Don't blame the monks for the drunks: It looks like gravy, tastes like Benylin and has the kick of a chorus line. Robert Hardman examines his brush with Buckfast
YOU will never find it on a wine list - even though we get through six million bottles of the stuff every year. Its makers don't advertise and yet it has acquired a cult following and an annual turnover of nearly £40million.
For some reason, our great wine connoisseurs have yet to pronounce on its qualities. Thus far, the Hugh Johnsons and Oz Clarkes have remained silent on the joys of Buckfast Tonic Wine.
For what it's worth, my own tasting notes read as follows: a feisty, gravy-coloured tincture with strident tones of prune and swimming pool on the nose; a palate blending Dubonnet, cherry cola, Ribena, Benylin, aniseed, communion wine and Hubba Bubba strawberry bubble gum; plus a kick like a chorus line; improved with ice.
Whatever you think of the taste, it's perfect for lunchtime drinking. It may be 15 per cent alcohol but, with more caffeine than Red Bull or a double espresso, there's no danger of nodding off in the afternoon.
And it certainly has no shortage of advocates in Scotland, which consumes half of the world's entire supply of Buckfast. Beware of its most dedicated consumers, however. Because, according to the police, the politicians, the BBC and a bishop, they may be hyperactive, incoherent and rather violent.
Bien pensant Scottish opinion has long been sniffy about Buckfast Tonic Wine. But last week, the entire liberal Establishment joined forces to attack an entirely legal product otherwise known as Buckie, Wreck The Hoose Juice, Commotion Lotion and a list of other nicknames which are unlikely to trouble the average bottle of Rioja.
This former medicinal pick-me-up has had its critics ever since it was adopted as a pre-match aperitif by Scottish football fans in the Seventies and went on to gain popularity among the thirstier members of the non-working classes. These days, the internet has endless footage of feckless, deadeyed youths trying to do the 'Buckie challenge' (down a whole bottle) in a matter of seconds - along with tales of Buckfast-fuelled street violence.
Last week, the wine was elevated to public enemy number one following a BBC1 documentary called The Buckfast Code. Quoting Strathclyde Police statistics, the programme said that Buckfast had been mentioned in 5,000 crime reports over the past three years.
These are extraordinary allegations. After all, Buckfast accounts for a mere 0.5 per cent of Scottish alcohol consumption. What's more, the rest of the world manages to drink it very happily without feeling the urge to smash the bottle and carve pretty patterns on the face of the nearest passer-by. But what makes the outcry even more bizarre is the origin of this drink.
Had it been dreamt up by some cynical multi-national, then we might all be up in arms. But Buckfast Tonic Wine is produced by a handful of monks so gentle and disciplined that their idea of appalling behaviour would be, say, talking at meal times or sleeping until 6am.
And they couldn't be much farther removed from the pools of blood and vomit which they are accused of creating in Glasgow. They live and work on the edge of Dartmoor.
So I have come to Buckfast Abbey, the source of this curiously powerful drink. And the more I wander around this tranquil patch, the more preposterous it seems to blame just 16 cloistered Benedictines in Devon for unleashing bedlam on central Scotland.
Through an archway, I enter what looks like a cathedral close, a vast spread of lawn leading down to a lavender garden and a medieval 'physic' garden. Towering over it all is the Abbey church, an Edwardian reproduction of the 12th-century original. The only noise is the gurgle of the River Dart to the east.
To the west, a pretty cluster of oldbuildings houses a bookshop and two gift shops - one for monastic products and one for local produce.
Both have prominent displays of Buckfast Tonic Wine, its bright orange label staring out from dark green glass.
It's £6.50 for a 75cl bottle (the same size as a normal bottle of wine) and £3.50 for a half. “It's very popular this week - it always is when there's been publicity,” says a lady behind the counter in the monastic shop.
Does she do the 'Buckie challenge' of an evening? Certainly not. “We take one small glass after dinner,” she says. “That's the way it should be done.”
All inquiries must be directed to an email address which I have already contacted without success. I have telephoned the monastery several times, but no one has answered.
So where is the evil elixir being prepared? I cannot see any signs of a booze factory. The only smell is the occasional pong of wet sheep as fresh wool is delivered to the Axminster carpet factory just down the road.
A side alley leads down to a yard behind the church and there, before me, I spy the apothecary's lair. It's a steamed-up two-storey building with three shiny tankers parked outside.
