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I also head to Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire, Scotland to ask questions about the most famous and prolific distillery cat of them all, Towser.

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Show Notes

Featuring Sheenaugh from Glenturret Distillery

In this week's episode, I investigate a couple of legends built around whiskey barrels, distillery cats, bourbon, and scotch whisky. I also head to Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire, Scotland to ask questions about the most famous and prolific distillery cat of them all, Towser.

I'll also unveil the background on the name of the whisky Monkey Shoulder.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

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Transcript

Imagine a dark dank Scottish whisky warehouse, hundreds of casks sleeping with the smell of whisky drifting through the air. The evaporated alcohol, known as angel’s share, saturates the senses.  

Suddenly a palate driver breaks your focus as he starts bringing up a series of crates, leaving them on the warehouse floor for inspection. 

These crates have just made a transatlantic journey, reaching Moray in the Highlands of Scotland, by way of the United States and more specifically a distillery located in the rolling bluegrass hills of Kentucky. 

But why is a scotch distillery in Keith, Scotland bringing in loads of ex-bourbon casks from Kentucky?

There are many factors that make scotch whisky different from American bourbon. Of course, first there is the country of origin. Scotch cannot be made in America and bourbon cannot be made in Scotland. There are variations in the process of distillation. There are grain requirements that vary, bourbon requiring 51% corn in its recipe and scotch requiring malted barley-single malt using the single grain and blended scotch adding other grains to the barley. There are also differences in age requirements, as scotch must be aged for three years and a day and bourbon has no age requirement, only straight bourbon does. 

But one of the most impactful differences comes from a standard that was put in place by the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in 1938. That ruling requires all bourbon to be aged only in brand new charred oak barrels. Scotland has no such requirement. And in fact, very little scotch whisky is aged in new oak barrels. 

And while bourbon’s forefathers seemed to catch onto the concept of using the barrel to enhance the product, for early scotch distillers, whisky in barrels was more about storage and less about imparting flavor and color characteristics. Once the idea of barrel aging caught on, scotch distillers most likely grabbed what was easily accessible. In those days brandy and then sherry barrels made of European oak were the vessels of choice. 

But after the 1938 American regulation limiting bourbon barrels to single use and a bourbon boom immediately after World War II, ex-bourbon barrels were in large supply and extremely cheap as compared to their European counterparts. Add to that improved transportation system and you had plenty of reason to start aging scotch in bourbon barrels.

So knowing that scotch was being aged in bourbon barrels, I started asking tour guides in Scotland, which Bourbon distillery supplied their barrels. In some cases it was evident, just by looking in the warehouse. At Auchentoshan near Glasgow, for example, I saw Heaven Hill stamped on the side of barrels. Many distilleries mentioned the use of ex-Jim Beam or Jack Daniels barrels. At Glenmorangie, they talk about how the distillery owns a forest in Missouri, where trees are turned into barrels that are rented to Jim Beam, Jack Daniel and Heaven Hill for a single use, before the barrels are shipped on to their final destination, the Glenmorangie warehouse in Tain, Scotland.

Once in Scotland, these barrels are recharred and used one, two, maybe even three more times by a scotch distillery, before they are shuffled off to garden centers to use in pots or furniture - or broken up into chips for use in barbeque grilling. 

So it should make a little more sense why we had that intrusion on our enjoyment of those wonderful angel share smells. It’s a pretty normal circumstance to see ex-bourbon casks being delivered to scotch whisky warehouses. 

However, on this particular day in 1993, at Glen Keith’s Bond One warehouse the workers are in for an unexpected surprise. There is a rustling noise coming from within one of the crates...

What I am about to relate to you comes from a story I read on ScotchWhisky.com. It was 1993 and warehouse staff were moving toward this crate with curiosity.

How did something get in there? How did something survive inside that crate for four weeks on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Kentucky to Scotland? And the biggest question of all, what was it? It definitely wasn’t a mouse.

Confused on how to handle things, they called upstairs to the director of heritage for Chivas Brothers, the parent company of Glen Keith Distillery. 

“Alan, there’s something in this container. The boys can hear it moving around.”’

There, of course, are several ways you could take care of this issue. Most would not be very friendly to the beast that was inside the container. It was decided that the crate should be opened and some food should be used as a magnet, so pull the creature out, so they could try to capture it. They opened the crate slowly.

According to the ScotchWhisky.com article, Greig’s said what slowly emerged from the cask was a “‘very bedraggled, dirty, black-and-white little cat’, staggering and blinking in the light.”

She looked wholly unstable. Wobbling around from side to side.

Somehow this little feline had mistakenly been shut into this crate (most likely by hiding out in one of the barrels) while in Kentucky. And then she made the four-week-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean and then by truck across Scotland in her little wooden prison cell.

Apparently the condensation inside the barrels was enough to keep her from using up all nine of her lives. But it did leave her in quite the confused state. She quickly adopted the name Dizzy. And Dizzy was a hit. She quickly evolved from visitor to chief distillery cat for Glen Keith.

