A Wine for What Ails

Wincarnis Tonic Wine, which tastes rather like Christmas pudding in a glass, has survived the ages

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP in England, there were two alcoholic beverage ads plastered on billboards everywhere in London. One was for a stout and one for a wine: “Guinness Is Good For You” and “Wincarnis Tonic Wine,” a product that made the same health claims as Guinness, only more so.

I must confess I drank my fair share of Guinness as a postgraduate student in Dublin, and can attest to its goodness (much better, incidentally, than the stout we get in Canada because — say the mavens of Moore Street — of the River Liffey, whose waters flow through the centre of Dublin).

At the time, 40 years ago, when I was living in James Joyce’s city, the Guinness brewery employed inspectors to tour the pubs in order to ensure that Guinness was being served at 65 degrees Fahrenheit. With a well-pulled pint of the black stout you could carve your initials in the creamy head and they would stay there, intact, until you had finished the glass.

My father was a doctor in London whose surgery included the Lambeth Walk and the Kennington Oval cricket ground. I can’t remember him ever prescribing Wincarnis for his patients, and I had never actually tasted the tonic wine until recently at lunch in one of Toronto’s fancy steak houses.

I was the guest of Roderick Mackenzie, Director of Ian Macleod Distillers. Apart from owning Glengoyne Highland Single Malt, Isle of Skye, Lang’s Blended Scotch, Hedges & Butler, King Robert II and several other malt whiskies, Ian Macleod Distillers also own Wincarnis Tonic Wine. They acquired the product when they bought Hedges & Butler in 1998.

Hedges & Butler, incidentally, was a venerable London wine merchant company established in in 1667 and subsequently the purveyor of spirits and wines to Queen Victoria and “to successive monarchs, both British and foreign.” It’s not recorded whether Queen Victoria’s butler ordered Wincarnis to be sent to the palace for anything that ailed the monarch; Victoria, of course, outlived her husband and died at age 81.

One of the conditions of the sale of Hedges & Butler to Ian Macleod Distillers was that the Wincarnis brand be preserved. The purported elixir is now produced by Broadland Wineries in the English county of Norfolk.

As to the efficacy of Wincarnis I can’t make judgment, since at the time of sampling I was not suffering from “colds, influenza, bronchitis [or] pneumonia,” all of which it purported to cure in a 1915 ad. But it did promise to safeguard me “against most of the ailments which affect humanity.” Another ad trumpeted that the miracle tonic could alleviate “Anaemia, Depression, Brain-Fag (!), Sleeplessness, Physical & Mental Prostration [and] Nerve Troubles.” 

The producers state that their tonic wine is rich in vitamins, especially energy-giving Vitamin B complex (which an alcoholic friend of mine in Dublin used to swallow in pill form like Smarties), and it can have beneficial effects on both the circulation system and blood pressure.

The name Wincarnis juxtaposes the word “wine” with “carnis,” Latin for “of meat.” It has been sold in Canada for many years, and is one of the oldest products on the Liquor Control Board of Ontario product list, first appearing on the shelves in 1958. It’s as brown as boot polish with a nose of dates and a sweet sherry-like taste of black cherries, dates, molasses and chocolate with an herbal note. In short, it tastes rather like Christmas pudding in a glass.

First produced as Wincarnis in 1887, the drink had originally been called Liebig’s Extract of Meat and Malt Wine and was advertised as “the finest tonic and restorative in the world.”

The precise recipe is still a closely guarded secret, but a little research will tell you that it’s a blend of “enriched wine and malt extract with a unique infusion of selected therapeutic herbs and spices.” The ingredients sound like a brew that might have been concocted by Harry Potter in consultation with Macbeth’s witches: “gentian root, mugwort, angelica root, balm mint, fennel seed, coriander seed, peppermint leaves, cardamom seeds and cassia bark.”

The base wine, originally port, is now made from grape juice fortified to 14 per cent alcohol, and the product is now vegetarian-friendly since the producers have dropped the original meat extract.

The brand is also a big hit in the Jamaican community, where most of it is sold. Jamaican cooks use the tonic in a variety of ways: in fruit salads, Christmas cakes, barbecue marinades and, oddly enough, in the preparation of Chinese dishes. They drink it, too, mixing it with gin to make a cocktail called Gin and Win. And they add it to milk and to Guinness (for a double whammy of health).

I was a little concerned about the ingredient mugwort. Apparently mugwort goes by a long list of aliases — Felon Herb, Chrysanthemum Weed, Wild Wormwood, Old Uncle Henry, Sailor’s Tobacco, Naughty Man, Old Man or St. John’s Plant — suggesting it’s the con-man of plants, whose leaves look suspiciously similar to those of marijuana. It should not to be confused with St. John’s Wort.

So if you’re thinking of making a batch of the tonic wine at home, don’t include St. John’s Wort. 

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.