Chinese New Year – The Year of.. the distillery cat?

Although we’ve only just packed away our Christmas decorations at the Scotch Whisky Experience, there’s plenty of festivities still to look forward to, and our Senior Visitor Assistant, Jethro Rolland, has been doing a little research into one of them.

One of the first big nights in our calendar (aside from Burns Night, naturally) is the Lunar New Year. As the moon rises on the cusp of February 1st we, and many of our visitors, will be saying goodbye to the Year of the Ox, and seeing in the Year of the Tiger together.

Each year’s Zodiac sign is associated with a set of traits for those who are born that year. If you have the good fortune to be born in the year of the Tiger, you might well be destined to combine a passionate emotional side with unstoppable ambition and drive.

This holds true as much in the whisky world as anywhere else. Take the senior John Crabbie (born 1806). He was a Fire Tiger, and he transformed a humble spirit merchants’ in Leith into a veritable business empire operating distilleries and breweries, building tenements, and even refining sugar here in Edinburgh. He was so successful that he didn’t limit himself to Scotland – he shipped whisky across the world, and his brands were drank as far away as New Zealand. When he died, he left over £300,000 to his heirs – worth around £25 million today!

Then there’s Captain Hugh Munro (born 1770) who was a Metal Tiger by birth, and a distiller and ex-soldier by profession. He overcame adversary to play a leading part in one of the greatest whisky love stories. It’s such a good yarn that we still talk about his life – two centuries after he lived it! – every week during our Tasting Tales experience.

It’s been refreshing to see more and more Scotch whisky companies getting in on the festivities for the Lunar New Year, and in recent years we’ve been lucky enough to have seen some really beautiful celebratory bottles from Douglas Laing and the Macallan. Ahead of this year’s festivities, Johnnie Walker and Glenmorangie have commissioned some of their best designs yet – a special Blue Label and a special 21-year-old respectively – both of which glisten with swirling linework and shimmering colour.

Unfortunately – and I hope this will not come as a shock to anyone – although they look stunning on our box art, actual tigers have never been native to Caledonia. That means you won’t come across one going for afternoon tea at the Balmoral any time soon.

But there’s one member of our fine fauna that can match the majesty of the tiger. A creature so ferocious that we still gather round the fire and whisper of its legendary kills:

The Scottish moggy.

See, when you make whisky, you need a real sizable supply of grain. On paper, it takes about two and a half kilos of barley to make a litre of alcohol. Times that by 21 million litres, which is the amount some of the largest single malt producers can make every year, and you’ve just about made a mouse paradise. The sleekit beasties get everywhere in Scotland.

For 18th-century farm distilleries, slogging away turning heaps of their own barley (and remember, this is way before you could just give the Rentokil guy a bell) keeping the mice out would have been like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Luckily for them, the Romans gifted us an organic, chemical free, easy-to-maintain tool for rodent control – the cat!

Towser of The Glenturret

When I say that we still tell tales of their astonishing hunting skill, I’m not exaggerating. Towser, a tortie working her trade at The Glenturret, is said to have dispatched 28,899 furry pests in her lifetime. If you put all her wee trophies in a row, the fuzzy grey line would stretch from Edinburgh Castle to Ullapool (plus you’d really perturb the poor locals in Cowdenbeath by laying it straight through their high street).

Towser was so skilled at her trade that she earned an appearance in the Guiness Book of Records, under ‘Greatest Mouser’. More importantly, 30 years after she had passed away, she received what I consider to be the highest honour the nation of Scotland can bestow on any of her citizens – she had a bottle of whisky named after her.

Towser’s position hasn’t been retired: they’ve employed an Official Mouser at the distillery ever since! There’s even a tradition of visitors sending back Christmas cards to the mousers from across the world – if you want to join in 2022, you’ll want to address your card to the current joint mousers, Glen and Turret.

Towser remains the most famous of all Scotch distillery cats, but plenty of other distilleries have hardworking felines of their own.

With modern food hygiene, and the switch to malting barley offsite, there’s much less need for dedicated mousers – but that doesn’t mean they’re idle. Many of them have simply swapped one type of mouse for another.

Smoky and Peaty of Kilchoman

The best opportunity for an ambitious pet is to learn how to wrangle social media. That’s what’s happened at Kilchoman, on Islay, where Smoky and Peaty aren’t just expert pest control, they also pose beautifully for Instagram. Visitors love to go home with snaps of the pair in their pocket alongside their drivers’ drams. Despite going digital, these guys are some of the few distillery cats that might have the chance to beat Towser, since Kilchoman still operate a working malting floor for them to patrol.

Friar John Claw and Vesper of Lindores Abbey

Venture over to Lindores Abbey, in Fife, and you’ll be able to meet distillery kitties Friar John Claw and Vesper, who have a whole Instagram account dedicated just to them. These two are so thoroughly viral that they were named via the Internet, with hundreds of suggestions from across the world flooding into Lindores’ email.

Elvis Juracat of Jura

The pioneer of posting was the resident puss on the Isle of Jura, Elvis Juracat. Not satisfied with posing, entrepreneurial Elvis took matters into his own paws back in 2010. He was festooned with a cat-cam, and took photos of his route around the distillery whole island for the Jura website, delighting attendees of that year’s Jura Music Festival.

So we might not be able to boast any big cats here in Scotland – but I’m sure you’ll agree that our home-grown prowlers show more than their fair share of ambition, ferocity and personality. Why not celebrate the Lunar New Year by booking a distillery visit in 2022 to see some of Scotland’s fiercest Highland Tigers up close?

Slàinte Mhath!

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