What is the story of Unicum?

Published: July 31 2023

Peeling back the layers to trace the history and story of Unicum, a celebrated Hungarian liqueur, is a journey filled with heritage, resilience, and centuries of tradition. The iconic liqueur, with its distinct green bottle and red cross emblem, has its roots in the royal courts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and continues to appeal to discerning drinkers today.

A Royal Beginning

Unicum's creation dates back to the late 18th century when Dr. Zwack, a royal physician to the Habsburg Emperor, Joseph II, formulated a digestive aid for the emperor. Dr. Zwack's combination of more than 40 different herbs and spices was a hit with the emperor, who is said to have exclaimed, "That is unique!" ("Das ist ein Unikum!”), thereby naming this invigorating spirit.

Family Legacy Lives On

In the early 20th century, the Zwack family set up a distillery on the banks of the Danube river in Budapest to produce Unicum. Despite the chaos of World War II and the subsequent nationalization of the distillery during the communist era, the Zwack family managed to save the secret recipe. Peter Zwack, the son of the distillery’s owner, fled Hungary carrying with him what was believed to be the secret formula, ensuring that the Zwack family tradition could continue elsewhere.

An Iconic Liqueur Reborn

In the early 1990s, with political preferences shifting and communism falling out of favor, the Zwack family returned to Budapest. Peter Zwack successfully managed to reclaim the family distillery and began the production of Unicum according to its original recipe. The post-communist era saw Unicum’s popularity skyrocket as new markets opened up around the globe for this spirited liqueur.

Unicum Today

Presently, Unicum is produced in three varieties: the original Unicum, Unicum Next (a lighter version with a hint of citrus), and Unicum Riserva. The latter is aged in oak casks for over six months and is an exquisite variant of the original. It is considered a symbol of Hungarian heritage and is often enjoyed as a digestif, challenging the palette with its strong, bitter, and complex flavor profile.

From the courts of emperors to the bars of Budapest, Unicum’s story is one of resilience and the enduring quality of a well-made drink. It is a testament to a family's dedication to safeguarding their heritage and an emblem of Hungary's rich history.