Lifestyle / Alcohol

The Macallan’s “The Spirit of 1926” Pays Tribute to Janet Harbinson

The eight-minute biopic chronicles the pivotal moments of Janet Harbinson, as she assumed the role as The Macallan’s first female Managing Director.

Feb 16, 2023 | By Joseph Low

As one of the most prolific whisky distilleries in the world, many are familiar with The Macallan and its range of exquisite whiskies. From the Double Cask range to M collection and more recently, The Harmony Collection: Inspired by Intense Arabica, the whisky maker constitutes about one-third of the world’s single malt whisky market.

Founded in 1824 by Alexander Reid, a barley farmer and school teacher, he became the first to be granted a licence to distil whisky on the Speyside Estate. In 1918, Reid passed on and his wife, Janet Harbinson became the distillery’s first-ever managing director.

In those days, women’s position were inferior to that of men and a large distillery like The Macallan presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those interested. However, Nettie was adamant to keep his husband’s legacy alive and the community that they had built so she rejected selling the distillery away. Her dedication to her craft and her compassionate nature towards those in her community kept the business afloat and played a role in revitalising the local area. And along the way, she also crafted The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926, which is the most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold in an auction.

To shed light on Nettie and her life story, The Macallan created an eight-minute film, “The Spirit of 1926”, under the direction of renowned filmmaker, Mike Newell. Ahead, we speak with him to learn more about the biopic and the creative process behind it.

In your own words, could you share a brief summary for The Spirit of 1926 and if there’s a message you’re hoping to highlight in this topic? 

Mike Newell, film director of The Spirit of 1926.

The Spirit of 1926 is an eight-minute campaign film telling the story of Janet Harbinson, who without setting out to do so, in 1926 crafted the most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at auction. Janet took charge of The Macallan in the turbulent, fast-changing years between the first and second World Wars, following the death of her beloved husband.

By doing the right thing for her family, the community and The Macallan she unconsciously made history and is The Macallan’s values personified; it is a brand that cares deeply and does extraordinary things with great humility. Through this film, I sought to highlight Nettie’s courage in the face of grief, as well as her spirit of innovation and dedication to fine craftsmanship — values that I feel The Macallan embodies. 

Could you tell us a little bit more about Janet Harbinson’s story and why you think now is the ideal time for The Macallan to share it with the public and through the medium of film?

Given that assuming her late husband’s role of Managing Director of the single malt brand would make her one of the few women in that position at the time, it’s clear to see how it would have required immense courage and an unwavering sense of duty to her community, for her to commit to such a difficult decision. 

On discovering her story, Jaume Ferras, Creative Director for The Macallan, he knew that it had to be shared, and in a way that would do it justice. I am proud to be part of the assembly of collaborators to bring to life Nettie’s remarkable story and the profound legacy she left on The Macallan for audiences around the world. 

Despite being a storied distillery, only a few people are acquainted with the history of The Macallan, especially that of Janet Harbinson. What has been challenging in the creative process to bring resonance to these characters?

One of the initial challenges was bringing together a crew and number of collaborators that honoured the legacy of Nettie. However, the talent that all played a part in this film was incredible. 

I’ve known and admired Allan Scott as a writer since I first met him 40 years ago. Emily Mortimer (Nettie) made a character who was both sweet and mysterious, she brought a wonderful, imaginative energy to the role. Christopher Kane’s costumes for Nettie were absolutely gorgeous, each costume plugged into a different facet of Nettie’s character and the costuming of the rest of the characters in the film was faultless. Simple Minds’ music felt inspired by the landscape of the film, very subtle but very strong. Andrew Sanders’ production design absolutely achieved one’s complete belief in the place and the period. 

Janet Harbinson was one of the first few female managing directors of a whisky distillery, and she had certainly shaped the values of the brand. How were the scenes directed to bring out these values she espoused?

She was courageous and emotionally very free. The story is all about that. It is why she does what she does at every step. She never gave up on making the stuff that she made good and that became part of the DNA of the company, The Macallan. 

She never gave up on her instincts and skills in crafting the whisky she made so well and that became the most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at auction. 

What does the legacy of Janet Harbinson mean to you, and how did you characterise it through the film?

Nettie’s legacy to me highlights the importance of having the right values as a driving force behind all that you do. Nettie’s sense of courage, compassion and duty to her community were undeniably key motivating factors behind the difficult decision she made when she stepped up to the challenge — without those values, The Macallan would not be where it is today — that in itself is testament to Nettie’s legacy and the impact that it has had, even today. 

I characterised it within the film through how we portrayed her — highlighting how she stepped up following the passing of her husband, how she united her community through her work, and how she set about to rebuild the local area following a period of turbulence. 

Was there a scene in the film that you felt epitomised Janet Harbinson’s ability to bring her community together through her stewardship of The Macallan? 

Personally, I felt that the scene where she declined the offer to buy the business, as well as the condescending advice that came with it, perfectly summed up the robust nature of Nettie’s character, and her love for her community. Going against the grain and making difficult decisions out of love are always the hardest decisions to make, and I felt that Nettie’s defiant spirit in that scene perfectly encapsulated the compassion and strength needed to unite her community. 

You have directed numerous critically acclaimed films like Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral to name a few, how different was it like directing The Spirit of 1926? 

I think that always the same rules apply to any period, get the visual details right, clothes, furniture, cars etc and make sure the actors don’t think or respond to the world of the story in anything other than a way that is correct for the period. 

What were the considerations when choosing the lead actress for the film and why was Emily Mortimer chosen for the role? 

We chose Emily because she displayed intelligence, forward-thinking, resourcefulness and dedication to uncompromised excellence that we felt both Nettie and The Macallan embodied. In addition, Emily Mortimer has forged a highly accomplished career as an actress, writer, producer and director that reflects Janet’s determination to succeed as managing director of The Macallan. 

Working together with The Macallan team must have been quite an experience, what was an interesting discovery that you learned while working with the distillery? 

The Macallan have always set themselves to be the best. That tradition of excellence has a very strong historical root. 

The Macallan has a long association with the film industry. Did that play a part in why and how this film was made?

The Macallan has an extensive portfolio of film and television appearances, appearing in a remarkable number of productions over the years. Featuring in numerous roles as well as a background scene setter, the whisky quietly adds depth and context to the scene in which it appears. I used this as inspiration as part of the process in creating this film. 

Personally, do you have a favourite whisky from The Macallan and how do you usually enjoy it? 

I’m very fond of The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old – I like it with either a single block of ice or a splash of cold water. 

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