour begins.  The entire Avery Island Experience which includes the factory tour and Jungle Gardens & Bird City driving tour is highly recommended. 

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