“Buckfast Tonic Wine? That’s what all the Glaswegians are drinking isn’t it? Causes all sorts of trouble.”
I was not prepared for this. It didn’t sound likely; Buckfast Tonic Wine is made by monks in sleepy, rural Devon, only a few miles from where I live. Surely it cannot have a sinister side, but our friend was insistent. “Definitely” he added, warming to the subject, “they drink loads of it in Scotland.” And do you know what, you should always listen to your friends, because he was absolutely right.
I turned to Google and I was surprised at what I found. Amazingly, this 2013 article for Scotland’s Daily Record newspaper claims that Buckfast Tonic Wine has been mentioned in almost 7000 crime reports in the Strathclyde police area in three years. According to the report Coatbridge, just outside Glasgow, has become Scotland’s “Buckie” capital (“Buckie”? It even has a nickname). There is a “Buckfast Triangle” around Coatbridge and the Guardian reports that the town, population 40,000, is responsible for 10% of the sales of the drink.
Buckie is a dark brown “tonic wine” brewed by Benedictine monks in Devon. Their recipe is secret but basically it’s wine jacked up with chemicals and some of the condensed rage from 28 Days Later. Also known as “Wreck the Hoose Juice” and “Commotion Lotion”, Buckie is only about 15% alcohol. But the alcohol content isn’t the problem. It’s not the strongest or (at about £7 a bottle) the cheapest. But it is the most lethal.
As the above-linked Guardian article demonstrates, there is a lot of anger in Scotland towards the product and the monks behind it. In particular, it seems that the combination of alcohol and caffeine are to blame for a lot of the problems that people experience when drinking “Buckie”. Not all agree with that viewpoint however, as this article, also from the Guardian, demonstrates.
Its makers, the 16 Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, along with their selling agents, are probably the most responsible purveyors of alcohol in the entire UK industry: their product does not feature in any drinks promotions; at around £7 a bottle it isn’t cheap and there is no advertising. All that it has to commend itself is a handsome green livery with an eye-catching yellow label. Thereafter, it is purely word of mouth. The drink makes a profit of around £1m a year, all of which is spent on charitable projects. It amounts to less than 0.5% of all alcohol sold in Scotland.
Abbot David Charlesworth from Buckfast Abbey is quoted in this BBC news article, saying that their “wine is not made to be abused”.
Abbot David Charlesworth told BBC News: “We don’t make a product for it to be abused. That’s not the idea. We make a product which is a tonic wine. It annoys me to think that these problems, all the social deprivation of an area of Scotland, is being put on our doorstep. That’s not fair. I’m not producing drugs, which I know are going to be used abusively.”
He said the abbey had attempted to address problems, for example employing a youth worker in an area where the problems with the tonic wine were occurring.
Clearly it is very hard for me to sit at home in Devon and to understand what it is like to be in these areas of Scotland, however perky I may be as a result of the (heavily caffeinated) glass of tonic wine at my side. Luckily other, more adventurous souls have put themselves in the firing line and have experienced the “Buckie” phenomenon for themselves. I recommend this article on vice.com by John Beck, who has walked the streets of Coatbridge to find out what was driving people towards tonic wine (warning: it quickly gets a bit sweary and unpleasant).
One of the big sticking points with “Buckie” is that it comes in glass bottles. Fine for me, in my flat in Devon. Perhaps not quite so much fun if it’s being waved menacingly in your direction by an angry drunk. This year, for the first time, Buckfast Tonic Wine will be offered in cans as well as glass bottles. This is being marketed as a response to calls for smaller measures and it is currently only planned as a limited edition run of 16,000 cans. However, it will be interesting to see if this proves popular and whether it, ultimately, filters through to consumers in the Buckfast Triangle. And whether it results in fewer bottle attacks in those areas.
And what do we think of it all, down here in Devon? I would say, from personal experience, that a lot of people are pretty oblivious to Buckfast Tonic Wine. It certainly doesn’t appear on too many shop shelves around here, and I live about three miles from the abbey. To get my bottle, I had to drive to the abbey itself and buy it there. When the story of the cans “broke” in Exeter, there was no mention of the problems in Scotland (other than a one-liner on it being “particularly popular north of the border”). I am inclined to believe that this demonstrates a general lack of awareness of the problems, rather than an attempt to wilfully underplay them.
Personally I think it is a passable drink, somewhere close to a port, with a fairly fruity flavour. It’s pretty sweet and there is no doubt that it packs a pretty hefty caffeine hit (it has a “high caffeine content” warning on the label). Reddish-brown in colour, it does have a slightly medicinal look, although it tastes better than any medicine I’ve had recently. It is not the sort of thing I normally drink and I’m not going to be rushing out to buy another bottle when this one has gone, but I have certainly seen much worse served in pubs and clubs (Yes, I have been to a club. Once. Quite a while ago).
If I hadn’t found out about the problems in Scotland, then Buckfast Tonic Wine would be a short footnote in my bid to try the various food and drink products of Devon. However, it has turned out to be one of the most unusual of the products I have tried, generating hostility and resentment in parts of Scotland whilst also being much loved in those very same areas. A drink made by monks and drunk by neds. All in all, one of the strangest things I have come across during my Devon A-Z year.