Happy Birthday, Unicum! Hungary’s iconic liqueur is 225 years old
Photo : László Balkányi/We Love Budapest
27/1/2015, 11:05 AM●5-minute article
Originally invented as a stomach remedy for one of Europe’s most prominent monarchs in the late 1700s, Unicum has evolved considerably in purpose and presentation since then, yet the secret formula for this extraordinary elixir remains unchanged – even as over 3,000,000 liters of this black gold is produced annually in Budapest nowadays. We take a look back at the incredible story of this intoxicating herbal concoction, and visit the venerable distillery where this grand-scale family business continually creates its celebrated bitters for worldwide enjoyment.
The bold sensation of sipping Unicum is indeed unique, as observed in 1790 by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II after he sampled the very first batch of these medicinal bitters – dreamed up by Royal Physician Dr. Zwack – and fatefully uttered “das ist ein unicum!” It must’ve been almost exactly 225 years ago when this legendary reaction was exclaimed, because Joseph II died in February of that year, wracked with stress-related health problems after his Enlightenment-inspired reform policies were thwarted by the era’s nobility… but while Dr. Zwack’s magic potion may not have kept his regal patient alive, it succeeded wildly as a liqueur still savored to this day.
Over the following decades, Dr. Zwack’s descendants continued manufacturing this digestif as a medicinal product, “branding” it with the trademark cross still emblazoned on its equally distinctive spherical green bottles with long necks, based on the laboratory vessels that Unicum was initially prepared in. As Unicum’s popularity grew, the Zwack family began producing many other high-quality liqueurs (also sold in a variety of remarkably shaped flasks) in Budapest to be exported around the planet, becoming so successful that the company outgrew its original factory within what is now Erzsébet Square, and in 1892 built the Zwack distillery still operating today on Soroksári Road by the riverfront of southern Pest.
Here visitors are welcome to check out the world’s only Unicum-producing facility with tours of the distillery and the cellars where this flavorfully potent potable is aged in huge oak barrels, along with a modern museum documenting the ongoing history of this expansive family-owned enterprise. While the guided tours are thoroughly educational and entertaining (particularly after their eagerly anticipated tasting sessions), the museum is also fascinating for enthusiasts of Hungarian history, as the Zwack family’s tribulations and triumphs closely mirror the momentous twists and turns of this nation’s saga.
When viewing the central distillery building, visitors examine a hands-on display containing many of the dozens of raw ingredients that go into every bottle of Unicum – including ginger, orange peel, lemongrass, calendula, angelica root, and myriad other plant materials from multiple continents – to give it that ever-surprisingly zestful taste that lingers on the palate long after each sip slides down. Here we also admire the still-functional brewing machines used over a century ago along with the precise scales that used to make sure Dr. Zwack’s exact recipe was perpetually followed precisely, although today this process is computerized.
From here we descend to the labyrinthine basement containing some 500 stately oak casks where the original Unicum blend is aged for six months; two new varieties (Unicum Next and Unicum Plum) are also fermented in this sprawling underground realm. After the guides walk us through the entire aging process, we enjoy samples of this tangy tipple poured straight from the barrel; when sipping the plum variety, we are impressed by the deliciously fresh fruit flavor imparted by the real plums steeping just on the other side of the wooden keg’s tap.
However, it’s in the museum where we are most absorbed by the Zwack family’s dedication to creating high-caliber concoctions despite all adverse circumstances – surrounded by countless artifacts ranging from artistically crafted decanters to old-time advertisements to family photos featuring celebrities and royalty, viewers can observe personal perspectives of the Zwack dynasty that illustrate the story of Hungarian history over the past 225 years.
Major moments are brought alive in every display case, from documents declaring the Zwack Company’s esteemed relationship with the court of Emperor Franz Josef to photographs of the damage inflicted on the distillery during World War II; from an empty bottle of Unicum used as a Molotov cocktail during Hungary’s 1956 Revolution to jubilant news of the Zwack family’s return to Budapest after the collapse of the Soviet Union, following decades in exile; along with relics from a profusion of other momentous happenings in between and since then.
Finally, in the distillery’s shop visitors can peruse the huge selection of drinks that are now produced by the Zwack family, including excellent pálinka brandy and top-quality wines from Hungary’s famed Tokaj region… but naturally, Unicum is still the star here – along with assorted glassware and souvenirs adorned with classic Unicum imagery, guests can even purchase the legendary liqueur in five-liter bottles. While having that much Unicum on hand may not be very conducive for soothing an unsettled stomach, it would certainly be an epic centerpiece for an epoch-making birthday party. We raise a glass to you, Unicum!