Tasting a sample of aging pepper mash is not something to undertake lightly. And as Took Osborn, vice president of agricultural operations at the Tabasco Company, explains, “There’s no ladylike way to do this.”
His advice? Put a very little bit on the tip of your tongue, and “Spit it out immediately.”
But even after the spit, the flavor of the mash, which Osborn says is 10 times hotter than the finished Tabasco sauce, continues to develop on the tongue . . . and the gums . . . and the lips. A little goes a long, long way.
Tabasco itself has gone a long way. Starting as a hobby for Edmund McIlhenny, an out-of-work banker in the Reconstruction South, the company now employs 207 workers who produce 700,000 bottles of sauce a day in Avery Island, La. Today, most of the peppers used in the original Tabasco pepper sauce are grown in Central and South America. Growers harvest the peppers at the peak of ripeness and crush them on site. The mash is shipped to Avery Island, where it’s aged for three years in recycled whiskey barrels. The mash is drained, vinegar and Avery Island salt are added, and the mixture is churned for 28 days. Before bottling, the mixture is strained to remove solids and seeds.
The company is still owned and operated by the McIlhenny family, and while the recipe itself is a closely guarded secret, Tabasco sauce has become a household term and the gold standard of hot sauce.
By Candace Floyd, Relish editor