Not too many people will recognize the name of the McIlhenny (MACK-el-hen-ee) Company. A family-owned firm, it was founded over 150 years ago on Avery Island, Louisiana, by Edmund McIlhenny. In 1868, he decided to liven up the bland diet that was typical in the Reconstruction American South by creating a pepper sauce. He sowed seeds of the Capsicum frutescens peppers that originated in Mexico or Central America there on his island, and they became the main ingredient for his creation.
He came up with a production method strikingly similar to making bourbon, in which the peppers are ground into a pulp called “mash” and aged in white oak barrels (topped with a layer of salt, which is mined locally, to protect the mash from impurities) for up to three years, allowing the flavors to evolve. The aged mash is then strained, mixed with high-quality distilled vinegar, and blended in 1,800-gallon wooden vats for up to 28 days, then bottled.
Pretty much everybody will recognize the name of the sauce he created: Tabasco Sauce. It’s still made right there on Avery Island by McIlhenny’s descendants, but now it comes in nine varieties, is labeled in 36 languages, and is sold in over 195 countries and territories.
The family sees the island as one of the company’s advantages. “We have the luxury of being grounded in this place, on Avery Island,” said Harold “Took” Osborn, CEO of McIlhenny Company and a member of the fifth generation of family leaders. (For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, yes, the nickname originated with him: “My dad was reading The Hobbit when I was born,” Osborn shared. “That’s where it came from.”) The island has become an essential part of the product and its base, the peppers. “We have a fanatical devotion to quality. We’re the pepper people.”
The family ties reach beyond the actual blood members of the family. “We have a strong company culture,” Osborn said. “The people here are as devoted as our brand fans. People are proud to work here.”
There are further ties to broader America. “The brand has a different connection to popular culture than most,” said Osborn. “We were in a silent movie in 1900. We were also part of a burlesque opera, one that we redid for our 150th anniversary. We’ve been in several James bond movies.”
Tabasco has another important American connection. “One thing I especially like is our tie to our military,” Osborn said. “My great-grandfather served with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. My grandfather was in the Marines on Guadalcanal. He created the ‘Charlie Ration Cookbook.’ That gave directions for soldiers to mix their rations to make them less bland. The company shipped the cookbook overseas during the Vietnam war wrapped around a bottle of Tabasco. Tabasco was eventually added to MREs [‘Meals Ready to Eat,’ the modern-day version of rations].”
There are more prosaic reasons for the brand’s longevity as well. “We do a 100-year plan,” explained Osborn. “None of us will be here at the end of it, but it allows us to imagine what we could be. It’s a look forward, but also a look back.”
Another success factor is in the brand’s ability to cross cultural barriers. “The secret is in our red sauce, which is so unique,” said Osborn. “In France, it’s a staple. In England, it’s in the Bloody Mary, on the drinks tray. Anywhere with a culture of spices and good food, we’re there. More and more people, especially in younger generations, really live to eat and look for food that’s interesting and exciting. Today’s digitally connected world has driven experimentation in food as people are exposed to cuisines and trends from around the world, right at their fingertips.”
Flexibility and experimentation are also mainstays. “We need to branch out with the brand–not dilute it, but add to it,” Osborn said. “We want to make food taste better. If we just stayed in the same mindset as my great-grandfather, we wouldn’t be successful. It’s the versatility of Tabasco.” It’s that innovative mindset and product versatility that have led to the creation of eight other varieties beyond the original Tabasco Red Pepper Sauce to include flavors like Green Jalapeno Sauce, Scorpion Sauce, and Sweet & Spicy Sauce. McIlhenny makes its own Sriracha Sauce as well, and even launched a “Sriracha Finder” recently to spread the word and help fans track down bottles near them during the ongoing Sriracha sauce shortage.
However, that versatility can also be a challenge. “The trick is to be innovative while holding on to the core,” said Osborn. “You have to maintain the brand. We had a lot more products, and have been cutting back. Again, global trends on social media tell us what our consumers are excited about and looking for in their food, which then helps drive our innovation.”
Along with the challenges, though, Osborn sees plenty of opportunities. “The younger generations want to make food taste better,” he said. “It’s a great time to be in hot sauces, and we’re the pepper nerds. We’re looking at healthy dishes and how to make those more exciting. We’re looking at all the fusion opportunities–how to bring Peru to Japan or to Southern Africa, or to mix Asian with Western, or Brazilian or Korean with Mexican. I think there’s an incredible amount of additional opportunity. We have a large global footprint, and lots of pepper experience.”
Other products offer additional growth potential. Beverages are one area of focus. “We worked with George Dickel on a limited time offering,” said Osborn. “We’ve worked with Southern Comfort, and we did a tequila with Heaven Hill. We did a couple of beers, too. When it comes to spirits, Tabasco works well with all of them.” Believe it or not, desserts are another one. “We have a Tabasco chocolate. We serve a Tabasco ice cream at the company store when people come to visit us. It works well with anything.”
Plus, there are still always the very basic opportunities still available right here at home. “The Upper Midwest has some excellent food, but I think we can help them spice it up,” Osborn offered.
Tabasco on pasties, anyone?