THE long-running feud between Buckfast and the Scottish Executive was re-ignited last night after Health Minister Andy Kerr branded the drink a "seriously bad" cause of anti-social behaviour.
Kerr's comments provoked a furious counter-attack by the makers of the fortified tonic wine, who accused him of "a complete lack of judgment" for publicly criticising their product.
It emerged yesterday that Kerr is seeking a meeting with Buckfast, which is made by Benedictine monks in Devon, to discuss concern about its popularity among young Scots.
But Kerr's apparent frustration over problem drinking burst into the open when he claimed in an interview that Buckfast was "an irresponsible drink... in its own right".
Kerr insisted his efforts to combat alcohol abuse did not only concern Buckfast, explaining he was in contact with the manufacturers of other drinks popular with young drinkers, such as strong ciders.
Last year, Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson wrote to the head of the Scottish Co-op society in her Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley constituency urging the society not to sell Buckfast, after claiming that the wine, a favourite of under-age drinkers, was a major cause of antisocial behaviour.
Yesterday, in an interview on the Edinburgh-based radio station Talk 107, Kerr responded to a listener's question about what he thought of Buckfast. He said: "I think there's something different about that drink that does something to, particularly, our young people.
"I do believe it's an irresponsible drink in its own right and I've actually written to Buckfast to have a meeting with them. They have not been, let's say, very open with us around the whole issue."
However, Jim Wilson, a spokesman for J Chandler & Co, which distributes Buckfast on behalf of the monks, said: "I am baffled as to how, before a meeting with us, he has come out and said the things he has in relation to Buckfast. His swashbuckling statements show bad manners, a complete lack of judgment, and they don't do the Scottish Parliament any favours at all. It's no way to behave."
Wilson confirmed that the letter from the minister to the monks at the abbey had been passed on to the company.
"We sent him a letter explaining our place in the drinks market and our various initiatives in Scotland which aim to prevent alcohol abuse. I have subsequently been in touch with Mr Kerr's office, but we have not been given a date to meet him."
Wilson said that Kerr's comments would not prevent him from eventually meeting the minister to discuss the Executive's concerns. "I am more than happy to meet him," he said.
Shona Robison, the Scottish National Party's health spokeswoman, said: "Foghorn diplomacy with one particular product is not going to take us forward in any way in stopping youngsters from binge drinking.
"Maybe this is the minister's attempt to be seen to be doing something, but I think he has missed the target.
"Buckfast is one drink of many that young people abuse and to focus on that one drink is missing the point. We need to tackle the culture of heavy drinking rather than being distracted by talking about Buckfast."
However, Tom Wood, chairman of Scotland's alcohol and drug action teams, said: "I have some sympathy with Andy Kerr's comments. While Buckfast is only one drink, it is one of a series that are dangerously used by our young people.
"When you see the toll that alcohol is taking, I can understand why [Kerr] is taking a hard line. Buckfast and very strong ciders are particularly problematic because of their high alcohol content."
Jamieson's skirmish with Buckfast initially led the Auchinleck branch of the Co-op to impose selling restrictions on the wine, and the minister later urged other shopkeepers to follow suit.
But the move appeared to backfire when Jamieson was humiliated by teenagers while visiting the Ayrshire town and, months later, when it emerged that year-on-year sales of the drink had risen following her comments. The row led J Chandler & Co to consider legal action against the Executive.
A source close to Jack McConnell said last night: "The First Minister fully backs Mr Kerr. He also supported Cathy Jamieson when she raised similar concerns last year."
The Executive seemed to backtrack from Kerr's outspoken comments last night.
A spokeswoman said: "Having already written to the manufacturers of Buckfast, the health minister is pleased they want to meet with him and he looks forward to arranging this as soon as possible. This will allow him to get across some of the concerns that he and communities around Scotland have about Buckfast and other strong alcoholic drinks."