In the world of Scotch whisky, few names carry the weight of legacy and prestige like The Macallan. While the brand itself is synonymous with excellence, I recently learned that behind its renowned success was a woman of remarkable influence and dedication.

Janet Harbinson, granddaughter of Alexander Reid, the founder of The Macallan distillery, and daughter of Roderick Kemp, was born in 1901. Janet was not only a direct link to the origins of The Macallan but was known to be resilient, passionate, and caring person. Her life unfolded against the backdrop of a changing world.

Early Years and Family Heritage

The Macallan distillery was established in 1824, and Janet was born into a family deeply entrenched in the whisky-making tradition. Her upbringing immersed her in the craft, fostering a deep appreciation for the art of whisky production.

Despite the challenges of the era, Janet’s family persevered, nurturing The Macallan’s growth and reputation. Through her lineage, she inherited not just a business but a commitment to excellence and a reverence for the process of whisky-making.

Her connection to The Macallan was not merely by lineage but personal involvement. Janet was not a spectator by any means; she was an active participant in the brand’s journey, serving as a custodian of its values and traditions. She was instrumental in bringing global acclaim to a brand that had humble Scottish beginnings.

The Spirit of Dedication

Janet, also known as Nettie, embodied the values of dedication, perseverance, and attention to detail that were integral to the distillery’s success. Her contributions extended beyond familial ties; she was a custodian of the brand’s heritage, preserving its essence while embracing innovation.

Nettie, and her husband Alexander Harbinson, were known to have lived life to the fullest and had many friends. They were described as 40 year teenagers in the short documentary film “The Spirit of 1926”. But when her husband suddenly passed away, the distillery faced a pivotal point in history.

At the time, it was presumed that Janet, as a woman, would sell the family business. Suitors were surprised that she ultimately decided to take the reigns and carry on the family’s legacy. And why not? After all, she understood the heritage as well as the day-to-day of the business operations better than anyone else. Why should she give up what generations before her had built up? 

Her role in steering The Macallan through challenging economic times post World War II  cannot be overstated. During periods of change and upheaval, Janet’s unwavering commitment ensured that the distillery stayed true to its roots while adapting to the evolving whisky landscape. As one of the very first women to lead in the whisky industry, she was credited for overseeing the distillation and maturation steps and developing time releases.

At an auction almost one hundred years later, a bottle of The Macallan (1926) by Janet Harbinson became the most valuable single bottle of wine and spirit in the world. That bottle broke world records and is still considered the most valuable whisky ever sold at  £1.5m at Sotheby’s auction house..

The Spirit of 1926

Honouring Janet’s Legacy

The legacy of Janet Harbinson lives on as an integral part of The Macallan’s identity. Her commitment to quality, tradition, and innovation remains embedded in the brand’s DNA. Her spirit continues to inspire generations within The Macallan, serving as a guiding light for those who follow in her footsteps and particularly women.

She was considered a trailblazer. In 2002, she was recognized as the oldest living woman in Scotland before she passed away at the remarkable age of 110 in 2012. Her longevity was not merely a testament to genetics but also a testament to her vibrant spirit and zest for life.

A beautiful short documentary film was made in honour of Janet “Nettie” Harbinson. Janet was played by Emily Mortimer (The Ghost and the Darkness, Matchpoint, Shutter Island, Elizabeth, Hugo) and directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblets of Fire). You can watch it here.

Recently, The Macallan unveiled “The Red Collection” here in Toronto at the LCBO Summerhill. Five rare and exquisite bottles were made available to the Canadian market. This included a single bottle of each; The Macallan 40 Year Old, The Macallan 50 Years Old, The Macallan 74 Years Old, The Macallan 77 Years Old, and The Macallan 78 Years Old — collectively valued at $645,000 Canadian.

Along side the cherished collection, The Macallan has a temporary pop up shopping experience at this LCBO location. Open to the public until November 25, 2023.

*As always please drink responsibly and never drink and drive.