Why has a wine made by monks at an idyllic Devon abbey fuelled an unholy row?
Buckfast has achieved cult status among the young.By Malachi O’Doherty
Buckfast was not designed to appeal to youth culture but it tastes as if it was. There is a fragance of tobacco in it and it has the flavour of Coca-Cola. If you were trying to suggest dereliction and youth in your marketing, you could hardly do better.
Then, what is the next thing you would do with your wine to make it stimulating and dangerous? Well, you could lace it with caffeine. Then the soporific effect of the alcohol would be countered by the stimulant,and the more drunk your buyers got the less likely they would be to fall asleep. In fact, they might find themselves twitching for mischief to pursue, just because they couldn't relax.
That's what the makers of Buckfast have done. They have produced a caffeinated wine.
They have concocted a potion to energise your brain while it addles it.
Yet Buckfast is the invention of a group of people who live for restful contentment and spiritual grace.
The Benedictine Order having given the world Buckfast is as ironic as it would be if an order of chaste nuns were funding their solitude and peace by selling sex toys.
And it isn't a joke.
The Strathclyde police recently told the BBC that Buckfast had featured in 5,000 crime reports over a three-year period.
This has led to calls for the stuff to be banned or at least to be sold in plastic bottles, so that when the restlessness it produces inclines one to lunge the empty bottle into the air, it will do less damage.
In that three year period, assessed by Strathclyde police, a Buckfast bottle had been used as a weapon 114 times. And the figures are far higher than for beer or cider or alcopops.
Forty three per cent of alcohol related violence in Strathclyde featured Buckfast.
Of 172 prisoners at a young offenders’ centre, 43% of the 117 people who drank alcohol before committing their crimes said they had drunk Buckfast.
In a study of litter in a typical housing project, 35% of the items identified were Buckfast bottles.
The monks who have given us this inflammatory toxin, however, stroll the pathways of Buckfast Abbey, to their gatherings from prayer and meditation.
If they are exercised by the chaos they have sown they are certainly disinclined to speak about it.
They might, at first, have rationalised that they were providing the world with a medicinal drink.
Buckfast is described on the label as ‘tonic wine', but that is qualified in smaller print: “The name ‘Tonic Wine' does not imply health giving or medicinal properties.”
Of course, that is precisely what the term implies. This is like selling rat poison with the proviso that it has no effect on rodents.
But there was perhaps no great harm done if caffeinated wine was taken in small doses by elderly people living sedate lives, to give them a little pick-me-up on drab winter evenings by the fire.
It's main market now is young people who want much more than a little thimble full. And they know what they are getting.
Buckfast is not cheap like the old South African wines that were popular with beggars and street drinkers.
But it is 15% proof, though a little weaker in the Republic to conform to legislation.
And the infusion of caffeine — eight times as much in a bottle of ‘Buckie' as in a can of coke — gives it an effect unlike that of other wines.
It is celebrated on social network sites as ‘magic in a bottle'.
Visitors to these sites discuss the merits of mixing it with vodka, milk or Red Bull, another stimulant.
The Buckfast cult has gathered around Scottish football for more than 20 years. A BBC documentary from the early 90s described it as ‘made by monks and drunk by drunks'.
There was a rumour that some Celtic supporters declined to drink it because they thought it was altar wine.
Catherine Stihler MEP is campaigning for the banning of caffeinated wines under European law but is keen to distinguish these from other caffeine/alcohol mixes, like Irish Coffee.
She says: “I think the time has come to take radical action and ban pre-mixed caffeinated alcohol throughout the EU. It is a public health danger and the cause of anti-social behaviour in many communities across the EU.”
Labour MSP Richard Baker is supporting her campaign against Buckfast and calling for the Scottish Parliament to ban it.
But the culture developing around ‘Buckie' — or ‘town' as it is known, for some reason, in Lurgan — suggests that identifying it as the source of trouble and the badge of low life has added to its popularity.
There are now several YouTube videos of people trying to drink a bottle in one go. In one video, a Copenhagen street drinker guzzles a full bottle of Buckfast while a crowd of Northern Ireland football supporters egg him on, many of them filming it on their mobile phones.
Buckie is now an icon of youthful recklessness. Many of those who drink it love that it stands for bravado and loutishness, that they make a rebellious statement about themselves just by having it.
A similar branding has evolved around other well-known drinks; Guinness standing for Irish amicability, Coca Cola for American cool.
The question its critics have to resolve is whether banning Buckfast will make young people behave better, or if they wouldn't just find some other toxic brew to dull their senses and lift their spirits with.
For the monks of Buckfast Abbey, however, there is another question, whether their promotion of reflection and prayer doesn't look a bit tainted and tawdry when it is funded by caffeinated wine and a culture of self harm and abandon that is boosting sales?
Confessions of a ‘Lurgan Champagne’ connoisseur
By Jim Gracey
The good monks of Buckfast Abbey long ago succeeded in reaching the parts other preachers could not reach.
They united the most divided town in Ireland 30 years before the peace process was even conceived, and that's got to be worth, a toast... in Lurgan champagne, of course.
You could draw a line through the middle of Lurgan and in my misspent youth, the ne'er do wells on either side, quite literally, never got closer than a stone's throw.
Yet when we withdrew to the trenches of a Friday night, the choice of elixir for orange and green was the same deep, ruby red.
Is it a coincidence the bottle is green and the label orange? Ne'er the twain shall meet, but the tastes are the same.
Lurgan has been twinned with deepest Devon from my earliest Seventies' elicit drinking memories.
Buckie is a Lurgan rite of passage, synonymous with the town, its dubious connection both a source of celebration and shame.
There are websites devoted to extolling its intoxicating powers and accompanying lunacy.. and we've even plagiarised Elvis in song. Think of ‘I Can't Help Falling In Love With You' and then substitute ‘We can't help... drinking the Buckfast wine.'
On the other side of the coin, and on both sides of the town, it is regularly pilloried from the pulpit (ironic, given its ecclesiastical origins) and in the pages of the local paper as Lurgan's mortal affliction.
But why Lurgan and why the town's particular obsession of Glasgow proportions? Given that Buckie was Glasgow's gift or curse (depending on your view) upon Lurgan's warring factions, initiated on early Seventies expeditions to Old Firm games, and that generations since have continued to be hooked, could it be there is something of the Rab C Nesbitt in our civic DNA?
And, of course, its a cheap hit. Take a boozer out of Lurgan and he'll take the bevy with him.
Like sardines and trawlers, it once infamously followed the local football team into Europe.
Having run wild in a Finnish hotel on a particularly boozy night after a game, the question was put to an irate hotel manager as he surveyed the damage: 'But how do you know it was our players who caused it?'
The empty Buckfast bottles in the hotel corridor were a dead giveaway, I ventured.
Personally, I think it’s the drinker as opposed to the drink. There are people who go buck mad on any kind of hooch. Moderation and education are not in their vocabulary. I haven't sampled the stuff since my teens but I know solid citizens and professional people who still enjoy a sensible tipple, more to remind them of their delinquent Lurgan youth than a matter of taste.
There are indeed those of us who can truly say ... we were teenage Buckfast addicts, and it never did us any harm