But a proper working cat couldn’t go long with the name Dizzy, so they changed her name to Passport. A fitting name, due to her world travels, skip past immigration, and the fact that she arrived at the distillery that was known for producing the blended scotch whiskey called Passport.

Apparently attempts were made to find out which Kentucky distillery she came from, but no one ever found out. Passport remained the distillery cat until Glen Keith was shut down and mothballed in 1999. She moved over to neighboring Strathisla for some time, but eventually retired to the home of a distillery worker and lived out her years with plenty of food and water to supplement her dietary needs. 

It was during my first distillery journey across Kentucky that I discovered the concept of distillery cats. Yes, they are a thing. 

My first encounter with a distillery cat was when my tour group was hearing about the distillation process in the still room at Willett in Bardstown. There was quite a commotion and that is when a white and beige colored tabby went strolling confidently by, stopping only to absorb a few pets from the clientele.  This was Noah, who carried the same name as one of Willett’s whiskey selections Noah’s Mill. 

While we were doing our tasting at the end of the tour, Noah found a perch in the back of the room on a red velvet pillow atop a dark leather chair. And there, he remained casually observing the scene as we sipped our many samples.

When I asked how many distilleries utilized distillery cats, I found out there were quite a few. I was told I needed to stop by Kentucky Peerless in Louisville to meet Rye, who apparently is an Instagram star, and who I found out later, is very friendly and very accessible to visitors to the distillery.

Another famous feline star is Rick Key over at Castle & Key distillery, although unlike Rye who tends to stay around the visitor’s center, Rick Key is out patrolling the property and isn’t always the easiest to spot.

And some cats are legendary. Over at Woodford Reserve, you may see a plaque denoting the favorite hangout for their 20 year veteran distillery cat named Elijah, who sadly passed a few years ago. Elijah was named after Elijah Pepper, the Virginia distiller who came to the present location of Woodford Reserve to start his distillery operations in 1812. The heir to Elijah’s throne (both the distiller and the cat) goes by the name of Oscar. In the distiller’s case, it was his son Oscar Pepper who in 1838 built the current distillery that houses Woodford Reserve and in the case of the cat, the next cat up was dubbed Oscar as well.

But no tale about distillery cats would be complete without talking about the most fearsome feline patroler of them all. A cat whose standing in the Guinness Book of World Records may never be challenged.  

I wanted to learn more about the amazing exploits of this legendary mouser, so I headed up to Perthshire, Scotland on the banks of the Turret River and had a chat with Sheena, who was manning the visitor’s center at Glenturret Distillery and who had a great deal of knowledge about this legendary feline and the cats who have followed in her footsteps. 

“Towser is probably the most famous cat of any distillery in Scotland, to be honest. She was back here in sort of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. She was here her whole life and she was a proper working cat. Slightly ferrell, I think. Most people probably by the stories that they tell, beautiful cat but quite ill tempered. But caught a fantastic amount of mice.” 

In fact, this ferocious mouse catching wonder is actually immortalized by a bronze statue outside the doors of the stillhouse she once patrolled. She’s a throwback to another era, well before tour groups and Instagram.

IMPORTANCE OF CATS THEN

“So really, for Towser she was really here to catch vermin, there’s no doubts about it. We did malt barley back then. There would be piles of barley, it would attract vermin, so she definitely was a proper working cat.”

So how did Towser end up in the Guinness Book of World Records? Sheena thinks it was most likely her age that drew their interest. She lived to the ripe old age of 24 years old. She was apparently still in mousing shape when they came to call. So many mice would it take for Towser to gather this rather legendary status? 

HOW DID GUINNESS FIGURE UP HER MOUSING PROWESS?

“What they suggest is that they averaged about three mice a day and she caught 28,899 mice to be precise. But I think the story suggests that she caught an awful lot more than that.” “She was a natural born killer, I think it’s safe to say. But she was very good at doing it, yeah. Very good at mousing”

Apparently, the Guinness folks ran around the property, looking for dead mice as part of their proof to justify their three mice a day average. But Towser was in her twenties by then, pretty long in the tooth for a hunter. It is very possible that she was even more prolific through her prime years. There is a rumor that she may have been receiving a little extra fuel in her daily rations.

STILLMEN LOOK AFTER THEM / TOWSER MILK

“Cause it is the stillman’s job, as part of their agreement, to look after the cats here at Glenturret. They feed them, they make sure they’re well, they take them to the vet if they need, they deflea them if that has to happen. And yeah, the story is that every morning in her milk, Towser got just a little bit of the new make spirit. So is that why she lived so long? Is that why she was so ill tempered, nursing a 24 year old perhaps hangover, who knows? But it certainly served her well.”

Will her record ever be broken or even approached? Can the current resident kitties at Glenturret ever hope to fill her shoes?

“The cats that we have today are uber friendly, Glen and Turret, very aptly named. They’re more real therapets to be honest. You know they’re so affectionate and so sweet and the customers obviously love them. They do catch mice, there are mice in the distillery, but not at the same volume as Towser, so they are never gonna come close to her record.”

