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How Buckfast became a symbol of Ireland’s defiant youth culture

Words: Caitriona Devery
Artwork: Paul Smith

The love felt by Buckfast believers for the syrupy ‘tonic wine’ is pure and true. The drink is a pillar of the underground and student party scenes, a sticky companion to clubbing and festivals. It’s a high energy night-time lubricant that induces strong feelings in its consumers.  It’s hard to explain the appeal of Buckfast to those who’ve never tried it, and indeed in some cases even to some who have. 

Few other drinks brands enjoy the affection and attachment it arouses in its fans or share its aura of familiarity and irreverence.  For that reason, I think, Buckfast has the power to bring the buzz to any event. That and the sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, obviously. 

00

Intro

The drink has an unlikely backstory. Buckfast was first created by French Benedictine monks near Buckfastleigh in Devon, England in the late 1800s. They had been displaced from their monastery in France and spent a couple of years in Leopardstown, County Dublin before settling at Buckfast Abbey in 1882.  Soon after the monks started to make a medicinal ‘tonic wine’ at the Abbey, marketing it with the slogan ‘three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood’.  

The basic recipe has not changed much since then. The tonic ingredients are added to imported base wines known as mistelas. Mistelas are also used as an ingredient in fortified wines like vermouth and sherry and similar to ingredients in altar wine. Buckfast sold in Ireland has a different recipe to the UK version and Irish drinkers are hugely loyal to the one sold here.  Its taste is distinctive and provocative. Sniffing the open bottle causes a Pavlovian pang of anticipation. There’s a rounded, vanilla, cola-blackcurrant smell, slightly musty with a heady buzz of alcohol. It’s sweet, viscous, with a complex, tangy finish, similar to port or dessert wine.

For decades in Ireland, like olive oil and condoms, Buckfast was sold not in the supermarket or off-license but in the chemist, because of its medicinal associations. Over time its consumption expanded beyond its original target market of people concerned for their health.  The wider adoption of Buckfast appears to have been a grassroots phenomenon, rather than contrived by Mad Men-style monks in the Abbey. At some point in the late eighties or early nineties, Buckfast made the leap from granny’s nightcap to student favourite, from medicinal ‘tonic wine’ to getting down to business at parties.  

In Ireland, early 90s Galway is central to explaining this and to understanding Buckfast within our collective consciousness. On the cusp of the Celtic Tiger, Galway was full of hippies, writers, artists, musicians, comedians and of course, loads of students. Employment was scarce and everyone was on the dole. It was a party town of raucous clubs, pubs and house parties. There were no mobile phones, no Internet. In this wild cocoon, this crucible of contented indolence, that Galway’s symbiotic relationship to Buckfast was forged. 

There were no mobile phones, no Internet. In this wild cocoon, this crucible of contented indolence, that Galway’s symbiotic relationship to Buckfast was forged.

01

Students Were the Driving Force

Image from ‘Galway Races’ by George Voronov

Students were the driving force. Cathal, a Galwegian and Buckfast veteran, told me he got into it through friends who were in college. He first had a swig of Buckfast in 1993 and was an immediate convert though he says it was a few years before it really took off. Galway’s appreciation for the drink runs deep. Cathal says, ‘there are only really two drinks that I have ever heard people going on about in this way. Guinness of course, but Buckie was the other’.

By the time I started first year Arts in UCG in the late 90s, the yellow-labelled bottle was firmly established as the ideal libation for pre-drinks or after-parties. Nights at the GPO, the Warwick or 110th Street were topped and tailed with sessions in houses where inevitably at least one bottle of Buckfast would appear. There was a communal, generous side to Buckfast; it was always shared. The medicinal association clung on in ways; my friend Fiona remembers believing that Buckie cured acne. 

Buckfast had such cultural currency at the time it inspired the name of a student zine called ‘Buckfast Supernova’, riffing on the Oasis superhit of the time. Behind it was Séan from Scotland, who put it together during his degree and masters, from 1995-97 or thereabouts. Buckfast Supernova has a mythical status in Galway’s cultural memory, with many more people claiming to have read it than there ever were copies printed. Séan would photocopy it at night in UCG’s Geography department and leave copies around UCG’s canteen, Smokies, and the college bar. Its scarcity added to the excitement around it, Séan reckons. 

He says the zine wasn’t really about Buckfast although it did feature heavily; they had fake competitions where the prize was always a bottle of Buckfast. He’s modest about the quality of the content, saying ‘it was all a bit haphazard and very amateurish, which might have been part of the appeal’. He didn’t retire on the proceeds either, ‘I made a little bit of cash out of it, which I spent on tonic wine’.

It had a cultural currency like no other drink, with the many layered meanings of a pre-Internet meme.

