Woman who created the world's most valuable whisky more than 100 years ago remembered on film

A woman who took the reins of a Speyside distillery more than 100 years ago following the death of her husband and went on to unwittingly make the most expensive whisky ever to be sold at auction has been remembered in a new short-film.

Janet Harbinson became managing partner of The Macallan at Craigellachie in 1918 after the sudden loss of her beloved Alexander, a doctor from Northern Ireland who went into the whisky business following his marriage.

Following his death, Ms Harbinson – known as Nettie – resisted pressure to sell the business and took over its running in a bid to secure the jobs of the distillery workers.

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During her tenure, she distilled The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926, which fetched £1.5m at Sotheby’s in 2019 and still stands as the most valuable drop of wine or whisky in the world.

A new short film – The Spirit of 1926 - about Harbinson’s life and dedication to the business has been written by Allan Scott, the pen name for Allan Shiach, a former chairman of The Macallan and the great nephew of Nettie.

Jaume Ferras, Global Creative Director for The Macallan and a producer of the film, said: “We uncovered Janet Harbinson’s story when researching the background to The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 and 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 future development of the brand.

Mr Shiach, as chairman, took the decision to bottle The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 after 60 years of maturation in 1986.

As a screenwriter, his credits include the stage version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the recent Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, which he produced. His eight-minute film in tribute to Nettie stars Emily Mortimer as his great aunt.

Janet Harbinson who distilled the world's most expensive whisky back in 1926. PIC: Macallan.Janet Harbinson who distilled the world's most expensive whisky back in 1926. PIC: Macallan.
Janet Harbinson who distilled the world's most expensive whisky back in 1926. PIC: Macallan.

Mr Shiach said: “I was particularly asked not to make a “commercial” for The Macallan and so the ability to turn it into a tribute to Nettie Harbinson was a notion I grasped with delight.

"She represented, both then and now, all the values which I believe important to the company: a craft, more than an industry, handed down through the generations. I would like people to feel a sense of the warmth and care with which the company produces single malt whisky.”

Mr Shiach called in his friends to work on the project, with the short film directed by Mike Newell, whose credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Mona Lisa Smile, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

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Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane created a series of 1920s outfits for the film using The Macallan tweed and handmade lace with Simple Minds creating the film’s exclusive soundtrack.Mrs Harbinson died at her home in Elgin in 1938 and was survived by two daughters.

An article about her death at the time recalled her “charitable disposition and her many acts of benevolence”.

When The Macallan Fine & Rare 60 Year Old 1926 sold at auction in 2019, it broke the world record for the most valuable whisky, which had been set the year before by another bottle of 1926 malt from the distiller.

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