150 years of Tabasco Sauce
STORIES

Words: Alex Denman   Photography by Steve Ryan

150 years of Tabasco Sauce

With Tony Simmons, President & CEO

The ingredients of Tabasco Sauce haven’t changed since Edmund McIlhenny first mashed peppers, vinegar and salt in 1868. It seems this dedication to three simple ingredients, and keeping things in the family, have been a recipe for success.

 

 

What does it mean to be part of the legendary McIlhenny family?

As a fifth generation family member who has been part of the Tabasco Sauce story, you need to think about extended family. Even beyond the McIlhennys.

We have families of employees who have been with us for 3-4 generations. We recognise the value of long term employees.

In terms of my role as President and CEO, I try to approach my responsibilities like a physician. For me, that means to do no harm. Whether that’s in terms of the brand, the company, our employees or the environment. As a family we have chosen not to sell out or monetise for short term gain and jeopardise what has been built up over 5 generations. And there have certainly been some offers.

My second objective is to keep the company growing. This needs to happen on many levels, growing production of course, but also growing talent through the ranks. I was appointed President and CEO by the board who are all family members, and they report to around 130 shareholders. Despite being a family owned company it’s not actually easy for family members to become employed. From a total of around 240 employees, there may be between 2 and 4 family members working in the business at any given time. We’ve tried to avoid filling the ranks of middle management, and senior management with family. Instead we have a training program and a succession system in place to train a small number of family members.

Tea or coffee?

I drink coffee. I’ve been known to drink something stronger for the right occasion.

What do you like to cook at home for friends and family?

First I need to credit my wonderful wife who is by far the most talented cook in our house. She knows how to prepare just about anything. I like to cook duck. Marinated duck breast, spread with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. Or else duck empanadas. These are two of my favourite recipes. For empanadas I buy chilled pie crust pastry, then simply roll the pastry thinner when I get home. If that sounds like cheating, I should add that I shoot my own ducks during season for this dish.

Have you ever had any complete disasters in the kitchen?

Many. I once made a salad that was supposed to be topped with crunchy fried noodles. I didn’t have the right kind of noodles on hand and tried to improvise. The noodles I used came out soggy and oily - it ruined the whole dish. You can see why I prefer to cook duck...

What’s your best tip for a hangover?

Bloody Mary. You need a little vodka in there to make sure you’re gonna open those pathways up, and get a little hair of the dog. Then you need Tabasco Sauce to make sure it’s a good Bloody Mary.

Are there family values or words of advice that have been handed down generations?

Every brand probably says this, but quality has always come first. We’re positioned where our product is a ‘premium’ product, not a ‘me too’ product. Consumers recognise that our process is artisanal and we can’t cut corners or do things faster. We’d be going against everything we stand for. The process can take 5 years from seed of the pepper plant to Tabasco Sauce on the table. On my way into the office each morning, I pass by barrels of pepper mash. I make a point of smelling each barrel and tasting quite a few too. I’m looking for any tell-tale signs that might indicate issues with the fermentation. It’s good to know first-hand how the mash is doing, and it lets everyone know that the CEO is taking time from his day to check on the quality.

Another family value is to be resourceful. Re-using and recycling has always been part of what we do, long before it became a corporate responsibility issue. The barrels that we use are ex-Jack Daniels Whiskey barrels. We have our own team of coopers who re-hoop the barrels with 316 grade stainless steel so they won’t rust with the vinegar. They are re-used and repaired for as long as our coopers can maintain them. Once they tell us they are no longer able to do the job, some will be cut in half and sold as planters. Alternatively the staves are made into Tabasco wood chips for barbecues. We try not to waste things.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Tabasco - how are you celebrating?

We have a series of events around the world under the banner of ‘Global Kitchen’ with the tagline ‘Flavour your world’. The idea we’re celebrating is that Tabasco Sauce can work with all different kinds of foods and cultures around the world. The London event in May featured a range of local talent including Andrew Clarke, AngloThai, Breddos Tacos, Gunpowder JinJuu, Shaun Whitmore and David Carter from Smokestak. Other events are being held in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Sydney, Poland, Norway, Italy and Spain. We will try to have a family member at every event.

I sometimes come across people who say they don’t eat Tabasco Sauce. They say “Tony I know what you do, I know what Tabasco is, but I’ve never had any”. I ask them if they ever eat in restaurants? If they do, then chances are they have tried Tabasco Sauce because we sell more product to chefs and the restaurant trade than we do retail. Chefs are always using our products and always innovating, so that’s why they are such a big part of our 150 year celebrations.

We’re also producing Tabasco Diamond Reserve Sauce. It’s made entirely from peppers which have grown on Avery Island. Typically our growers supply us from Central and South America so it’s quite special. Out of 22,000 barrels per year only 100-300 will be full of peppers grown exclusively on Avery Island. It comes in a 6oz Champagne bottle and was made with sparkling white wine vinegar. You know it’s Tabasco instantly but it’s got some flavour notes in it that you’re just not going to get in our regular product.

You’re still using the same recipe that Edmund McIlhenny came up with?

My Great-Great-Grandfather made his first sauce with the same ingredients we use today - tabasco peppers, vinegar and salt. He discovered the idea of letting it age by chance. Early on after he started the company he had a crop failure so he overgrew the next year - he grew more pepper than he needed. Then he stored that pepper and what he found was there was a benefit to letting it age - it made a better sauce. So we’ve maintained that process and today we age our sauce for about three years.

Is it true tabasco peppers are hand picked?

Yes - the peppers on each plant will ripen at different times. If you look at a tabasco bush which is in full bloom there will be green peppers, yellow peppers, orange peppers, red and bright red peppers. The only way we can control the colour of the product is by picking the reddest, ripest peppers. So you have to go back through the field over and over again to allow the rest of the peppers to fully ripen. For this reason it has to be picked by human hands. It’s labour intensive but we need to ensure they are perfectly ripe, and it also causes less damage to the environment than mechanical harvesting.

Which country or nation is the biggest fan of Tabasco Sauce outside of the USA?

Japan is the single largest user by nation. Guam uses the most sauce per capita. If everyone in the world used Tabasco Sauce like the people in Guam, I don’t think we could produce enough!

Your colleague Betts told me there are alligators on Avery Island?

Yeah peppers, cyclones and alligators. Never a dull moment.

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