“That is unique,” was supposedly the cry raised by Joseph II, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary in 1790, when he tasted the pleasant herb mixture prepared by his Court physician, Dr. Zwack. The name of the Hungarian tonic bitters known as Zwack Unicum is allegedly derived from this remark. The Zwack family established its distillery in Pest in 1840. Unicum – the exact composition of which is known only to members of the family – has been made in Hungary ever since, except for a break of about 40 years. After “World War II the business became State-owned and the original owners left the country, taking the original recipe with them.
While the family produced their herb schnapps in Italy under the name Zwack Unicum, the Budapest distillery continued to produce a beverage with the name Unicum. Although this had a fat from unpleasant taste, it was nothing like the original. In 1989 Peter Zwack, a fourth generation member of the family, bought the firm back from the State. Since then, Unicum has once again been distilled in Hungary according to the old traditional recipe.
The popular tonic bitters contains extracts from over 40 different herbs and roots. The active substances are partly released by soaking in water for 30 days, partly by distillation. The harmonious blend of the different flavors to create the unique taste is achieved by the blending ratio as well as the production process. The bitters are matured in oak barrels for at least six months.
The firm’s humorous advertising poster which was designed at the beginning of the 20th century, and which many people still remembered decades later, is today a classic of Hungarian poster art. It shows a shipwrecked man, beaming with joy at the sight of a floating bottle of Unicum – tonic bitters as a life saver. Unicum is best drunk like a brandy; at room temperature and served in brandy balloons. Some people prefer it ice cold and drink it from frosted glasses, like vodka. It can also be enjoyed warm, because it is supposed to boost the body’s energy reserves. In any case, Unicum is a very good aperitif and digestif.