The Secret Lives of Distillery Cats

As craft distilling booms across America, a new generation of distillery cat is stepping into the spotlight. Brad Thomas Parsons profiles the lives of some legendary cats and introduces the new breed of blue-collar millennial mousers.

Albany Distilling Co.'s lazy tabby. [Photo: Justin T. Higgins]

The Famous Grouse's current mouse hunter, Barley. [Photo: Flickr/Barclay & Fiona]

The Bushmills calico killer. [Photo: Flickr/TM Weddle]

Elijah, the Woodford Reserve cat. [Photo: Flickr/Christian Grantham]

The Famous Grouse's bronzed Towser. [Photo: Flickr/Edna Barney]

Royal Lochnagar's coy Scottish mouser. [Photo: La Fra' Photography ]

Jameson's forever young feline, Smitty. [Photo: Flickr/snowstarz28]

One of Tuthilltown's cashiers. [Photo: Flickr/Sam Meyer]

Scotch whisky producer Bladnoch's redhead. [Photo: Flickr/Peter Rossi]

There’s no argument that service dogs, with important titles such as Bomb-Sniffing Dog, Guide Dog and Search-and-Rescue Dog, play essential roles supporting their human counterparts, but among the ranks of working-class cats there are also many roles to fill. And whether the workplace is a bookstore, bodega or barnyard, there may be no feline job title as spirited as that of distillery cat. What other job listing would include “personable, but with a killer’s instinct” as a core value in a candidate?

Barn cats often have a scrappy disposition and learn to live among chickens and steer clear of passing hooves as they hunt and climb among the rafters to find a good perch atop a bale of hay (job perks include fresh milk straight from the source). Bodega cats, those urban denizens of corner grocers, sleep among the cans of Goya beans and Entenmann’s cakes, and serve as night watchmen, always on the lookout for a passing cockroach or unsuspecting mouse. Bookstore cats seem to have it pretty easy. Their workspace offers plenty of friendly browsers willing to offer a scratch behind the ears and countless bookshelves and tables on which to sprawl. Among the cookbooks in Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, you’ll find a bookish cat named Mamacita. She even has her own Facebook page (and probably has more virtual friends than you).

But the distillery cat holds a special place among the feline workforce. A well-rounded distillery cat possesses the heart (and claws) of a cold-blooded hunter with a mix of bodega cat street smarts and the rafters-climbing sense of adventure of his country cousin, the barn cat, with the affable people-person skills of the bookstore cat.

The Michael Jordan of distillery cats was Towser the Mouser, of Scotland’s historic Glenturret Distillery. This longhaired tortoiseshell racked up an estimated kill rate of 28,899 mice in her 24 years among the barrels.

So how does a cat go about landing such a sweet gig? The tradition of the distillery cat has likely been around since man has been making booze. Where you find barley, wheat and rye, you’ll find mice, rats and birds eager to dip in. While distillery cats are in service around the world, Scotland and Ireland continue to have some of the more storied cats (with cheeky names like Whiskey, Peat and Barley) on the payroll. A cat named Smitty at the Jameson Distillery in Dublin, Ireland, was so revered by the staff that they had him stuffed and displayed among the rafters in the barley room to posthumously greet visitors and tourists well beyond his natural nine lives.

Then, of course, there’s Elvis, the distillery cat at Jura Whisky on the Isle of Jura in Argyll, Scotland—made famous by Gregory Branson-Trent in Tales of the Supernatural—whose “cat cam” attached to his collar documented a spectral image of a legendary ghost known to haunt the premises. But the Michael Jordan of distillery cats was Towser the Mouser, of Scotland’s historic Glenturret Distillery. This longhaired tortoiseshell racked up an estimated kill rate of 28,899 mice in her 24 years among the barrels. The Guinness World Records proclaimed her “World Mousing Champion” while Animal Planet lists her among their Top Nine Cats with the headline “Most Ruthless Killer” (“her bloodlust finally satiated, Towser died in 1987”). And she’s featured in Sam Stall’s 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization: History’s Most Influential Felines, alongside Tommy, a cat who called 911 to save his owner’s life, and Tee Cee, a cat who could predict epileptic seizures. After her death, a bronze statue of Towser was erected as a memorial and is among the first stops on the Famous Grouse Experience at the distillery.

If you’re seeking as notable a cat on American soil, hit the Bourbon Trail and make a stop at the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, and be on the lookout for Elijah, a marmalade-colored cat who has been a part of the distillery since 1994 and who loves to have his picture taken. Woodford Reserve’s Public Relations Manager Andrea Duvall is uncertain of his age but clocks him in “at least 19 years old.” In his younger days, Elijah, named after Elijah Pepper, the first distiller on the site of the present-day distillery, hunted chipmunks and the occasional mouse, but age has slowed him down.

Thankfully, as the craft-distilling boom spreads across America a new generation of distillery cat is stepping into the spotlight. When Steven Stone, the founder and head distiller of Seattle’s Sound Spirits Distillery launched his business he sought out a cat for his start-up operation. Recruited specifically for a mousing position, C.H.O (pronounced “cho”)—short for Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, part of the building blocks of grain alcohol—was adopted from a nearby animal shelter. So far C.H.O. is averaging about one mouse per month but remains consistent with his daily cycle of eat, sleep, play.

Some of these new distilleries are two-cat operations. Tuthilltown Spirits in New York’s Hudson Valley employs a pair of cats named Bourbon and Rye to guard the casks and greet visitors touring the operation. And at Kings County Distillery, the dynamic mousing duo of Carlos and Jeffey, call the 114-year-old Paymaster building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard their home. The sprawling site of Kings County Distillery, the first operating distillery in New York since Prohibition, is home to plenty of stray cats, but the distillery decided on a more formal adoption process for the urbane Carlos and Jeffey.

King County Distillery’s co-founder and master distiller Colin Spoelman explained that after their building was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the mouse population seemed to double. But after just three weeks on the job, Carlos and Jeffey got things back in order. “It was a holocaust of mice,” says Spoelman. “Two to three dead mice in the distillery each morning and then nothing. We haven’t seen a rodent since.” It seems their attention has turned to the birds of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, though Spoelman thinks, “in an ideal world, the cat should know when it’s appropriate to hunt for work versus for sport.”

Carlos, a tuxedo cat, seems to have trouble distinguishing just when it’s suitable to “drag a dead pigeon into the distillery.” But overall these city cats live the good life and aren’t camera shy, popping up regularly on visitors’ Instagram feeds. “They run around the Navy Yard and around our cornfield and compost pile during the day, chasing birds or squirrels, and even venture into the abandoned mansions of Admiral’s Row.” Like most New Yorkers, the cats are pretty ambivalent with tourists. Spoelman adds, “If they see that they are going to be petted, then they present themselves.”

As the new-look generation of blue-collar cats like Carlos and Jeffey punch in every day to prowl for mice or power-nap atop the casks, they’re standing on the shoulders of their feline brothers and sisters before them. Old-timers like Elijah, enjoying his golden years in the Kentucky sun or the record-breaking ghost of Towser across the pond in Scotland. The next time you pour out two whiskers of rye, take a moment to raise your glass in recognition of the role that a distillery cat might have played in its creation.