November 28, 2018
Who here hasn’t heard of Tabasco Sauce? I expect the answer is very, very few. Well, EVERY bottle of Tabasco Sauce that you have ever seen in person or movies was bottled on Avery Island in New Iberia, Louisiana. This is another of the long lived family owned and operated businesses. It passed from father to son to cousin to son and is still in the family today. The family controls the land and mineral rights which include a working salt mine and oil drilling as well as the Tabasco Plant, residential area and Jungle Gardens. At one time they also had an oyster fleet that operated out of the Bayou that circles part of the “island.” Edward McIlhenny was an amateur naturalist and started the Jungle Garden, then added to it… a lot.
Avery Island is not totally surrounded by water so it is not a real island. It is a Salt Dome that rises to around 160 feet above sea level and is surrounded by the flat fields and swamplands of southern Louisiana. This means it hosts flora and fauna that are not normally found in this area. The Salt Dome is one of five evenly spaced mounds that start at Jefferson Island and flow down to the Gulf of Mexico. They didn’t have information as to WHY the salt domes are evenly spaced or even exactly how they were formed. Inquiring minds might want to look that one up. You can actually see some of the salt domes on Google maps.
We chose to do both the self-guided Tabasco Plant tour and entry into Jungle Gardens. With lunch at their restaurant, we were happily occupied all day.
Tabasco Plant Tour – There are ten stops on the tour, you can take as long as you like, do them in any order, or skip some:
- Museum – this is a small museum but it gives the history of Avery Island, the McIlhenny family and the growth of the pepper sauce business.
- Greenhouse – here you see several different types of hot peppers. The first Tabasco Sauce was made with “patented” Tabasco Peppers but now they have other flavors so they grow several types. They grow peppers on Avery Island but also get pepper mash from around the world to meet the demand for the sauce.
Barrel Aging/Cooperage – here you learn how they recycle used white oak whiskey barrels and fill them with the pepper mash. They top the sealed barrels with a layer of salt that crusts and protects the barrel from contamination. Then they stack them in a warehouse up to six high all the way down the massive buildings. Here the mash ages for up to three years… like a fine wine. Make sure you walk down to the wire barrier where you can see, and smell, the barrels. Whew, fermenting pepper mash. What a smell! They are trying to reduce their waste so the barrels are used until they no longer work then they are cut in half and sold as planters or chipped up and sold as BBQ smoker chips… I wonder how much pepper sauce is infused into that wood? When the mash comes out of the barrels, it is strained to remove the seeds and skin. THAT is then packaged and sold to restaurants for flavoring (small packs available in their country store).
Blending – this is in the plant now. They suck that mash up and into huge vats where they added white vinegar and it gets stirred intermittently for WEEKS. There is a slanted viewing window so you can look down and see the vats in action. Don’t miss the button to the left that turns on a little fan that wafts that serious hot pepper smell up from the blending room below. Don’t sniff too hard, your eyes will water. We saw someone moving through the room checking the vats and wondered how their sinuses were holding up breathing hot pepper air all the time.
- Avery Island Experience – more history of the island and pepper sauce plant.
Salt Mine Experience – a mini salt mine tunnel demonstrating what is below your feet AND where the salt comes from that goes in the pepper sauce.
- Bottling Line – Lots of machines capping, labeling, sealing and packaging the hot sauce. There is an electronic counter showing how many bottles were filled that day. At 10:38 am they had already produced 167,540 bottles for the day. We saw them bottling some that was being shipped to Mexico. It was interesting to note a white board on the back wall that listed the lot number and THREE expiration dates for the same batch. It showed the expiration date for 18 months, 2 years and 5 years. I assume it depends on the country it is being shipped to.
- Food, Flavors – a bit about their “family of flavors,” marketing, use by famous chefs, etc. Note the little sign by the door that explains the room is painted in “Tabasco Red” and gives the Pantone number (032C) in case you want to paint your man cave to match your hot sauce. With the right camera angle you can take a selfie with the giant mosquito over your head. I especially liked the Tabasco Bottle Chandelier. They could sell those things to their fans.
- Country Store – everything Tabasco: clothing, kitchen toys, kids toys, infused chocolate, keychains, bottle openers, gift sets, and more. The bounty includes gallon jugs of Tabasco with pumpers in case you are a serious user. DON’T MISS the tasting bar at the back. We tried their 7 pepper chili and ALL their sauces and pepper jellies. Our tongues were TOAST and there was a weird hot spot in our stomachs.
- 1868 Restaurant – Finally time for lunch! We enjoyed their Gumbo and Nachos with 7 pepper chili on top. They have a varied menu and serve alcohol. Adults can enjoy their Bloody Mary bar and children had a Hot Cocoa bar with Santa mugs and every sugar addition you can think to throw in the cocoa (marshmallows, peppermint candies, and so on). I heard they have Jalapeno ice cream but I didn’t see it on the menu and forgot to ask about it.
This is a huge, beautiful garden with a few walking paths and lots of benches. You can also walk or bike the 3 mile loop road. They rent bikes at the very nice garden themed gift shop where you come in. We were off season for most plants but the Camellias were just starting to bloom. Edward McIlhenny loved the Camellias and collected them and created new cultivars. At one time he operated a wholesale nursery where he sold the plants. Part of the nursery is still visible. We thoroughly enjoyed strolling along the rows of large Camellia bushes and checking which ones had the strongest scent (the simple white ones).
You will also find dozens of species of bamboo. This was a cooperative effort between E. McIlhenny and the USDA. There are plant signs here and there but no comprehensive map (understandably) so you don’t always know exactly what plant you are looking at. One stand of bamboo holds the honor of being on their tour map. It is the Timber bamboo which was imported from China and grows a FOOT a day. It is fully grown in 65 days. I love bamboo and don’t understand why we don’t grow it in more places as a substitute for so much little stuff made of wood. It is seriously sustainable; it’s a grass; it is strong; it is rot resistant; it grows fast… what’s not to love? I wondered why they didn’t harvest any of it at the gardens. I could see numerous fallen “logs” of bamboo just waiting to be put to some use (sorry, getting off the soapbox now.)
The Japanese Garden area has a Buddha that is believed to be over 900 years old. It was a gift to Edward from friends that found it in a warehouse in New York and shipped it to him by train. He built a little shrine for it to be housed in and landscaped the area with lily ponds, paths, stone bridges and red entry gates. They say the local Buddhist community holds ceremonies there and I’m sure it is popular as a wedding photo venue.
E. McIlhenny experimented with different arrangements of plants and created drives lined with bamboo, live oak and holly and built a wisteria arch over the road – all of which are very cool to drive, bike or walk through. He also created what he called “Bird City.” Snowy Egret populations had been decimated when they were hunted for their plumes for ladies hats. Edward built a HUGE aviary and hand reared several egret chicks then released them to migrate in the fall. He was thrilled when they returned and made their home on Avery Island as egrets have done for each year since. Anyone who has been in Southern Louisiana knows that the population is healthy again. They’re like southern pigeons – they’re everywhere! There were no birds in Bird City while we were there but we saw a snowy egret and a brown pelican chilling on the bank of the Bayou and one egret posed for John on the marsh trail.
Come spring, the garden will be alive with color and thousands of birds will have migrated back to the area but even without the added garden “bling” we thoroughly enjoyed wandering through it now.
If you can’t make it to the gardens or are planning a trip and want to know what you’ll find there, they have a cell phone tour. Dial 337-606-4063 and choose stop numbers 1 through 15.