At about 3AM on a deserted suburban street in central Scotland, the guy in front of me has just necked a bottle of Buckfast in one, then spewed it right back up into a sticky red puddle between his legs. “That’s fuck all, bullshit, just a wee bit of puke,” he mutters, looking disappointed at wasting the last of what has become to some a symbol of the country’s rampant alcohol problems.
Unless you’re from some quite specific parts of the UK or Ireland, you may not be familiar with Buckfast. It’s a fortified tonic wine, that, while not crazy strong at 15 percent, has a caffeine content which is apparently higher per millilitre than Red Bull and is loaded with tons of sugar and piles of other tasty chemicals. Interestingly, it’s also made by a community of Benedictine monks living in Devon. It might seem like an odd fit but it earns them some pretty big money.
Buckfast is syrup-thick, tastes like a palatable mixture of Ribena and Benylin and gets you pretty uniquely trashed. I actually like it and it's wildly popular with certain sections of my countrymen, too – usually, the ones that all the other sections don’t want much to do with because they spend most of their time hanging around on street corners getting into fights and breaking things. "Neds", as they're known in the local vernacular. Accordingly, it has earned Buckfast nicknames like “wreck the hoose juice” as well as the catchy unofficial slogan: “Buckfast: gets you fucked fast”.
The popularity of Buckie with its not-very-popular fanbase often leads to suggestions of links between its consumption and crime, particularly the violent variety. Scottish politicians kick up a fuss about it on a semi-regular basis, but as politicians tend to be pretty fond of pointing and shouting at easy targets, it's easy to wonder if their concerns are legit. To find out, I made a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Police Service asking how frequently Buckfast was mentioned in crime reports.
It’s impossible to compare results across the whole of Scotland, because the recording system isn’t standardised after the nation's regional forces were consolidated into Police Scotland earlier this year. So I concentrated on the area that contains the so-called "Buckie Triangle" of Airdrie, Coatbridge and Cumbernauld (where the stuff is particularly popular) and the rest of the Greater Glasgow area (where booze and violence in general are just really popular). As this whole area was covered by the Strathclyde Police up until recently, I was able to ask them how often Buckfast cropped up in crime reports.
As it turned out, it cropped up a lot. From 2008 to 2012, Buckfast was mentioned in an average of 2,893 crime reports per year in Strathclyde Police’s patch, which works out at just under eight a day. The trend shows no sign of abating and 2013 is shaping up to be a particularly epic year for Buckie-fuelled crime sprees, with 2,239 references already recorded by the end of August.
If you're looking for evidence to support the theory that Buckfast makes young people commit crime, the stats are pretty compelling. Just under 12 percent of these reports involved either "petty crime" or what SPS categorises as a “Group 1” crime, which includes the most vicious varieties of violence such as murder, attempted murder, serious assault and abduction. True to stereotypical form, 58 percent of the perpetrators involved in the Buckie crimes were aged between 16 and 25.
A survey conducted at Polmont Young Offenders Institution in 2007 had similarly striking results. Of the centre's young resident crims, 41 percent declared Buckfast to be their favourite tipple. Of those who'd been drunk at the time of their crime, 43 percent had been drinking Buckfast.
The Wetherspoons in Coatbridge – one of the few places in Greater Glasgow where people can't drink Buckfast
What was even more surprising, researchers noted, was that Buckfast was not mentioned by any respondents from some other large and densely populated parts of the country, such as Tayside and Edinburgh. So why do the people of Greater Glasgow love Buckie so much?
In an attempt to find out, I decided to enter the Buckie Triangle. On a Friday evening, I arrived in the misleadingly named Coatbridge Sunnyside Station on a train full of drunk teenagers singing football songs and similarly drunk fat middle-aged men also singing football songs. The walk into the centre of town – past local landmarks like the spiritualist church and a shopping centre – was pretty much as expected: everything was grey, girls in no clothes were calling guys hanging out of car windows wankers and kids were drinking in the late summer drizzle.
Buckie is very well liked in Coatbridge. In a small supermarket on the high street, the friendly manager told me they sold a bottle at least every ten minutes. She wasn’t a fan, but her other half was. “My man drinks it, but some of his friends can’t because it sends them crazy,” she said and paused. “But then that happens with everything.”
In the local Wetherspoons, a cheerful barmaid said she’d been trying to get the management to stock it for ages with no luck. However, she pointed me in the direction of a few other pubs in the area whose managers were brave enough to run Buckie on tap. There, staff told me that they went through several cases a week.
So what’s the appeal? I asked some blatantly underage teenagers who were wandering about swigging from assorted bottles and who would only speak to me after I convinced them I wasn’t a plain-clothes cop cunningly disguised as a scruffy journalist. “It’s cheap and gets you off your face,” one shouted, reasonably enough.
It is and it does. But it isn’t actually all that cheap. It normally sells at around £7 a bottle and for that price you could get six litres of “refreshing, simple and satisfying” 7.5 percent Frosty Jack from Iceland. That’s 15p per unit versus Buckie’s 62p per unit. I know your average 15-year-old hellraiser isn’t likely to be doing much in the way of arithmetic when they pick their booze for the night, but when the difference is obvious enough that even my borderline innumerate brain can spot it, there must be something else about Buckfast that lures people in.
One is that it’s the perfect street drink – premixed, portable and with a screw top. Another, according to aficionados, is that the mixture of the caffeine and the other ingredients “gets you hyper”. “It’s a Scottish tradition,” another pissed-up teenager told me. He had a point. You probably won’t find it on any officially endorsed list but in some parts of the country, it is one nonetheless. A pub landlord even told me that his older customers were starting to order it instead of whiskey. I also spoke to a guy whose love for the stuff extended into incorporating it into recipes, rather than just drinking it (though obviously he liked doing that, too).
