McIlhenny Company History

Highway 29
Avery Island, Louisiana 70513

Telephone: (318) 365-8175
Fax: (318) 369-6326

Private Company
Incorporated: c. 1907
Employees: 230
Sales: $105 million (1996)
SICs: 2035 Pickled Fruits & Vegetables, Etc.

Company Perspectives:

Edmund McIlhenny had perfected a unique method of processing red peppers into a sauce. In fact, the method was granted a patent by the federal government. Succeeding generations have protected the McIlhenny heritage. Some member of the family has always personally shepherded Tabasco sauce through every step of the way from pepper harvesting through processing, through the wine-like fermenting and aging in white-oak barrels, to final blending and bottling. Family control is total.... The McIlhenny heritage is as bright as the color of the red Tabasco sauce.

Company History:

McIlhenny Company is a family-owned and operated manufacturer of Tabasco brand pepper sauce. Tabasco, perhaps the most famous of 150 pepper sauces available, actually started the pepper sauce industry. The company remains a leader in domestic pepper sauce with more than a 34 percent share of the market in the 1990s, as well as a longstanding provider of pepper sauce across the globe. As Mark Robichaux explained in the Wall Street Journal, the McIlhenny Company "still profits every day from developing the first widely sold hot sauce and, in essence, creating the market."

Early History of Avery Island

The history of the McIlhenny Company should begin with a discussion of Avery Island, since the Tabasco sauce recipe depended on the island's salt and peppers. Located 140 miles west of New Orleans and 150 feet above sea level, Avery Island--a 2,300-acre tract located in the bayou country of Louisiana&mdashtually was the uppermost portion of a salt mountain. The largest of five such salt domes, Avery Island had rich soil, Cyprus-lined waterways, exotic flora, and ancient oaks. The earliest artifacts found on the island--stone weapons for hunting--dated back 12,000 years. Evidence of mastodons and mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and tiny three-toed horses also had been discovered there. If interpretations surrounding the basket fragments, stone implements, and Indian pottery found on the island are correct, a salt brining industry began there in 1300 A.D.

French explorers discovered the island sometime during the 18th century, and white settlers arrived in Avery Island by the century's end--when the Indians disappeared from the island. The salt brine springs, however, remained active, first distinguishing themselves during the War of 1812 when Andrew Jackson's troops used Avery Island salt in the Battle of New Orleans.

In 1818, Sarah Craig Marsh's father purchased some land on Avery Island, then known as Isle Petite Anse. Sarah Craig Marsh later married one Daniel Dudley Avery, and their descendants--through time and through marriage--came to control the whole island.

Mr. McIlhenny Visits 19th-Century Louisiana and Stays

During the mid-1800s, New Orleans was one of the largest, busiest cities in the United States. It was no surprise, then, that Edmund McIlhenny, an East Coast bank agent, should visit the city. A fifth-generation American of Scottish and Irish descent, McIlhenny was an accomplished marksman, yachtsman, and prize-winning horse breeder who loved good food. (Once at Antoine's restaurant he commented: "I enjoyed this so much. I feel like starting all over again." So he did: McIlhenny ate a second full-course dinner.)

In 1859 at the age of 43, McIlhenny married Mary Eliza Avery, the daughter of Sarah Craig Marsh and Daniel Dudley Avery. Avery, a lawyer and judge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also operated a sugar plantation on his land on Isle Petite Anse. In 1862, a massive rock salt deposit was discovered on the island, so the Averys moved from the city to the island to oversee the quarrying, which supplied salt to the blockaded Confederate states. The Avery family grew wealthy cultivating the island's rock salt and marketing the salt as a meat preservative.

McIlhenny enjoyed gardening as a hobby at the family's plantation on Isle Petite Anse. In 1848, a friend gave him some extra-spicy pepper seeds that the friend had come upon in Mexico during the Mexican-American War. (Later these peppers were identified as Capsicum frutescens. Although about 20 wild species were known in the New World--mostly in South America--only about five species had been cultivated domestically. The Tabasco peppers were the only Capsicum frutescens cultivar in the United States.) McIlhenny planted the seeds and began experimenting with recipes for a pepper sauce with which to season local southern Louisiana dishes from Spanish, French, American Indian, and African traditions.

