Special Products in Hungary: Zwack Unicum, the bittersweet herbal liqueur

If you ask a Hungarian to tell you some of the typical Hungarian products and produces, you will very likely hear of the Hungarian paprika, the Rubik cube, Tokaj wine (especially Tokaji aszú) and a kind of herbal digestive bittersweet liqueur called Unicum amongst the top Hungaricums. And Unicum means Zwack Unicum from the Zwack family, exported to 40 countries all over the world. Now unlike the magic cube invented by Rubik, Unicum is a century old product, going back to the 18th century.

What do the leading tenor Luciano Pavarotti, American icon Jacqueline Kennedy, and world famous conductor Zubin Mehta have in common? These celebrities have all shared a weakness for the Hungarian bitter liquor known as Unicum.

What makes Zwack Unicum special?
The liqueur is not only fun, it also blends the healing power of more than 40 herbs & spices to ‘cure you of all ills.’ Of course, Zwack Unicum has its own secret formula, so secret that even the master blender does not know the recipe of the liquor: “There needs to be one family member present with the master blender when the herbs are being blended, and even the master blender doesn’t know the recipe because he receives them pre-mixed,” Izabella Zwack, a sixth-generation Zwack said. In addition to the numerous Hungarian awards, it has also been the Worldstar Winner in Tokyo in 1998

History of Zwack Unicum
Like Jagermeister, Unicum has its own history. According to the Zwack family legend, the liqueur was made in about 1790 by a Zwack who was a doctor, and as he happened to be the Royal Physician of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II, he presented the unique concoction to the Habsburg kaiser. Joseph II appreciated the drink saying “Das ist ein Unikum!” (“This is a specialty!”), most probably with a bittersweet face as the liqueur is literally bitter and sweet at the same time. And more than that: you can feel the special harmony and magic witchcraft of forest sorceress’ age-old herbal knowledge.

The founder and owner of the Zwack liqueur and rum distillery, a Moravian József Zwack, set up his company in Pest during the middle of the 19th century. He insisted his spirits should be made of organic raw materials, never of synthetic substitutes. Production of Unicum bitters started in 1860; the trade mark was patented in 1883. Since then, it has been sold in a dark green spheroid glass bottle (source: Avenue Vine)

Zwack Unicum poster from 1915 shipwrecked man with a happy survival bottleUnicum is a true trademark: a long standing (or flowing) and trustworthy brand in the Hungarian market, easily recognized by the white cross emergency sign on a deep green rounded bottle (it’s as default brand for Hungarians as Coca Cola for the international market, you just cannot imagine not having it). In 1915 Sándor Bortnyik has created one of the most famous and popular poster for Zwack Unicum: a shipwrecked guy happy to find a bottle of Zwack Unicum (message in a bottle) in the stormy sea (you can buy it as a poster too).

The liquor even survived the communist period when the factory was confiscated from the Zwack family and the whole family had to escape. “My grandfather escaped with the recipe in his pocket and that was the only time when Zwack was not in the family.” says Izabella Zwack.

In the 1956 revolution in Budapest, Unicum, the bottle of which looks like a peculiar vintage bomb, was used as a case for ammunitions against the Soviet tanks. And in 1988, just a year before the silent revolution and the birth of the new Hungarian democracy, the Zwack descendants went back to Hungary and bought back the Zwack factory and facilities.From 2007, Unicum is not only exported to about 40 countries, but the mysterious concoction is currently available in limited release in Ohio and New York too.

spheroid, bomb-shaped bottles of Zwack Unicum from HungaryBomb-shaped bottles redefined, or refined
As Frommer’s guide writes, “With its memorable bomb-shaped bottle, emergency-cross logo, and unforgettable taste — it’s Uniqum.” These days it is marketed in a more peaceful style (see the picture below made by Columbus Alive in Ohio).

Further Zwack Drinks
Besides Zwack unicum, which is a polarizing drink (either you love it, or you can’t stand it), often compared to Jagermeister, Ouzo, etc., the Zwack company also offers Zwack Attacks, Bloody Hun (basically the Bloody Mary a la Zwack with 3 oz. Bloody Mary mix, 1.5 oz. Zwack Unicum, celery, pepper, salt), and Zwackstache in foreign markets. In Hungary, you will find Zwack branded as Unicum, and a similar Zwack drink (less bitter, more citrusy) called Unicum Next. Give them a try.
How to drink Unicum?
The best drinking advice comes from the producer, so let’s quote Sándor Zwack: “It’s a wonderful drink, it is wonderfully made. You can drink it room temperature if you want, with a nice cigar. You can mix it with cranberry, pineapple and orange juice. It’s great with Red Bull, but the way we market it is to be ice cold.”

