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Celebrating its 225th anniversary, the dark and mysterious drink, Unicum, keeps its secret recipe but gives up its history, as Andrew L. Urban reports.

It’s the colour of muddy water, smells a bit like cough medicine and tastes … unique, or “Unicum!” As Emperor Franz Joseph II exclaimed on a historic September day in 1790 when he tasted the very first shot of what was to become Hungary’s national aperitif, digestive and all purpose short drink, an accelerator before a beer or soothing after a night of good dining. And it’s history is as dark and unique and as complex as its guarded secret recipe of over 40 herbs & spices from around the world – and unlike the secret Coke recipe, it’s blended with a 40% dose of alcohol.

Poor old Franz had chronic digestion problems and clever old Dr Josef Zwack, then the Hapsburgs’ physician, concocted the mixture as a medication. So well did it work that once manufacturing began in earnest early in the 19th century, the Red Cross allowed (on receipt of a handsome donation) its iconic red cross symbol to be used on the bomb shaped bottle, to indicate its medicinal properties. A health drink, then; jolly good. (The cross is no longer red but gold on a red background, in deference to the Red Cross being active in Hungary, and royalties no longer apply.)

At the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Zwack family was producing well over 200 separate liqueurs for export all over the world, some of which are on display at the Zwack museum in Budapest. Tasting is a recommended part of the tour, for a fuller appreciation of this unique drink. (With the foresight of a good investigative journalist I had already conducted my own private tasting, so as to compare... I can say the only difference is that the museum version is a tad thicker, since it comes out of a barrell, yet to be strained...)

The museum offers a tangible history, from old posters to new tastes and a short film narrated by the late Peter Zwack (who died in 2012) that personalises the story behind this ancient distillery. (Open Monday to Saturday 10 – 5, at 1, Dandar st, near Klinikak metro station, appropriately enough, Klinikak meaning Clinics…) Over 10,000 visitors walk through the elegant museum, examining the myriad items, including a collection of 17,000 miniature bottles of alcohol in glass display cases on a mezzanine gallery.

The Zwack headquarters, including the lovely museum, has been on its current site since 1892, the distillery churning out over 200 cognacs, brandies and liquers as well as Unicum.

Now run by Peter’s children, brother and sister Sandor and Izabella, the new era sees unique fruit based herb liquers in elegant, slim bottles (the opposite of the Unicum round shape) as well as a range of boutique wines from Izabella’s winery in the famous Tokaj region.

Its 225 year history (as at 2015) has been tough on the Zwacks. The prohibition in the US nearly destroyed the business, such was the success of its export trade. Enterprising fifth generation Zwack boys Béla and János had the bright idea to develop light bulbs in the production facility and were responsible for blanketing Budapest’s beautiful streets in neon, and filling their till with coin.

The second world war saw their facilities heavily bombed and then torched by the retreating Nazi army (the swines) with almost nothing left … Except the all important giant barrels in the cellars, which help give Unicum its characteristic bitter sweet flavour and scent. After the war, even these barrels – except one mighty grandfather barrel from 1937 holding over 16,000 litres (ageing the Unicum for 6 months) were taken away to be used in rebuilding the Danube bridges destroyed by war. Barrels to bridges for Budapest, an apt transformation.

The Nazis went but then came the Communists, rampaging through private enterprise, ripping out the social and commercial fabric of the country.

Lee Reaney of The Budapest Times helps to take up the story: János sent his son Peter to Yugoslavia in the hopes of getting him to America, while he himself felt compelled to bribe the puppets of Soviet authority into letting him escape – in an upturned oil barrel with the family’s treasured recipe in his jacket pocket.

The two were able to meet up again in Italy and travel to America, where they were interned at the refugee camp on Ellis Island for months. Word has it that the only reason they were allowed to immigrate into the US was because they possessed that potent Unicum formula.

Meanwhile, Béla was still back in Budapest and working (against his will) for the new communist owners. He was forced to give up the family recipe – or at least what the authorities believed was the recipe. Béla surruptitiously devised a shonky replacement, famously featuring less than half the herbs and spices of the original.

After being framed for having illegal foreign currency in his possession, Béla was exiled to the Puzsta (Hungarian Plains) before finally escaping to Italy. Indefatigable, he continued production there, which is why Unicum is nearly as popular in Italy as it is in Hungary.

Both brothers continued to work in the alcohol distillation and distribution business in the USA and Italy. When they died – less than two weeks apart – it was their widows who took over the family business before passing it on to Peter, the sixth-generation heir.

Times were changing again in Europe, and with communist governments weakened and vulnerable, Peter saw an opportunity and returned to his homeland. The first major industrialist to return, he witnessed the fall of the Communist government just one year later.

His business ties to the USA made him the ideal choice as the first Hungarian ambassador to the USA; while back home he proceeded to supply the market with Unicum – and not the fake and foul replacement the communists had distributed. Aggressive marketing, including sponsoring national sports teams such as water polo and hockey, and a return to its original, distinct flavour, saw Unicum flow across the bars and pubs of the nation.

The increase in popularity was marked by different offerings of the drink, including a sweeter version infused with Hungarian plum (Unicum Plum, since 2012) and a milder, citrus-based version mainly for the American market (Unicum Next, since 2008). Unicum Plum is delicious, but for my money, I will stick to the original.

Today the company is once again one of the leading distillers in Europe, producing over three million litres of the beautiful, bitter booze every year. And we the people are enjoying it ... Here’s to our collective health.

Published August 13, 2015

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