Articles and Reviews

The Curious Case of Toc-kay de Espagna

Posted by: Andy Kelly

Date: 18-09-2022

Imagine a wine so restorative that it can cure you of many your ailments. Imagine a wine so harmless that you can drink it if you’re pregnant. Imagine a wine so delicate that you can administer it to your children in order to save their life. Imagine a wine so pure that if you drink it when you’re drunk, it will sober you up…

Imagine a wine that could do all that…

Well, that wine might just exist…at least, according to one author and wine merchant.

There are just a few drawbacks however. First, our author and wine merchant, Duncan McBride, is long dead. Second, he didn’t really give us an indication as to where he found this wine (more on that later) and third…well third, he might just be talking through his arse.

The wine he claims to have discovered, he calls “Toc-kay de Espagna” and he believed in it so much that he wrote an entire book about it…in 1793. One of the chapters of his book opens as follows:

“A new discovery by a wine merchant in his travels in Spain, which for its surprising efficacy in restoring and preserving health, has not been equalled by anything yet known in the annals of mankind…”

His book certainly talks a good game and, having just read the opening paragraph of that chapter, it even got me going!

A Wine for the Ages

The wine itself appears to come from Castile, though McBride is a little hazy on exactly where. He attributes it to a monastery far inland from the coast, where the monks originally had vine cuttings transported from Palestine. McBride claims that a Spanish nobleman put him in touch with his brother who was father-guardian to the monastery.

What he isn’t hazy about, however, is just how restorative this wine is. According to McBride, “Persons that are highly intoxicated, and sick with other wines, would be sobered, and their sickness overcome by a few glasses of this wine; in the space of a few minutes”.

We learn that it can cure gout, fevers, “phrenzy” and madness. It can be drunk liberally by pregnant women, especially when they’re in labour, as it will help facilitate birth and it should be administered to babies upon being delivered as it can “…nourish more powerfully than the mother’s milk”. We learn that in children it can cure smallpox, measles, fluxes and fevers. But don’t just take Duncan’s word for it, he provides us with ample testimonies from people who, like him, believe in this miracle cure…

“…a gentleman sent us a small phial of Toc-kay de Espagna which, on giving the child a few teaspoonfuls of it, she instantly fell asleep and is now thriving as any child need be, being, by the wine, effectually cured of both the flux and fever”. William and Mary Ann Elliot of Virginia Street, London

“We, Finlay and Margaret Blair of East Smithfield, London, do certify that…our infant daughter had been ailing from her birth and for the last three weeks of her illness was afflicted with a violent flux and fever.”

“…In this situation we expected nothing but death could relieve her, when we procured some of the wine called Toc-kay de Espagna which, in a most miraculous manner, restored her to perfect health…”

Lofty praise indeed, and big Dunc doesn’t stop there either. He goes on to share correspondence from the medical community about how good this wine is as a medicine and he even accuses the chief adviser to Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, of murder because he failed to administer this wonder cure to his master.

Origins and Flavour Profile

So, what does this wine taste like?

Well, Duncan is on hand to tell us: “It is a wine of very strong body, which improves greatly by age: The taste of it alters according to the different degrees of heat or cold. The frost has such an effect upon it that persons, tasting it in the cold weather, have thought it to be sour.”

“The cold makes no alteration in the quality or efficacy of the wine; the warmth always restores it to its beautiful colour, flavour and taste; and such is its durableness, that it may be kept years in ullage in your decanter...”

He’s not giving much away there is he. Is it a red white or Rose? He doesn’t say. I’m not 100% sure myself though I would guess it’s a white given that the name is partially ripped off from Tokaji. Is it sweet, dry or somewhere in between? He doesn’t say though I’m going to assume it’s on the sweet side given the blatant rip off of its namesake.

Questions Left Unanswered

Where does it come from? Castile. “But where in Castile?” I hear you ask…Well, he doesn’t say.

What grape varieties are the monks using? He doesn’t say. They could be Spanish, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Cypriot…take your pick.

When did the monks bring it to Spain? He doesn’t say…you see where I’m going with this don’t you!

So, does he say anything else that might help the public in our search for this wonder wine? He says that it’s incredibly expensive and that at the time of writing, he hasn’t got any on him.

I’m beginning to think I’m being taken for a ride here…

Who was Duncan McBride?

Understandably, we know very little. He likely came from Argyllshire and he spent some time in the Isle of Man where he met wine merchant David Ross. During his time on the Isle of Man he learnt about European wines and then went on to spend time in France and Spain. He is credited as being the first author to describe the wines of Côte-Rôtie in English and it is likely that he had a wine shop in London.

