Pet Tales: Putting cats to work in distilleries and breweries

When brewery workers found a stray kitten trapped in a grain bin, there was little question about what they would do.

“It’s only natural that a brewery named Creature Comforts would take in a cat,” said author Brad Thomas Parsons in the first chapter of his charming book, “Distillery Cats: Profiles in Courage of the World’s Most Spirited Mousers.”

They named the kitten Automatic because the white domestic shorthair was found on the same day Creature Comforts Brewing Co. launched its seasonal Automatic Pale Ale in Athens, Ga.

When a brewmaster driving in Brooklyn stopped to investigate a noise coming from under the hood of a car, he found a tabby cat huddled within the engine block, seeking warmth on a cold New York morning. The cat was named Hoodie and sent 60 miles north to the Newburgh Brewing Co., where she rewarded rescuers by killing 57 mice in her first four years on the job as a brewery cat. 

Twenty-eight other cats that work in breweries and distilleries all over the country (although sadly none in Pittsburgh) are profiled in text accompanied by a whimsical portrait of each cat by artist Julia Kuo. Many of the cats, including Hoodie, take their job duties above and beyond rodent control, enjoying the attention and affection of employees and posing for camera phone selfies with visitors.

All but one of the cats were adopted from shelters or plucked directly from streets where they lived as ferals. 

“This book combines two passions of mine — writing about spirits and writing about cats,” said Mr. Parsons, 48, in a telephone interview.

The dedication page is “For Louis” with a drawing of a striped cat clad in a tuxedo bib and black tie. Louis, 14, lives in Brooklyn with the author.

Mr. Parsons has written two other books: “Amoro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs” and “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All,” which won the James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards. His articles have been published in Bon Appetit, Lucky Peach, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure and Punch.

Distilleries and breweries are filled with wheat, barley, rye and corn that provide “a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet” for rats and mice, Mr. Parsons writes in the book’s introduction. Using cats to “protect our spirits at the source” is a centuries-old tradition, especially in Scotland and Ireland.

Today many distilleries and breweries view cats as a green alternative to putting out poison bait around ingredients destined to be consumed by people.

Not every feline has what it takes. Brewery cats need to be friendly with people “yet possess the instincts of a cold-blooded killer,” Mr. Parsons writes.

“Distillery Cats” makes it clear that every cat has a unique personality, and not all of them become people-pleasers.

Empirical Brewery in Chicago adopted a quartet of feral cats from the Tree House Humane Society, which has a Cats At Work program that places ferals with local businesses. Empirical named them after characters in the 1984 movie “Ghostbusters” — Venkman, Ray, Egon and Gozer. They’ve made the rats disappear, but only Ray allows humans to pet him.

“Venkman likes to be left alone. Egon doesn’t even like to be looked at,” said CEO Bill Hurley.

State and local local regulations vary widely, with some distillery cats having the full approval of their local health department, Mr. Parsons said. Other cats work under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” brewery policy. Distilleries and breweries in the book told the author cats are kept out of  areas where food is produced and where a sterile environent is needed, which includes the grain crusher, kettle and fermenter.

Brewery cats are fed and receive veterinary care and have been spayed, neutered and vaccinated. 

The  website of the Tree House Humane Society says that when working cats are fed regularly, they generally don’t eat the rodents they kill. Since 2005, the Chicago shelter’s Cats At Work program has placed more than 500 “community cats” (which some people call ferals or stray cats) in warehouses, factories, condo building, on farms and in suburban backyards.

Shelters and rescues in the Pittsburgh area have started doing this, generally with barn cats, “on a small scale” according to one local shelter worker. I’ll be writing more about that in the near future.

“Distillery Cats” goes on sale Tuesday from Ten Speed Press for $14.99. The author and publisher didn’t want a big expensive coffee table book, so this one is 5½ by 8 inches with 104 pages. It also includes recipes for cocktails featuring ingredients from distilleries in the book, such as the Caterwaul — with Belle Meade bourbon, zucca, Cocchi vermouth and apricot liqueur — from Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, Tenn.  

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064 or on Facebook.