BUCKFASTLEIGH, United Kingdom – With Pope Francis’s two-day visit to Ireland just a week away, excitement is building for what will be the first papal visit to the nation in 40 years. However, next door in the United Kingdom, the pope is not the only Catholic story causing a buzz.
For years, Buckfast Tonic Wine, perhaps the most famous alcoholic beverage sold in the UK, has been a source of heavy debate between the brew’s most faithful consumers, and those who associate the liquid tonic with hooliganism.
Brewed by English monks, the wine is a fortified drink with high levels of both alcohol and caffeine, giving it both an allure, but also a dangerous reputation.
“Buckie,” as it is called by locals and devoted consumers, dates back to 1897, when the nephew of a French monk came to the historic Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England, bringing with him a recipe for a tonic wine which was adopted by the monks and used as a strong “pick-me-up” that also had medicinal qualities.
Buckfast Abbey, established in 1018, is run by Benedictine monks and this year is celebrating 1,000 years since its foundation. The monastery and the wine are so well-known that pretty much anyone in the Devon and Exeter area could tell you the entire history without ever opening a book or tab on the internet.
However, it is precisely the wine’s high alcohol-caffeine combo that gives the brew both its punch, and its reputation as a cause of hooliganism in some countries, particularly in Scotland, which has sought to outlaw the wine for years.
In fact, when I visited Buckfast Abbey last summer to report on their anniversary celebrations, I didn’t even have to give my cab driver directions. He knew the monastery, and when I told him where I was going, the immediate question that burst out of him was, “oh, have you heard about the wine? You’ve got to watch out for that stuff!”
Currently, there are two different versions of the wine: A brown bottle produced and sold exclusively in Ireland with a lower alcohol content, and the original green bottle containing the typical mixture sold throughout the UK.
A full 750 ml of the green-bottled wine, brewed on Buckfast Abbey grounds and distributed by J Chandler & Company, contains 15 percent alcohol and around 281 mg of caffeine. To put it in perspective, that is more than a can of Red Bull, and is equivalent to roughly eight cans of Coca-Cola, or six cups of coffee.
Selling at around $9 a bottle in the UK, Buckfast is not the cheapest nor the most potent alcoholic drink you can buy. The flavor is also up for debate, with some saying the sweet concoction tastes like a sugary cough syrup, while others have referred to it as the “tears of angels.”
Having lived in Italy for nearly five years, my standard for what makes a good wine operates on a completely different scale, but at first gulp, to me the wine tasted like a syrupy-sweet port, but with a kicker that left me feeling like I had taken a straight shot of candy-flavored whiskey.
But whatever one’s take on the flavor, many in Scotland especially have faulted the wine and its unique brew as a primary cause of “antisocial behavior” leading to violent outbursts for those who indulge too much, particularly among those some refer to as “neds” – a controversial term some jestingly say stands for “non-educated delinquents,” typically under 18.
Baroness Helen Liddell of Coatdyke, a member of Scottish Parliament and a long-time opponent of Buckfast Tonic Wine, told me that if one were to read Scottish newspapers, they would see clear statements from judges saying the wine leads to “violent crime” and is “sold freely across the West of Scotland, often in corner shops, and often to people who are underage.”
Many Scots have consistently held that young people make up most of the wine’s problematic consumers, prompting distributor J Chandler and Co. to make numerous promises to crack down on places that sell to underage drinkers.
Former Secretary of State for Scotland and a current member of the E.U. Financial Affairs Sub-Committee, Liddell was the parliamentary representative for Scotland’s Monklands East region in Lanarkshire from 1994-1997, before moving on to the Airdrie and Shotts region for several years.
The alcohol-caffeine mixture is “a known accelerant to antisocial behavior,” she said, explaining that during her time in Monklands East, the staff of her local hospital “to a person” had told her that nearly 100 percent of the cases of violence they saw “were Buckfast related.”
“Even the cleaning staff told me they were on extra duty because the vomit on the floor was impossible to clean up,” she said.
