The Murky, Salty Mystery of Worcestershire Sauce

The peppery sauce may be wildly popular, but its ingredient list and origin story are shrouded in secrecy.
Drops of worcestershire sauce being put into a bloody mary cocktail.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton

Culinarily ubiquitous and a perpetual tongue-twister, Worcestershire sauce is one of the great food enigmas of the past two centuries. Inky brown, sweet and salty, funky and fishy, peppery and piquant, the sauce’s exact ingredient list was kept secret ever since it was first sold in Worcester, England, in the mid-19th century. 

The mystery that originally shrouded Worcestershire sauce has continued to propel its popularity around the world. According to one research firm, the global Worcestershire market was valued at more than $950 million in 2022. That figure may seem far-fetched until you examine just how much people love this perplexing condiment—touted as “the only good sauce” and “applicable to every variety of dish” in one 19th-century advertisement—most likely without knowing what’s in it or how it’s made.

In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve got a bottle of the perennially popular stuff tucked into a corner of your kitchen cupboards at this very moment—perhaps purchased for a platter of deviled eggs, a weeknight meatloaf, or a classic Bloody Mary. Such is the long arm of Worcestershire.

What is Worcestershire sauce?

The recipe for the original version, developed and sold by Lea & Perrins in the 1830s, remained a closely guarded secret until 2009, when the daughter of Brian Keough, a former Lea & Perrins accountant, disclosed that her father had purportedly discovered an ingredient list in a factory trash pile. That recipe called for water, cloves, salt, sugar, soy, fish sauce, vinegar, tamarind, and pickles, among other ingredients.

With a kitchen-sink list like that, it’s difficult to neatly place Worcestershire sauce in any single category of condiment. But Worcestershire’s closest condiment cousin is probably garum, a fish sauce that was integral to the kitchens of antiquity. Made from the fermented and salted innards of oily fish like anchovies and mackerel, this umami-rich potion was used on its own as a table sauce and blended with other ingredients—such as wine, black pepper, honey—to create various dressings for meat, fish, and vegetables. The 4th-century Roman cookery book Apicius describes oxygarum, a mixture of garum and vinegar, which was used as a poaching liquid and seasoning, and which sounds an awful lot like a primeval Worcestershire sauce.

Worcester to Worcestershire

The actual story of Worcestershire sauce doesn’t begin until more than a millennium after the fall of Rome. In 1823, English chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins decided to open a pharmacy on Broad Street in Worcester, near the River Severn. Chemists and druggists in those days were not regulated like apothecaries, and they sold all manner of goods—including medicines, toiletries, and food—which may explain why two pharmacists apparently thought it was reasonable to start fermenting fish sauce in the back of their shop. But they certainly did not start making Worcestershire sauce immediately: According to Lea & Perrins’ official company history, the first batch of Worcestershire sauce, having matured in casks for 18 months, wasn’t introduced to the world until 1837. 

We don’t know exactly why or how Lea and Perrins decided to start making Worcestershire sauce; that story has been lost to time. But we do know that the sauce was practically an immediate hit—thanks in large part to Lea and Perrins’ aggressive and successful marketing strategy, which initially involved getting bottles of the sauce aboard British ocean liners for passengers to try with their meals.

A murky, romantic origin story helped sell the sauce, too. In 1840, the pair ran an ad in the Manchester Guardian that read: “The Worcestershire Sauce is prepared by us from the favourite recipe of a nobleman of acknowledged gout [good taste]; it possesses a peculiar piquancy; it is applicable to almost every dish, on account of the superiority of its zest; the diffusible property of its delicate flavour renders it the most economical, as well as the most useful of sauces.”

This tale of a “nobleman” was repeated by the company for years. In 1884, the New York Times ran a history of the sauce, stating: “The nobleman is Lord Sandys, and Messrs. Lea & Perrins’s connection with the sauce came about rather curiously.” The paper claims that Lord Sandys’ wife, Lady Sandys, had commissioned Lea and Perrins to blend a curry powder for her, based on a recipe from India. “Subsequently the happy thought struck some one in the business that the powder might, in solution, make a good sauce. The experiment was made, and by degrees the thing took amazingly.”

Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images

Later references attributed the sauce’s invention to one Lord Marcus Sandys. As this version of the story goes, Sandys was introduced to the sauce while he was serving as the Governor of Bengal for the British East India Company. When he returned to England, he asked Lea and Perrins to recreate it, and the rest is history.

The only problem: Brian Keogh, the former Lea & Perrins accountant (and later a company archivist), wrote in an internal company document in 1997 that “no Lord Sandys…was ever a governor of Bengal, or as available records show, ever in India. The identity of the nobleman thus remains an intriguing mystery.”

Worcestershire’s imitators

Many of these references, and countless others, were compiled by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi in their History of Worcestershire Sauce from 2012. Shurtleff, a vocal advocate for soy products who founded the SoyInfo Center with Aoyagi in 1976, wrote the book in an attempt to prove that the original Worcestershire sauce recipe included soy sauce—a claim that has never been officially corroborated by Lea & Perrins but to which Keogh’s recipe discovery lends credence. But on top of the soy connection, one thing that became clear during Shurtleff’s research was Lea and Perrins’ marketing prowess.

“They were masters at advertising and doing PR,” Shurtleff says of the brand duo. “They did a tremendous amount of advertising in the United States.”

According to Shurtleff, the earliest reference to Worcestershire sauce in the U.S. dates to 1851. Perhaps because of the sauce’s alleged fanciful origins with a mysterious nobleman, it didn’t take long for it to become a hit—so much so that imitators quickly sprang up stateside. 

As early as 1845, Lea and Perrins used a variety of methods to prevent imitation of their sauce. An ad in the London Times notes: “The very general and decided approbation bestowed on this sauce having encouraged imitations, the proprietors have adopted Betts’s patent metallic capsules, on which are embossed the words ‘Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce,’ as a means of protection.” By the 1870s, the company began its practice of including Lea and Perrins’ signature on the label.

Courtenay & Co., pictured in this ad from 1900, was an early Lea and Perrins competitor.

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

But those knockoffs kept popping up—which is one reason why Lea and Perrins’ signatures have remained a fixture of their bottles to this day. Imitators were so numerous that by the 1870s, Lea and Perrins were regularly hauling competing brands into court for trademark infringement. 

In 1879, they sued Wisconsin-based Frank Deakin for distributing an “Improved Worcestershire Sauce” that he allegedly sourced from a manufacturer in England. The judge in the case decided that “Worcestershire sauce” was merely a generic term for “a certain kind of sauce used for the table, on fish and meats of various kinds,” and that no infringement had taken place. 

The height of Worcestershire

By the turn of the 20th century, Worcestershire sauce had become a staple condiment in England, the British Commonwealth, and the United States, appearing in countless cookbooks of that era. In the United States at the time, the imported bottles cost about 25 cents for half a pint, which would convert to about $8.75 today. In 1919’s Hotel St. Francis Cook Book by Victor Hirtzler—the San Francisco hotel’s chef—Worcestershire sauce figures in more than three dozen recipes, including squab pot pie à l'Anglaise and two classic Worcestershire sauce preparations, Welsh rabbit (or rarebit) and oysters Kirkpatrick (or Kilpatrick).

Meanwhile, Good Housekeeping was publishing recipes for less fancy fare, including macaroni and Swiss steak, that were seasoned with Worcestershire sauce. Even Lewis Radcliffe’s 1918 cookbook Whales and Porpoises as Food calls for Worcestershire in recipes for whale meat chowder and whale meat pie, and as flavor enhancer for corned porpoise with tartar sauce.

Throughout this time, Lea & Perrins’ marketing machine was operating at full force. Ads for its sauce appeared regularly in magazines such as American Cookerydeclaring it “the sauce of a thousand uses” and “as much the mark of the epicure as brook trout, canvas backs, and terrapin”—delicacies of the posh turn-of-the-century table. 

