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Tabasco Island

CNN Travel takes a look at the making of tabasco sauce -- a fiery condiment produced on Avery Island in Louisiana.

Posted: Dec 4, 2017 6:30 PM
Updated: Dec 4, 2017 6:30 PM

For its size, it packs a serious punch.

Avery Island -- not actually an island but a salt dome in southern Louisiana -- is the home of one of the most popular hot sauces in the world.

A few drops of its famous Tabasco is enough to liven up any meal.

Surrounded by bayou, salt marsh and swamp, and about 2.5 miles across at its widest point, Avery Island has been the home of Tabasco sauce since the 1800s.

Every bottle of the fiery foodstuff, made from the tabasco chili pepper, is still made on the island, which is named after the family who've owned it for more than 200 years

Tabasco sauce was dreamed up by Edmund McIlhenny, an Avery clan member by marriage, who moved to the area after losing everything in the Civil War.

Birth of Tabasco

"My great, great grandfather was a banker, an entrepreneur and a monster chili head and he didn't like the way food tasted," says Anthony "Tony" Simmons, the president and CEO of the McIlhenny Company, which is now in its fifth generation as a family-run business.

"He created Tabasco to enliven the flavor of his own food."

While it's unclear exactly where he obtained the capsicum frutescens var. tabasco pepper seeds that became the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce, they are thought to have come from Mexico or Central America.

Rumor has it the seeds, which are the only type of chili pepper whose fruits are not dry on the inside, were handed to him by an unnamed man who simply said, "Try these. This is a very hot pepper."

Whatever the case, McIlhenny planted them in his garden and they bore a pepper plant with a strong spicy flavor he couldn't get enough of.

McIlhenny created what would become known as Tabasco sauce by grinding the peppers into a mash, mixing them with the natural rock salt from the island and aging the concoction for a month in jars.

The next stage was to add vinegar, before aging the mixture for another month. He'd then strain the mixture, pour it into used cologne bottles and distribute it to family and friends.

The businessman founded the McIlhenny Company in 1868 after his relatives convinced him to produce the sauce commercially.

Recipe for success

McIlhenny created a "Tabasco bible" which the manufacturers continue to follow today.

The sauce is now sold in 187 countries and bottled in 22 languages and dialects, with its ingredients remaining much the same all these years later.

The only major difference is that the aging time has stretched from 30 days in jars to three years in used bourbon barrels.

Also, some of the pepper seeds are now shipped off to growing fields in Latin America and returned to the island for processing once they've sprouted.

The peppers are handpicked when they're about chest high level, with employees painstakingly checking the shade of each one with a color stick.

"We can only pick the brightest fully ripe red pepper because Tabasco is a natural product," Simmons explains.

"The only way I can control the color on the bottle is by picking the fully ripe red pepper."

Simmons personally taste-tests the sauce when it's in its raw state to ensure it has aged to perfection.

"I put a little bit on the tip of my tongue and keep it there and roll it around a little bit for you know 30 seconds or so and then spit it out," he says.

"You don't want to actually swallow the mash and the seeds. It's pretty hot. It's got a pretty good burn."

He takes the process very seriously.

"I'm only as good as the last bottle we produced as far as the consumers are concerned," he says.

Fit for royalty

Tabasco sauce remains a firm favorite in kitchens across the world, and it received the royal seal of approval when the McIlhenny Company was given an official warrant assigning it an official supplier to the British royal household.

Despite its enduring popularity, Simmons say he's surprised by the amount of people who think they haven't tasted the condiment before.

"You know, a lot of times people say, 'Oh Tony, I know who you are and what your product is, Tabasco, but I've never had it. I don't use hot food.'

"And I always ask them the same question: 'Do you go out to dinner? You have no idea how much Tabasco you consume,'" he says.

The McIlhenny Company Tabasco plant is open to the public, and visitors can take a guided or self-guided tour of the factory, which has an on-site museum.

Avery Island's other main attraction is Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre botanical garden with a bird sanctuary as well as a range of exotic plants.

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