I like a The. Many of my blog posts are given titles with a ‘the’ randomly thrown in at the start, because I think it adds gravitas. In reality it makes everything I write sound like pompous waffle; The Glorious Now, The Pathfinder, The Slow Cut, The Quiet Corner. Scroll through this blog and you will be greeted with an array of bombastic titles opening on a The. Obviously enough I like a The in whisky too. There is a swagger to a The in a brand name – but it’s really something that needs to be earned. I’m not sure The Bells works. Maybe if they got Quasimodo in as brand ambassador.
The Macallan are the epitome of superlux – the Chanel of whisky, a magic brand that operates in a sphere beyond this mortal realm. While us chuds and morlocks bicker about whether a hundred quid is too much to spend on a whisky, The Macallan is selling random fusions of liquid and crystal art for tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Veblen goods or emperor’s new clothes, you decide, but they pull all of it off with confidence and style. Which makes their latest creation a little odd.
Everyone loves Four Weddings And A Funeral. Pre-fall fop king Hugh Grant, Andie McDowell not knowing if it’s still raining despite being absolutely drenched in the stuff, all the other very white and upper middle class characters whose names I cannot recall. A large part of its success is down to the wonderful direction by Mike Newell, who has a relatively low-key career despite bagging a Harry Potter and managing to coerce one of the most subtle on-screen performances from Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco (by subtle I mean not screaming about asses).
But Newell’s latest gig is a curious one indeed, as he has directed a short film/long ad for The Macallan. I wasn’t expecting it to be a bold visionary statement – Newell’s most recent big-screen venture was 2018’s painfully nondescriptThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – but I thought that the The Macallan might push the envelope a little. Reader, the envelope remains unpushed.
The mercifully short film is a mishmash of Monarch Of The Glen and a sort of tweed-clad Downton Abbey. Starring Emily Mortimer (who once starred in a little known Irish film called Last Of The High Kings opposite a then relatively unknown Jared Leto) in the lead role, the film tells the tale of how The Macallan became one of the first female-led distilleries in Scotland. Per the press release:
Janet Harbinson, known as ‘Nettie’ is a remarkable figure in The Macallan’s history. In 1918, just months before the end of the First World War, her beloved husband Alexander, who had been running the distillery at the time, sadly passed. Nettie was highly committed to the local community and following his death, she assumed control of the distillery as it was the best way to secure The Macallan for its employees and help the community.
Without setting out to do so, she also crafted The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926, which achieved legendary status after it fetched $1.9M at Sotheby’s in 2019. Several years on, it continues to be the world’s most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at auction.
Thanks for that Nettie, great job. I would suggest that whoever masterminded The Macallan becoming the key superlux whisky brand in the world probably deserves more credit, but that’s just my own begrudgery (great piece on how they did that here).
The film is striking because of its blandness – it feels painfully beige. Maybe having their wings clipped by the UK’s advertising standards authority over their deliriously pretentious Icarus ad – which looked like a pastiche ripped right from Zoolander – left them shook, but I doubt it. Everything about their operation – from the Tellytubby wonderland of their distillery to their presumably ironic grasping hands reaching around The Reach – says that safe isn’t normally part of their lexicon.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the script was written by award-winning screenwriter Allan Scott, whose Hollywood hits include Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Don’t Look Now, Castaway and the excellent Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit. The mindlowing part is this: Allan Scott is the pen name of Allan Shiach – a former chairman of The Macallan and great nephew of Nettie Harbinson. So you have someone who has helped craft some genuinely incredible work (Don’t Look Now for the love of Christ!) and is also so well connected to The Macallan that you would have to assume that they would be able to get something really remarkable over the line, and yet we end up with a short film that looks and feels – as one wag put it to me via DM – ‘like a fucking Hovis ad’.
Of course, I am looking at all this through the prism of Irish whiskey – a few years back I asked where is our Macallan. I don’t think we have an answer to that question just yet, although Midleton’s Silent Distillery releases were a good foray into the space of ultralux, super-rare whiskey. Ultimately Midleton’s strength – being the home of multiple styles and multiple brands in one very modern industrial setting – might also be its weakness in this instance; beyond the stocks from old Midleton, why pay €50,000 for a whiskey from the new distillery when you could buy a bottle of Jameson for €30? Maybe you can split the beams and have a superlux offering from the same place that creates so many mid range brands, but I don’t see it. I assume Bushmills is the one to watch – with oodles of heritage (not quite the four centuries they claim, but at least two) and a focus on one product – single malt – they should be ripe for it. The Bushmills, anyone? Perhaps some day we could even see a short film directed by time-obsessed auteur Christopher Nolan about why a distillery built in the late 1700s thinks it was built in 1608, but until then we will have to rely on our Scottish neighbours to lead the way in audiovisual self-indulgence. And in the meantime, here’s this: