The extraordinary history of Hungary’s national drink
Whether you find yourself in a no-frills kocsma filled with beer-swilling old timers, an elegant cocktail lair or one of Budapest’s quirky ruin pubs jammed with tourists, the Hungarian capital’s drinking scene has one constant.
Countless times throughout the night, the bartender will reach for the same distinctive, round-bellied bottle.
The inky, amber-tinted liquid inside is called Unicum, and with roots that delve back to the late 18th century, it’s one of the most revered national drinks in Hungary.
Like that other boozy Hungarian favorite, the fruit brandy pálinka, Unicum is largely savored as an aperitif or a digestif in shot form.
Produced by Budapest based beverage company Zwack, it’s a herbal liqueur comprising a secret blend of more than 40 herbs and spices aged in oak.
Less aggressive than Fernet yet beefier than Jägermeister, thick, bitter Unicum, laced with subtle piney eucalyptus notes, is indeed bracing, a taste that grows delightfully more palatable with each sip according to Unicum brand ambassador Csaba Gulyás.
“It’s a bittersweet potion, which isn’t easy to enjoy the first time, but then you cross that barrier and it becomes your favorite,” says Gulyás.
The story behind how Unicum came to be is equal parts fabled and turbulent.
Its distinctive bottle flaunts a gold cross that pops against a red background — the first hint that its roots are medicinal.
It all began in 1790, when Habsburg ruler Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, had a bout of indigestion, and Dr. Zwack, royal physician to the Imperial Court, whipped up a herbal remedy for him.
Upon drinking it, Joseph II purportedly exclaimed, “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unikum!”
The “unique” elixir subsequently spread in popularity, and the Zwack company was founded in 1840 by József Zwack, an entrepreneurial descendant of the visionary doctor.
By 1895, Zwack was producing over 200 liqueurs and spirits, exporting them from a distillery that’s still in use today.
Different generations of the Zwack family have always presided over the business and two of its most prominent characters are brothers Béla and János, who were at the helm during Zwack’s most troubling years.
The 1930s ushered in an era of turmoil, what with the Great Depression and prohibition in the United States, leading to a decrease in demand for Zwack products.
During World War II the factory was destroyed and shortly after, communism forced the company to nationalize. However, the Zwacks hatched a plan, creating a fake recipe for the communists to use.
János found safety in the United States, while Béla stayed put at the distillery until the mid-1950s, when he decamped to Italy and started tinkering with the original Unicum again.
After Communism fell in 1989, the Zwacks bought their company back and the true, heady Unicum recipe was embraced, János’s son Péter reviving the name both domestically and abroad.
“Everybody has a personal story with Unicum. It has spiritual content and it’s timeless, surviving our history,” explains Gulyas.
“I think I would love Unicum even if I didn’t know anything of its heritage, but once you get the whole picture, wow,” says Dez O’Connell, a bar consultant who oversees all the beverage programs for Budapest’s Brody Land portfolio, including the events hub Brody Studios.
“Unicum is the story of Hungary politically and socially since the Hapsburg Empire to the present day. That of course gives it a special place in most Hungarian hearts and stomachs.”