The name McIlhenny may not be well-known outside of southern Louisiana, but mention the word Tabasco and most people know just what you’re referring to: those spicy drops of vinegary Louisiana hot sauce that packs a zesty punch to whatever you add it to.
It’s the McIlhenny family of Avery Island, Louisiana, who started it all 125 years ago, and amazingly still runs the privately held company that produces its signature creation. If you’re in Lafayette, Louisiana, a visit to nearby Avery Island is a must, and just 20 minutes away.
Avery Island isn’t actually an island at all, but rather a salt dome that extends eight miles beneath the earth’s surface. How cool is it that some of the world’s best hot pepper sauce is produced on the tip of a salt dome? A visit here is a great way to spend a day exploring Louisiana in it’s natural state. You can take a Tabasco Factory tour, have lunch or dinner at the on-site 1868 Restaurant, take a private food tour or cooking class, and explore the beautiful natural landscape at Jungle Gardens.
Tabasco Factory and Museum
One of the most interesting things to do on Avery Island is tour the Tabasco Factory and Museum. The tour is self-guided and well-marked – colorful signage tells you exactly where to start and which Points of Interest you’ll see along the way. The tour begins inside with interesting photos and a family tree showing the McIlhenny family lineage. An informative video describes the company’s early start and who’s running the company today.
The Tabasco complex is spread out in several large brick buildings, greenhouses, and outbuildings, and is nicely shaded with benches and picnic table areas throughout so you can pack a lunch or grab food to-go from the restaurant and enjoy it outside. One of the most interesting stops is the barrel warehouse where barrels are encrusted with heavy layers of salt and fermented for three years. The heavenly pungent scent of fermenting peppers you’ll smell in the warehouse is what’s known as the “angel’s share”, the fragrant evaporation emanating from the oak barrels. Depending on how much of a spicy food lover you are, this may or may not be your favorite stop on the tour.
Foodies will appreciate two additional tempting tours for food lovers. The “Cooking Class with Lunch” is an intimate session with Tabasco’s Hospitality Chef Lionel Robin where he shares his secrets for recreating Tabasco® inspired Southern cuisine and explores new twists on traditional flavors. A four-course meal is included. The “Tabasco Culinary Tour” lets visitors sample Cajun cuisine & explore the rich culinary history & culture of Acadiana.
The restaurant at the Tabasco Visitors Center is a great place to try some of the local food of southern Louisiana: gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya, and the ever popular boudin sausage, a staple of the local culture here. We tried a little of everything, and the boudin sausage and shrimp and crawfish etoufee was some of the best we ate anywhere. There’s also a good Bloody Mary Bar with Tabasco’s signature Bloody Mary mix!
The McIlhenny familiy’s many environmental interests led to the scenic preservation of Avery Island and the eventual creation of Jungle Gardens, the family’s private gardens. Today it’s one of the most incredible natural habitats to see in the area. The wildlife here is stunning and includes white tail deer, alligators, wild rabbits, armadillos, and bobcats among others. Colorful varieties of azaleas and tropical flowers, stately live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, and Louisiana Bald Cypress trees are on view throughout the gardens.
Travel lovers can walk the grounds, hike the more extensive trails, or simply drive a mile long driving tour loop to explore the grounds. The gardens are home to a large collection of camellias. Thousands of plants represent some 600 varieties, including imports from Japan and France, as well as varieties that Edward McIlhenny developed on Avery Island.
One of the most interesting aspects of McIlhenny’s conservation efforts is the rookery known as “Bird City”. He was passionate about saving the snowy egret and his efforts through the years helped rescue the species from extinction. In 1895, when the bird was being hunted for its distinctive white plumage, McIlhenny built an aviary on the Island, starting with just eight wild egrets. After they’d raised their young, the birds were freed, but returned the next spring, and the next, and every year. Since those early days, generations of egrets and herons have returned to the same rookery, and is a stunning example of conservation.
But perhaps one of the most curious and unexpected sites in all of Jungle Gardens is the breathtaking giant Buddha that sits serenely overlooking a quiet lagoon. A gift to Edward McIlhenny from friends in 1936, the Buddha was created for the Shonfa Temple during the reign of Emperor Hui-Tsung around 900 years ago.
Avery Island is a paradise for lover’s of food, nature, and photography, and is a must-see on your next visit to south Louisiana.
Loved this Tabasco tour? For more, follow travel writer and photographer Lori Sorrentino’s adventures on her blog Travlinmad.