Meet the Bartender Making Buckfast Negronis
“Buckfast has nice tannins and it’s fruity so it makes a valid substitute for red vermouth,” says Glaswegian cocktail pro Stu Bale. “But it does get you pretty fucked up if you drink a lot of it.”
"If you look at the ingredients, you don't think it's going to work. Buckfast is demeaned by most people and they don't take it seriously. But actually, it's a good ingredient and if you know what you're doing, you can make something taste really delicious."
I'm talking to Dominik Prosser, one of the owners of Bad Sports bar and taqueria in East London. He is trying to convince me that everyone should be putting Buckfast, the fortified tonic wine known for getting you beyond wasted, in negronis.
Side note: it's 10 AM and I'm hungover.
If the thought of gin and Buckfast swimming around in a glass together wasn't already making me nauseous, Prosser—along with Stu Bale, Glaswegian drinks consultant and inventor of the Bucky-based cocktail, and fellow Bad Sports owner Will McBean—have offered to whip me up one of their "Coatbridge negronis" (named after the Scottish town) for breakfast.
Bale gets out the ingredients—Buckfast, Campari, and gin. I notice that red vermouth, one of the three core components of a traditional negroni, is missing.
"The Buckfast has nice tannins and it's fruity so it makes a valid substitute for red vermouth," explains Bale. "If you did a blind taste test, then you can't really pick it out against the red vermouth."
He adds: "But it does get you pretty fucked up if you drink a lot of it."
I'm also surprised to see Bale pour from a can of Buckfast, rather than the usual bottle adorned with images of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, where the stuff is made by monks.
Bale laughs: "Yeah, you can get Buckfast in cans too. Makes it easier to drink on trains."
Back to the negroni, which follows the classic recipe of equal parts for each ingredient. I ask Bale how the idea to incorporate Buckfast came about.
"I write cocktail menus for a lot of different places and I'd always wanted to put Buckfast on a menu," he explains. "But it was never going to work in the bar of a five-star hotel."
Bale continues: "It was a nice juxtaposition of getting the Buckfast into a negroni, which is a serious drink. It's the tongue-in-cheek thing but then it's a delicious drink as well."
As Bale starts to assemble the negroni, McBean tells me it's not the first cocktail of theirs to receive a Bucky makeover.
"We did it in another drink called a Glasgow Kiss, where we used Buckfast as a floater in a whisky sour," he says. "And we also used it as a floater on egg nog. Oh, and the Club Mate Jägerbomb. So instead of Jäger, we use Buckfast and instead of energy drink, we used Club Mate."
As my stomach does cartwheels, I realise I've gotten off lightly with a negroni.
McBean continues: "A lot of people order the Buckfast negroni (and then we also get some Scottish customers come in and do shots of the tonic wine) but it's quite hard to get hold of Buckfast outside Scotland. I've only just managed to secure a wholesaler who'll only let us buy if we order it by the caseload. I've just been buying bottles every night at the cornershop. The guy behind the counter must think I'm a mad wino!"
Of course, it's inevitable that the wine's criminal connotations come up in our conversation. Buckfast's link with antisocial behaviour can be summed up in the stats released by the Scottish Prison Service last year, which showed that 43 percent of inmates had drunk Buckfast before committing their most recent offence.
Prosser notes: "When we were doing the menu, I was looking at social media and every booze brand has an all-singing, all-dancing Instagram and Facebook. Buckfast is literally not there."
"I've actually been to Buckfast Abbey in Devon because I was down that way and it's my job to know more about drinks," chips in Bale. "I think they thought I was joking because no one actually goes into the abbey to learn about it. They wouldn't show us how they make it. They're not set up for it and I think they're kind of a little bit ashamed of it down there."
Bale continues: "Put it this way, when I was at university, I had to do an hour a week of pathology as part of my course. One week, there was a murder scene that we had to study and the murder weapon was a bottle of Buckfast. I think a couple of years back, they were actually going to start tagging bottles in Glasgow."
Bale tells me this while calmly stirring the cocktail with a sharp knife. He sees my worried look and says with a smile: "Well, I think it's nice to have a ritual attached to making a drink and this is how I make it."
He pushes the drink towards me and I take a sip. The bitter Campari notes are still there but the Buckfast provides a sweeter note than vermouth.
Bottles of Buckfast may come with a disclaimer that "the name 'tonic wine' does not imply health-giving or medicinal properties," but all in all, Bale's Coatbridge negroni isn't a bad hair of the dog. What will happen when I've downed my glass, however, remains to be seen.
Oh well, blame it on the Bucky, eh?