A while back I was on a press trip visiting Glenfiddich distillery when their malt master Brian Kinsman mentioned some dogs that work at the distillery. Of course, I’ve previously heard about famous cats like Towser the Mouser who keep distillery buildings mouse-free, but I never really encountered working dogs at distilleries. That gave me the idea of researching what kinds of animals are working at distilleries or vineyards and what their jobs entail – some of these were quite surprising.
William Grant & Sons uses two red-haired cocker spaniels, Kevin and Toby, to find the bad casks in their production so they can be removed from circulation before spirit is added. This will ensure the top quality of Grant’s whisky. Kevin and Toby will sniff through the casks in all the William Grant warehouses in Scotland and Ireland. They are very social dogs when off-duty, but once the working vests are on, both go into full-on working mode ignoring anyone passing by. They then sniff through the casks and confidently spot the faulty barrels.
The first in the spirits industry was Rocco, who started his work in May 2021, but sadly he passed in June 2022 after an emergency surgery. Rocco was such a quality worker (and companion) it took two new recruits to replace him, Kevin and Toby. Kevin is the son of Rocco, and Toby comes from the same genetic stock, although he is not a direct descendant.
Both dogs were trained by Stuart Philips in Pembrokeshire in Wales, who also trained Rocco.
Similarly, dogs are being used to detect diseases in the wine industry. Sniffer dogs are used to find grapevine mealybugs that feed at the base of shoots. The bugs can prevent fruit growth or spread around, reducing crop yield. At Honing Vineyards in Napa Valley, they use Honey, a Labrador retriever, for the job. Dogs can also be used at vineyards to keep other animals that like to eat the vines at a distance. Some areas can have problems with deer, squirrels, wild pigs and other animals, and the dogs help to guard the vines.
Many distilleries in Mexico uses dogs for security reasons. Their job is to guard the distillery or offer protection to the workers in the fields when they are collecting agave.
While I was researching this article, I came across Anna Bruce on social media. She has written and illustrated a book about distillery dogs in Oaxaca, Perros y Palenques, to raise money for the sterilization and emergency care of local dogs. The black dog in the photo below is Rosita, who used to work as a guard dog, but fell ill and has now been adopted by Anna.
In Spain, in the Ratonero Bodeguero Andaluz, a certain type of terrier is used to keep the cellars clear of mice and rats. The Spanish breed of terrier is a mix from English fox terriers and local rat-hunting dogs. The breed has now been awarded protected status in Andalucia city.
It is clear, however, that most dogs at distilleries are there for companionship rather than serving a working purpose like Kevin and Toby.
During a recent distillery visit, I met both Glen and Turret. And as you probably guessed, these two cats are from The Glenturret Distillery, which also used to be the home of the famous Towser the Mouser between 1963 and 1987. She was not a friendly cat and apparently really didn’t like people. During her tenure at the distillery, her victim count was estimated at 28,899 mice, which she left on the floor of the still house, making it easier to keep count. She made it into the Guinness World Records with her mousing skills.
Glen is the ginger one who spends a lot of his time at the still house (on my last visit we actually ended up pausing the tour to follow the cat around the distillery). He uses a special ladder to access the still room – it’s all very cute.
Turret is more curious and tends to hang out with the distillery guests on the shop counter. I believe he is the more social one and Glen does most of the mousing jobs. Turret made the newspapers when he decided to take a holiday without alerting the distillery staff and headed to the nearby Crieff Hydro Hotel for a mini break. We can’t all be social every day, can we…?
Friar John Claw (FJC for short, pictured below) and Vesper are both very busy at Lindores Abbey distillery. I’ve been told that Vesper is a cracking mouser, whilst FJC tends to restrict his working practices to lounging around reception and the Legacy Bar to greet his adoring public.
Both Glenturret’s and Lindores’ cats made it into the recent Netflix documentary about cats, although I believe they didn’t get all their facts straight when it came to Towser, and the people at the distillery are rather upset about it. The show is called Inside the Mind of a Cat and was aired in autumn 2022. The show increased FJC and Vespie’s Instagram followers to nearly 70k!
You can also find a dog called Wallace at Lindores, although he doesn’t have a job as such, he’s more of a companion. Lindores Abbey is well known for being extremely dog-friendly and they even have flooring throughout so that dogs can accompany their owners on tours.
There are several distilleries that use cats to keep the mice at bay. If I was to list them all, this would be a very boring blog post, so I decided to stick to the most famous ones.
Horses & Donkeys
Horse-powered equipment was widely used in breweries and distilleries before steam or electric power was available. Horses were used for heavier work such as grinding grain and drawing water from the well. Even today, these animals are used to keep the traditions alive.
Horses are widely used in mezcal production to crush agave hearts. When the roasting is finished, the agave hearts are crushed and the most traditional, and most common, way is to use a stone wheel (known as Tahona), which is turned by horse or donkey.
In the heart of Santiago Matatlán you can find a distillery (palenque as it is known is Oaxaca) called Jicarita. They have a brown horse (pictured below), Popeye, who has a lot of experience with pulling the mill. The white one below is called Son. Son works at Don de la Luna and I’ve been told he is a bit of a star with mezcal lovers.
More about mezcal production, see my previous article A Quick Guide to Mezcal.
Similarly, the owners of Fair Oak Cider in Herefordshire in England have restored a 16th-century horse-powered cider press and employ Tommy the Gypsy Cob horse to walk around the press to crush the apples.
Breweries used to use horses to help out with the heavier workloads. Large breweries could have over 200 horses, requiring large stables and their own care staff. Some Midwestern breweries even had their own horse farms. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the home of Budweiser, has used horses for advertising. They even had an annual Super Bowl ad using their Budweiser Clydesdales.
The Budweiser Clydesdales refers to team of Clydesdale horses used to pull restored turn-of-the-century beer wagons for Budweiser. They first appeared in 1933, given as a gift to the brewery’s CEO from his son to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. The company is said to keep around 70 Clydesdales at Warm Springs Ranch in Missouri.
Young’s Brewery in Wandsworth, south-west London, used horses to make their beer deliveries for 400 years. Unfortunately, they had to put an end to this practice in 1997 due to complaints from motorists. The company also felt the animals were no longer safe due to the abuse and danger from motorists.
Yorkshire’s oldest brewery Samuel Smith has its own stables close to the brewery and for 15 years they have been using their horses to deliver barrels to pubs in and around the area. It all started as a way of keeping the horses fit and heathy. During the lockdown, with all the pubs and bars closed, they took orders from local residents and delivered their orders with the horse-drawn cart in the hopes of boosting morale.
When you visit Bosscal distillery in Durango, you’ll be greeted by Arturo the Donkey, who is an important team member of Bosscal Mezcaleros. Not only is he extremely intelligent (albeit stubborn at times), but he also helps to transport the agaves from the mountains to the distillery. The region is very mountainous and rocky, so Arturo really is a life saver.
Yes, working birds is a thing. Maybe not so often at distilleries, but wineries use them regularly. A Loire Valley producer is using 250 chickens to an acre of his vineyard. Their job is to help with the upkeep of the land.
A grape grower in the cabernet franc-producing appellation of Bourgeuil, has fenced off part of his vineyard to allow the chickens to roam free, and the fencing will prevent any foxes from attacking the birds. The chickens are used to scratch and aerate the soil and eat both grass and insects.
When using chickens, growers must be very careful once the grapes start to mature to avoid the birds feeding on them too. It is better to keep the chickens elsewhere at that stage.
South African vineyard Vergenoegd Löw Wine Estate has used nearly a thousand Indian Runner ducks in place of pesticides to eat snails and insects in the vineyard. This practice has gone on for over 30 years. The ducks run to the vineyard every morning, patrol the 140-acre estate for five hours, and then return to their pens to rest after a hard day’s work. Pretty amazing.
Chilean winery Cono Sur has over 1,000 geese used to eat the grape-eating beetles. These birds roam freely amongst the vines helping to keep them free from bugs.
Even hawks are being used at vineyards to keep away other birds who are after the grapes. The use of hawks means they do not need nets to cover their vines. Seems a bit excessive, though…
I also came across other animals, such as mini-pigs and sheep who eat the grass and weeds. Bats are being used to eat moths to save vineyards from grey rot, bees help increase biodiversity and create healthier ecosystems, which then results in better grapes. Even armadillos(!!) are being used to eat worms.
Whether the animals are there for working purposes or not, they tend to be popular amongst visitors and can even boost sales. And the morale of the workers. I have to admit, after hearing that you can meet alpacas and llamas at The Lakes Distillery, I am even more interested in paying them a visit.
Many distilleries use their dogs as the brand mascot, and some are even putting their dogs on the label or naming gins after them. You could say these dogs are working in the marketing department.
Have you come across any distillery animals? Did they have a job or were they just there for the meet and greet?