Because Buckie cuisine inevitably tastes like shite, this sort of thing is normally the exclusive preserve of restaurants in search of a cheap headline, but he had taken it to new heights/depths. Recipes included ice-cream – “well before the other cunts were doing it” – and Buckfast with seafood. “Squid in its own ink, that’s disgusting," the guy said. "So I tried it with Buckfast.” He also said it could be used in a pretty great steak sauce. “You just mix it with shallots, olive oil and brandy.”
I was pretty taken aback by these revelations, so I gave Dr Alasdair Forsyth, from the Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research, a call in the hope that he could tell me why some people are so into it. The short answer, according to some of his findings, is that young people see it as a symbol of the "ned" culture that they identify with: “You couldn’t use it as a predictor because it’s a 1:1 thing. Everyone who drank Buckfast was a ned and everyone who was a ned drank Buckfast.”
So, if it wasn’t Buckfast, would neds be drinking something else and acting exactly the same? Not according to hand-wringing politicians. For a long time the caffeine content has been held up as an evil and there have been all kinds of proposals to limit caffeine in premix drinks. Catherine Stihler, Labour MEP for Scotland, has been calling for a ban of highly caffeinated alcoholic drinks for years, so I got in touch and asked why she thought it was so nasty. “Combining high levels of caffeine and alcohol into pre-mixed drinks creates a potent and dangerous cocktail which has been linked to anti-social behaviour across Scotland for many years,” she said. “This causes untold misery in communities across the country.”
But let's be honest, people have been getting drunk and hurting each other pretty effectively for a good while now with or without caffeine, it’s just that the type of booze being blamed has changed with public tastes and opinions. In the 1750s, gin was regarded in the same way that crack is today, demonised by the ale-sipping genteel classes. However, more than 200 years later, folks grasping G&Ts in tastefully lit, glass-fronted wine bars are horrified to observe the behaviour of passing lager louts, yelling, pissing and bleeding all over their local high streets.
There is, however, one more potentially injurious element of Buckfast; that it comes in glass bottles. As a result, it doesn’t just harm livers, but – unlike a bouncy bottle of Frosty Jack – it’ll seriously harm faces if, as often happens, it’s swung at one. In a follow up to the 2007 Polmont survey, inmates said they often chose to drink it and similarly packaged drinks because of the significant attack bonus that the bottle bestowed upon them. Others said they wouldn’t have glassed whatever unfortunate person it was they glassed if they hadn’t happened to have one handy. The researchers added that in accounts of violent incidents, bottles appeared to be a more frequently used weapon than any other, which – in notoriously stabby Scotland – is saying something.
This was Forsyth’s biggest issue with Buckfast, and one that he thought was unlikely to be dealt with by its distributors, J Chandler & Co Ltd, for fear of damaging its mythical status in ned culture. “I think they have known about this problem for a while and probably milked it,” he said. “They could have put it into plastic but then they’d lose their notoriety, which is one of its unique selling points.”
The bottles also create vast amounts of spikey litter. Research found that, in a typical Scottish town, 35.1 percent of all alcohol rubbish and 54 percent of glassy litter were Buckie bottles or their remains.
I’m pretty sure the monks of Buckfast Abbey aren't behind a big plot to cause murder and mayhem in the streets of Lanarkshire, but I wondered if, despite the millions it makes them, their superior levels of spiritual purity might have led them to have at least some concerns about the damage their brew has come to be associated with.
Unfortunately, all enquiries about the wine are supposed to be routed through J Chandler & Co, so in an effort to avoid getting fobbed off by some PR lackey, I took a trip to the Abbey itself. It’s located in a ridiculously beautiful corner of Devon, so the picture on the bottle turned out not to be a bullshit marketing ploy, which I found strangely heartening. It turned out, most of the locals hadn’t really heard of Buckie. Those that had didn’t fancy drinking it. “It’s for all the dirty smackheads, isn’t it?“ one local asked me.
Inside the Abbey, a friendly guide tried to foist some free scripture onto me before delivering the annoying news that while Buckie is still made there, “the base wine arrives from France, before the monks add the ‘secret ingredients’”.
There were other obstacles: Having walked into numerous “private” signs and locked doors, I introduced myself at the gift shop and asked if it would be possible to talk with management or a monk. The initially sweet old woman behind the counter quickly turned sour, narrowing her eyes and telling me that there was no one on the whole site who could speak with a journalist, so I should email a mysterious “media advisor". (My emails later bounced from the address she gave me.) When I mentioned in passing that I didn’t associate Buckfast with such tranquil surroundings, she glared and snapped back, “people say lots of things”.
When I called J Chandler & Co, a press guy of theirs named Stuart Wilson didn’t have much time for any of the potential criticisms I put to him. He asked for evidence of the caffeine-related claims made by Stihler, the Labour MEP for Scotland. He also had a whole defence lined up for the use of glass bottles, which seemed less than reasonable: “If someone is to commit a crime, they’ll use whatever tools are at their disposal, whether that be a bottle, knife or piece of wood lying on the pavement.” I may have misinterpreted the research I mentioned earlier, but I think Stuart was missing the point that maybe glass bottles shouldn’t be at a drunk's disposal.
He added that people often say drinks taste better from a glass bottle, so he didn’t want to put off the vast amount of Buckie drinkers with a discerning palate. “Even more contentious”, from his point of view, was the environmental impact. “If people aren’t going to dispose of their plastic properly in terms of recycling it, landfill sites could be filled very quickly with our plastic bottles,” he said. Whether or not that’s better than filling Scottish towns with broken bottles, drunk kids and the odd bottling victim, I couldn't say.
Follow John on Twitter: @JM_Beck
More stories involving everyone's favourite depressant: