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Tabasco flavor Lab coming up with flavors never dreamed of

November 24, 2018

The McIlhenny Co. has held tight to its traditions since Tabasco was first launched 150 years ago.

So tightly that family members are directly involved, including the CEO helping pick the seeds that go to the farms in Central and South America that grow the peppers for Tabasco sauce.

But one tradition sort of ended about 25 years ago. No longer did the company make just the red sauce. When the popular Green Jalapeno Sauce was born, its success might have kickstarted a new tradition at the iconic Louisiana company whose products can be found worldwide.

That breakthrough pushed the company’s science of spice toward new and sometimes strange destinations.

“We like to play with stuff,” said John Simmons, senior manager of agriculture and sixth-generation McIlhenny family member. “It’s empirical that we play with different types of things when we develop new flavors. We travel a lot and get to taste a lot of different things that we might be able to bring into our sauces.”

The Tabasco Flavor Lab is where flavors like the Raspberry Chipotle Pepper Sauce — it goes great with meat or ice cream — and the super hot Scorpion Sauce — sold out online in just one day earlier this year — get their start.

A team of sauce scientists are in the “company’s kitchen” using modern technology, including a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer that maps out their capsaicin-coated combinations at the molecular level to perfectly tune the flavor, smell and color of the sauces.

Some flavors in the lab now have no name or a clear path to a store shelf, but ideas like Tabasco Sriracha and Habanero Tabasco began there. New ideas that might include tangy fruit or maple syrup may one day work their way out of the lab and into stores.

“We get ideas from everywhere,” Simmons said. “We want ideas from anywhere. Any employees can give their ideas, not just the people in the Flavor Lab. Sometimes they never lead to anything at all or lead to anything commercially viable, but we still like to make them and play with them because we think it’s fun.”

It’s also how the company has remained competitive. After 125 years of sticking to the original red, Tabasco found itself in a changing market. Competition has become fierce for which spicy condiment consumers want.

“Today, when you look in the hot sauce aisle, it’s a lot more crowded, so you have to constantly be innovating,” Simmons said. “You have to be able to give people what they want, give them the flavor solutions they want with their food . . . . Also, what works on Cajun cuisine in south Louisiana may not work in Peru. We have to think about these flavors globally.”

Innovation has been a key to the company’s survival, but sticking to its roots remains important as well. In a speech last month at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Tabasco executive vice president Harold Osborn said that sticking to Tabasco’s niche has been key to the company’s success.

“Back in the 1800s, we tried other things like canning seafood, which almost bankrupted the company, but the key to our success is sticking to our niche,” he said. “We make hot sauces. We flavor your food and we make it taste better, and that’s what’s important. We’re not getting out there and making Band-Aids.”

The lab is another advancement Tabasco has developed while holding on to its traditions of the past. The seeds that go to the farms in Central and South America come from the fields on Avery Island that Edmund McIlhenny planted a century and a half ago.

The company continues to work with families who have grown Tabasco peppers for it for decades.

The past 150 years have seen Tabasco move from the dinner table in Cajun country to the depths of King Tut’s tomb and to the heights of the International Space Station. Tabasco is sold in 197 countries and territories today.

But for all the McIlhenny family descendants and the employees whose families have spent generations on Avery Island making hot sauce, legacy must always meet the future and how the company can remain a leader in the hot sauce industry.

“You have to think about how we’re going to remain relevant over the next 150 years,” Simmons said. “It’s all about innovating within the space of the original sauce, but we also have to innovate with new products. For us, it’s incumbent for us to be the global flavor trend leader.

“Tabasco sauce was just a hobby for Edmund McIlhenny. It’s not even mentioned in his memoirs to his family. I’m pretty sure he never dreamed of any of this.”

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