Low-end fortified wine

Low-end fortified wine

Low-end fortified wine is an inexpensive fortified wine that typically has an alcohol content between 13% and 20% ABV. These inexpensive wines usually contain added sugar, artificial color, and artificial flavor.



  • MD 20/20 is an American fortified wine. MD 20/20 has an alcohol content that varies by flavor from 13% to 18% (with most of the 18% varieties discontinued, although Red Grape is still available in 18% ABV). The MD actually stands for its producer, Mogen David, however, it is widely known as "Mad Dog." Originally, 20/20 stood for 20 oz @ 20% alcohol. Currently, MD 20/20 is not sold in 20 oz bottles nor at 20% alcohol by volume. A slogan was made about it by U.S.S. Brumby sailors in 1988: "20 twice aint nothing nice, put in my hand my friend."
  • Cisco is the brand name of a fortified wine produced by the Centerra Wine Company (a division of Constellation Brands) with varieties selling at 13.9%, 17.5% and 19.5% alcohol by volume. Cisco has a syrupy consistency, sweet taste and, because of its color and bottle shape, it was often mistaken for a wine cooler. The Federal Trade Commission required the company to put a label on the bottle stating that Cisco was not a wine cooler, and to change its marketing strategy from "Takes You By Surprise."[1]
  • Three popular brands in this category have been produced by the E & J Gallo Winery, and were a large part of that company's early success.
    • Ripple was a fortified wine produced by E & J Gallo Winery[2] that was popular in the United States, particularly in the 1970s. Possessing a low 11% ABV, it was originally marketed to "casual" drinkers.[3] Due to its low price, it had a reputation as a drink for alcoholics and the destitute. It was popular among young drinkers, both underage and college students. Ripple was often referred to on the TV series Sanford & Son as it was Fred Sanford's alcoholic beverage of choice.[4].
    • Night Train Express (usually abbreviated to Night Train) typically contains 17.5% alcohol by volume. Night Train Express has been condemned by some civic leaders who think inexpensive high alcohol content drinks contribute to vagrancy and public drunkenness.[5] Night Train no longer carries the Gallo logo or other indication of this source. It is also the origin of the Guns N' Roses song Nightrain.
    • Thunderbird (The American Classic), between 13% and 18% ABV. Popular since the 1950s, when a popular rhythm and blues song went: "What's the word? Thunderbird / How's it sold? Good and cold / What's the jive? Bird's alive / What's the price? Thirty twice."[6] Once marketed in the United Kingdom as "The California Aperitif." There is now a sister version, Thunderbird ESQ. It has also been the subject of many songs, three of which by ZZ Top, Seasick Steve and They Might Be Giants, with songs aptly named 'Thunderbird'. Influential Detroit garage rock band The Gories had a song entitled "Thunderbird ESQ." Rock band Clutch mentions the beverage in their song "Worm Drink." Townes Van Zandt sings a Talking blues song reflecting on his experiences with Thunderbird entitled "Talking Thunderbird Blues".
  • Richards Wild Irish Rose is an alcoholic beverage produced by Centerra Wine Company, which is part of the Constellation Brands organization. It was introduced in 1954 and currently sells about two million cases annually. The brand is available in 13.9% and 18% alcohol by volume.
  • Buckfast Tonic Wine is a caffeine- and sugar-laced Tonic wine with added alcohol, produced under license from an English Monastery. Very popular in Glasgow and Coatbridge, critics have blamed it as the cause of social problems in Scotland and Ireland.[7]
  • Stones Green Ginger Wine is a ginger-based wine, produced in the UK. It has an alcohol level of 13.7%.
  • Scotsmac is a blend of wine and whisky sold in the UK. It typically retails for about £4.00, significantly cheaper than its rival, Buckfast.
  • Solntsedar was a Soviet brand of low-end fortified wine, marketed as "port wine," infamous for many severe cases of poisoning. Its production was canceled after Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol laws.
  • 777 is a Russian "port wine" similar to Solntsedar, but still in production. It is nicknamed "Three axes" after the shape of the digits, attained a near-legendary status among Soviet and Russian students and members of youth subcultures, who were and are often poor.


An early reference to the problem of cheap and poorly made wines is in the "Report on Cheap Wines" in the 5 November 1864 issue of The Medical Times and Gazette. The author, in prescribing inexpensive wines for a number of ills, cautions against the "fortified" wines of the day, describing of one sample that he had tried:

"When the cork was drawn it was scarcely tinted, and was a very bad one - a thing of no good augury for the wine. There was no smell of port wine. The liquid, when tasted, gave the palate half-a-dozen sensations instead of one. There was a hot taste of spirits, a sweet taste, a fruity taste like damsons, and an unmistakable flavor of Roussillon [an alternative name in France for wine made from the grape Grenache]. It was a strong, unwholesome liquor, purchased very dearly.[8]

It is reported, however, that the popularity of cheap, fortified wines in the United States arose in the 1930s, as a product of Prohibition and the Great Depression:

Prohibition produced the Roaring Twenties and fostered more beer and distilled-spirit drinkers than wine drinkers, because the raw materials were easier to come by. But fortified wine, or medicinal wine tonic—-containing about 20 percent alcohol, which made it more like a distilled spirit than regular wine--was still available and became America's number one wine. Thunderbird and Wild Irish Rose, to name two examples, are fortified wines. American wine was soon more popular for its effect than its taste; in fact, the word wino came into use during the Depression to describe those unfortunate souls who turned to fortified wine to forget their troubles.
Kevin Zraly, Kevin Zraly's American Wine Guide (2006) p. 38.

Concerns and media attention

More recently, the appeal of cheap fortified wines to the poor and homeless has raised concerns:

Community groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland have urged makers of fortified wines such as Wild Irish Rose and E & J Gallo's Thunderbird and Night Train brands to pull their products from the shelves of liquor retailers in skid row areas. In Nashville, Tennessee, one liquor store owner told Nashville Business Journal reporter Julie Hinds that police warned him to stop selling his biggest selling product, Wild Irish Rose, because it encouraged homeless people to linger in the area.
—Janice Jorgensen, Encyclopedia of Consumer Brands: Consumable Products (1993), p. 492.

In 2005, the Seattle City Council asked the Washington State Liquor Control Board to prohibit the sale of certain alcohol products in an impoverished "Alcohol Impact Area". Among the products sought to be banned were over two dozen beers, and six wines: Cisco, Gino's Premium Blend, MD 20/20, Night Train, Thunderbird, and Wild Irish Rose.[9] The Liquor Control Board approved these restrictions on 30 August 2006.[10] The cities of Tacoma, Washington and Spokane, Washington also followed suit in instituting "Alcohol Impact Areas" of their own following Seattle's example.[11][12]

See also



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