Inside Budapest's Unicum distillery

Hungary's national drink is a heady liqueur made up of 40 spices in a secret recipe that has survived World War II and Communism.

Posted: Jan 1, 2019 3:16 PM
Updated: Jan 1, 2019 3:58 PM

Whether you find yourself in a no-frills kocsma filled with beer-swilling old timers, an elegant cocktail lair or one of Budapest's quirky ruin pubs jammed with tourists, the Hungarian capital's drinking scene has one constant.

Countless times throughout the night, the bartender will reach for the same distinctive, round-bellied bottle.

The inky, amber-tinted liquid inside is called Unicum, and with roots that delve back to the late 18th century, it's one of the most revered national drinks in Hungary.

Like that other boozy Hungarian favorite, the fruit brandy pálinka, Unicum is largely savored as an aperitif or a digestif in shot form.

Produced by Budapest based beverage company Zwack, it's a herbal liqueur comprising a secret blend of more than 40 herbs and spices aged in oak.

Less aggressive than Fernet yet beefier than Jägermeister, thick, bitter Unicum, laced with subtle piney eucalyptus notes, is indeed bracing, a taste that grows delightfully more palatable with each sip according to Unicum brand ambassador Csaba Gulyás.

"It's a bittersweet potion, which isn't easy to enjoy the first time, but then you cross that barrier and it becomes your favorite," says Gulyás.

Royal origins

The story behind how Unicum came to be is equal parts fabled and turbulent.

Its distinctive bottle flaunts a gold cross that pops against a red background -- the first hint that its roots are medicinal.

It all began in 1790, when Habsburg ruler Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, had a bout of indigestion, and Dr. Zwack, royal physician to the Imperial Court, whipped up a herbal remedy for him.

Upon drinking it, Joseph II purportedly exclaimed, "Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unikum!"

The "unique" elixir subsequently spread in popularity, and the Zwack company was founded in 1840 by József Zwack, an entrepreneurial descendant of the visionary doctor. [THIS LINE IS BEING DOUBLE CHECKED BY WRITER]

By 1895, Zwack was producing over 200 liqueurs and spirits, exporting them from a distillery that's still in use today.

Different generations of the Zwack family have always presided over the business and two of its most prominent characters are brothers Béla and János, who were at the helm during Zwack's most troubling years.

The 1930s ushered in an era of turmoil, what with the Great Depression and prohibition in the United States, leading to a decrease in demand for Zwack products.

During World War II the factory was destroyed and shortly after, communism forced the company to nationalize. However, the Zwacks hatched a plan, creating a fake recipe for the communists to use.

János found safety in the United States, while Béla stayed put at the distillery until the mid-1950s, when he decamped to Italy and started tinkering with the original Unicum again.

After Communism fell in 1989, the Zwacks bought their company back and the true, heady Unicum recipe was embraced, János's son Péter reviving the name both domestically and abroad.

"Everybody has a personal story with Unicum. It has spiritual content and it's timeless, surviving our history," explains Gulyas.

"I think I would love Unicum even if I didn't know anything of its heritage, but once you get the whole picture, wow," says Dez O'Connell, a bar consultant who oversees all the beverage programs for Budapest's BrodyLand portfolio, including the events hub Brody Studios.

"Unicum is the story of Hungary politically and socially since the Hapsburg Empire to the present day. That of course gives it a special place in most Hungarian hearts and stomachs."

A symbol of unity

A fixture on Budapest bar shelves, Unicum is best enjoyed while in the company of friends and family, attesting to the importance Hungarians place on convivial, food-fueled social gatherings.

Ferenc Varsányi, partner at the cozy barber shop turned cocktail den Hotsy Totsy, adds that "it brings families together. Hungarians don't drink Unicum just on special occasions. It's a symbol of unity."

It's most likely to consumed as a room temperature shot, but Varsányi prefers drinking it from a tasting glass, "letting it rest a bit to express the depth of flavors and the enormous spice."

He also relishes it chilled, straight out of the freezer, but says it particularly hits the spot in hot weather when served on the rocks.

However, O'Connell recommends drinking Unicum alongside a pilsner.

Because of its intensity, Unicum "is not the most obvious of cocktail ingredients," notes O'Connell who uses it sparingly, integrating a spoon or two into drinks that lend themselves to a bit more texture.

Likewise, Varsányi sometimes swaps it in as a bolder alternative to Campari or weaves it into hot toddies.

Home bartenders, however, should seek out two cocktail friendly Unicum variants: Szilva and Riserva.

The former is made by macerating plums in casks that once held Unicum, the latter is aged twice, the second time in barrels that formerly housed Hungary's prized sweet Tokaji Aszu wine.

"The bitter notes are dialed down, replaced with fruitier, oakier flavors," O'Connell points out.

For instance, the Kollázs bar at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel Budapest offers the Puszta Reloaded, a riff on a traditional Hungarian cocktail made with Tokaji wine, apricot brandy, and herbal liqueur.

A refreshing sweet and sour libation, it marries Unicum Riserva with unripe grape juice.

"We recommend this drink to our guests who would like to experience Hungary through its classic flavors," says bartender Attila Farmasi.

While Unicum can be appreciated in almost any Budapest bar, perhaps the most fitting backdrop is at its historic distillery, located close to the Danube in the gritty District IX.

With advance notice, curious imbibers can book a tour, navigating a maze of oak barrels and soaking up the charming museum, filled with vintage photographs, posters, and curios, including a particularly impressive collection of some 17,000 mini bottles.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 52685

Reported Deaths: 2775
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion12192697
Lake5764251
Elkhart372061
Allen2988135
St. Joseph223570
Hamilton1779101
Cass16519
Hendricks1482100
Johnson1366118
Porter86738
Vanderburgh8586
Tippecanoe79510
Clark72844
Madison68564
LaPorte63928
Howard61758
Bartholomew60945
Kosciusko5874
Marshall57412
Noble52628
Boone49744
LaGrange49110
Delaware48452
Jackson4813
Hancock47236
Shelby46225
Floyd42544
Monroe37528
Dubois3447
Morgan34431
Grant33426
Henry30618
Montgomery29720
Clinton2913
White28110
Warrick27929
Dearborn27723
Vigo2638
Decatur25732
Lawrence25325
Harrison22022
Greene20032
Miami1972
Jennings18012
Putnam1758
DeKalb1714
Scott1669
Wayne1656
Perry16010
Daviess15117
Jasper1422
Orange14023
Steuben1403
Ripley1357
Gibson1332
Franklin1288
Wabash1203
Carroll1142
Starke1103
Fayette1087
Whitley1086
Newton10110
Huntington932
Jefferson932
Wells841
Randolph814
Fulton791
Knox730
Jay720
Posey680
Washington681
Pulaski661
Clay655
Rush633
Spencer621
Owen541
Sullivan541
Benton510
Adams491
Brown461
Blackford412
Fountain382
Tipton361
Crawford350
Switzerland320
Parke280
Martin260
Ohio230
Vermillion200
Warren161
Pike150
Union150
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 67995

Reported Deaths: 3069
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin12574449
Cuyahoga9509400
Hamilton7179208
Lucas3110306
Marion275739
Montgomery264737
Summit2420209
Pickaway223542
Mahoning1996239
Butler194247
Columbiana140560
Stark1252116
Lorain120870
Trumbull107178
Warren106827
Clark83210
Delaware78415
Fairfield75117
Lake64322
Tuscarawas62811
Licking61913
Medina61432
Belmont57224
Clermont5327
Miami52031
Wood51551
Portage50760
Ashtabula45244
Geauga43643
Richland3926
Allen39141
Greene3809
Wayne37856
Erie30822
Mercer30410
Holmes2645
Huron2643
Darke26126
Madison2309
Ottawa21924
Athens2011
Sandusky18015
Coshocton1554
Ross1543
Washington14920
Putnam14615
Crawford1405
Jefferson1322
Morrow1291
Hardin12512
Union1191
Auglaize1124
Muskingum1061
Preble961
Lawrence930
Clinton922
Hancock921
Monroe8917
Hocking848
Guernsey834
Scioto800
Ashland782
Shelby784
Williams772
Logan731
Carroll713
Fulton710
Wyandot665
Brown621
Champaign601
Knox591
Fayette580
Highland581
Defiance563
Perry501
Van Wert501
Seneca432
Henry380
Paulding350
Jackson320
Pike290
Adams282
Vinton232
Gallia211
Noble140
Harrison131
Meigs130
Morgan130
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 66°
Angola
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 64°
Huntington
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 64°
Decatur
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 64°
Van Wert
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 64°
Storms Late Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events