At about 3 AM on a deserted suburban street in central Scotland, the guy in front of me chugs a bottle of Buckfast in one, then spews it 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 his beverage. In case you were wondering—why yes, Buckfast has become a symbol of the country’s rampant alcohol-abuse problems. How did you guess?
Unless you’re from some quite specific parts of the UK or Ireland, you may not be familiar with Buckfast. The simplest way to describe it to Americans would be to call it the British version of Four Loko—it’s a fortified tonic wine, that, while not crazy strong at 15 percent, has more caffeine by volume than Red Bull and is loaded with tons of sugar and other tasty chemicals. Interestingly, it’s also made by a community of Benedictine monks living in Devon, England, which doesn't seem very Christian or whatever, but it does make the abbey some pretty big money.
Buckfast is syrup-thick, tastes like a palatable mixture of berry-flavored cola and cough medicine, and gets you pretty uniquely trashed. (Full disclosure: I actually like it.) It's wildly popular with certain of my countrymen—usually, the ones the rest of the country doesn’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," they're called in the local vernacular (some say it stands for "non-educated delinquents," if you were curious). 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 semiregular 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 an official freedom-of-information request to the Scottish authorities to ask 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 standardized even though 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 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 jurisdiction, 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 categorizes 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 between 16 and 25 years old.
A survey conducted at Scotland's Polmont Young Offenders Institution in 2007 had similarly striking results. Forty-one percent of the young people locked up there declared Buckfast to be their favorite brew, and 43 percent of those who'd been drunk at the time of their crime had been drinking Buckfast. As the Yanks would say, YOLO.
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 soccer songs and similarly drunk fat middle-aged men also singing soccer songs. The walk to downtown—past local landmarks like the spiritualist church and a shopping center—was pretty much as you'd expect from northern Scotland: everything was gray, girls wearing practically 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 tavern, a cheerful barmaid said she’d been trying to get the management to stock it for ages with no luck. However, she did point 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 obviously 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), and they shouted, “It’s cheap and gets you off your face!” Fair enough.
Thing is, it isn’t actually all that cheap. It normally sells at around £7 ($11) a bottle—for that price you could get six liters of “refreshing, simple and satisfying” 7.5 percent Frosty Jack from Iceland. That’s 15 pence per unit versus Buckie’s 62 pence per unit. I know your average 15-year-old hell-raiser 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 I can spot it, there must be something else about Buckfast that lures people in.
One explanation 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." One hypothesis put forth by a drunk teenager I spoke to was that it's "a Scottish tradition.” He had a point. You probably won’t find Buckie on any officially endorsed list of cultural touchstones, but in some parts of the country, it is one nonetheless. A pub owner 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 shit, 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,” he said—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, a senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, a call in the hopes 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 one-to-one thing," he told me. "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 the amount of caffeine in premixed drinks. (Across the pond, the FDA has banned caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Four Loko since 2010.) Catherine Stihler, a Scottish member of European Parliament, 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 premixed drinks creates a potent and dangerous cocktail which has been linked to antisocial behavior across Scotland for many years,” she said. “This causes untold misery in communities across the country.”
But 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 along with public tastes: in the 1750s, gin was regarded in the same way that crack is today, demonized by the ale-sipping genteel classes, yet more than 200 years later, folks grasping G&Ts in tastefully lit, glass-fronted wine bars are horrified at the behavior of passing lager-swigging 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, bottles of Buckie don’t just harm livers, but—unlike the plastic containers Frosty Jack come in—can seriously damage faces if, as often happens, they're swung at them. In a follow-up to the 2007 Polmont survey, inmates said they often chose to drink Buckfast and similarly packaged drinks because of how easy it was to turn the bottles into weapons. Others said they wouldn’t have glassed whoever they smashed in the head if they hadn’t happened to have a bottle 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 & Company, 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. A report done by the Scottish Prison Service found that, in a typical Scottish town, 35.1 percent of all alcohol-related 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 nefarious plot to cause murder and mayhem in the streets of Lanarkshire, but I did wonder if they were concerned about the damage their brew has come to be associated with. Jesus did turn water into wine, but he didn't then hand that wine to a bunch of Scottish soccer hooligans and go, "Here lads, go get pissed and beat the fuck out of each other."
Unfortunately, all inquiries about the wine are supposed to be routed through J. Chandler and Company, 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 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.’”
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 in the entire building who could speak with a journalist. Instead, I should email a mysterious “media advisor." (My emails later bounced back 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 and Company, 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, and he had a whole defense ready when I asked about the dangers of glass bottles: “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 number of Buckie drinkers who have a discerning palate. “Even more contentious,” from his point of view, were questions about 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
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