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Unicum: The Story Of Hungary’s National Spirit And Probably Most Famous Trademark Brand

Ferenc Sullivan 2015.09.18.

Patented in 1883, Unicum is the best-known national spirit brand of Hungary and the Hungarians, the country’s answer to the Irish whiskey, the Russian vodka and the Czech Becherovka. I is also one of the most famous of Hungary’s registered trademark brands, labelling the traditional bitter liquor produced by the alcoholic beverages company Zwack.

Although its recipe is believed to have been conceived as early as 1790, rectified alcohol – the basis of today’s liquor – only appeared in the nineteenth century. According to the producers, it was in 1790 that Doctor Zwack, Royal Physician to the Imperial Court, offered the Habsburg monarch a sip of Unicum as a remedy for indigestion. Legend would have it that the royal comment was:  “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unikum!”, giving this herb liqueur its name. The fame and popularity of Unicum was gradually to spread far beyond the Court in Vienna.


Unicum is officially categorised as a “Hungaricum”, one of “those noteworthy assets from Hungary, which characterise the Hungarians by their uniqueness, specialty and quality, and represent the peak performance of Hungary”.

The herbal liquor, produced according to a secret formula of more than forty herbs and aged in oak casks is drunk as a digestif and apéritif. During Communism in Hungary, the Zwack family lived in exile in New York and Chicago, and Unicum in Hungary was produced using a different formula. In 1970, Peter Zwack returned to Europe, managing the production and international distribution of Zwack from Italy. He also launched a line of fruit liquors. Before moving to the United States, János Zwack had entrusted a family friend in Milan with the production of Unicum based on the original recipe. Shortly before the fall of Communism, his son Péter Zwack (1927-2012) returned to Hungary with his family in 1987-88. “I was one of the last to leave and today I am one of the first to return”, he was quoted as saying then. He and his partner, Emil Underberg of the German spirits dynasty, formed Peter Zwack und Consorten AG and entered into a joint venture with the state-run distillery.

Unicum is regarded as one of the national drinks of Hungary. The production facility offers tours which include a tasting session of the two different varieties (Unicum, and Unicum Plum). Zwack Frissitők is a pineapple-based softdrink. According to the manufacturer, the original Unicum is no longer distributed in the US, having been replaced by Unicum Next (a sweeter, thinner-bodied drink with a more prominent citrus flavour), re-branded as “Zwack”. Zwack exports tripled between 2000-2012, spreading to more than 30 countries around the world.