Unicum, a Hungarian Treasure, Lives On

Zwack Distillery zealously guards liqueur's 227-year old secret recipe.
The Zwack factory in Budapest.
The Zwack factory in Budapest. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Christmas morning in 1944, Russian forces rolled into Budapest after six months of deadly skirmishes along the front. Hungarian and German units stationed around Hungary’s capital city had kept the Russian army at bay until then, but finally cracked.

Budapest was the ultimate prize. It was the gateway city between the Western and Eastern fronts of the European theater. To win Budapest was to win the war.

Fighting continued for weeks after the Soviets marched into the city. The siege would eventually destroy most of Budapest, considered the “Pearl of the Danube” for its economic, artistic and architectural merits. Included in the devastation: Zwack Distillery, where the herbal liqueur Unicum had been produced by the same family for more than 150 years.

The history of Unicum

Dr. József Zwack first concocted Unicum in 1790 while attending to the Hungarian king and Holy Roman emperor Joseph II, who suffered from stomach discomfort. As one of the emperor’s personal physicians, Dr. Zwack often was called to the palace to deliver remedies to the ailing leader. Upon one such visit, he brought a mixture he had developed of over 40 herbs and spices. It’s said that when Joseph II first sipped the liqueur he exclaimed, “Das ist ein Unicum!” or “This is unique!” The name stuck and, in 1840, Dr. Zwack established the first Unicum distillery in Budapest just down the road from the palace.

Unicum was popular across Europe in the years leading up to World War II where amari and herbal liqueurs like Jägermeister and Bénédictine enjoyed a healthy following. Unicum had a much smaller presence in America, where drinkers preferred Zwack’s fruited liqueurs and cordials over the bracing and bittersweet national spirit of Hungary. Around 40 percent of the exportation of these more palatable liqueurs and cordials were to the United States. With the beginning of the war in Europe 1939, coupled with years of economic depression around the world, the demand for Zwack’s liqueurs sunk to record lows. The destruction of the distillery during the siege all but ruined the family.

After the war ended, János Zwack and his family began to pick up the pieces of their ravaged distillery. They operated out of two rooms while rebuilding the plant around them. In 1948, after successfully completing the new facility, Zwack Distillery was taken over by the Hungarian communist government. The family fled to America. Like generations before him, János dutifully hid the Unicum recipe in his pocket to ensure its safekeeping and the spirit’s future.

Unicum was first produced more than 200 years ago. Unicum was first produced more than 200 years ago. (Photo: Facebook)

Guarding the secret

Today, his grandchildren, Sándor and Izabella, are continuing the legacy at the distillery their grandfather rebuilt (and again fled) in Budapest. They are the sixth generation of Zwacks to keep the secret of Unicum. It’s a secret which has cost the family decades away from their native Hungary, the loss of their business and money spent literally buying back the rights from the government to distill the spirit their ancestor created. It’s a 227-year-old secret family recipe that presently only three people in the world know.

Sándor Zwack“We have always taken great care to keep the recipe secret,” Sándor [right] says. “There are several tricks that we use, but the biggest and most effective way is what we call the ‘heart of Unicum.’”

The “heart” is a mixture of herbs and spices, sourced directly by the family. Prior to each production, Sándor and Izabella’s mother adds the heart to the rest of the herbs. No one outside of the family is privy to the recipe’s full list of ingredients.

The Zwacks have gone to extraordinary lengths over the centuries to keep it that way. “My grandfather sued the communist government [of Hungary] through the international court of justice [in 1958]. He was one of the first (if not the first) private individual to win a court case against a communist government,” Sándor recalls. “As a result of the court case, the communist government was forced to remove the Zwack name from its bottle and it could only export the ‘fake’ Unicum to countries behind the iron curtain.”

It was a small victory but it guaranteed the eventual return of the “real” Unicum to Budapest 30 years later.

The secret of Unicum doesn’t end with the ingredients. It includes the production of the spirit. Sándor says Zwack uses both an extraction technique as well as distilling a portion of the herbs in what he calls a “secret distilling process.” What’s left are two bases: a distillate and an extract. “We mix these two bases together and we have Unicum. We then age in oak casks for a minimum of six months,” he explains. “Our oldest cask, which can be seen in our cellar (and is still very much active), dates back to 1937 and can hold 17,000 liters.”

A visit to Zwack Distillery

Tales of the Cocktail marketing manager Jeremy Thompson visited Zwack Distillery on a recent trip to Hungary. He first became aware of Unicum and Zwack’s sweeter exports 10 years ago while managing Raines Law Room in New York City. He was struck by Sándor’s incredible hospitality while touring the Budapest plant and likened the personal tour he received to being shown around Disneyland by Walt Disney.

Thompson says the tour began in the office of Sándor’s father Peter who passed away in 2012. The office walls are covered in photos of Peter (a former diplomat and Hungarian ambassador to the United States) shaking hands with dignitaries and celebrities from around the world. Thompson had an impromptu tasting of samples of both classic and modern Unicum. This included a special pour from a barrel Sándor says was “salvaged from the Russians commandeering the distillery’s barrels in order to build a pontoon bridge across the Danube.”

“I felt like I was in his home,” Thompson recalls of his time at Zwack, “watching him enthusiastically tell the stories behind various photos and artifacts from his own past. Like the spirits they create, the distillery itself tells the story of every ingredient that went into making it what it is today.”

Thompson describes Unicum’s flavor profile as living “between some of the more full-bodied amari, Fernet, Jägermeister, and Malort.” Original formula Unicum in America is coveted among its fans.

Zwack branding can be seen throughout the ancient city on patio umbrellas, window displays and coasters and cocktail napkins. Unicum’s heart -- the secret recipe Sándor, his sister and mother keep guarded, the recipe generations fought hard to keep -- still beats within Budapest and her people, who now help to carry on the spirit’s legacy.

Thompson has a deeper appreciation for the herbaceous spirit and the family behind it since his visit to Budapest. While he enjoyed many beautiful meals in the city, it was Unicum which resonated with him most. “If someone asked me, ‘What does Budapest taste like?’ I'd have to say it tastes like a robust, full-bodied liqueur made of 40 mysterious spices poured out from a bottle that may as well be a crystal ball designed to reveal all sorts of secrets from the city's past.”

Few spirits on the market today could capture the story of a family, a city and a country so vividly as Unicum. “Das ist ein Unicum” indeed.

Bonus: Take a peak inside the heart of the Zwack distillery with Sandor Zwack and Tales of the Cocktail Marketing Manager, Jeremy JF Thompson.

Tales of the Cocktail tours the Zwack Distillery from Tales of the Cocktail on Vimeo.

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