Maligned, despised, and nearly banned in Scotland.
Buckfast Tonic Wine had a rare moment of glory on May 14th, 2016—the first World Buckfast Day. A state of mind rather than a formal gathering (“your home, your pals, the gutter,” the event’s Facebook page proclaimed), Buckateers around the world flipped the bird to the nannies and scolds who would take away their beloved juice.
There’s no booze like Buckie. At first glance, it looks like Thunderbird or Wild Irish Rose, a cheap kick for street winos—except that at the equivalent of $10 for a standard-size wine bottle, it’s not that cheap. It has a caffeine jolt, by some measures the same as a can of Red Bull. Maybe its closest cousin is Four Loko, the heavily-advertised “energy beer” that got itself banned in the U.S. But malt liquor isn’t wine, and Buckfast, unlike Four Loko, thrives without any advertising whatsoever.
The strangest thing of all about Buckfast is that it is made by English monks, and has been for over a century.
Monks have been making wine for sacramental use in Catholic Mass since the Middle Ages. Later it turned into big business, with the proceeds being plowed back into charitable works — and if the brothers saved a little profit for themselves, who could blame them? The monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England first sold “Buckfast Tonic Wine” as a medicinal product in the late 1800s. “Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood,” went the original tagline.
Today’s Buckfast is supposedly fairly close to the original recipe created by the abbey’s founders. Buckie is 15% alcohol, and its label strangely boasts of ingredients like “Potassium Phosphate” and “Sodium Glycerophosphate BPC,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Some of its fans claim to genuinely like the taste; others confess it’s just a good way to get roaring drunk.
Until recently, Buckie had been an obscure local product. There’s been little demand for it outside its UK home base, and it is still almost impossible to find in the States.
It’s biggest following is in Scotland, where fans bestowed the nickname “Buckie,” and others like “Commotion Lotion” and “Wreck the Hoose Juice.” Always an underdog of the booze world, Buckie now seems to have been adopted by underdog Scots of all stripes, from impoverished students to bohemians to unemployed young people.
And this, to hear UK politicians and health officials tell it, is a public health crisis. Grave statistics are cited, including the claim that in 43% of alcohol-related crimes, the booze of choice was Buckfast. The evil spirit of Buckie has been linked to everything from anti-social behavior to violent crime to excessive litter. Even the glass bottle Buckie sells in has come under fire as a too-convenient weapon for the enraged Buckie abuser.
Every few years there’s another attack on Buckfast—some government outfit or other wants to mark it with warning labels or legislate the amount of caffeine it can contain, or ban it outright. So far Buckie has survived every assault.
Unsurprisingly, official scorn has not spurred Buckateers to mend their ways. Instead, they’ve rallied around their beloved booze. Thus National Buckfast Day in 2015, which proved so popular that it morphed into this year’s World Buckfast Day. Organizer Mark Onk (M. Onk – get it?) said in a press release, “Some Scottish politicians wanted to ban Bucky blaming it on anti-social behavior. This clearly shows how Buckfast can bring people together…. With young people going abroad to study and work Buckfast is now enjoying an international cult following.”
The abbey itself claims no official connection to World Buckfast Day but does seem to cautiously support the idea. “Providing consumers are enjoying our brand responsibly we have no issues with consumers enjoying their drink of choice,” a spokesman for Buckfast’s distributor said. “Responsible” enjoyment of Buckie apparently includes cooking with the stuff. Buckfast’s official website helpfully lists many Buckie-inspired recipes, such as “Chili Con Buckfast” and the beyond-parody “Buckfast Chicken Liver Pate With Caramelized Onions.”
Not that any Buckateers celebrated by making chicken liver pate. It’s about getting hammered, and also sticking a thumb in the eye of moralists and prohibitionists everywhere. That by itself is worth giving Buckie its day.