Alcohol and caffeine: not a great combination according to the US government. We learned that in 2014 when everyone’s favorite caffeinated malt liquor, Four Loko, disappeared from store shelves across America, returning only after it was stripped of its taurine, caffeine, and guarana. But long before Four Loko had me throwing up in a Porta-Potty during the late aughts, monks in the United Kingdom were making something similarly insane: a caffeinated, fortified wine called Buckfast.
Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England goes back to 1018, but things didn’t start getting boozy at the Benedictine monastery until the 1880s when French monks hit the scene. The monks added “tonic ingredients” like caffeine and potassium salt to fortified Spanish wine, creating a 15% alcohol aperitif that has a higher caffeine percentage than Red Bull. It was intended to be consumed medicinally.
“Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood,” the monks recommended. “It was marketed in the ‘70s as the housewife’s pick-me-up. I’ve had a hard day, I need a wee tonic,” Scottish restaurateur Jon Beach told me. The drink was a hit, and today the monastery brings in more than $10 million a year from its “Buckie” sales.
As you can predict, drinkers across the UK came to ignore the three small glass suggestion, opting instead to get absolutely crunk on Buckie. Like Four Loko, Buckfast gained a reputation for being a godawful choice of drink. Its ability to bring out the absolute worst in its victims—stereotypically teenagers and “neds” (Scottish slang for uneducated delinquents)—earned it about a thousand different nicknames like “wreck the hoose juice.”
It’s not uncommon to see Buckie pop up in violent crime reports. “It became a weapon of choice for neds. Many smashed bottle over the napper of his foe,” Glasgow resident Jamie Murphy explained to me. “I actually had a bottle at the weekend, which was lovely. Can safely say I caused no one any injury.”
Naturally I made it my mission to try it on a trip to Glasgow, Buckfast’s biggest market. On an uncharacteristically sunny day in Scotland, I searched grocery stores and wine shops looking for a bottle. Shop clerks laughed when I asked if they carried Buckie. I was eventually directed to KeyStore, a fluorescent-lit bodega that sold both the full-sized and half-sized bottles of the infamous elixir.
I held off on buying a whole damn bottle of “Mrs. Brown” for myself, as I cannot be trusted with such temptations, but asked the cashier more about it. He told me that it’s one of his best selling products, even though it isn’t particularly cheap (it’s about $11 per full-sized bottle). He goes through his entire inventory of Buckie every weekend without fail.
Decorated with quaint grape and monastery illustrations, the wine bottle looks elegant. Its effects are less so. “It’s Loopy Juice. It makes people go crazy,” s Scotsman who preferred to remain anonymous told me that night at Kelvingrove Café, a Glasgow cocktail bar. It turns out not everyone wants to go on record talking about the Buckfast “that gets you f*****ed fast,” as its unofficial slogan goes. “It’s like terrible Red Bull mixed with terrible wine. Obviously the intention of drinking it is to get drunk.”
The storied drink is making something of a comeback in more refined establishments. Bars around town started carrying Buckie ironically, and are now incorporating it into cocktails, popping up in negronis by taking the place of vermouth. One pub tops their burger with Buckfast bacon jam; another serves Buckfast ice cream.
The trend has even expanded outside of Glasgow to the rest of the country. Up north in Speyside, The Copper Dog pub has found room for a Buckfast White Russian on its menu. In Loch Ness, restaurateur Beach bought a case of Buckie to rest in a Glenfarclas whisky barrel, creating a Buckfarclas monster no one asked for. It turned out…okay, he said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
It took some bar hopping before I found some Buckie of my own. In no way did I need to keep drinking, but there was also no way I could resist trying something so legendary. The bartender poured the dark “Commotion Lotion” into a small wine glass and I swirled the contents warily. I tossed it back, preparing for the worst. It was syrupy, a lot like mediocre room temperature port. I’d pick it over a Four Loko any day.
It was a weird pick for a nightcap given the espresso-status caffeine punch, still I felt only slightly twitchy leaving the bar, with a lingering sickly sweet taste in my mouth. Had I scored a full 750 ml bottle, things would have gone differently, I could see that from my single shot experience. But you’ll be glad to hear, I got home safely without any hoose wrecking or bottle smashing.