WHISKY heritage stretches right back to the 18th century in Clackmannanshire, but for so many years, a real celebration of the national drink did not really exist in the area.

That all changed last year when husband and wife duo Graham and Serena Lindsay launched the area’s first whisky festival at Alloa Town Hall, with a second edition hitting the venue in just a few weeks’ time.

But this is not your standard whisky festival where you turn up, visit a few exhibitors, try a few drams and head home.

The Lindsays were keen to ensure the event didn’t just replicate the style of those in big cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.

They wanted the festival to tell the story of how deep whisky roots run in Clackmannanshire while incorporating another passion of theirs in mental health support.

An interest in highlighting the area’s whisky heritage came from the fact Graham’s grandad had worked in the industry as an apprentice at Carsebridge Distillery – which closed in 1983 – which was once one of the biggest producers of grain whisky in the world.

Graham said: “We wanted to bring back to life the history and heritage we have in Clackmannanshire and showcase that because there’s a lot of people connected to it.”

With drinks giant Diageo still one of the largest employers in the area with its site in Menstrie, whisky continues to run through families and friendship groups in Clackmannanshire and the Lindsays have now ensured there is a way those connections can be celebrated.

An exhibition has been developed for the festival which plots the history of whisky in the area, looking at distilleries including Kennetpans, Carsebridge, Cambus, Kilbagie, Glenochil and North of Scotland, as well as the Alloa Glassworks which has been in the town since the 18th century.

Diageo Abercrombie also continues to make copper stills and the old Cambus site is home to the largest cooperage – or barrel makers – in Europe.

Graham said: “Since the 1700s until now, we have had a strong whisky presence [in Clackmannanshire].

“We produced an exhibition with a timeline of all of it and we’ve got artefacts from different distilleries we’ve managed to get together. We’ve got Diageo linked in as well, and they’ve got the most exclusive whisky archive in Menstrie. You can only really get in there if you’re a staff member, so they’ve got a couple of full-time archivists in there and they’ve been supporting us with some of the production materials.

“What’s also great is with Cambus, Carsebridge and North of Scotland, you can still get whisky from those ghost distilleries. We run a masterclass on each session where we do samplings of those.”

The incredible story of John Jameson – founder of Jameson Whiskey – is also celebrated at the festival. Born and raised in Alloa, Jameson married into the Haig family – which operated the Kennetpans distillery – before eventually opening up Dublin’s famous Bow Street Distillery. After his son took over Bow Street, Jameson returned to Alloa where he is now buried.

“He’s buried right next to the council offices, very close to our venue,” added Graham.

“People just don’t realise that and it’s a great link.”

Graham has also developed a drive to try and help tackle the worrying rate of suicide in the area, particularly among men.

The Lindsays not only hooked up with mental health charity Neil’s Hugs Foundation last year to help put their support services on the map, but they also decorated the town hall with stars on the ceiling – each one representing someone who had taken their own life in Clackmannanshire over the preceding five years.

Neil’s Hugs Foundation had a stand at the festival last year but volunteers found people were coming up to them seeking advice and wanting to talk about their problems, so the charity will have a larger space this year to allow people to sit down and chat if they need to.

Graham added: “We have a high rate of suicide and male suicide in particular in Clackmannanshire so that was an area we wanted to look at.

“It was tricky because it’s a drinks festival and we were wondering how you manage that but we knew it would be predominantly a male audience so we felt that was a good opportunity to talk about mental health.

“Mental health and suicide awareness is an area that continues to need greater resource and support and I am keen to do what I can to create greater awareness.

“Men are notoriously bad for not talking about their challenges. Removing this taboo is key, so increasing awareness and encouraging more people to start talking about what’s troubling them is so important.

“With the festival, we try to provide a platform for our charity partner, Neil’s Hugs Foundation, to open that door to a deeper conversation about mental health.”

The festival will take place from Friday, March 31, to Saturday, April 1, with three sessions running across the two days. Tickets are £36 for a session with an extra charge if you want to take part in the masterclasses.

“Last year was a great success with around 200 people attending per session,” said Graham.

“We’d like to build on that this year and we have more exhibitors too, with around 30 coming along.

“This festival is all about getting involved in the national drink, getting involved in the heritage, and raising awareness of mental health along the way.”