Most people, it seems, don’t drink Buckfast for the taste, but for the heady rush that comes from ingesting a whole lot of caffeine and booze simultaneously. Each bottle packs 15 percent alcohol and the caffeine equivalent of about 10 cans of Coke. Scots describe the sickly sweet red wine as having a taste like fruit bubblegum and cough medicine. But perhaps more interesting than its flavor are its biggest fans: Buckfast, or “Buckie,” is very popular among Scottish criminals.
Scots have been drinking Buckfast for decades—the earliest advertisements for it date back to the 1930s, in the wine stores of Dundee. Originally, Buckfast grew popular because of its so-called medicinal properties. Billed as a tonic, it could be sold in pharmacies anytime, while other brands of alcohol were available only during designated time periods on weekdays—and not at all on Sundays. As late as the 1960s, the wine was marketed as “a splendid pick-me-up that restores zest and sparkle,” available at all good chemists.
Buckfast didn’t catch on as the next big health drink, but the affordable £7 ($9) price tag has helped it earn some passionate fans. Since the late 1970s, Buckfast has gained a new reputation: drink of choice among criminals, or “neds,” a classist term for local hooligans from low-income housing developments. While it’s not popular among the general Scottish population—Buckfast makes up less than half a percent of all alcohol sales—over 40 percent of prison inmates surveyed by the Scottish Prison Service reported having drunk some quantity of the stuff before their last offense.
The most surprising thing about Buckfast, given this bad rap, is that it’s made by monks. The wine makes its way hundreds of miles to Scotland from Devon’s Buckfast Abbey, one of the last orders of Benedictine monks in the United Kingdom. The monks, for their part, take no responsibility for the criminal connection. This, they say, is simply a common part of poverty. And if it weren’t their drink, it would be another. Even though the monks may not admit it, the drink’s fans—seedy or otherwise—help keep sales strong. In 2015, they made nearly £9 million ($11.6 million) from their tonic wine. And since they’re a religious order, they don’t pay taxes on those millions.