Each has 'Buckfast Tonic Wine' written on the back and one of them is connected to a large hosepipe. This is quite some operation.
But it is clearly marked as private property and I do not wish to trespass on holy ground. So I knock at the office door. Eventually, a monk appears. It is Father James, the bursar, and he steers me to a meeting room. He could not be more friendly, but explains that only the Abbot can allow strangers inside the wine plant and the Abbot is away.
I ask him about the attacks on his wine and he looks sad but unsurprised. “We have been making our tonic wine for 90 years for everyone, including little old ladies,” he says.
He is not sure when it became the honorary bevvy of the Scottish yob, but thinks it may have started in the Seventies when Celtic fans (a predominantly Catholic bunch) latched on to it.
Labour MP Helen Liddell (a former Scottish Secretary) chose to wage a public crusade against it and, needless to say, the controversy only boosted its popularity. What does Father James think of the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney going on TV to declare that “St Benedict would have been very, very unhappy with what his monks are doing”.
“He has never mentioned these concerns to us,” says Father James. “Monks have been making drinks for centuries. It was Dom Perignon who invented champagne. If a reckless driver crashes a fast car, do you ban the car or the driver?”
Buckfast was thriving from the days of King Canute to the 16th century, when Henry VIII shut down the monasteries. It remained in private hands for three centuries - one owner flattened the church - until it was bought by a runaway band of persecuted French Benedictines in 1882.
As they rebuilt the place, they needed revenue and, in 1920, started producing tonic wine to an ancient recipe. A visiting London wine merchant saw its potential and took it to a wider audience.
In the early days, pharmacists sold it as a general-purpose booster (it would prove particularly popular among housewives in the Scottish industrial heartland of Lanarkshire). The recipe has always consisted of fortified wine from southern France mixed with vanilla and a caffeine element to provide the tonic effect.
Until the 1970s, this was produced by the monks themselves who would boil cauldrons of maté tea and cocoa leaves. “We used to stink out the whole village,” recalls Father James.
Eventually, automated machinery was brought in and, today, the whole blending process is operated by one monk, Brother Richard, and a trio of workers from outside. Once they have refined their drink to the correct recipe, it is pumped into a tanker and dispatched to J Chandler & Co, its Hampshire-based distributor, which bottles it and sends it round the world.
Sales director Jim Wilson tells me that, beyond the British Isles, Buckfast Tonic Wine is particularly strong in the Caribbean, where some regard it as an aphrodisiac. It has recently taken off in Australia (40,000 bottles in the past quarter) and can even be found in several French bars. The whole operation has a £37 million turnover and employs 40 people directly and up to 500 indirectly.
This translates into a net profit of just over £1million per year for the monastery which is spent on charitable projects, not on the 16 monks themselves.
This may be a pretty spot but it is an austere, no-frills life of 5am starts.
Father James says that, without the wine, the monastery would keep going but would have to curtail most of its charity work. Mr Wilson, a Scot himself, not only points out that real jobs are at stake, but he is furious that the Scottish media and politicians are cheerfully demonising his relatively tiny Devon-based drink whereas they don't criticise Scottish beer or whisky for their contribution to society's ills.
“They have taken selective crime figures over several years and linked them to Buckfast, but then admit that they have not collected statistics for any other drink.”
He also argues that Buckfast behaves responsibly, pricing its product higher than many wines and rival drinks, while refusing to do any marketing in Scotland on the orders of the monks.
“You've even got politicians attacking it because it contains both alcohol and caffeine,” he says. “So, are they going to ban rum and Coke?”
Outside the Abbey shops, I conduct a straw poll of today's tonic wine purchasers. It is safe to say that none of them constitutes a menace to society.
“I've got a half-bottle as a present for my 93-year- old sister, Marion,” says Tony Wood, one of a coachload of Cambridgeshire holidaymakers on an excursion from their Torbay base.
Grace Packer, a retired schoolteacher on holiday from Caerleon, South Wales, admits that she bought a bottle only after reading the latest stories in the papers. “I've never tried it before,” she laughs. “I'm living proof that all publicity is good publicity.”
So will she be picking fights in the streets of Caerleon in the days ahead?
“Good heavens, no, I'm going to share it with my friends.”
If Scots have a problem with Buckfast Tonic Wine, it is reasonable to conclude that the solution lies not in Buckfast but in Scotland.