Quite simply, Avery Island is a hot southern Louisiana destination for those who can handle the heat.
Long known as the birthplace and home of world-famous Tabasco Pepper Sauce, Avery Island is well worth the trip from New Orleans, thanks to a visitor center and short factory tour, a tasty and tasteful gift shop, plus 250-acre Jungle Gardens and Bird City.
The Tabasco brand legend originated in the late-1860s, when Edmund McIlhenny, an avid gardener and foodie, was given seed of Capsicum frutescens peppers for planting on the Avery Island plantation of his in-laws. He loved the spicy flavor of the resulting peppers and decided to create a sauce that would enhance the flavors of the somewhat bland food being served back then (even for Louisiana). His original recipe (which is still generally used today) involved crushing the peppers, mixing them with Avery Island salt and aging the resulting “mash” for 30 days or more. He then blended it with French white wine vinegar and aged it another 30 days before bottling it in small glass vessels fitted with sprinkler tops (to moderate usage of the spicy concoction).
The sauce proved popular with family and friends, so McIlhenny decided to grow peppers commercially and start selling his sauce regionally. In 1869, he sent out more than 650 bottles of the now-named Tabasco Pepper Sauce (“tabasco” was thought to have been a Mexican Indian word meaning “place where the soil is humid”). For a buck a bottle, he originally sold it to grocery stores along the Gulf Coast and especially in New Orleans.
More than 140 years later, Tabasco Pepper Sauce and many other Tabasco-branded products are sold in more than 160 countries and territories, with labels in 22 languages and dialects. In the mid-1960s, they ran out of land on Avery Island and started growing peppers in Latin America (though all seeds are grown on the island before being shipped south). The harvested peppers are shipped back to Avery Island for the rest of the process (these days, the mash may be aged up to three years).
Paul McIlhenny, the current president, is the sixth family member in a chain of direct McIlhenny descendants to run the family-owned company. About half of McIlhenny Co.’s 200 employees live on Avery Island (as did many of their parents and grandparents). Given this, visitors are sure to hear some spicy history from them during a visit.
- The visitor center and factory tour are what lure most visitors. The visitor center has lots of historic displays and memorabilia pertaining to Tabasco and Avery Island, while the short factory tour walks visitors through the entire process of producing the famed bottles of spicy sauces.
- Located adjacent to the visitor center, the Tabasco Country Store has practically anything and everything related to Tabasco. There’s the original sauce in a variety of bottles and sizes, but then there are all the new sauces (such as the tasty Chipotle), mixed sauce gift boxes, related food items, bar accessories, home décor items, clothing and much more. Most visitors spend more time (and dollars) here than in the visitor center and on the factory tour (both are free after paying the $1 bridge toll to get onto Avery Island).
- Locals might call Jungle Gardens and Bird City the “lagniappe” (something extra) of Avery Island. This 250-acre paradise features plants and animals in varied gardens and wild areas. Visitors likely will see stately oaks draped in Spanish moss, as well as azaleas, camellias, bamboo, alligators, snowy white egrets (during spring migration) and much more.
If you go
Most people visit Avery Island on a daytrip from New Orleans (about two hours one way). Take I-10 west out of the Big Easy and then take I-310 south toward Boutte. When I-310 ends, take U.S. 90 west to New Iberia. Then follow the Avery Island signs (look for the signs in the shape of a bottle of Tabasco) on La. 329 for six miles to the island ($1 toll bridge).
McIlhenny Co. La. 329, Avery Island, LA 70513; 337-365-8173, www.tabasco.com (an incredibly comprehensive site for Avery Island visitors and every Tabasco fan). The visitor center, factory tour and Country Store are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily (closed major holidays; no additional entrance fee), while Jungle Island and Bird City are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (open on holidays; $6.25 for adults, $4.50 ages 6-12, and free for those under 6).
About the Author