Zwack Unicum gift: Essence of Hungary
You will find Zwack Unicum in all stores and gift shops (a bottle of 0.7 l [1.43 UK pints, 1.48 US pints] is approx. 3500 HUF). The Essence of Hungary is aZwack Unicum Essence of Hungary gift package with Tokaj wine, pálinka and Zwack Unicum beautiful gift package, which in fact combines all three flagship drinks of Hungary: besides Zwack Unicum, you will also get Tokaji aszú (a sweet Tokaj wine) and Pálinka (strong brandy made of flavoury fruits).

For some reason, the Essence of Hungary drink trio is only available in the Zwack Specialty Store located about a 20 minute walk from the Central Market Hall: go from Liberty Bridge (Szabadsághíd) to Petofi bridge (Petőfi híd), then straight ahead to Dandár utca 1. in the 9th district. Or you can take the blue line metro and get off at Klinikák station followed by a 10 minute walk.
Check the Zwack Specialty Store location on the Budapest Tourist Map:


View Larger Map

Cheers in Hungarian
When you want to say cheers in Hungarian, you need to muscle up your linguistic skills a bit: you can say egg-ace-shage-ed-rae (Egészségedre, literally ‘To your health’), or egg-ace-shage (Egészség) for short (informal). For a less neutral version, you can say Isten-Isten (ish-ten, ish-ten or God-God). The real black belt version of Cheers is when you want to say cheers to everybody in a bigger company (‘to our health’), which is Egészségünkre, say egg-ace-shagen-krae. Cheerio will be also understood by most people.

Comments

  1. John Varsanyi says:

    Can you direct me please to an outle in New York where I can purchase Unicum? Thank you very much.

  2. Hi John,

    I asked Unicum directly and got the reply from Ms Timea Vajda that Zwack Unicum is not traded in New York City. However, one of its variants dubbed ‘Zwack Liqueur’ can be bought through Diageo (since Sept 2008). They are gradually expanding on the market, hopefully appearing in more and more states.

    And the original reply in native Hungarian:

    “A Zwack Unicumot cégünk nem forgalmazza az USA-ban, így New Yorkban
    sem. Az Unicum íz variánsát értékesítjük “Zwack Liqueur” néven. Társ
    tulajdonosunk a Diageo értékesíti a terméket 2008 szeptember óta.
    Reméljük egyre több államban jelenik a termék, most folyik a
    piacépítés.

    Üdvözlettel:
    Vajda Tímea
    vevőszolgálat
    Zwack Unicum Nyrt”

  3. Joseph P. Zwack says:

    Since my name, my father’s name, my grandfather’s name and my son’s name is Joseph Zwack, I guess we’ll have to visit Budapest some day and investigate our roots. We’re from Dubuque, Iowa (a beautiful city located along the shore of the upper Mississippi River.)

    I’ve tasted several Zwack drinks, and my favorite is a pear liqueur.

    Cheers!

  4. I’ve just started noticing Zwack on the back bar of a few of my favorite bars. I asked the bartender what exactly it was, and he was very complimentarty about the product. He said it had a pretty cool history, but couldn’t recall all of it….this article really summed it up. Thanks!

  5. Could you tell me where (online) I could buy an Unicum poster of the shipwrecked man by Sandor Bortnyik? Thanks!

  6. Anna from Budapest says:

    Hi Milli,

    Unicum has its own webshop and they take orders for Unicum posters and metal plaques too (minimal order value is approx. $500 or 400 euros…). So you could end up with some further Unicum products to fill up the cart. :)

    Here’s the link to the store (in Hungarian…) http://www.zwackwebshop.hu
    If you wish to buy it online in general, you could try ebay, or you could try facebook (maybe you have a Hungarian friends’ friend?)

    Another idea is to simply print out a Bortnyik Unicum poster – via Google images: http://www.mindenidok.hu/imgs/listpics/1094/1094_20071126201805_31246.jpg

    However, if you are staying in Hungary, you may try to get help from a local and buy online on the Hungarian auction sites (Vatera.hu or Teszvesz.hu), or check out the store personally in Budapest close to Petofi bridge.

    Hope this helps.
    Anna

  7. kalman dancs says:

    The new product zwack liqueur is horrible, discusting and it doesn’t even resemble to my favorite UNICUM. This product should not carry the Zwack name. It was sold as a UNICUM with a new name.

    -regarding kalman dancs

  8. stephen bernay says:

    I have inherited several bottles of J.Zwack liqueurs pre WWII.There is also a bottle of Magyar Gyartmany-Eckau-Kummel.These bottles were the only ones left of the extensive collection my parents had after the Earth quake of the Northridge,Los Angeles in the late nineties.
    I would like to place them up for auction.I am trying to find an auctioneer and what value these bottle would bring.
    I found your publication by searching the web for J.Zwack’s information.
    I hope you will be able to head me in the right direction.
    Respectfully,
    Stephen Bernay

  9. Does anyone know what the alcohol concentration of unicum is?

  10. Anna from Budapest says:

    @stephen bernay: Hi Stephen, I think the most popular auction site – for Zwack Unicum too – would be ebay. This would be the site where I would check out the prices for similar authentic and vintage Unicums too.

