McIlhenny oversaw record growth of empire steeped in Tabasco sauce

Ken Belson / New York Times News Service /

Paul C.P. McIlhenny took joy in escorting visitors to his company’s warehouse, where wooden whiskey barrels filled with the aging pepper mash that is the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce were stacked six-high to the ceiling.

With a flourish, he would ask an employee to crack open a couple of barrels.

After the stinging smell of the peppers was noted, he asked guests to dab the mash with a finger and gingerly lick it.

Tears flowed, air was gasped for and, at the host’s invitation, spit flew to clear tongues.

McIlhenny had no doubt played the culinary instigator countless times in his 45 years at the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco pepper sauce, perhaps Louisiana’s best-known product. But he still chuckled as he gave his guests small spoons that earned them entry into the Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.

McIlhenny, the chairman and chief executive of the family-owned McIlhenny Co., died Saturday in New Orleans. He was 68. The cause was apparently a heart attack.

His death was announced by the McIlhenny Co.

McIlhenny became chief executive in 2000. During his tenure, the company enjoyed record growth, thanks in part to the introduction of new products, like chipotle, sweet and spicy and Buffalo-style hot sauces and the expansion of a catalog business that sells Tabasco neckties and teddy bears.

McIlhenny also formed licensing deals with the makers of A1 steak sauce, Spam, Cheez-Its and other supermarket staples.

The great-grandson of Edmund McIlhenny, who invented Tabasco sauce after the Civil War, Paul Carr Polk McIlhenny was born in Houston on March 19, 1944, with his twin sister, Sara. He attended the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and the University of the South in Tennessee, and served stateside in the Marine Corps Reserve.

McIlhenny joined the family business in 1967 and was groomed by his cousin Walter McIlhenny, then president of the company.

His first jobs included loading peppers in the field, processing the pepper mash and loading cases of sauce onto rail cars.

He lived on the West Coast to learn the company’s retail sales and food broker operations.

Back at the company headquarters on Avery Island, La., he worked in the marketing, advertising, purchasing and food service departments, among others.

McIlhenny split his time between New Orleans and Avery Island, which sits on a large salt dome in bayou country. There, peppers are grown for their seeds, which are shipped to growers overseas.

The mash that returns is aged for three years before being mixed with vinegar and stirred for one month. After the skins and seeds of the peppers are removed, the sauce is sent to the bottling plant. About 750,000 bottles modeled after the cologne-style bottles used for the first batch of the sauce made in 1868 roll off the lines daily.

Like many in his family, McIlhenny was active in environmental preservation efforts. He was on the board of the America’s Wetland Foundation. In 2010, he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.