In housing estates that were part of her constituency, mothers said they had at times refused to let their children play in public parks due to the “aggression of Buckie drinkers,” and because of the amount of broken glass, as the tradition in Scotland is to smash a bottle after finishing it, “often in one long swig.”
Liddell, who is not alone in her concern, said she visited Buckfast monastery and spoke with the monks, asking whether they would consider diluting the formula or selling the wine in plastic bottles.
However, the monks refused, as they have done for years, saying that doing so would “impair the taste.” And despite further backlash from other Scottish politicians and parliamentarians, sales of the wine only increased.
In 2017, Buckfast sales reached a record high, amounting to roughly $57.2 million dollars, up from nearly $55.3 million in 2016.
Liddell, herself a Catholic, said the disengagement on the part of the monks “horrifies me.”
However, during my visit to the monastery last summer, the abbot of Buckfast, David Charlesworth, told me the wine was not manufactured to be abused, and was initially intended as “a tonic for one’s health. That was the original intention.”
“What it has become since is something else entirely,” he said, voicing dismay at the behavior associated with certain consumers. However, he said there is a distinction between the tonic and those who consume it. Drunkenness, he said, was not as much of a concern at the time the wine was developed, as it had a primarily medicinal use and was mostly consumed by the monks for health and stamina, and they were careful not to overdo it.
Adopted by monks as a medicinal wine around the time Buckfast was re-settled in the 1880s, the brew was primarily used as an energy boost while getting a person’s blood flowing.
By the 1920s the monastery was selling around 1,400 bottles annually, with about 500 purchased directly from Buckfast grounds, and the rest delivered by mail.
However, despite efforts made by the abbot at the time, Anscar Vonier, to promote the wine, strict new liquor licensing laws were enforced after the First World War, making it impossible for the monks to sell the tonic mixture.
It was around this time, as the monks were selling the last of their stock in 1927, that Robert Joyce, the owner of the London-based J Chandler & Co Ltd wine merchant, happened to visit the abbey.
After speaking with Vonier about why the abbey would no longer be brewing the wine, it was decided that the monks would continue to produce it, but the management of all distribution and sales would be handed off to Joyce’s company.
At that time it was also decided that the recipe of the wine – which is top secret – would be adjusted, changing it from a patent medicine to a smoother, medicated wine.
“We don’t really publicize it at all from the monastery,” Charlesworth said, explaining that the monks do not promote the wine and they generally have no association with it other than the fact that it is brewed on their property. Yet it continues to grow in popularity.
Though Charlesworth said he personally has no taste for the wine, the monastery will continue to produce it for those who do enjoy it.
Other defenders of the wine have argued that while the monks produce it, they are not responsible for the actions of those who abuse it. It has also been argued by Buckie drinkers that the tonic brew is no exceptional case, since the same risks are involved in the consumption of any other type of alcohol.
Arguments have also been made that were Buckfast wine to be banned, those committing crimes in Scotland after drinking it would simply change their beverage of choice, perpetuating the same behavior but with a different fuel.
The tonic wine is now distributed all over the UK, and is also exported to several countries internationally, including Spain, Greece, Australia, the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, the West Indies, Ireland and West Africa.
According to a representative from J Chandler & Co, who spoke to me via email, the wine’s contents remain a “secret recipe” known only to the Benedictine monks.
Though the tonic used in the wine is unknown, the original base wines were “mistelas” imported from Spain, to which tonic ingredients were added according to an old recipe. Today, however, the mistelas come from France, providing a smoother, more rounded taste to the wine.
On the wine’s official website, several recipes are listed for both food and beverages – from meat dishes, to desserts and even cocktails – that include Buckfast Tonic Wine as a key ingredient.
According to the J Chandler & Co representative, the company enlisted the services of celebrity chef Martin Blunos to come up with the food recipes, and a mixologist was also recruited for the cocktails.
So, if you’ve never heard the bizarre debate about the monastic wine causing a stir in and around the UK, now you know the story.
And whether it’s for the World Meeting of Families or a different occasion, if you are ever in an area that sells the tonic, it might well be worth picking up a bottle to see for yourself what all the fuss is about.