Buckfast: The Iconic tonic goes from strength to strength

In Scotland, it is the cheap drink of choice for feral youth, sparking calls to ban it. But the monks of Buckfast want to expand production of their powerful fortified wine. By Mark Hughes

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:41

On the poverty-stricken housing schemes of west Scotland, it is known as "Commotion Lotion", "Wreck The Hoose Juice" and, most commonly, "Buckie".

A powerful, sticky, black beverage that is high in alcoholic volume and low in price, Buckfast Tonic Wine is the grog of choice for the country's budget drinker and feral youth. Broken brown bottles bearing the familiar yellow label litter the streets of urban slums and estates. YouTube carries home-made videos of youngsters hurriedly "downing" large bottles of the sickly sweet concoction.

Buckfast is considered so much of a scourge on society north of the border that leading politicians have lobbied to have it banned. South of Hadrian's Wall, it could not be more different. Buckfast Abbey sits in the tranquil surrounds of the Devon countryside, an 11th-century pillar of religion that is home to a group of Benedictine monks. Their humble winemaking attracts so little publicity there that many locals have never even heard of the drink.

For more than a century the monks have innocently produced their traditional tonic. They are aware of, but seemingly unflustered by, the fearsome reputation their product has earned farther north. Unbowed by accusations that their wine contributes to the social destruction gripping the estates of Glasgow and its suburbs, they plan to expand production of Buckfast, citing demand as their reason.

A planning application submitted to Dartmoor National Park reveals their intention to build a new winery. A statement issued by the company said that the "expansion will serve anticipated demand and foreseeable growth of the business".

That demand is no doubt anticipated to come from the west of Scotland, where "Buckie" finds an insatiable fan base among social ne'er-do-wells.

Helpfully inscribed on the label is a message warning that the name tonic wine "does not imply health giving or medicinal qualities", as if it were in that mistaken belief that Scottish youngsters imbibe it. At little over £5 for a 750ml bottle, Buckfast is cheap, and with 15 per cent alcohol content, it's potent.

Unlike many stronger drinks, it is relatively palatable. Made from red grapes and enormous amounts of caffeine, the monks say it has "a smooth, rounded taste". More delicate palates compare it to boiled-down sweets.

It was originally sold from the Abbey itself in the early 1900s with the slogan, "Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood". By the time that slogan was ditched, the drink had made its way to Scotland, where it was being drunk in much more copious quantities.

Its popularity there is remarkable, considering the product has never been marketed or advertised. In fact, so much of it is being imbibed in Coatbridge, a west of Scotland town with a population of just 40,000, that it is said that sales there account for 10 per cent of Buckfast's worldwide distribution. Scotland as a whole is estimated to account for 60 per cent.

In recent years, top-level politicians have taken up the battle against Buckie, blaming it for antisocial behaviour. Andy Kerr, Scotland's Minister for Health, said the drink was "seriously bad", adding: "There's something different about that drink."

Jack McConnell, the former first minister of Scotland, said the liquid had become "a badge of pride amongst those who are involved in antisocial behaviour."

Most famously, in 2005, Cathy Jamieson, who was Scotland's Justice Minister, launched a campaign to prohibit the drink.

Commenting on a decision by a Co-operative store in Auchinleck to limit sales of the fortified wine to two bottles per person, she said Buckfast was "linked to antisocial behaviour among young people" and made a live television appeal in which she called on other off-licences to impose similar restrictions and even ban Buckfast.

Her message was drowned out by the chorus of local youths – the "Young Auchinleck Posse" – who surrounded her, chanting, "Don't ban Buckie, don't ban Buckie". Further embarrassment followed: sales subsequently soared.

The appeals appeared to have had the opposite effect to that intended: the drink is more popular than ever.

In Coatbridge, Buckfast is so popular that it is colloquially known as Coatbridge Table Wine and is available on tap in some of the town's pubs. Ballads have been dedicated to the beverage's fruity potency and one entrepreneur even concocted Buckfast-flavoured ice cream.

Tony Fagan, 51, a barman at the Monkland Inn in Coatbridge, refuses to stock it. "Its reputation is widespread across Coatbridge and Airdrie," he said. "There is a problem with young people drinking it, from 13-year-olds up to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. The young ones will drink it on the side roads and under bridges to avoid being spotted. The older ones will drink two bottles and then go into pubs and cause a load of bother once they are inside."

Margaret Kennedy, 38, an assistant at The Corner Shop in Coatbridge, says they sell nearly 80 bottles of Buckfast a week.

She offered a succinct view on why it is so popular among youngsters in her area: "They like it because it gives them a hit."

Back in Devon, the drink's makers are fully aware of the barrage of criticism and will no doubt be preparing for more as news of their decision to expand production emerges.

Jonathan Deacon, the finance director at the Abbey, said: "We would obviously rather that our drink did not have this bad reputation or the image that it has in certain areas. But we cannot control that."

Jim Wilson, a representative of J Chandler, the company that distributes Buckfast, offers a simple defence of the drink.

"The responsibility to behave properly and drink within reason lies with the drinker, not the drink," he says. "People who wish to drink simply to get drunk will do this whether they select Buckfast or any other drink."

Additional reporting by Rob Lee

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