Features Magazine

Just the Tonic

Let's celebrate 2,000 years of drinking to feel better.

From its definition – given by the Foods of England as ‘a sweet, strong, red wine with added herbs or compounds such as iron salts […] formerly supposed to confer medicinal benefit, though now labelled with cautious disclaimers’ – you might fear the dawn of a tonic wine renaissance. But be assured, one is well underway.

A quick glance at the lower shelves in your local off-licence provides all the evidence you need of its glorious resurgence, but did the green bottles ever truly go away, or were they just hiding at the back of your aunt’s drinks cabinet? In truth, tonic wines have been on an unpredictable, narcotic-laced journey ever since they first emerged some 2,000 years ago.

‘Wine is a tonic to the stomach and a sharpener of the appetite; it dulls sorrow and anxiety, expels urine and chills, and induces sleep,’ wrote Pliny the Elder in Natural History. He also recommended a glass of vino mixed with the ash of a burnt pig’s penis to cure incontinence, so make of his health advice what you will.

Porkers’ peckers aside, the Romans kickstarted a trend; not only did they believe wine was a panacea, they added all sorts into Bacchus’ cup, from innocuous herbs and spices to salt water, marble dust and toxic levels of lead acetate.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that these syrupy concoctions reached their apotheosis, when they were prescribed and consumed with abandon as a cure-all for any number of health problems, real or ima­-gined. Feeling under the weather? Try Sanatogen. Fatigue of mind and body? Try Magee Marshall’s health-giving coca wine. Got a headache? Why not try Coca-Cola’s soaring combo of coca leaves and kola nuts?

It was only a matter of time until things reached their logical conclusion when meat stock was added to cheap plonk. Perhaps it was Bovril Meat Wine that James Joyce was referring to when he proclaimed that ‘red wine looks and tastes like a liquefied beefsteak’? Another such meat wine was Wincarnis, advertised as ‘a natural nerve and brain food’ and recommended to mothers following childbirth. Today, the drink remains popular in former British colonies; a healthcare company in Malaysia recommends it as an excellent way to ‘keep the body and womb warm right after giving birth.’

Buckfast’s recommended dose, meanwhile, was ‘three glasses a day, for good health and lively blood,’ but it was its progenitor, Vin Mariani, that took the world by storm in 1863. It was enjoyed by everyone from Queen Victoria to Ulysses S. Grant, Alexandre Dumas to Popes Leo XIII and Pius X. Thousands of physicians and celebrity fans recommended getting buzzed off your chops on this coca-­infused claret for the benefit of mind and body.

Today, tonic wines are proposed for anything from anxiety and depression to rheumatism and arthritis. For decades, Caribbean brands such as Magnum and its many imitators have had a strong association with what we can euphemistically term ‘masculine vigour’. Sadly, after more than a decade as the Eros of the tonic wine pantheon, Magnum was found to have breached rules on alcohol marketing in 2012 for claiming it could make the drinker better in bed. Gone are the labels featuring a naked couple embracing, but at least we can all take solace in the fact both Pump It Up and Put It Een tonic wines are going strong.

Suspicions about efficacy are almost as old as tonic wine itself. In 1824, The Family Oracle of Health referred to the ‘quack drug, Tonic Wine’. Yet despite crackdowns and condemnation from the medical establishment, tonic wines have stuck it out. King among them is Buckfast. Cherished dearly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is the stuff of local legend, rousing viral videos and modern folk song. If the sponsorship of Vin Mariani by multiple popes marked a high point in tonic wine’s trajectory as a wholesome and beneficent drink, Buckfast merely picked up the baton and ran with it.

You might question the logic of drinking a tonic with the disclaimer: ‘Does not imply health-giving or medicinal properties’, yet this is part of its very appeal; there is an amusing contradiction between a drink made by purportedly pious monks and its less than salubrious contents.

My own memories of tonic wine are fused with Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol and its much-­misunderstood reputation for violence. There was the time a friend’s brother was bottled in the face with the distinctive glass bottle – which, I will concede, justifies said violent reputation – along with all the other occasions my pals took a few too many enthusiastic swigs and proceeded to cheat on their girlfriends, slap their mates in the face, snort poppers with strangers and pass out on the ground (not necessarily in that order). I, a once-­teetotal stoner, looked askance at my nullifidian friends, and in time learned to question why my country so easily laid the sins of its people at the feet of such a humble and life-giving drink.

Fast forward to many years later on the tropical island of Dominica, where I discovered Magnum – with its proper, X-rated label of course – and brought a bottle home as a memento. Unfortunately, a few months afterwards, as I travelled on a gruelling Greyhound bus with a strong contender for the second-worst hangover of my life, I succumbed to temptation and cracked open the bottle to ease my weary head. Sadly, I now have some strong anecdotal evidence of its, ahem, vigorous effects.

Buckfast was once so associated with good health that grannies enjoyed a wee tipple before bed and gave it to their grandkids by the capful when in poor health. As late as the 1950s, tonic wines were sold over the counter in chemists. Today, these spurious health-giving properties continue to give them an enduring appeal, albeit an ironic one. That tonic wines still enjoy such success in the UK is to be expected (on our shores, the alcohol is the medicine) but why they’re such a hit with new mums in Malaysia and concupiscent Caribbean dancers is a curious ripple effect of colonialism and quackery.

Today, drinks with dubious health claims feel more prevalent than ever. Bad gut? Try kombucha. Feeling stressed? What about a CBD tonic? High cholesterol? Have a spirulina smoothie. In this era of wellness, the longevity of tonic wine is a charming anachronism belonging to a simpler time – one when boozing was good for you, coca drinks were administered to kids and tonic wine turned you into a Tantric superhuman.

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