The Secret History Of Distillery Cats
The taxidermied body of Jameson’s adored distillery cat “Smitty”

There are a few places cats shouldn’t be. A working bathtub. A rare furniture store. And a screening of Ratatouille.

One place you should actually be happy to see a cat: a whiskey/whisky distillery. (For ease of usage, we’ll just go forward with the “e” spelling, and refer all hateful commentary to our Customer Service Department.) Cats are a fairly common feature in a distillery—and not because someone decided to let everything just go to hell. They serve a purpose; in fact, their oldest purpose, beyond variously cursing and protecting ancient Egyptians: they eat mice.

Next natural question: why are the mice in a distillery? That’s a less adorable story. Because whiskey is distilled from what is essentially beer, a working distillery requires a huge supply of grain (a lot of it malted barley, though other grains can be used). Pest control being what it was back in the day, rats and mice had the potential to become a serious problem. But as everyone knows (Tom and Jerry being the sole exception) the solution to a mouse is a cat. Distillery cats served the vital purpose of hunting and killing mice and rats before they could compromise grain supply. Even if you’re a dedicated “dog person,” if you love whiskey, you gotta respect that.

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Towser the Mouser at the Famous Grouse Distillery
Towser the Mouser at the Famous Grouse Distillery via flickr/andywebgallery

Of course, containment capabilities have changed. Little nooks and crannies for mice and rats to squeeze into are fewer, and so the need for distillery cats is basically nil. That doesn’t mean distilleries don’t still keep them—on both sides of the Atlantic you’re likely to find a cat somewhere in the vicinity of a whiskey distillery, more as a token of history than actual rodent slayer. There’s actually a statue to “Towser the Mouser” at the Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire, Scotland (and that doesn’t seem like overkill, so to speak, considering Towser is “actually in the Guinness Book of World Records for catching mice. Estimated lifetime kills: 28,899”).

So yes, distillery cats are very creepy and adorable, but easily one of our favorite stories is the Jameson story. John Jameson & Son established their distillery in Dublin in 1780. (You can actually tour the old site and see, among other things, the taxidermied body of their adored distillery cat “Smitty,” staring over you with uncomfortably wide eyes as seen in the photo at the top.) But before they were stuffed, the Jameson cats were apparently each allotted a certain amount of petty cash, for milk. Granted, there’s an element of this story that seems apocryphal: adult cats can become lactose intolerant. But since we like the idea of having cats on the official bookkeeping of the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world, we’ll choose to believe it.

Maybe the milk rations were only doled out as the kittens grew up into adorably fierce hunters and huntresses. Once they were grown up, clearly they just gorged on mice. (Sorry, dude.)

Header image via flickr/Michelle&Jim