The Civil War, however, interrupted his work. In 1863, Union troops invaded Isle Petite Anse and captured the salt quarries. The McIlhennys and Averys fled to Texas. Upon their return, McIlhenny and his in-laws found a changed Louisiana. A career in banking in New Orleans was out of the question after the Civil War, so the Averys and McIlhenny relocated to Isle Petite Anse permanently and began to rebuild. The island, the salt quarry, the sugar cane all were in ruins--except for the pepper plants. McIlhenny learned that the humidity caused the plants to grow heartily on the island, so--motivated by dullness of Reconstruction food--he resumed his pepper sauce experiments until he perfected a recipe that everyone seemed to enjoy.

Post-Civil War Recipe for Success

McIlhenny's recipe was elegantly simple. He mashed the peppers the day he harvested them, mixed them with a little Avery Island salt (a half coffee cup of salt for each gallon of crushed peppers), aged the mixture for 30 days in wooden barrels, added the "best French wine vinegar," aged the mixture another 30 days--hand stirring to blend the flavors--and strained the naturally bright red sauce into old perfume bottles sealed with green wax and topped with shakers. Family and friends suggested selling "that famous sauce Mr. McIlhenny makes" for additional income, so McIlhenny began marketing his creation.

McIlhenny thought about naming his pepper sauce Petite Anse Sauce after his island home. Other family members, however, did not share McIlhenny's enthusiasm for using this name for a commercial product, so he called the sauce Tabasco--a Central American Indian word meaning "land where soil is hot and humid." McIlhenny's Tabasco sauce became the original hot sauce--now a trademark and service mark of the McIlhenny Company.

In 1868, McIlhenny sent 350 samples to wholesalers in New York--including the E.C. Hazard Grocery Company, owned by the cousin of a friend. By 1869 McIlhenny received thousands of orders for the sauce at $1.00 a bottle. The wholesalers even sent Tabasco sauce as far away as England. In 1870 McIlhenny received a U.S. Letters Patent for his Tabasco brand pepper sauce. He quit banking and began a full-time career in pepper sauce manufacturing.

In 1872, McIlhenny established a London office to meet the heavy demands of the European market for Tabasco sauce. Throughout its history, Tabasco sauce remained a favorite in England. For example, when the product's availability in Great Britain became threatened by the "Buy British" campaign of the isolationist British government in 1932, a crisis of national proportions erupted. Unhappy without their pepper sauce--a staple in the House of Commons dining room--Members of Parliament protested and, with support of the press, the "Buy British" motto became "Buy Tabasco."

John Avery McIlhenny Continues the Tradition, 1890s

When Edmund McIlhenny died in 1890, his son John Avery McIlhenny assumed control of making the Tabasco sauce. Immediately upon taking his new position, John McIlhenny visited established commercial Tabasco customers throughout the United States. He intended to familiarize himself with existing accounts and to court new business. Some of his marketing efforts included bill posters; large wooden signs in fields near cities; drummers canvassing house-to-house in selected cities; exhibits at food expositions; circulars and folders; and free trial-size samples. (Ironically, the company's marketing strategies changed little since John McIlhenny's plans. The McIlhenny Company relied heavily on print ads in trade and consumer periodicals to market Tabasco sauce throughout its history. It was many years from its establishment before the McIlhenny Company's first television commercial in 1985, although both print and TV ads were used widely in the 1990s.)

John McIlhenny also commissioned an opera company to perform the "Burlesque Opera of Tabasco." When in 1893 Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club asked permission to use Tabasco in one of its reviews, John McIlhenny bought the rights to the review and staged it in New York. Samples of Tabasco sauce were given away during the show's matinee performances. Other early marketing efforts included promotions such as a grocery store contest with a $3,000 prize and offers for famous painting reproductions in exchange for a Tabasco coupon and a 10 cents handling charge.

