The Macallan 1926, the Holy Grail of whisky, sells for close to $2 million per bottle, and by “sells” we mean it auctions for. It’s the second most expensive bottle ever sold, and really it’s the first as the $2 million Emerald Isle Whiskey Collection from Craft Irish Whiskey Co got a price boost by coming with a Faberge egg. In December, Macallan unveiled the revelatory story behind the iconic Scotch via a short film starring actress Emily Mortimer (Match Point, The Pink Panther) as Janet Isabella Harbinson, the managing director of Macallan during the creation of the famed bottling.
We sat down with The Macallan Master Whisky Maker Kirsteen Campbell, the first female Master Whisky Maker in the almost 200-year history of the brand, to discuss the 1926 bottling, the film, and her role as a whisky pioneer.
Spirited: First off, can you tell us a bit about your story and how you ended up as Master Whisky Maker of The Macallan?
Kirsteen Campbell: My name is Kirsteen Campbell, and I am The Macallan Master Whisky Maker leading the whisky mastery team. I’m the first female Master Whisky Maker in the almost 200-year history of the brand. I have over 22 years of industry experience, using my skills, knowledge, and craft to oversee key aspects of the whisky-making cycle, from cask lay down and maturation through to bottling to ensure the quality and consistency synonymous with The Macallan single malt whisky.
I was always aware of the prominence of whisky as I grew up in Scotland but did not know anyone connected to the industry. After Nutrition and Food Science in university, I was appointed as the Whisky Quality Technologist at Edrington. From there, I continued to move through Edrington into different roles, becoming the Master Blender at Cutty Sark. From there, I was promoted to Master Blender for The Famous Grouse and Naked Malt and then in 2019 I was officially appointed as the Master Whisky Maker at The Macallan – an honor I do not take for granted.
Spirited: The most expensive Scotch whisky in the world, people call The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 the “Holy Grail of whisky.” Can you tell us a bit about the whisky and the process that went into its creation?
KC: The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 was distilled in 1926, during the turbulent interwar years. It was laid to rest in sherry seasoned Cask No 263 and quietly matured under the watchful eye of successive generations until it was determined to be at its peak and bottled in 1986 at 60 years old. The precious contents were divided into 40 bottles with 12 bottles released featuring a label designed by world renowned pop artist Sir Peter Blake and a further 12 artworked by Italian painter Valerio Adami. A one-off bottle was also released in 1999 featuring a label depicting Easter Elchies House by Irish artist Michael Gibbons.
Since being released into the marketplace The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 has frequently broken records at auction, with five bottles sold in 2018 that broke the world record price three times before culminating in the $1.9M sale of The Macallan Fine and Rare 1926 at Sotheby’s in 2019. Its very existence is a direct legacy of Janet Harbinson’s commitment to doing the right thing for her family, the community and The Macallan.
Spirited: What makes the whisky so special? Is there anything that can be measured to explain why it’s the pinnacle of whisky?
KC: This whisky is not only special because it is 60 years old, but The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 achieved legendary status after it fetched $1.9M at auction in 2019. Several years on, it continues to be the world’s most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at auction.
What makes this whisky so special is how Janet Harbinson was able to oversee the distillation and maturation of the whisky, entrusting The Macallan’s Master Whisky Makers with its safeguarding. The team was patient and allowed the whisky to quietly mature under the watchful eye of successive generations until Cask No 263 was determined to be at its peak and bottled in 1986. The infamy of the bottle is truly thanks to the incredibly old vintage statement (as of 2022, the whisky in the bottle was distilled 96 years ago), combined with an age statement of 60 years, which is an incredibly old whisky by any standard.
Spirited: Most people probably haven’t heard of Janet ‘Nettie’ Harbinson. Can you tell us a bit about her story and why you feel like now is the right time for it to be told?
KC: Born in Elgin in 1869, Janet Isabella Harbinson was the daughter of Roderick Kemp, the owner of The Macallan from 1892 to 1909 who was widely considered the architect of the brand’s rise to prominence outside Scotland. Janet became managing director at The Macallan in 1918 following the death of her beloved husband, Alexander Harbinson, who had been running the business in the years proceeding her late father. It was upon Alexander’s passing – an exceptionally challenging time as the Great War had wreaked death and destruction across Europe – that Janet took over the family business.