And How Was He Received?

I did manage to find the odd review of his book and, whilst it was received warmly in some corners, he was met with a fair degree of criticism.

Our author’s instructions are not always correct or judicious…in short, the whole of this pamphlet is a quack-bill, injudiciously executed” Critical Review, 1795

“Whilst we allow that Mr McBride appears to have a general knowledge of the several distinctions among wines, the chief information we derive from this tract is, that no wine in the universe is equal to Toc-kay de Espagna for its sanative virtues…” “…Whatever may be thought of the imperial ambassador in thus withholding an infallible remedy from his royal master – Mr McBride, in his general view of spiritous liquors, brings a much more heavy charge against the dealers in spirits. The authors readers will judge of his representation of this point according to their knowledge of the subject. The accusation is unqualified; and, if it be true, what are the dealers in such fiery poisons? If false, what is the writer?” Monthly Review, 1793

Too Good to be True?

So, did this wine actually exist and, if so, where did it come from? Well, it’s difficult to say with any certainty. It is the only publication that I know of that lauds this wine and McBride himself says it was a nightmare to source, purchase it and get it transported to England. Couple that with the fact that he’s vague on its provenance and that he states himself that other wine merchants in London can’t seem to get hold of it and I get the feeling that he’s being very liberal with the truth.

But, why?

Because quackery could be a viable and lucrative source of income. There are hundreds of examples of elixirs or balms being sold, particularly in the 18th & 19th centuries that (it was claimed) would cure people of their ailments. Tonics, such as Daffy’s Elixir, would be well marketed, mass produced and lapped up by an unsuspecting population desperate to try anything to rid themselves of their complaints.

It’s quite possible that McBride saw the potential in marketing something in this way to make him money. He may have marketed a decent or bog standard wine so that he could inflate its price and make himself a tidy profit. Or, he may have made the whole thing up just to create some buzz and advertise his own wine shop in London. You can just imagine people flocking to his shop in droves and asking for Toc-kay de Espagna only to be told that he’d ran out. How many of these people, then, would have bought phials or bottles of something else?

And if he did make the whole thing up, then what did he really think of his target audience? These people will have needed to have had money in order to purchase his wines. We wouldn’t have seen the working class buying his wines hand over fist. He said himself that he didn’t want to sell what stock he had left to the King because he wanted as many people as possible to benefit from Toc-kay de Espagna’s properties. However, was that just an excuse he made up because he knew if the crown had gotten hold of it, they would have discovered it had no such properties. Or like Toc-kay de Espagna itself, was that story just another lie to convince the unsuspecting public?

Maybe, just Maybe?

But what if it did exist? What if there was a wine out there that could have helped people in the way McBride describes?

Wine had been prescribed as a medicine for thousands of years with ancient writers such as Hippocrates, Galen and Aretaeus lauding its curative properties when taken in moderation.

Henderson, writing in 1824, makes mention of Tinto di Rota from Alicante that was strong, sweet and spicy but too rough to be drunk as a wine so only used as a cordial. He makes further mention that Vino Tinto from the Tintilla grape was, like Tinto di Rota, used for medicinal purposes.

Cyrus Redding, writing in 1861, alludes to the wines of Cyprus and Spain as having medicinal properties. Like Henderson, he claims that Vino Tinto, produced in Alicante, possessed “…healing qualities and could cleanse wounds”. Vino Tinto, he wrote, was strong & sweet and came from the Tintilla plant which was known as Fondillon when it reached a certain age.

Even the story that McBride weaves has some kernel of truth. Cistercian and Carthusian monks made wine across Europe for hundreds of years and it’s not out of the realms of possibility that monks on their way back from a pilgrimage (or soldiers from war) discovered a wine in the Near East and brought vine cuttings back with them to cultivate in Spain.

Perhaps it’s one of the grape varieties introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians or the Moors and the story was embellished over time?

So, could it be that whenever we drink a Vino Tinto or a Fondillon that we’re drinking the mysterious Toc-kay de Espagna, or could it be one of the numerous sweet white wines made across Castile that barely receive a mention in other contemporary publications? We may never know.

McBride’s book deserves more study and, hopefully somebody with a greater knowledge than me can help solve the mystery. But, for now at least, McBride’s secret is safe.

Now, don’t mind me, I’m off to cure my phrenzy with a genuine bottle of Daffy’s Elixir as I pore over a map of Spain...

Further Reading

General instructions for the choice of wines and spiritous liquours; D.McBride 1793

The history of ancient and modern wines: A Henderson, 1824

A history and description of modern wines: C Redding, 1860

A brief discourse on wine: J. L Denman, 1861