The little glass bottle is a staple on restaurant tables, but how much do you really know about the ubiquitous pepper sauce?
1. That signature shade of Tabasco red is all-natural, and it’s more than just for show.
The Tabasco chili peppers that make up the bulk of the “original red sauce” undergo a series of color changes before reaching peak flavor and heat. From humble beginnings as petite green pods, the peppers make a long, colorful trek, first turning yellow, then orange, and finally the deep, signature red that signals when it’s picking time. Unseasoned pickers who haven’t yet cultivated an eye for the perfectly ripe red have a handy aid to ensure they don’t pick prematurely, called “le petit batôn rouge”—a small wooden dowel painted in the only shade of red that matters.
2. Tabasco sauce is a family affair.
A product so widely distributed doesn’t much seem like the product of a small, local business, but Tabasco’s roots are tied to a single place and family tree. In 1868, Edmund McIlhenny planted his first crop of peppers on Avery Island, Louisiana; 140 years and five generations later, his own descendants are mashing those peppers’ descendants.
3. The hot stuff is popular almost everywhere.
Although the recipe doesn’t change, the labeling does: before packing up product for international orders, the McIlhenny Company translates its list of ingredients into 22 languages and dialects. The appropriately labeled bottles are then shipped off to 180 countries and territories, and counting.
4. The precious pepper seeds have their own designated bank vault.
Growing crops is inherently unpredictable, so the McIlhenny Co. is understandably wary of putting all its eggs in one basket. Once the best plants from a season’s harvest have been selected as the source of the next year’s seeds, the dried pepper seeds are stored in two locations—one of them a local bank vault—to ensure that even in case of, say, weather-related disaster, there will still be plenty of peppers to go around.
5. Even the salt is proprietary.
The makers of Tabasco sauce would never stoop to ordinary store-bought salt! No, the occupants of Avery Island extract the salt needed to age the mashed-up chili peppers from mines located directly beneath the island itself—talk about vertical integration.
6. The name “Tabasco” is of Mexican origin, though anything beyond that is uncertain.
Before the word TABASCO® became stylized in all caps with a registered trademark symbol after it, the name simply denoted a particular Mexican state. Various etymological histories exist for the word before it became a place name: the official Tabasco sauce website claims it originally meant either “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.” Other histories suggest it was the name of a river, a Mayan phrase meaning “our lord of the eight tigers,” or a Nahuatl expression for “flooded land.” Today, it’s mostly synonymous with hot sauce outside of Mexico.
7. Tabasco sauce was originally packaged in cologne bottles.
When enterprising businessman Edmund McIlhenny first decided to package his well-loved sauce, the vessel that seemed most appropriate to him was a used cologne bottle. Though his friends and family didn’t seem to mind whatever hints of alcohol and fragrance might have lingered, it’s probably for the best that McIlhenny thought to order a shipment of brand-new “cologne bottles” before pouring in the sauce for commercial distribution.
8. If it’s good enough for Her Majesty, it’s good enough for anyone.
Tabasco seems to be Queen Elizabeth II’s hot sauce of choice—in 2009, McIlhenny Company was given an official warrant of appointment designating it an official supplier to the British royal household. It’s also served aboard Air Force One.
9. There’s a heat level for everyone.
The Original Red ranges from about 2500 to 5000 units on the Scoville scale, which measures the apparent heat of a substance. The habanero sauce throws hotter peppers into the mix, while the remaining varieties—chipotle, garlic, jalapeño, “sweet and spicy”—are all varying levels of mild.
10. Army rations wouldn’t be the same without it.
The American military has included Tabasco sauce in its Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) since the 1980s, for which many a soldier has undoubtedly been grateful. The British army has since treated their own military personnel to Tabasco sauce in their rations.
11. Astronauts love it, too.
As if pre-packaged, rehydrated meals weren’t bad enough, one of the unfortunate truths of space travel is that astronauts on a mission will inevitably experience their sense of taste growing duller. To compensate for the general lackluster quality of their meals, astronauts have been known to pile on the Tabasco sauce.
12. The barrels used to age the pepper mash had a tipsy first career.
The oak barrels in which the soon-to-be Tabasco sauce hangs out for up to three years while acquiring its subtleties of flavor are repurposed from their original use as receptacles for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey. Of course, the top layer of wood is first removed from the barrels to minimize the risk of an accidentally boozy batch of Tabasco.
13. The bottle’s top served a specific purpose.
Edmund McIlhenny’s 19th-century customers weren’t used to the idea of a “hot sauce,” and so they were overly generous with their usage. After scorching their tongues, they complained that the stuff was “too hot.” McIlhenny then attached a sprinkler-style top to the bottles to force people to use less (and stop complaining to him about it).
14. It is possible to buy an entire jug of Tabasco sauce.
The largest commercially available vessel of Tabasco sauce is a whole gallon normally marketed to food service outlets—but if you can get your hands on one for personal consumption, no one here’s going to judge you for it.
15. There’s Tabasco-flavored everything.
You name it, the McIlhenny Company has probably found a way to work their signature condiment into it: popcorn, steak sauce, mayo, mustard, pickles, Spam, Slim Jims, chili, chocolate, and more. At the Tabasco Country Store on Avery Island, there’s even Tabasco-flavored ice cream. Beyond that, it’s probably best to draw the line.