When I first walk into the Castle and Key offices in Frankfort, the distillery’s newest employee almost immediately pops out to greet me. He’s wearing a short, baby blue tie and pounces on a nearby rubber snake toy.
Meet Ricky, Castle and Key’s first distillery cat.
“You couldn’t have interviewed better than Rick,” says Brett Connors, the distillery’s brand ambassador. “He is just such an outgoing cat.”
Connors adopted Ricky, a former stray, from a pet store in Lexington. This was after he found out the cat had FIV — feline immunodeficiency virus — which caused a lot of people to pass up adopting him as a typical housecat due to associated medical costs.
But Connors knew he could be an asset to the distillery.
“While he isn’t the security that we thought he would be, he’s kind of fallen into this ‘cat-bassadorship,’” Connors says. “More of a hospitality role.”
So, yeah, hiring a cat may seem a little strange. But Ricky is actually following in the footsteps — or uh, pawprints? — of a long line of distillery cats.
Maggie Kimberl, a bourbon journalist, says this is historically due to all the grain associated with the whiskey and bourbon-making process.
“And whenever you have any sort of agricultural product, you will of course, end up with pests,” Kimberl says. “Distillery cats are there to help control the mice population. They’re like a barn cat for whiskey.”
But aside from guarding the grain — something that is less important as distilleries have industrialized — many distillery cats become more of mascot.
According to Susan Reigler, author of “Kentucky Bourbon Country” and president of the Bourbon Women’s Association — that’s exactly what happened at Woodford Reserve in 1996 when a stray cat wandered onto the distillery grounds.
“This little orange cat that they dubbed Elijah — after Elijah Pepper, who was the original distiller on the property in 1812 — just hung around for the next 20 years,” Reigler says. “And he absolutely was an attraction. The tourists really took to him.”
Reigler says Elijah was a pretty amiable cat, which might’ve had something to do with the fact that he preferred hanging out in the warehouses.
“He was in there when, you know, it was filled with bourbon fumes,” Reigler says. “So Elijah was a very, very, very mellow cat.
Then in 2014, at the age of 20, Elijah died. This sparked the Twitter hashtag #rememberingElijah which people used to share their memories of the cat. Subsequently, Woodford Reserve installed a bronze plaque that reads: Elijah’s Favorite Spot — beloved distillery cat.
At Castle and Key, head distiller Marianne Barnes says it looks like Ricky will take on a role similar to Elijah’s.
“We’ve had several tours in which we’ll go down through the garden,” Barnes says. “He’s already in there just hanging out and he’ll pop out of the garden and check in with every single person, just to make sure the tour is going well, see if they need anything.”
Brett Connors and Barnes say they hope to adopt several more cats with conditions similar to Ricky, resulting in a full staff of cat-basadors for the bourbon brand.