Avery Island, Louisiana, the birthplace of TABASCO® brand Pepper Sauce, has been owned for over 180 years by the interrelated Marsh, Avery and McIlhenny families. Lush subtropical flora and venerable live oaks cover this geological oddity, which is one of five "islands" rising in atypical and mystical fashion well above south Louisiana’s flat coastal marshes.
The island occupies roughly twenty-two hundred acres and sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Although covered with a layer of fertile soil, salt springs may have attracted prehistoric settlers to the Island as early as twelve thousand years ago.
After the Civil War, former New Orleans banker E. McIlhenny met a traveler recently arrived from Mexico – a certain "Gleason," according to family tradition – who gave McIlhenny a handful of pepper pods, advising him to season his meals with them. McIlhenny saved some of the pods and planted them in his in-laws’ garden on Avery Island; he delighted in the peppers’ piquant flavor, which added excitement to the monotonous food of the Reconstruction-era South.
Around 1866 McIlhenny experimented with making a hot sauce from these peppers, hitting upon a formula that called for crushing the reddest, ripest peppers, stirring in Avery Island salt, and aging the concoction. He then added French white wine vinegar, hand-stirring it regularly to blend the flavors. After straining, he transferred the sauce to small cologne-type bottles, which he corked and sealed in green wax.
"That Famous Sauce Mr. McIlhenny Makes" proved so popular with family and friends that McIlhenny decided to market it, growing his first commercial crop in 1868. The next year he sent out 658 bottles of sauce at one dollar a piece wholesale to grocers around the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans. The public responded positively and soon McIlhenny had introduced TABASCO® sauce to consumers in major markets across the United States. By the end of the 1870s McIlhenny was exporting TABASCO® sauce to Europe. So began the fiery condiment that is now a global cultural and culinary icon.
Today, Avery Island remains the home of the TABASCO® brand Pepper Sauce factory, as well as Jungle Gardens and its Bird City wildfowl refuge. The TABASCO® factory and gardens are open to the public.