In 1898, John Avery McIlhenny joined the First Volunteer Calvary of the U.S. Army, serving as a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. McIlhenny traveled extensively after the Spanish-American War. In 1906 he left Louisiana to work for his friend President Roosevelt at the U.S. Civil Service Commission, eventually becoming the U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to Haiti in 1922. Under John Avery McIlhenny's direction, the family's Tabasco business grew tenfold.

Mr. Ned

In 1907, Edmund Avery McIlhenny ("Mr. Ned"), the second son of the inventor of Tabasco sauce, became president of the just-formed McIlhenny Company, which was created to manufacture and market Tabasco sauce. Mr. Ned's brother, food authority Rufus Avery McIlhenny, served as the new company's production supervisor during this time. Rufus McIlhenny was also responsible for engineering and purchasing.

Mr. Ned grew the business both domestically and internationally, as well as successfully defended the company in several trademark infringement suits attempted by competing companies. Many competing pepper sauces were regional imitations of Tabasco sauce but, unlike competing brands, Tabasco contained no food colorings, stabilizers, garlic, or other ingredients. Tabasco also was the only national brand aged for three years in white-oak barrels. Other pepper sauces were made from cayenne peppers, which ranked between 1,000 and 3,000 on the Scoville Scale. (A pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville devised a scale by which to judge the intensity of hot peppers and related products. He reserved a zero rating for the mildest of peppers, i.e., an ordinary bell pepper. Mayan habanero peppers--the hottest of the hot--measured about 350,000 on the pharmacist's scale.) Tabasco sauce, however, was made from Capsicum peppers, so it rated higher on the scale than competing cayenne-pepper products: between 9,000 and 12,000. Tabasco sauce was "not just an old stand-by," revealed John Mariani in Sports Afield, "but a lovely, aromatic, beautifully balanced sauce with a true Louisiana vinegar tang to it."

Tabasco Sauce and the Environment

In addition to developing the McIlhenny Company, Mr. Ned preserved the natural environment of Avery Island through a variety of conservation efforts. Before becoming the company's president, Mr. Ned--a self-trained biologist--traveled the world on scientific expeditions. When Mr. Ned returned to Avery Island to run operations at the Tabasco factory, he realized that the snowy egret--a bird native to Louisiana--was all but extinct from plume hunters pillaging the species for feathers for ladies' hats. Mr. Ned captured eight snowy egrets and established a colony for them in which to multiply and live safely. Thousands of egrets and migratory birds have found homes since then in the Bird City rookery on Avery Island. In the 1990s, 20,000 snowy egrets and other water birds could be found on the island.

Mr. Ned also brought the nutria--fast-breeding, brown furry rodents with webbed feet and long, hairless tails--from South America to Louisiana in the 1930s. Plant life, too, was protected by Mr. Ned. When oil was found on Avery Island in 1942, Mr. Ned insisted that work crews bury pipelines or paint them green to blend with the surrounding Jungle Gardens.

Walter Stauffer McIlhenny and the 1940s

The son of John Avery McIlhenny succeeded Mr. Ned as the leader of McIlhenny Company. The great-great-grandson of President Zachary Taylor (on his mother's side), Walter Stauffer McIlhenny joined the family business during the 1940s. He built the brick Tabasco sauce plant and brought new management and marketing techniques to the company. Under his guidance, McIlhenny Company stayed true to its traditions. Walter McIlhenny refused offers to sell the business and recoiled from changing the recipe for Tabasco sauce. In fact, Walter McIlhenny's production process remained virtually unchanged from his ancestor's.

