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        The politics of drinking

October 19, 2010



Disgusting drinks: From the not-so-super to bad Buckie

Channel-hopping before retiring to bed last night I came across Britain’s Really Disgusting Drinks on BBC 3*. I don’t normally watch BBC3, obviously, but it’s so close to BBC4 and my finger kind of slipped.

It was surprisingly good. Presenter Alex Riley, a thin Michael Moore, started by dissing Coca-Cola’s vapid VitaminWater and finding out what really goes into mass-produced wines. Then he got to super-strength lager.

It’s hard to deny these drinks, at £1 a can from the offie and completely unadvertised, rely mainly on alcoholics for their sales topping £100m a year. And the big brewers Riley spoke to didn’t deny it. Well, they didn’t say much at all, really. What can you say.

I remember Carlsberg once tried to reposition Special Brew as an upmarket product by linking it to Winston Churchill. It was, in fact, first brewed to commemorate a visit by Churchill to Denmark in 1950. Whether Winnie managed to drink any between all the champagne and brandy isn’t recorded.

Anyway, it didn’t work. Probably not a clever idea to associate a ‘premium’ brand with a bipolar high-functioning alcoholic.

Back to the show. Riley had a good point. Super-strength lager cans have “Enjoy Responsibly” written on them, but they also tell you they contain 4.5 units of alcohol, in excess of the recommended daily limit.

Clutching his Special Brew Riley rang a cheery woman on the end of the Carlsberg advice line.

“What should I do? Should I drink a bit of it and chuck the rest down the sink?”

“Ooh, I wouldn’t waste your money,” she chirped, I think meaning you shouldn’t have bought the stuff in the first place, it’s not for you, silly.

Riley also speaks to a street alcoholic for the consumer view, which is great. There should be more of this. Why shouldn’t they have a say?

Biggest wince, apart from when they unnecessarily slapped a bloated green liver on the table, was the interview with Portman Group chief David Poley. There really wasn’t anything he could say. He sat there looking like a 14-year-old who’s been caught red-handed in the drinks cabinet just wishing everyone would go away and leave him alone.

As I’ve written before, I’m not sure going after the super-strengths is the answer to the drink problem, but if the drinks industry could steel itself to being more honest and less defensive we might get somewhere.

Finally, Riley turned to what he termed “the most disgusting drink of all”, Buckfast Tonic Wine, made by English monks to sell to the Scots.

Why’s it called ‘tonic’? he wondered. I can tell him. It goes back to the days when quacks laced drinks with stimulants and amphetamines to ‘pep’ you up. Coca-Cola was one, when it had real cocaine in it.

Buckie, as its adherents call it, is a 15% ABV sickly sweet wine dosed with as much caffeine as there is in six cups of coffee. Not only does this offset the sedative effects of the alcohol but it causes anxiety, edginess.

I recognise the symptoms from having once drunk vodka Red Bull. Mild-mannered me turned paranoid and aggressive. I’m probably over-sensitive to caffeine. Two cups of tea a day is my limit. In any case I’ve haven’t gone near Red Bull since. Conveniently, because of that sweet, artificial, weird strawberry smell I can’t get to within 10 yards of it.

They are talking about banning alcohol-caffeine drinks, both over here and in the States. I’m not in favour of banning anything, but selling alcohol is a privilege and it does come with rules and regulations. Is there a way of restricting the amount of caffeine you can put in an alcoholic drink? There is already a cap on caffeine levels in other drinks so I don’t see why not.

Meanwhile the Buckfast Benedictines are building an extension to cope with soaring demand. You wouldn’t think it of monks, would you? There again…

*Watch it here

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