  11. Anna from Budapest says:

    @Dave

    Dave, the alcohol content of the original / classic Unicum bottles is 40%, while the so called Unicum Next product line has 35% alcohol content.

  12. Mario Digiulio says:

    where can I buy unicum near Media, PA 19063, usa

    Thank you.

  13. Recently I was given a very old bottle of Zwack Royal Orange Liqueur. I have pictures of the bottle and would like to know approximately how old it is. Can anyone help me out??
    Any way to submit a photo??

  14. Why can’t we buy the ORIGINAL Unicum in the US? That sweet substitute is 2nd rate, I’m sorry. At least, give us a choice. Hungarians living in the States, and travelers who love Hungary, should be able to buy the real Unicum -please!

  15. Erika Tolnai says:

    I just ordered an Unicum. It is not a same, tastes terrible!
    Anybody knows where can I buy the REAL UNICUM in the US???? PLEASE HELP!

  16. It quite discomforts me (as a Hungarian) that modern Unicum (not as if I knew the pre-WW2 original) is listed az a Hungaricum. I’ve tasted a few drinks that are regarded as ‘acquired taste’, but it’s the only one that tasted the same horrible as for the first time. It’s mostly cheap alcohol, caramel, sugar, and bitterness without anything else notable. (It’s not that it’s too bitter; it’s just there’s nothing more to it. Obviously, Zwack concentrates on PR instead of the liqueur itself.)

    It also must be noted that half of Hungarians hate its taste and many prefer Jägermeister instead as a bitter liqueur. I’ve just found a pálinka-based (a special Hungarian type of fruit brandy) bitter liqueur for the same price and it’s scores better. Too bad it hasn’t got a good PR.

    • Anna from Budapest says:

      Well, it would be interesting to see some statistics (trade data, opinion surveys, etc.) about how Hungarians love-hate-consume Unicum. Any links you know about?
      By the way, I think it may be an interesting topic, research theme for any cultural anthropologists (or gastronomists) to check how legendary national drinks and foods are rated by locals these days. With all the global consumption and wide array of foods and drinks available in supermarkets it may turn out that the consumption of some of the traditional local foods is on the decrease, or simply going out of fashion, or undergoing considerable changes in one or another.

  17. Imre Horvath says:

    Kerem adjak meg a telefonszamukat hogy komunikalhassak Onokkel, vagy hivjanak; 310-644-8720 ugyanis az Egyesult Allamokban (Los Angelesben egy ido ota nem kaphato Unicum, pedig igen nagy a kereslet ez iranyban.Valaszukat elore is koszonom, amit igen varunk;

    Horvath Imre
    310-644-8720

    • Anna from Budapest says:

      Kedves Imre, kérem, hogy az Unicum hivatalos weboldalán levő kontaktcímre írjon a fenti problémával kapcsolatban. Biztos vagyok benne, hogy az Unicum is erősíteni szeretné amerikai piaci pozícióját és örülnek a keresletnek – amíg van.
      Üdvözlettel:
      Anna

  18. found myself lucky coz i bought 2 bottles of unicom from grand market hall in budapest. i heard its really good so i bought it. and its really good after i taste it personally.

    • Anna at Budapest Blog says:

      Hi Manolet, I am glad you liked Unicum, it has a peculiar taste which may take some occasions for some people to get used to. I think a typical case of aquired taste. Unicum has several versions, sub brands with other taste varieties. Which have you tried? The original Unicum drink?

  19. Knut-I Evaldsson says:

    Hi my name is Knut and i,m from Sweden i,m a horsemen and 7yers ago i get a bottle of Zwack unicum by a friend he says i dont like it but i like almost everything just that name was so mystik so i give a trotting foal that name today our Zwack had been takeing 13 victorys and over 900000 sek in earning. fanny best regards from Knut and Zwack.

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] é muito apreciado pelos locais e muitos turistas/visitantes acabam apreciando o sabor… leia mais (em [...]

  2. [...] o Unicum é muito apreciado pelos locais e muitos turistas/visitantes acabam apreciando o sabor… leia mais (em [...]

  3. [...] for ages. There are food and drinks, if you are cold just grab a glass of mulled wine or a shot of Unicum to warm yourself from the inside. (It is also true that some years it is just too cold to go out so [...]

  4. [...] é muito apreciado pelos locais e muitos turistas/visitantes acabam apreciando o sabor… leia mais (em [...]

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