A spectre is haunting Britain – the spectre of Buckfast. “Bucky”, ”fuckfast”, “commotion lotion” or “wreck-the-hoose juice” is a highly controversial, but unfairly maligned drink. Brewed in Buckfast abbey in Devon by one of the last remaining communities of Benedictine monks in the UK, Buckfast has inexplicably become the national drink of Scotland. North of Hadrian’s wall, Buckfast has taken off like nowhere else. There, it is invariably associated with Glaswegian hooligan ‘ned’ culture where it is enjoyed by anti-social violent youths like the protagonists from Trainspotting (if you look closely, bottles of Buckfast can be seen in the background of various scenes in the film, including Mother Superior’s heroin den – a ringing endorsement if nothing else.)
Buckfast is a fortified tonic wine which although not particularly alcoholic, at only 15%, contains the same quantities of caffeine as roughly 5 cans of Coca Cola. It has become so associated with delinquency and violence that it has been the subject of numerous political crusades against binge drinking. In 2011, Scottish Labour MEP Catherine Stihler called for a European-wide ban on the fortified tonic wine, citing it “has caused untold misery to millions of communities”. Sheriff Alastair Brown of Dundee said in 2016: “There is in my professional experience a very definite association between Buckfast and violence,” while a Dunfermline man was told in the same year by a court judge at his assault trial – in possibly the biggest understatement in history – that drinking four bottles of Buckfast a day is “not conducive to a very long life”. According to the BBC, Buckfast was mentioned in 2500 Strathclyde police crime reports in 2011-12 where the defence “the Bucky made me do it” was a common utterance in magistrates courts.
It is unfair that the onus of British youth violence should fall solely on Buckfast, however, which seems like a rather lazy scapegoat against the institutional failings of Scottish politicians and the police to tackle crime. A very small minority of Buckfast’s customers need not tarnish the entire reputation of the drink, and I find that many Buckfast enthusiasts are among the most genial and agreeable folks out there. Indeed, if the issue lies, as its detractors claim, in the dangerous combination of alcohol and caffeine, where are the campaigns against Jäger Bombs, Cuba Libres, not to mention the Clockwork Orange-esque gang violence associated with drinkers of Espresso Martinis? It is rank hypocrisy and nothing else – another example of the dead hand of the nanny state interfering in the lives of punters and monks alike. Some of my best nights have been spent in the company of fellow bacchanals indulging in the monastic juice, and although the label states that Buckfast contains “no medicinal qualities”, I am inclined to disagree. The monastic origins of Buckfast imbue it with the qualities of a kind of secular transubstantiation. A bottle of Buckfast deep, even an atheist can find God.
The syrupy sweet notes of Buckfast are certainly an acquired taste, and it is hard to forget that what you’re drinking essentially tastes like concentrated grape juice with added ethanol, or as an American reviewer of the drink described it on Reddit, “like drinking liquefied methamphetamine through a dirty rag, whilst simultaneously on your knees under a bridge orally pleasing a vagrant”. But it is a flavour which, once you have become acquainted, cannot be shaken off. Like many drinks, Buckfast can be enjoyed in small doses – perhaps as an after-dinner apéritif or even as a substitution for communion wine – but like many drinks, it is best enjoyed in substantial quantities. The French author Emmanuel Carrère, in his biography of Russian political dissident Eduard Limonov wrote of an episode known as a “Zapoi”, which roughly translates to “binge”. However, the term also involves aspects of a total surrender to alcohol, where one puts their body through the greatest possible strain in order to reach some form of enlightenment, finding the meaning of the human condition. He writes: “Zapoi is serious business, not a one-night bender of the kind we partake in, the kind you pay for with a hangover the next day. Zapoi means going several days without sobering up, roaming from one place to another, getting on trains without knowing where they’re headed, telling your most intimate secrets to people you meet by chance, forgetting everything you’ve said and done: a sort of voyage.”
A ‘Bucky zapoi’ is a truly transcendent experience, and it can be achieved at the price of £7 a bottle from any number of vendors in Britain and beyond. When you push through the initial sickliness of the first few gulps, and find that the liquid in the bottle has reached below the iconic orange label, there is no turning back – the Zapoi has begun. In fact, finding enlightenment through this monastic elixir has become far easier in recent years. The app ‘Find Me Bucky’ available on the App Store and Google Play provides a useful map detailing the locations for all vendors who sell it [pictured below].
Though Edinburgh, Glasgow and London would be your best bets for finding a bottle of Bucky, Oxford is by no means deserted. One can pick up a bottle from at least two corner shops on St Clements, as well as the ubiquitous Deli on Cowley Road.
If your tastes are not suited to this, and you would scoff at the sight of a man on his 4th day of a Buckfast zapoi, then there are alternative ways to enjoy the beverage. There has been a string of trendy bars in cities like Glasgow and in some parts of East London which have incorporated Buckfast into more well-established food items, with one venue in Shoreditch selling Buckfast ice cream. Even closer for Oxford readers, The Library pub on Cowley Road actually sells a Buckfast Negroni on their menu, substituting red Vermouth for Buckfast which works surprisingly well, giving a sweet counterbalance to the bitterness of the gin and Campari. Though a negroni is ostensibly a sensible drink, enjoyed by Don Draper types who embody the notion of sprezzatura – a sophisticated, nonchalant, urbane excellence – the addition of Buckfast is a welcome take on this classic cocktail, which does just service to the original, whilst providing a unique tongue-in-cheek spin.
The eighteenth-century French aristocrat and freethinking libertine, the Marquis de Sade, said that “in order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice,” and this is certainly true of the experience of indulging in Bucky. Though it’s an unhealthy and immoderate decision to consume an entire bottle of Buckfast in one evening, it is also a joyful, transcendent, life-affirming one which I shall continue to do until my last days. Floreat Buckfast.