Fortitude made The Macallan Fine and Rare 1926; and her name was Janet ‘Nettie’ Harbinson
The remarkable chapter in The Macallan’s history also created the most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at an auction.
In 1926, when the rich and fruity new-make Macallan spirit was poured into ex-sherry cask No 263 in Speyside, Scotland, no one would have guessed that one bottle would sell at Christie’s Auction in London on Nov 29, 2018, for a record-breaking £1.2 million (S$1.95 million) – the first individual whisky to ever surpass £1 million.
That feat would be eclipsed by a £1.5 million sale in 2019 at Sotheby’s London, with the contender being yet again the 60-year-old single malt from the very same cask. The record continues to hold.
Today, very limited quantities of The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 can be found. So, what makes the prized bottle so celebrated? For the makers at The Macallan and the owners of the label, the answer lies not just in the golden dram, but also in the spirit of that era – when Ms Janet Isabella Harbinson surmounted expectations and became the first female managing director of The Macallan in the 1920s.
Honouring this milestone in the distillery’s history, the brand has launched an eight-minute film titled The Macallan – The Spirit of 1926.
The Macallan – The Spirit of 1926 is a short film honouring Ms Janet Isabella Harbinson, the first female managing director of The Macallan. Video: The Macallan
A CHAMPION OF LOVE
Ms Harbinson – or more affectionately known as Nettie – was well-loved by The Macallan workers of the time. The daughter of Mr Roderick Kemp, who owned The Macallan from 1892 to 1909, she supported her husband Alexander Harbinson as he took the reins of the family business after her father’s passing.
Sadly, it was not the only death Nettie had to deal with. In 1918, just months before the end of the First World War, Mr Harbinson passed away suddenly, leaving The Macallan Distillery without a captain. Faced with opportunistic buyers, a grim setting, and her own loss, Nettie did the unthinkable – she took control of the business.
In an industry dominated by men, Nettie found strength in not just honouring her family and husband’s good work, but also in something she had already been doing – supporting the wives and widows of workers who had left for the war. She understood that the heritage of The Macallan went beyond the dram, and that her community needed her more than ever.
“At its heart, this is a love story,” said Mr Jaume Ferras of The Spirit of 1926. The global creative director of The Macallan added: “It celebrates the love that Nettie had for her husband, her love for the local community, her love for nature and her love for the family business. She cared deeply about others and was determined to use her position at The Macallan to enrich the lives of those around her.”
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
The story of Nettie almost never came to be.
“We uncovered Janet Harbinson’s story when researching the background to The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926,” revealed Mr Ferras, who also produced the film. “We knew we had to share it as soon as we learned of her role in its distillation and maturation, as well as the deep influence she had on the development of the brand.”
To create the inspiring biopic, veteran filmmaker Mike Newell was roped in. His previous work with Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile, and Great Expectations made him the perfect auteur to tell this story of a leader who found courage in her grief.
Portraying Nettie was award-winning British-American actress Emily Mortimer. Her nuanced performance and relatable presence brought the heroine to life, and through the process, she personally discovered more to her character’s motivations.
“There are some people who take what they do very seriously and care, not just about the product they’re producing, but about the people who work for them and what they are adding to the world,” the actress shared. “There’s something about that whisky, made under her watch in 1926, that symbolises the heart of the company and what The Macallan whisky is all about.”
Mr Ferras agrees. “Guided by her conviction and strong belief in doing the next right thing for everyone she cared about, she unconsciously made history,” he said.
AN INCOMPARABLE JOURNEY
The Spirit of 1926 represents the extraordinary results of an undertaking when a talented team is formed – both on-screen and off-screen.
Said Mr Ferras: “Film is in The Macallan’s DNA. Our whisky has appeared in the background of many movies and TV shows, even taking centre stage on occasion, and our former chairman Allan Shiach is an award-winning screenwriter.”
Better known by his pen name Allan Scott, Mr Shiach counts many illustrious titles as his work, including Queen of the Desert, Castaway and the recent Netflix hit series, The Queen’s Gambit. He is also the great nephew of Nettie, and it was he who decided to bottle The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 after 60 years of maturation in 1986.
The film drew partnership with other esteemed associates. Bentley Motors pulled out a Bentley Speed Six motor car from the era to set the tone, and the rousing hero song was composed and recorded by Scottish band, Simple Minds. If the lavish period costumes caught your eye, it’s because they came from fashion designer Christopher Kane, known for his eponymous label.
“Each of our incredible collaborators has done a magnificent job of bringing to life our vision of Nettie,” said Mr Ferras. “We can never repay her for her wisdom, her courage, her care and her craftsmanship, but we hope through our film, our gratitude as a brand shines through.”
Discover the lady and her story in the short biopic film, The Macallan – The Spirit of 1926.