zwack, unicum, bitter

Something unique started at the end of the 18th century: Dr Zwack created a mixture for medical purposes, even getting the attention of the likes of Joseph II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria and king of Hungary.

The distinctive round-bellied bottle – Photo:úzeum

As CNN states, the story of the famous Hungarian bitter is fabled and turbulent at the same time. There are great traditions of making the inky amber-tinted liquor; although it is an extremely successful brand these days, the path to fame was not always set but rather rough and long. For those who have not heard about it yet, Unicum

“is a bittersweet potion, which isn’t easy to enjoy the first time, but then you cross that barrier and it becomes your favorite,”

says Csaba Gulyás brand ambassador. Perhaps the closest known “relative” of the bitter is Jägermeister, although Unicum is more intense than its German counterpart. To learn the full story, we have to travel back to the 18th century when Dr Zwack created a mixture in 1790. Joseph II, the Habsburg ruler, had a digestion disorder, so the royal physician tried to cure him with the help of herbs. The emperor shouted after drinking it:

“Dr Zwack, das ist ein Unikum!”

unicum, Zwack, liquor
József Zwack, founder of Zwack Unicum Plc. – Photo:

Even the bottle suggests its roots are medicinal: the round-bellied bottle has a golden cross over the red background. The elixir, made of 40 herbs, quickly became popular which resulted in József Zwack, a descendant of the magnificent doctor, founding Zwack company in 1840. By 1895, they were producing more than 200 types of liquors and spirits. However, the Great Depression was not kind to the Zwack company, either, causing trouble for possibly the most notable leaders in their history, János and Béla Zwack. The Prohibition Act in the United States pushed them even lower as the need for Unicum and other Zwack products gradually decreased.

Zwack, Sándor, unicum
Sándor Zwack – Photo:

The next hit came at the end of World War II when their distillery was destroyed. Communists took over Hungary and forced the Zwack brothers to nationalise the company. However, they managed to escape: they came up with a fake recipe and emigrated from the communist regime. János found shelter in the USA, and Béla escaped to Italy in the mid-1950s and started to work on the original recipe there.

They brought back the company to Hungary in 1989 when Communism fell. Péter Zwack, the son of János Zwack, revived the brand both in Hungary and abroad. He passed the recipe to his son, Sándor, a few years ago, before his retirement, although he was an eternal part of the company’s everyday life until his death. Nowadays, Unicum is an essential part of the shelves in Hungarian pubs, but it is not so common at home. Hungarians only drink it on special occasions.

What is their secret? Read more about it in our previous article.


Featured Image:

Source: CNN

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