The Hungarian National Drink with Its Own Museum
Originally Published in FWT Magazine Winter 2020
(Photos used with permission of Zwack Unicum–All images ©Zwack)
Unicum—according to yourdictionary.com, it is “a unique example or a specimen of something.” In the electronic gaming world, it is someone who can read the flow of the battle and change it with their skill to damage, kill or take charge. But in the “spirit” world, it is Hungary’s national drink. You’ll know it when you see it, by the signature round black bottle branded with a gold cross on a red circular label wherever in Hungary alcoholic beverages are available.
Concocted over 225 years ago by a royal physician named Zwack in the Habsburg Imperial Court in an effort to find a remedy for symptoms of indigestion that the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II complained of, the drink is a dark, somewhat bitter herbal elixir that ultimately evolved into a popular liqueur. The Emperor apparently approved, and his reaction – “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unikum!” – gave the tonic its name. The recipe remains mostly secret to this day, only known to a few Zwack descendants.
In reality, most first-timers trying the drink are not convinced they would try it again. Normally served in shot glasses as an aperitif or digestif suggesting a hint of eucalyptus and a taste of licorice, it is an acquired taste, and it is so much a part of being a Hungarian, that it grows on anyone spending time in Budapest or hanging out with Hungarian companions. If you are willing to order a shot or two, your Hungarian friends will love you for it, and it will get better over time to the point that in any future visits to Hungary, you will arrive craving another taste.
The producer, Zwack, understood that not everyone who visits Hungary is up for the heavy flavor of the original Unicum, so they developed a few varieties. One is Unicum Next, a lighter, fresher, more citrusy flavor that appeals to young people, and Unicum Silva, which based on the Hungarian tradition of soaking fruits in alcohol, is aged in barrels over a base of dried plums—aka prunes—which adds a somewhat sweet balance the bitterness of the original.
The uniqueness and popularity of the drink is such an important part of Hungarian tradition, it has been declared a designated Hungarikum—an item that distinctly and typically represents Hungarian culture and uniqueness–and it serves as the basis of the Zwack Muzeum, housed on the grounds of the old distillery on Budapest’s Pest-side shore in District IX near the Petőfi bridge. An easy ride on trams 4 and 6, or on tram 2, which will bring you to Boráros tér, a short walk away from the building.
Visitors to the museum, in addition to a tasting fresh barrel draughts of various Unicum drinks at the end of the tour, are introduced to the company’s history with a 20-minute video and talk, which tells the history of the Zwack family’s entrepreneurial efforts to produce and sell Unicum along with more than 200 liqueurs and spirits. Threats to the company that came with the Great Depression, World War II and Communism show the pluck of the Zwack brothers Béla and János, who, when forced by the Communists to turn the company over to the state, created a fake recipe to be used, and kept the true recipe hidden until, in 1989 they bought back the company and were able to once again produce the original version.
An audio-guided tour of the facility showcases historic relics such as a collection of 17,000 mini bottles, a Swedish passport issued for Peter Zwack by Raoul Wallenberg during World War II, a historic ledger, posters and shiny copper stills. After the self-guided tour (available in six languages), a professional guide will lead visitors on a walk through the hundreds of oak barrels in the winding corridors of the cellar.
A second Zwack Muzeum is located about an hour and 15 minutes south of Budapest in Kecskemét, a city famous in Hungary for its palinka or fruit brandies in tall, long-necked bottles. This is where the Zwack family first made Fütyülős (whistling) Palinka, a brandy that, in 1936, Edward, Prince of Wales, tasted and loved so much he became a lifelong fan—adding it to sparkling water or tea. Similar to the Budapest museum, the Kecskemét location offers a video showing the traditional process of making palinka and a tour of the distillery, ending with a professional tasting by a palinka master.