Worcestershire Marketing Magic

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Worcestershire Sauce

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce is flanked by French's and Kroger brands in a 2006 retail sales display.

The marketing history of Worcestershire sauce is well-documented. In 1837 the English firm Lea & Perrins began selling the exciting, newly-developed product commercially at their pharmacy/grocery store. They also sent representatives to the docks of English ports in order to convince the stewards of passenger ships to take cases of the condiment on board liners so that bottles of the product could be set on the dining room tables. The tangy, pungent, meaty-flavored sauce caught on, and soon Lea & Perrins opened more retail shops in several English towns. Along with other products, they sold their sauce at these new locations. Worcestershire sauce was also exported to other countries around the world.

Worcestershire Sauce advertisement

A Lea & Perrins advertisement, ca. 1920.

Now the sauce is produced in the United States, as well as in England, and other brands of Worcestershire sauce besides Lea & Perrins have appeared.

The story of the origins of the recipe for Worcestershire sauce is entangled in a web of legends, but the common thread is that its place of origin was India. Versions of how the recipe came to England usually credit a member or members of the prominent Sandys (see pronunciation note below) and/or Grey families. Typically the stories indicate an effort to reproduce a Bengali recipe for a sauce or a curry powder, and the assistance of apothecaries/chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins of Worcester. In most editions of the tale, the first attempt is a failure, but the results are stored away; fermentation occurs and a later tasting reveals the delightful concoction now enjoyed the world over.

The exact recipe is secret, but it is known to include both common and exotic ingredients: anchovies, shallots, chilies, cloves, tamarinds (brown pods from a tropical tree), garlic, sugar, molasses, vinegar, and salt. Attempts to produce the sauce at home are sometimes made, as this 1890 recipe shows:

Imitation Worcestershire Sauce

Mix and rub through a sieve. Put in a stone jar, set in a pot of boiling water, and heat until the liquid is so hot you can not bear your finger in it. Strain, and let it stand in the jar, closely covered, two days, then bottle for use.

Worcestershire Sauce advertisement

A 1902 advertisement for Holbrook's Worcestershire Sauce, competitor of Lea & Perrin's.

The versatile sauce, homemade or commercial, is used on broiled meats (especially steaks), in Bloody Marys, in stews, in recipes for Welsh rabbit, even in some blue cheese dressing recipes.

In 1981 the U. S. Department of the Army spent $6000 to prepare a 17-page manual on how to buy Worcestershire sauce. It really isn't that hard. Go buy some and add its mysterious piquancy to your foods.