The Scotch whisky industry has had a number of influential female figures throughout its history, but one of the earliest and arguably most legendary was Janet Harbinson, also known fondly as ‘Nettie’.
Harbinson is a remarkable figure in the history of luxury whisky brand The Macallan. Born in the Scottish town of Elgin in 1869, Janet Isabella Harbinson was the daughter of Roderick Kemp, the owner of the brand from 1892 to 1909, and she is widely considered the architect of the brand’s rise to prominence outside Scotland.
Harbinson became managing director at The Macallan in 1918 following the death of her beloved husband, Alexander Harbinson, just months before the end of WWI.
Taking over the business at the tail-end of a World War was an exceptional challenge, but Harbinson managed to pull through thanks to her passion and care for those around her and her dedication to the company and the community around it.
However, Neettie did more than just keep The Macallan business afloat. Over the 20 years she was in charge, she reinvigorated The Macallan distillery and brand, overseeing its time-honoured distillation and maturation processes, maintaining stock and developing limited releases.
One of her greatest accomplishments, though she did not know it at the time, was overseeing the distillation and maturation of The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926, which became one of the most valuable bottles of wine or spirits ever sold at auction when it fetched £1.5m (RM8.15mil) at Sotheby’s in 2019.
Even though she probably did not expect ‘Cask No 263’ to be so valuable when she laid it down back in 1926, the fact that it retained its quality after all these years is testament to her craft and legacy.
To commemorate Harbinson’s accomplishments and also to celebrate her crafting of The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926, The Macallan has released its first ever biopic – an eight-minute campaign film titled Nettie.
Starring actress Emily Mortimer as Harbinson, the film was developed in collaboration with some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed figures, including screenwriter Allan Shiach and director Mike Newell.
Newell is best known for acclaimed and popular films like Four Weddings And A Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Mona Lisa Smile, and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.
Renowned Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane created Nettie’s costumes and Scottish rock band, Simple Minds, wrote an exclusive track for the film as well.
According to Jaume Ferras, Global Creative Director for The Macallan and a producer of the film, they uncovered Janet Harbinson’s story when researching the background to The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926.
“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,” Ferras said in a press release.
“At its heart, this is a love story; 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.
“Guided by her conviction and strong belief in doing the next right thing for everyone she cared about, she unconsciously made history and it is only right that we pay tribute to her.”
While The Macallan has always been a staunch supporter of the arts, this is the first time they have launched a global film campaign.
However, Ferras said that film has always been in The Macallan’s DNA.
“Our whisky has appeared in the background of many movies and TV shows, even taking centre stage on occasion,” she said.
To underline that further, the screenwriter of Nettie, Alan Scott, is actually the pen name of The Macallan’s former chairman Allan Shiach, who is now an award-winning screenwriter whose Hollywood hits include Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Don’t Look Now, Castaway and the recent hit Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit.
Adding a further twist to the plot, it was Shiach himself who made the decision to bottle The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 after 60 years of maturation back in 1986, during his time as chairman of the company.
“Turning Nettie’s story into a film was a huge challenge, but a bit like Janet herself, we felt compelled to follow the courage of our convictions and give her contribution the treatment it truly deserves,” Ferras said.
“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,” she concluded.