A hidden gem

To say that Unicum is Hungary’s answer to Jägermeister might get me in trouble with the purists. But to this uneducated palate, they have way too much in common – they’re both dark, herbal, and come in weirdly shaped bottles – to not be at least cousins.

Back in my California days, I had a brief affair with Jägermeister.  It did wonders for my pool game, lending me a coordination that was otherwise completely absent. I believed that the reputedly opiate-based liqueur was banned in 13 US states as this added to its charm. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant.

When I first tasted Unicum, I enjoyed (?) that similar feeling of revulsion. I just can’t drink hard liquor, no matter how good its medicinal properties. Unicum Silva is a little easier on the tongue and could find its way into my medicine cabinet. But unlike its millions of devotees worldwide, I doubt I’ll ever be a true fan.

And yet, I am a fan of the Zwack family. I spent a couple of hours at the Zwack Unicum Heritage Visitors Centre over in District IX recently and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. It’s a gem.

One day, back in 1790, Joseph II of the Habsburg monarchy, was struck by indigestion. His royal physician, a certain Dr Zwack, treated him with an herbal concoction containing 40 different herbs from all around the world. The Monarch proclaimed: Dr Zwack, das ist ein Unikum! (that is unique) and so the name was born.

Today, just five people know how to make it. The recipe, that includes angel root, ginger, mustard seed, cardamom, orange peel, and other herbs from 15 countries around the world, is a closely guarded secret, handed down from father to son.

Zwack3What perhaps surprised me most as I toured the museum is that Zwack isn’t just Unicum. As far back as the late 1800s, it was producing over 200 liqueurs and spirits for worldwide export. And when things got tough in the 1930s and the market for luxury goods like liqueurs dried up, Zwack went into light bulbs and strip lighting. Imagine Budapest lit up with neon Unicum advertisements. Amazing.

Luck was in short supply though. Towards the end of the war, the distillery fell afoul of bombs and was destroyed. And just as the family had restored it, the Russians came and confiscated it.

In the 1960s, Peter Zwack (now in America) partnered with Jim Beam to produce and distribute gin, vodka and slivovica under the Zwack name. In the meantime, Unicum was being produced and distributed under licence in Italy. It wasn’t until the privatization process of the early 1990s that Zwack would successfully buy back the family company that had been confiscated so many years before. Today, the current Chairman of the Board, Sandor Zwack, is the sixth-generation Zwack to hold the position in a business that is an iconic part of Hungary’s history.

Visitors to theZwack5 museum get to watch a video account of the company’s history (and indeed that of the family, so closely are the two intertwined), narrated by the late Peter Zwack, a man I’d loved to have met. The museum itself, with its collection of 17000 miniature bottles, is fascinating and is home to all sorts of oddities, including poems by Ady Endre written to Mylitta, Zwack’s aunt, and a passport issued to Zwack by Raoul Wallenberg.

If you register to arrive at 2pm, you’ll also be treated to a tour of the old distillery where it all began. You’ll finish in the cellar, alongside about 500 oak barrels in which the liqueur is aged for six months before being bottled. And, of course, you’ll get to have a shot straight from the barrel. It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

First published in the Budapest Times  13 November 2015

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