As others before him, Walter McIlhenny planted 75 acres of peppers on Avery Island. Workers hand-picked the hot peppers when they ripened. (He equipped each worker with le petit baton rouge (a red stick) by which to identify the correct shade of ripe peppers.) Walter McIlhenny himself hand weighed the day's harvest. Then the harvested peppers were chopped and packed with a little Avery Island salt in 50 gallon white-oak wooden barrels for three years. When properly aged, the pepper mash was inspected personally by McIlhenny. Then vinegar was added to the mixture, which was stirred by a mechanical arm for about four weeks (a rare modification of Edmund McIlhenny's hand stirring of the mixture with wooden paddles). Finally, the mixture was strained of seeds and pepper skins and bottled, but only the mixture went into the containers. No preservatives, additives, coloring, or flavoring ever went into a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

Tabasco Sauce Goes to War

Nicknamed "Tabasco Mac" by his fellow Marine Corps reservists, Walter McIlhenny served his country as well as his company with distinction. Stationed at Guadalcanal, he received the Navy Cross and a Silver Star during World War II before earning the rank of Brigadier General. He, too, was a distinguished marksman and a member of the President's One Hundred. Since soldiers were close to his heart, Walter McIlhenny created a C-ration cookbook for use by members of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam Conflict. Knowing that the U.S. Armed Forces used Tabasco sauce liberally on their C-rations, Walter McIlhenny produced the Charley Ration Cookbook; or, No Food Is Too Good for the Man up Front. Copies were sent to soldiers with bottles of Tabasco sauce. Walter McIlhenny even designed a Tabasco bottle holster that attached to a cartridge belt. This tradition continued into the Gulf War when every third MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) contained a small package of Tabasco sauce and a recipe booklet. Eventually every MRE included Tabasco sauce.

Those Hot Pepper Plants

Walter McIlhenny continued to select personally the pepper seeds for the next crop from the plants grown on Avery Island. The seeds were treated, dried, and stored on the island and in a bank vault until the next year's planting. Up until the 1960s, all plants used for Tabasco sauce were grown on Avery Island. When a shortage of harvesters caused concern, the company turned to the land and laborers of Mexico for planting and harvesting the pepper crops. (Mechanical harvesters proved less competitive than Latin American workers for the company.) Though all pepper plants start on the island, Avery Island peppers accounted for only a small amount of the peppers used in production since the 1960s. Peppers grown in Columbia, Honduras, Venezuela, or other countries eventually comprised about 90 percent of those used in manufacturing. In addition to the labor considerations, the company adopted this practice to ensure a constant supply of peppers since the Avery Island crop could be imperiled by disease or weather; for example, Hurricane Andrew threatened (but did no lasting damage to) the Avery Island pepper crop and Tabasco factory in 1992.

The growing cycle for the pepper plants remained unchanged over the years: workers planted seeds in greenhouses in January. In April, seedlings were moved to their respective fields on Avery Island or abroad. Workers harvested peppers by hand beginning in August.

Edward McIlhenny Simmons and the 1990s

Like his predecessors, Edward McIlhenny Simmons, the company's next president and a great-grandson of Tabasco's inventor, remained personally involved in the growing of peppers and making of Tabasco sauce. He continued the tradition of selecting 1,200 pepper plants annually for 70 pounds of seeds for future crops. Simmons stored 20 pounds of the seeds in a bank vault in New Iberia and 50 pounds at the company's headquarters as a safeguard against crop loss.

So Tabasco sauce production continued as it had for more than 100 years. As Robichaux wrote: "The shape of the bottle has changed little, as has the process of making the sauce." Nevertheless, the McIlhenny Company expanded the Tabasco line over the years to include chili powder, seasoned salt, and popcorn seasonings. The company also created a Bloody Mary mix, a Seven-Spice Chili recipe, and a picante sauce for Tabasco consumers. "We've been a one-product company long enough," said Edward McIlhenny Simmons in Americana magazine in 1991.

The year 1991 also brought the first acquisition for the company. McIlhenny Company purchased Trappey's Fine Foods, manufacturer of Red Devil pepper sauce and other seasoning-related items. The McIlhenny Company marketed these recently acquired products under a new name: McIlhenny Farms. The acquisition allowed the company to offer a wider variety of merchandise, including pepper jelly, ketchup, and molasses.

