There’s a strange ritual that takes place in mini-marts, liquor stores, and even licensed post offices in Scotland every weekend. Young men — it’s almost always men — carefully spin, then study bottles of Buckfast Tonic Wine on shelves, as though they are inspecting a grand cellar full of rare vintages. But the wine they’re perusing is essentially identical and has scant detail on its labels. It’s barely even wine at all.
The information they think they’re seeking hasn’t been printed on paper, however, it’s stamped near the base of the glass bottle. They’re looking for a number ranging from one to 29. These connoisseurs, as they believe themselves to be, insist that certain numbers are better than others and represent the point on the barrel from which the wine was drawn. Lower numbers mean a thicker tonic, they’ll tell you; higher ones will be thinner. I have seen arguments develop and threaten to turn violent when these confused sommeliers have their preferred number snatched away by another.
They might not believe you if you told them the truth, which is that the sequencing numbers on the glass have nothing to do with the Buckfast inside, and that the drink hasn’t come from barrels for a very long time. I know this to be true and yet, despite myself, cannot help but check the number on each bottle I buy, too.
What is it, this strange and infamous brown beverage?
Originally made by Benedictine monks in the 19th century in Buckfastleigh, Devon, England, it is a fortified, caffeinated tonic wine. Despite its English origins, it is overwhelmingly drunk in Scotland, especially on the west coast, in and around my city of Glasgow. It is, or was, a ruthlessly white, working-class drink.
Though I have heard it compared to a medicinal vermouth, Buckfast tastes like Buckfast and nothing else. On a more technical level, it is a mistelle, or a wine whose fermentation has been stopped by the addition of alcohol; Buckfast has a 15% ABV. The monks’ formula also adds approximately seven espressos’ worth of caffeine to each bottle. Critics say this heady blend directly causes antisocial behavior, as though it were a potion to be poured down the necks of otherwise placid Vikings.
While I’d concede that Buckfast is perhaps not a drink to be savored, I would insist with flush-faced enthusiasm that it is one to be adored. For me, it has a raw taste of pure nostalgia. Now in my late 30s, I buy far less Buckfast — or Buckie or Commotion Lotion or Wreck the Hoose Juice or simply Tonic — than I used to. It’s booze for going out, not for sipping at home, and with nights on the town already in steep decline before the pandemic, opportunities to justify and enjoy it have dwindled. Nonetheless, the next time I am at a wedding, or the bachelors’ weekend before it, I will gleefully return to its warm embrace.
Buckfast Abbey lost the license to sell its own tonic in the 1920s and since then it has been distributed by J. Chandler & Co. Their sales continue to grow — in 2020 they topped $70 million (52 million pounds), with a significant portion of the profit going back to the 1,000-year-old abbey. Despite this riotous success, neither J. Chandler & Co. nor the monks talk to the media about their product.
A true cultural product
For better or worse, Buckfast has achieved a unique place in Scottish cultural identity. Some people, including this writer, love it unironically. During the pandemic-plagued summer of 2020, there was a rumor that production in England had halted. This caused fans to panic buy — Glaswegians were walking out of bottle shops with crates of the stuff. I bought four bottles before I told myself I was being ridiculous.
Others distrust or even hate Buckfast, largely because of its long association with violence and other repugnant behaviors. Conservatives and alcoholism awareness groups periodically launch ban the Buckie campaigns, which are thankfully never taken too seriously. Yet while the drink’s reputation occasionally feels overblown, there are some damning statistics: from 2018 to 2021, it was directly linked to more than 10,500 criminal incidents in Scotland.
There are also hundreds of reported incidents of its distinctive green bottle being used as a weapon. I have personally seen someone hit in the head with one. It didn’t smash like the movies had taught me it would — it was more like a bludgeon. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the horrific noise of that blow, and of the sirens as the ambulance carried the victim away.
Yet, improbably, Buckfast is now becoming a middle-class drink, a tipple to imbibe with a wink and a selfie. “Look at how daring we are,” the hipsters say, buying Buckfast glazes, Buckfast Negronis, or ironic Buckfast t-shirts.
It’s hard not to hate latecomers to my scene. Many of these cultural tourists have never stood in a shop patiently looking for their preferred bottle number; many couldn’t recite the disclaimer on its honey-hued label by heart — the name Tonic Wine does not imply health-giving or medicinal properties — nor tell you that they also sell it in Ireland, where it comes in a confusing brown bottle instead.
In the 20 years I’ve been drinking it, the price has doubled and now costs somewhere in the region of $15, making it significantly more expensive than an average bottle of supermarket wine. This has done nothing to slow sales, and while the greater Glasgow region still has a sort of ownership of the drink, there’s no ignoring its growing popularity around Britain. Quite an achievement for an almost-wine that runs no advertising campaigns.
Buckfast drinking etiquette
There’s a set routine for consuming Buckfast. I cherish each checkpoint. It starts with opening the screw-top bottle, a satisfying noise akin to listening to Chuck Norris crack his knuckles before a fistfight. The first mouthful is always rough, just as the second is always a delight. The last slug will again rattle the jaw, and likely be warm. Because of this, the dregs are known as the monks’ toenails, but even that has a melancholic beauty to it.
At the time of writing, the last bottle of Buckfast I had was at the TravMedia Awards, a glitzy industry ceremony in London. I brought the tonic with me, smuggled inside by blazer. One of my editors pointed out that there was free alcohol there anyway; I replied that wasn’t the point. I cracked the lid, holding it close to my ear to hear that magical sound, and passed it round. Those trying it for the first time giggled.
I could immediately feel the commotion in that lotion. I was showing off, of course, but I wanted any glory to be directly linked to the drink. As the names of the winners were read out, I occasionally booed and cheered. More showing off. In the end, despite being nominated in two categories, I won nothing. The Buckie didn’t let me down though.
Alas, Buckfast is not available in the United States. You will need to book a trip to Scotland to enjoy it.