McIlhenny, CEO Who Expanded Tabasco Brand, Dies at 68

Paul McIlhenny, the fourth-generation family member who led Tabasco-maker McIlhenny Co. and expanded its product line to include new flavors of the pepper sauce, has died. He was 68.

He died Feb. 23, according to a statement by the Avery Island, Louisiana-based company, of which he was chief executive officer and chairman. He died at his New Orleans home, the Times-Picayune reported. The cause was an apparent heart attack, the newspaper said.

McIlhenny presided over “years of record growth in sales and earnings,” according to the statement. He introduced several new Tabasco-brand pepper sauce flavors, expanding the product line for the first time, according to Shane K. Bernard’s 2007 book, “Tabasco: An Illustrated History.” The new varieties included Green, introduced in 1993, Chipotle in 2001 and Sweet & Spicy in 2006.

“We will clearly miss Paul’s devoted leadership but will more sorely feel the loss of his acumen, his charm and his irrepressible sense of humor,” Tony Simmons, the company’s president and a fifth-generation McIlhenny family member, said in the statement.

McIlhenny also furthered the expansion of the Tabasco brand around the world, where today the products are distributed to more than 165 countries and territories.

He was the sixth descendant of Edmund McIlhenny, who founded the company 145 years ago, to lead the business, according to its website.

Aged Sauce

In the 1860s, Edmund McIlhenny, an avid food lover and gardener, had acquired seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers from Mexico or Central America, planted them and enjoyed their spicy flavor. He decided to create the hot sauce to liven up the bland, monotonous diet of the U.S. South following the Civil War, according to the website. The peppers were crushed, blended with salt and French white-wine vinegar, aged and packaged in small, cologne-type bottles.

Paul Carr Polk McIlhenny was born on March 19, 1944, according to the statement. He was born, along with his twin sister, Sara, in Houston because their mother was staying there with her mother while their father was away in the military during World War II, according to the Times-Picayune.

McIlhenny attended Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana, the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

He joined the family business in 1967, the company said. In 2010, he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage.

McIlhenny is survived by his wife Judith Goodwin McIlhenny; two daughters, Barbara McIlhenny Fitz-Hugh and Rosemary McIlhenny Dinkins; and four grandchildren, the company said. He also is survived by his sister, Sara McIlhenny Ringle, and a brother, Gustaf McIlhenny, according to the Times-Picayune.