The amount of Tabasco sauce manufactured daily of course grew with demand. During the 1990s millions of bottles of the sauce had been sold throughout the world, with production requiring labels to be printed in no less than 15 languages. In 1996, for example, more than 50 million bottles of Tabasco sauce were sold in at least 105 countries. Canada alone used 250,000 bottles in one year. Japan, the largest consumer of Tabasco sauce abroad, imported the sauce for sushi, spaghetti, and pizza recipes.

By 1997, the factory on Avery Island operated four production lines. In total, 450,000 two-ounce bottles could be manufactured daily with all lines in operation. (Each two-ounce bottle typically contained about 720 drops of Tabasco sauce, so the factory had the potential to manufacture about 324 million drops of Tabasco sauce each day in 1997.)

On the Web

The company also launched an interesting and unusual interactive web site--PepperFest--in 1996 to reach the multitude of Tabasco consumers. "With users of Tabasco products located all over the world," explained executive vice president Paul C. P. McIlhenny in a press release, "it just makes sense to offer accessible information via the World Wide Web. We want people to have fun visiting our PepperFest, and at the same time we welcome their feedback and suggestions."

The Sauce with Universal Appeal

Indeed, Tabasco might be a household word throughout the world. McIlhenny's pepper sauce "traveled to Khartoum with Lord Kitchener," revealed Pat Mandell in Americana, "and was carried on Himalayan expeditions, in the mess kits of World War I doughboys, and aboard Skylab. It is the quintessential ingredient in Bloody Marys. Its pungent flavor enlivens gumbos, eggs, steaks and stews, salads, chicken a la king, French onion soup, and jambalaya." The pepper sauce even was approved for Kosher cooking. As the first commercial hot sauce ever, the elixir, its founder, and his descendants became known in legend, lore, and fact for creating a new product and a market. As Cal Garrett, a manager with rival Durkee's Red Hot sauce, said: "They've built a great niche."

Further Reading:

  • Callahan, Maureen, "Fifteen Foods with Hidden Healing Power," Redbook, October 1991, p. 138.
  • Deveny, Kathleen, "Rival Hot Sauces Are Breathing Fire at Market Leader Tabasco," Wall Street Journal, January 7, 1993, p. B1.
  • Mandell, Pat, "Louisiana Hot," Americana, February 1991, pp. 26--32.
  • Mariani, John, "In Praise of (Very Hot) Sauces," Sports Afield, May 1996, p. 50.
  • "McIlhenny Company: Announcing the Tabasco Sauce 'Ultimate Summer Cookout' Online Sweepstakes," M2 Presswire, May 16, 1997.
  • McIlhenny Company, "Ask Mr. Broussard, the Tabasco Historian," PepperFest: A Livin', Breathin' Festival on the World Wide Web &#064
  • McIlhenny Company, "One Click Ahead," PepperFest: A Livin', Breathin' Festival on the World Wide Web &#064
  • "McIlhenny Company: McIlhenny Company Launches Tabasco PepperFest Website," M2 Presswire, August 27, 1996.
  • McIlhenny Company, Recipes from the Land of Tabasco Pepper Sauce, Avery Island, LA: McIlhenny Company.
  • Moore, Diane M., The Treasures of Avery Island, Lafayette, LA: Acadian House Publishing, 1990.
  • Morcos, Ann, "Wetlands Pest," Boys' Life, January 1996, p. 17.
  • Naj, Amal, Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • "New on the Web: The McIlhenny Company," Telecomworldwire, May 20, 1997.
  • Reynolds, J. R., "L.A. House of Blues Is Foundation HQ," Billboard, July 30, 1994, p. 19.
  • Rice, William, "Tabasco Sauce Stands up to a Hurricane," Detroit Free Press, November 18, 1992.
  • Robichaux, Mark, "Tabasco Sauce Maker Remains Hot after 125 Years," Wall Street Journal, May 11, 1990.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 20. St. James Press, 1998.