Potential buyers circled, but despite the significant challenge of running The Macallan, Janet took control of the distillery to protect its incomparable craftsmanship and creativity, and secure employment for the local community. A well-educated woman, over the next 20 years, she reinvigorated The Macallan, overseeing its time-honored distillation and maturation processes, maintaining stock, and developing limited releases. Her careful yet visionary approach, her passion and care for those around her and her dedication to craftsmanship not only safeguarded The Macallan but also built for its future.
Among her greatest endeavors were overseeing the distillation and maturation of The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 and entrusting The Macallan’s Master Whisky Makers with its safeguarding, allowing the whisky to quietly mature under the watchful eye of successive generations until Cask No 263 was determined to be at its peak and bottled in 1986.
Although the film is just coming out now highlighting Janet’s life, this is not the first time Janet has been featured by The Macallan before. As one of the many pioneers who have helped The Macallan to become what it is today, Janet has previously been showcased by The Macallan, most notably by The Macallan Anecdotes of Ages Collection, where she was featured on an exclusive label designed by renowned pop artist Sir Peter Blake which highlighted her dedication to her family and The Macallan Distillery.
Spirited: How would you describe Harbinson’s legacy and what does it mean to you?
KC: Janet’s legacy to The Macallan is a legacy that cannot be repaid. Taking control of the company in the time Janet did was very difficult not only due to the Great War but was also a very difficult time for women. Yet, with her heroism and strong values, Janet reinvigorated The Macallan with a visionary approach that was careful yet filled with passion and care. Her dedication to the brand through her tireless efforts are what safeguarded The Macallan and built its future.
From Janet and on, women have continued to be a major influence at The Macallan. The Macallan has an equal gender balance of men and women in our Whisky Mastery Team and as the leader of that team, I look to Janet’s character, that embodied the values of The Macallan, for inspiration every day.
Spirited: The Macallan made a short film about Nettie starring Emily Mortimer. How would you sum up what the film is about?
KC: Nettie is an eight-minute brand campaign film, set in Speyside, Scotland, primarily at The Macallan’s beautiful 485-acre Estate, 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.
Showcasing the love Nettie had for her husband, her community, for nature and The Macallan, the film also reveals the incomparability of The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 and the profound legacy of Janet Harbinson – a legacy which can never be repaid.
Spirited: The Macallan has a long history with film. Did that play a part into why and how this film was made?
KC: It’s true that The Macallan has a long history and deep roots in film, specifically with connections to the James Bond franchise. Yet, this film was different as it was important to the brand to honor Janet Harbinson. Overall, The Macallan has made this film to tell the story of Janet Harbinson –the incomparable legacy she left on The Macallan is a significant moment in the history of the brand and it was only right that we pay tribute accordingly to tell this remarkable story to the best of our ability.
We ensured the best of the best were involved in the making of Nettie. The film has been developed in collaboration with some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed figures, including screenwriter Allan Shiach and director Mike Newell and stars leading actress Emily Mortimer. The renowned Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane created Nettie’s exquisite 1920s costumes and enduring Scottish rock band, Simple Minds, have written and performed a bespoke track for the film, which is also featured on their new album.
Spirited: Are there any lessons learned from Harbinson that you incorporate into making whisky now?
KC: I take great pride in being a custodian of The Macallan and appreciate the craftsmanship and foresight of my predecessors who laid down the casks that form the basis of The Macallan whiskies today, including Janet Harbinson. Janet’s courageous and visionary approach continue to shape and influence The Macallan today.
We can see from records of the time that she kept a close eye on every aspect of The Macallan, ensuring the whiskies crafted under her watch were of the incomparable quality and craftsmanship for which The Macallan has been renowned since 1824. She also introduced the concept of limited editions for special customers and took great care to maintain stock, aspects we incorporate into The Macallan today.
Spirited: A lot of what we’ve been talking about is story. How does storytelling impact you when it comes to making whisky?
KC: Every bottle of The Macallan tells a different story – from the year it was put into the cask to the year it is bottled up into it is opened to be enjoyed. Every bottle takes a different path, has a different meaning, and has its own unique story. Storytelling is at the heart of The Macallan, and it is the reason there are a multitude of The Macallan aficionados who are interested in the brand’s rich heritage and storytelling. I know with every bottle of The Macallan whisky my team and I make, there is a different path each one has taken and is going to take after it leaves our hands.
For more information, head over to The Macallan’s official website.