Hot stuff: talking Tabasco with Took Osborn

Hot stuff: talking Tabasco with Took Osborn

by Tom Shingler 5 February 2016

The great-great-grandson of the founder of Tabasco tells Tom Shingler how the famous hot sauce took over the world.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

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.

Edmund McIlhenny
Edmund McIlhenny created the sauce in 1868
Tabasco bottles
Now Tabasco is sold in over 180 countries

Seeds of change

Harold 'Took' Osborn now runs the business with other family members

As a fifth generation member of the Tabasco dynasty, Took has lived and breathed Tabasco all his life. There have obviously been some changes to how the sauce is made since the days of his great-great-grandfather, but he says he can count the ones he’s been party to on one hand. ‘There’s only been one change to the recipe,’ he says. ‘Edmund used to use white wine vinegar, but after a few years switched to vinegar made using beechwood, which is what we continue to do today. We still use the exact same Tabasco peppers – they’ve never been bred for disease resistance or a higher production, so they’re essentially just a wild weed.’

However, the production methods have changed a little – after all, Tabasco now makes more sauce in one day than Edmund McIlhenny made in his entire life. Instead of growing all the peppers on Avery Island, the majority of the crop comes from Latin America. ‘In the 1960s we started sending seeds to farmers in Honduras, Colombia and Peru to increase production,’ says Took. ‘There’s still twenty-five acres of land here on Avery Island, and all the seeds come from the peppers grown here – we hand-select the right ones to send abroad.’ The farms are tiny; in Honduras, for example, we have 400 farmers – most of which are second generation Tabasco pepper growers – working 400 acres of land. Once the peppers are harvested, they’re mashed up with salt (much like sauerkraut), kept in ex-bourbon barrels (barrels can only be used once to make bourbon according to US law, resulting in a steady supply for Tabasco) and left to ferment and age for three years. The mixture is then combined with vinegar in a giant white oak vat and left for three more weeks, after which all the skins and sieves are removed and it’s ready to bottle.

Avery island
Avery Island is not a true island, but it is surrounded by marshes
The sauce is left to age for three years in ex-bourbon barrels

Island life

The salt from the factory wafts in the air and everyone talks, breathes and lives Tabasco.

Took Osborn

The birthplace of Tabasco – Avery Island – is in the heart of Louisiana. Being surrounded by marshlands (technically making it an island) has always made it very difficult to get anywhere, and the area only got proper mobile phone coverage six years ago. Before the roads were paved it took an entire day to get on or off Avery, so the entire Tabasco workforce used to live right next to the factory. ‘Avery is in the middle of nowhere – you certainly can’t get a pizza delivered,’ says Took. ‘Things are better than they used to be, so now only a quarter of the staff live here; the rest are on the mainland. It’s a very tightknit community – we have a general store but that’s pretty much it. The salt from the factory wafts in the air and everyone talks, breathes and lives Tabasco. It’s very rare to find someone here who doesn’t have a family connection to the company.’

Took wants to see Tabasco being used in every country on the planet, and his dream has nearly been realised – as it stands, the little bottles of hot sauce are sold in over 180 countries. He says US trade sanctions and access to some central African areas are the only reasons the company hasn’t achieved world domination, but with only 196 countries in the world, he’s very nearly made it. That simple sauce of three ingredients has certainly come a long way from Edmund McIlhenny’s first discovery of a wild chilli pepper in the ruins of a salt mine; certainly something to think about when you shake a few drops into your next dinner.