But it comes down to more than just the demeanor of the cats. There is also a smaller volume of mice to deal with. No, it wasn’t that Towser’s work was so impactful that mice just migrated away from Glenturret.

The reason for that vast amount of mice at any distillery would be the tasty piles of malted barley that were storing and processing on-site. But malting is a process that requires a large amount of floor space and today’s distilleries just don’t have the room anymore. 

It also required a lot of hard labor. If you’ve seen the scotch blended whisky called Monkey Shoulder, its name derives from an affliction workers would get after hours of shoveling and turning malted barley. And so many distilleries now outsource their malt from barley malting companies.

With less mice to catch, it would seem today’s distillery cats have inherited the easy life. More lounging about and more public relations. 

TODAYS CATS

“So, our distillery cats are most definitely spoiled. There is no doubt about it. They get lots of love and attention. They’re always waiting at the door in the morning for whoever happens to come in first. They wait at the shop door and they know that when they come in, they get some treats. So they jump up and we give them a wee treat or cuddle and whatnot. And then they either just mosey on downstairs to their beds, or depending on the day they’ll maybe head outside and do a little mousing and looking about outside.  Really they’ve got quite a good life, I would suggest. During the night they probably come to life and we don’t really see that here. And you’ll not see that even in functions and it’s lovely because I think people are quite amazed, you know, that the cats are darting about. And they love it because they get a bit lonely. You know, there’s nobody here all night so in the morning you get a lovely welcome from them, so it's a really nice way to start the day.”

So how would Towser have adapted to this life of public relations? How well could this fierce hunter adapt to life as an ambassador for the company? Sheena told me she once had a visitor come in and show her a scar that Towser gave him back in the 1970s.

TOWSER IN THE GIFT SHOP VS TODAYS CATS

“Yes, I think Towser used to do that. Lie across the shop counter and terrorize anybody who looked at her. But no, Glen spends a lot of time, there’s a lovely comfy chair in the shop so he does spend a lot of time there, and they are very photogenic. On tour they will suddenly pop up on top of a cask as if to, you know by magic and people love that you know. They think it's great, so. Yeah, they love getting their photograph’s taken. (me - I was going to say, do they have social media followings) laughs, huge one’s yes. Yes, they’re very famous in their own right actually, which is lovely.”

So, with the maltings gone in 1985 and the record solidified, how did Towser spend her final days? Did she try to add to her tally? And was there a time the distillery considered maybe moving on from having an heir apparent?

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CATS TODAY AND WHEN ONE GETS LOST

“She would have been in her retirement it’s safe to say. The instinct’s always there with a cat so she probably would have kept on right til the end. But yeah as I say, now for us it’s part of who we are. If we don’t see the cats for a few days, we all become quite concerned. We need to find them. You know and we’re all just really really fond of them. They’re lovely. They’re lovely to have around.”

Now, full disclosure, I am a bit of a cat person myself, but I had to ask for all my canine loving friends, is there such a thing as a distillery dog? 

DISTILLERY DOGS?

“There’s an old photograph that dates back to 1905 that shows the stillman here sitting at the building with a collie dog that was the manager’s dog. He was called Fly. You know, such a nice story that we brought a whisky out in Fly’s honor. We had a 16 year old Glenturret called the Fly’s Master Edition. And again, Fly would be a working dog. He would be catching rats and mice here at the distillery as well back then.”

I asked Sheena if she thought a dog could easily replace a cat as a king mouser.

 “Oh I don’t think they’d even come close to be honest (dogs catching mice vs cats), laughs. I think the cats definitely have it in that side of it, yeah.”

Towser’s record has now stood for over 35 years and looks to be safe for the foreseeable future. But the legend of distillery cats in general continues to grow.

Next time you’re visiting a distillery, ask them if they have a distillery cat prowling the grounds. Or check out their social media feed, you may find one there. There have been several books written about distillery cats, the most famous by culinary and drinks author Brad Thomas Parsons. You can see his distillery cat feed at Instagram.com/distillerycats 

None of them have experienced anything like the harrowing journey of Passport’s and his transatlantic journey in a bourbon barrel - or Towser’s prolific tally as a terrorizing tabby, but they all serve a purpose, whether it is catching a daily allotment of mice, being friends to the workers at the distillery, or being therapets for us to enjoy while we tour a distillery far from our own pets and our own home.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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And stop by whiskey-lore.com for show notes and details from this and other episodes.

Thanks to Sheena, Sue, Gemma, Lucy at Glenturret for showing me around and giving me an extra special tour - and to Glen and Turret for breaking away from their nap-time in stillhouse to say hello. Make sure to check out my profiles on Instagram.com/whiskeylore and Facebook.com/whiskeylore to see my photos of the Towser statue and some of the distillery cats I’ve had the pleasure to meet.

And until next week, Cheers and Slainte mhath