Cocktails, chilli con carne, oysters, marinades – Tabasco is one of those ingredients that seems to add huge waves of flavour to all sorts of dishes with just one or two dashes from the bottle. It’s certainly the most iconic chilli sauce in the world, and remains a favourite amongst the massive number of rival hot sauces available today, despite being nearly 150 years old.
Harold ‘Took’ Osborn is the great-great-grandson of the man who started it all – Edmund McIlhenny. He works alongside his cousin Tony and the company has been in the family since the beginning. ‘Edmund started the company in 1868,’ explains Took. ‘He had come over from England with his family, grew up in Maryland then came down to Louisiana and became a banker. He was very successful until the American Civil War – once that was over Confederate money was worthless, so he lost everything, but he did marry a girl called Mary Eliza Avery, whose family lived on Avery Island in the marshlands of the state. The Union Army had shut down the salt mine there, but in the ruins Edmund found some peppers. He was always interested in food, so he started cultivating the chillies, preserving them in vinegar when he had a good crop.’
At first he and his friends were the only people to use this chilli-infused vinegar, but because they loved it so much Edmund decided to sell it in New Orleans. People started drizzling the sauce on oysters and it quickly spread to markets in San Francisco and New York. By the 1880s, Tabasco had even made its way to the UK. ‘We’ve got a letter from a British corporal in India saying how good the sauce was in his soup,’ says Took. ‘The British military loved it because food in general was so awful, but they could make it more interesting with Tabasco. Then in the 1920s the Bloody Mary was invented in Paris, using the sauce as an ingredient, and everything just kept growing from there.’
In the UK, most of us have grown up using Tabasco. But surprisingly, it’s still quite rare to find in some parts of the US. ‘Tabasco was more popular in London than it was in places like Philadelphia for a long time,’ explains Took. ‘Even now in places like Milwaukee it can be hard to find. The sauce tended to gain popularity in global hubs like London, Paris and New York, where people were more open to new tastes, before it made ground elsewhere. You have to remember that red peppers were still a very new flavour when Tabasco was around – they were a New World ingredient, so most of the world hadn’t come across them until the 1500s. These days, we export to countries across the globe, and it is places like Japan, the UK and (surprisingly) Guam that consume the most Tabasco per person. The sauce is included in lots of humanitarian aid packages, too, because it’s only got three ingredients – salt, chillies, vinegar – making it halal, kosher, vegan and gluten-free.