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For Whatever Ails You (December 2, 2016)

When I was growing up in England there were two beverage alcohol 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 basically made the same health claim as Guinness only moreso.

I must confess I had my fair share of Guinness as a post-graduate 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. Forty years ago when I was living in James Joyce's city, the Guinness brewery employed inspectors whose job it was to tour the pubs to ensure that Guinness was served at 65° 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 Aperitif Wine. They acquired the product when they bought Hedges & Butler in 1998. (Hedges & Butler was a venerable London wine merchant company established in in 1667 and subsequently the purveyor of its 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 Victoria. She, of course, outlived her husband and died at age 82.)

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

As to the efficacy of Wincarnis I can't make judgement since at the time of sampling it 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 the fact that the miracle tonic could alleviate "Anaemia, Depression, Brain-Fag (!), Sleeplessness, Physical and 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 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 a herbal note. In a word, it tastes rather like Christmas pudding in a glass.

First produced in 1887, Wincarnis was originally called Liebig's Extract of Meat and Malt Wine and it 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 17 percent alcohol; and the product is now vegetarian-friendly since the producers have dropped the original meat extract.

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

I was a little concerned about the ingredient mugwort. Apparently, it goes by a long list of aliases suggesting it's the con-man of plants whose leaves look suspiciously similar to those of marijuana: Felon Herb, Chrysanthemum Weed, Wild Wormwood, Old Uncle Henry, Sailor's Tobacco, Naughty Man, Old Man or St. John's Plant. 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.




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