Just the other day I stumbled across an article in the Guardian about “the secret numbers that run our lives”, yet its focus on TV signals and text messages left me wanting. In fact, it completely failed to delve into what’s almost definitely the most pressing numerical mystery of our time.
Pretty much everyone who’s ever picked up a bottle of Buckfast tonic wine is aware of the mythology surrounding the numbers which adorn each bottle. 9? 13? 24? It may just be a digit or two moulded into the bottom of a 75cl container, yet it’s a question that’s been pondered and philosophised over by sweet-toothed sages for at least 20 years. Combined with a label containing the alluring line that it’s “made by the Benedictine Monks of Buckfast”, a picturesque Abbey image and the timeless warning that “the term ‘tonic wine’ does not imply medicinal qualities”, it’s little surprise that Buckie packaging has become the subject of such fevered fascination. Buckie is not just booze, it has a cult status and reverence in pop culture that most brands would pay a fortune for, yet almost entirely by accident. Its elusive producers, J D Chandler, don’t even have their own website and their marketing budget is virtually non-existent.
So with more questions than answers to be found at the bottom (and the side) of this particular bottle, there was only one thing for it. So earlier this week I set off for the Emerald City itself, Buckfast Abbey, to try and settle it once and for all: just what are the mystifying monks of the deepest south west trying to tell us with their cryptic numerals?
Buckfast Abbey is situated in the unassuming surroundings of a quaint Devon village, a bohemian idyll full of wholefood shops, narrow country lanes and people selling artisan produce in their gardens. There’s little to suggest that this is where every sip of a drink affectionately known as “Wreck the Hoose Juice” originates; indeed, the local shops don’t even sell it.
The Abbey is a functioning monastery and a popular tourist attraction, busy even on a Tuesday afternoon in early November. It was disappointing to find out that it’s set up more to cater to people who count God and historic properties in their list of hobbies rather than getting MWI on a fortified mix of caffeine, sugar and 15% ABV. In fact, it’d be quite easy to visit and completely miss that they even make Buckie here, so little does it feature (aside from the ‘Tonic Wine Fruitcake’ for sale in the cafe). But I was not going to let that stop me, so I ventured to the Gift Shop which luckily was well stocked with Buckie bottles (£7.50), hauf bottles (£4.50) and even 250ml cans (£3.50).
But the tonic theme ended there, with opportunities to purchase a personalised bottle of Buckie, a branded hipflask or a Buckfast flavoured ice lolly somehow overlooked. The vibe was more National Trust gift shop than blue bag off-license, all tea towels and scented candles with choral singing being piped through speakers. Enquiring at the tills about whether this really was the verifiable Home of Commotion Lotion, I was told firmly that while they do make the tonic here, there’s no public access to the production process. However, I could go and watch a film next door that would answer all my questions.
So I went next door to watch this film, a mid-90s Troy McLure-esque infomercial which followed the monks as they go about their daily business, which seemingly involves a lot of praying. The narration went on, explaining that some monks devote themselves to producing “Monastic Produce”, and thus followed about 90 seconds all about Buckie. But beyond some shots of heroic Buckfast pioneers of yesteryear and some tankers full of tonic getting loaded up, there wasn’t much to go on. After a tedious 12 minutes of cinematic presentation, I was no further in my quest.
Round the corner, though, was another gift shop. Unlike the last one, this one was solely devoted to selling things made at religious sites. Soap made in Belgian monasteries, beer brewed by French monks, paperweights handmade by a hermit nun in North Wales, all that kind of thing. Of course, they were also well stocked with bottles of Buckie, which I can only imagine is mostly bought by unsuspecting coach parties of elderly church-goers and at least makes their trip home a lot more lively.
“Do you know much about the tonic wine?”, I asked the youngish guy behind the counter, motioning to the shelves beside him.
“Oh well a bit, but there’s something about the numbers isn’t there? They go from 1 to 29 and they’re meant to mean something?”, he replied.
Turns out that people with Scottish accents ask this quite a lot, or at least they did “in the summer”. So what’s the deal with it then? Are the legends passed down by generations of scholars of saccharine swally correct in their assertions, is it really an indicator of thickness, flavour or how MWI you get from a particular digit? Or is it some kinda Da Vinci Code shit, a cryptic clue pointing towards holy scriptures?
“No, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a batch number. There’s something like 29 bottling machines and a number for each one. That’s all.”
This was not the answer I had journeyed to Buckfast for. Had I just trekked across Middle Earth only to find out Mordor is imaginary? Followed the Yellow Brick road to discover that the Wizard of Oz doesn’t really have any magical powers after all? I purchased a biro and left.
The whole place is quite hard to comprehend, and you can detect a faint sense of embarrassment about the Abbey’s association with a drink that Chief Superintendent Nelson Telfer reckons is “well established” in being linked to the committing of offences, famously being mentioned in 5000 Strathclyde Police crime reports in the three years leading up to 2010. They spend as much time talking about their apparently famous beekeeping and honey production, although I have a feeling that – unlike Buckie – it probably doesn’t generate them millions each year, allowing them to maintain free entry and invest in local projects. They don’t mess about either when it comes to protecting their product though: only a few months ago, Police Scotland reached an out of court settlement with J D Chandler for “discriminating” against their brand.
As for the mystery of the bottle numbers, the people in the gift shop will probably be answering questions from intrepid Scottish explorers on a Buckfast odyssey for a long time yet. Buckfast may be the place where the tonic legend begins, but it’s also where it dies.