Alamy Stock Photo

As a 1923 article in the advertising trade journal Printer’s Ink noted, Lea & Perrins had wisely begun including recipes within its small print ads for the sauce. “The titles of these little advertisements are bound to make women read them, especially if they are tired of poring over cookbooks and of racking their brains for appetizing dishes,” the article reads. “Undoubtedly many a woman clips them from the paper and builds a cookbook of her own, and every recipe contains a little Lea & Perrins’ Sauce.”

The company also produced its own recipe pamphlets and cookbooks, such as Subtle Seasoning (1926) and Success in Seasoning (1932), which contained dozens of recipes calling for Worcestershire sauce. Notably, these company-produced cookbooks continued to promote the “nobleman” myth and drew heavily on the influence of the British Empire, which in 1920 included nearly one quarter of the Earth’s land mass. “Where the flag of civilization went, Lea & Perrins Sauce, the Original Worcestershire, followed,” notes Success in Seasoning. “Scarcely a ship left Britain without a supply among its stores. Soon the great hostelries at the ports of call featured in their menu attractions. Branch distributing houses were established in all parts of the world, thus making it available at even the remotest points.”

Indeed, Lea & Perrins has been highly successful in popularizing Worcestershire sauce around the globe, particularly in New Zealand, the Americas, and in Asia. Today, in many areas of Mexico, bottles of salsa inglesa—practically indistinguishable from English Worcestershire—appear alongside other staple condiments like Valentina hot sauce and Maggi seasoning. (There, salsa inglesa winds up in micheladas and, perhaps most inventively, as a seasoning for pizza.) In Japan, Worcestershire (or Worcester) sauce is typically fish free and, in thicker preparations, is used as a tonkatsu sauce. And Salvadorans simply can’t get enough of what they call salsa Perrins—averaging a whopping 2.5 ounces of the stuff per capita each year.

As an all-purpose flavor enhancer, Worcestershire sauce never quite declined in popularity—it merely became commonplace. While it was an epicurean signifier in the 1920s, by the middle of the 20th century it was simply everyone’s back-pocket trick to ensure tastier gravies, stews, and steaks. Heinz even produced commercials in the 1950s aimed at housewives that nodded to the difficulty Americans have with pronouncing the sauce’s name, while promising that what it could do to food was “nothing short of miraculous.”

Ads like that only served to reinforce the idea that Worcestershire was a critical seasoning—which is difficult to counter if you look at the ubiquity of Worcestershire sauce in recipes of the 20th century. The website Eat Your Books, which indexes ingredient lists from more than 160,000 old and current books, lists over 30,000 cookbook recipes that include Worcestershire sauce, including roast ‘possum (from 1950’s Charleston Receipts by The Junior League of Charleston), vegetable cheese chowder with beer (from 1984’s The Complete Book of Soups and Stews by Bernard Clayton), and fried popcorn oysters with kitchen-sink mayo (from 2016’s Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard).

Worcestershire today

Now owned by Kraft Heinz, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce still dominates American supermarket shelves—but just as in the mid-19th century, alternative versions proliferate. Annie’s and Whole Foods both offer fish-free versions, while Hawkshead Relish Company, based in the U.K., also makes a vegan, treacle-sweetened “Worcester Sauce.” Wisconsin’s Col Pabst makes a Worcestershire sauce with amber lager as its base, with 21 other ingredients that include Madras curry powder and Grenadian ginger.

Vinegar world darling Acid League, based in Ontario, offers its own inventive take on Worcestershire. The brand’s cofounder, Allan Mai, says that developing a unique take on the sauce was “a fun challenge,” especially considering that the original version contains “a billion ingredients.” Acid League’s version retains the malt vinegar and tamarind of Lea & Perrins’ recipe, but it adds complexly flavored ingredients including umeboshi, habanero, and blood orange. “It really was about ‘let's not miss anything about Worcestershire sauce structurally and what it does from a culinary perspective. We kind of deconstructed and then kind of reconstructed it,” Mai tells me.

“For us, it fell into a bigger idea,” he adds. “What was the next generation of the American pantry going to look like?”

It’s that same sense of opportunity and experimentation that led Lea and Perrins to concoct their baffling mixture of unlikely ingredients more than 180 years ago—bottling lightning, of a sort, in the process.