The monks' tonic that threatens to seduce a generation of Scots

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IT'S 5:25am and an early-morning autumnal mist rolls off the Devon hills and towards the towering spires of Buckfast Abbey.

Twelve hours later, and several hundred miles further north, the scene could not be more different. In the Lanarkshire town of Coatbridge - the heart of Scotland's "Buckfast Triangle" and known to some as "the Buckfast Capital" - the streets are littered with teenagers drinking Buckfast straight out of the bottle. The atmosphere is tense, highly charged: the intent is to get as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible. Before the night is over, the chances are at least one of the distinctive green glass bottles that are handed round like cans of lemonade will be used as a weapon, as Scotland's favourite "tonic wine" begins to take effect.

"Buckie", "charge", "brown sauce", "Coatbridge table wine", "commotion lotion" ... call it what you like, this drink brewed on England's south coast is a part of Scotland's social fabric. While statistics about its popularity vary wildly (it was once claimed 80 per cent of its worldwide sales were in Lanarkshire; the company says it's closer to 7 per cent, and overall, Scotland accounts for 60 per cent of the product's sales) there is no denying that this particular drink - once sold as a medicine to old ladies everywhere - is the vin de choix for many an idle young Scot. At about 5.50 for a bottle of the 15 per cent proof fortified wine, it's arguably the most cost-effective way to get plastered.

That is perhaps why Andy Kerr, the health minister, yesterday held a summit with Buckfast's distributors, after saying the drink was "seriously bad" and voicing concerns that it encourages antisocial behaviour. Jim Wilson, the sales manager in Scotland for J Chandler & Co, the firm that distributes the wine, said afterwards that the meeting had been "cordial", and added: "We listened to what the minister had to say and hopefully he took on board what we were saying and some good will come of it."

Mr Kerr's meeting with the people behind Buckfast marks a remarkable watershed in our relationship with the drink, but how did Buckfast become so popular among Scottish youth? How did the holy monks of Buckfast Abbey become embroiled in an ongoing row between public-health guardians and those who say that, rather than being the problem, Buckie is merely a symptom of deeper social ills, and that if youths weren't drinking it, they would simply fuel themselves on something else? Nobody seems to know. So, did some enterprising young teen steal a bottle from his English granny's drinks cabinet, like what he tasted and tell all his friends, or is there something more sinister afoot?

Mr Wilson recently told this paper that it does not advertise Buckfast, and that the company has not advertised in more than 20 years. "We don't promote the brand, you don't see 'buy one, get one free' or 1 off coupons in the press," he said.

But perhaps it is more simple than that. Buckfast is the original alcopop. Before Hooch, before Bacardi Breezers, Buckfast represented a cheap, sweet, strong way to get drunk that was perfect for young palates unused to the taste of alcohol, and it is a legacy that has continued today.

Meanwhile, Margaret Mitchell, the Tory justice spokeswoman pointed out that, whenever a politician singles out Buckfast, "the drink is given free publicity which may well bestow cult status upon it". She may well be right. As far back as 1994, Helen Liddell, a former Lanarkshire MP, was campaigning for a Buckfast ban. It didn't work then, and despite the efforts of Mr Kerr and the MSP Cathy Jamieson - who called on shops and off-licences in her constituency to "act responsibly" over Buckfast sales and was subsequently harangued by local youths shouting "Don't Ban Buckie" - it is unlikely to work now. In fact, it may even have the opposite effect.

Mr Wilson has a slightly different take on it. "It's a good product," he says. "But it's a bit like blue cheese. Not everybody likes the taste."

But enough like Buckie to have seen it survive and thrive, even if the controversy that surrounds it in Scotland (it does not enjoy similar status among youths south of the Border) is a far cry from the spiritual impetus to its creation.

It was in 530 AD that St Benedict wrote that "they are truly monks when they live by the labour of their hands". Almost five centuries later, in 1018, Buckfast was first established as a monastic settlement on the banks of the River Dart. Today, nearly 1,000 years on, between the hours of 9am and 1pm, and again between 2pm and 6:15pm, the monks of Buckfast Abbey work, or study.

Following a basic recipe taken to the abbey from France in the 1880s, the Buckfast tonic wine of today is nonetheless different from its more medicinal predecessor. While today's monks still use a base wine known as mistella, the recipe was tweaked in 1927 after a London wine merchant paid a visit to the abbey and saw its potential. It was made sweeter and stronger, and the sale and distribution was outsourced to another company. From then on, the monks would just make the wine. They wouldn't sell it as well.

All this means there is, in the eyes of the public at least, some confusion over where the money goes. And with turnover sitting at the 30 million mark, it is not an invalid question. Images of monks dining off gold plates and sporting robes designed by Versace become slightly less likely, however, when it is revealed that much of the budget and profits go into charitable works and youth projects.

St Andrews Hospice in Airdrie has received more that 500,000 of Buckfast profits, while at the abbey itself there is a large learning centre and education department providing a range of learning experiences for young people, many of them free. Mr Wilson says the firm is also involved in a number of anonymous youth and community initiatives.

"We don't like to put our name to a lot of the projects we get involved in," he says. "We don't want to promote the drinking of Buckfast to young people, so while we may pay for sporting equipment or a youth caf in a local community project, we'll do it anonymously."

Alcohol Focus Scotland has even praised Buckfast in the past for being "much less irresponsible than most other drinks companies".

It is undeniable however, that Buckfast Abbey is a slick operation. Wander into its gift shop and you'll find honey and a range of beauty products, as well as incense and herbs. Its website wouldn't look out of place advertising a new car range.

Question marks remain about who gains what. A plea for ditching traditional glass bottles in favour of plastic (less dangerous in a street fight) has been rejected on environmental grounds. The company does not like to reveal its profits. And the monks are notoriously publicity-shy. Several calls and interview requests to the abbey went unanswered yesterday, while the monk who did, eventually, briefly speak to The Scotsman, said he had "no comment at all" to make.

Before lights out at the abbey, there is just time for compline, the prayers at the end of the monks' working day, where they sing plainsong and psalms. As they file silently to bed along the once-more hushed corridors, their day is over. Somewhere in Scotland, an entirely different Buckfast night will just be beginning.

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