I chatted to Malachy Duggan, owner of the Blue Note and Massimo pubs in Galway’s West End. He has been working on and off in Galway pubs and clubs since the mid-90s, after realising there was a bit too much reading involved in an English degree. He worked initially in the GPO club on Eglinton Street which at that time had an off license (and still existed). Buckfast, or ‘Galway soup’ as he calls it, was the biggest seller. It had a cultural currency like no other drink, with the many layered meanings of a pre-Internet meme.

For instance, there was a Buckfast conspiracy theory about the numbers on the bottles. Each one has a number from one to fourteen. Some believed that the number corresponds to at what point in the barrel the bottle had been filled; the hope being that the higher or lower the number (there were differing views on this), the more potent the Buckfast. Malachy says this is entirely nonsense, but people were fanatical. ‘You’d have lads coming in and they would go through every bottle looking for their favourite number. If they couldn’t find it, they’d leave for another off-licence’.  

02

BYOB

Promo Poster for Techno & Cans’ “Techno and Buckfast” special edition

Buckfast consumption soon spread and now extends all over the country including the capital. At Rabble and DDR parties in Jigsaw over the years you might wonder if the BYOB stood for Bring Your Own Buckfast. Techno and Cans ran a Buckie special, Techno and Buckfast, in Index back in December 2019. The old Bernard Shaw used to sell bottles of Buckfast and ran a Buckfast weekender with Bottomless Buckfast Brunch. The new Shaw also has it in stock. Sweeneys (now closed) used to sell it by the glass. Fibbers on Parnell Street is still hanging in there and sells it by the bottle. 

In Lurgan, Buckfast is called ‘Lurgan Champagne’ due to its popularity in the Armagh town.  Mr Pickle of North Kerry noise label Dollar Pickle Records told me his circles in North Kerry are counterintuitively but deeply attached to the drink. As he explains, ‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone who likes it, but I know so many people that love it. It’s perfect for bringing to those sessions you know will go on until the early hours of the morning.’ In Offaly, Tullamore phenomenon Raggaman Bob penned a tune about it.

Drum & Bass DJ Executive Steve recounted a story that captures the emotional resonance of Buckie in the clubbing population. In the late 2000’s he was at a night in a sweaty, packed basement club on O’Connell Street. He says, ‘a newbie barman spent the whole night ringing Buckie in at a fiver a bottle. Within minutes half the club was sipping from an open bottle in each hand. The scene was like an old hip hop video but with everyone too broke for bottles of Hennessey or Moet.’

A newbie barman spent the whole night ringing Buckie in at a fiver a bottle. Within minutes, half the club was sipping from an open bottle in each hand

Executive Steve
03

More Than Party Fuel

It’s more than party fuel though. In recent years there’s been a reassessment of its gastronomic potential. The unique flavour profile of Buckfast and the touch of irony around it allows people to enjoy it in all manner of ways, including a more refined consumption. District’s Creative Director George Voronov savours a glass on the regular. He said, ‘I love it a lot, to the extent that I just drink it over ice after dinner. It’s basically a digestif.’ He once told his fiancé it was a fancy vermouth and she was fully convinced.  

Food and drink products with Buckfast’s strong, nostalgic appeal can powerfully evoke memories and feelings because they come laden with personal and cultural associations. Chefs love playing around with them. Like George, Chef Jess Murphy of Kai in Galway compares Buckfast to vermouth and is a huge fan of recasting it as a culinary ingredient. After moving from New Zealand to Ireland she was fascinated by the ‘Galway enigma’ which all her friends love and its idiosyncratic place within Galway’s popular culture. 

Dough Bros x Jess Murphy Shawarma Pizza with Buckfast Hot Sauce

When she was trying to capture the essence of Galway at an event a few years back, Jess cooked pigeon marinated in Buckfast. Recently, her wildly popular beef shawarma pizza collaboration with Dough Bros, comes with Buckfast shatta, fermented chilli Syrian hot sauce with a dash of Buckfast. It regularly features on the Kai menu in Buckfast Negronis.  Malachy Duggan has also channelled his enthusiasm for the Buck into food, working with The Lodge Barna Mustards to make a Buckie mustard.  The Blue Note ran the world’s Buckfast cocktail competition in 2014.  The winning cocktail was called ‘Buckfast Lives Forever’ and featured Buckfast plus cucumber, lime, strawberry and gin.

This combination of loyalty and reinvention is at the heart of the Buckfast story. Its paradoxical associations are part of its power and appeal. Like the drink itself, it’s sticky with cultural meaning. Yet in spite of all the mythology, nostalgia and community that surrounds it, there is still one issue that can cause division. To chill, or not to chill? Malachy told me the Blue Note started refrigerating Buckfast a few years, causing a huge divide in Galway. ‘It was a bit like Blur or Oasis, which side are you on?’. Personally, I’m team chill, as all true connoisseurs are.

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