Unicum is a Hungarian liqueur that comes in a distinct, tinted round bottle. You have probably seen it: that bottom heavy, round green bottle with the red and white “X” on it, and the most enticing golden lettering. But what is in that curiously shaped bottle? Why, one of the best herb-based digestifs that Budapest has to offer.
What is a digestif anyway?
A digestif is a liquor, usually made out of herbs and plants, that is meant to help with, well, digestion. It is usually consumed after meals, to help the stomach deal with all of the Hungarian food that has been crammed into it. It usually includes some amount of sugar, is syrupy and loaded with active ingredients from herbs. It is a holdover from the time of tinctures and laudanum, and it will probably not surprise you to hear that Unicum, the most famous Hungarian digestif, originates from that time period as well being established in 1883.
Back in those days, people drank liquor based on whether or not it whets the appetite (aperitifs), or if it goes after a meal (digestifs). In Hungary, Pálinka is consumed before a meal traditionally, as it increases the production of stomach acid, and has a strong flavor. Unicum, and other digestifs are drunk after a meal. They are usually between 20 and 40% alcohol, with Unicum clocking in at 40%.
Other digestifs are Unterberg, Jagermeister, Jagdstolz, and a host of other bitters. There are very cheap ones you can buy for under 1 EUR, but we recommend steering clear of these. They usually only have herb aroma, and have a high sugar content, so they will give you a massive hangover. After years of producing only their traditional product Zwack, the owner of Unicum created Unicum Next for the American market. This drink is a step away from the traditional roots, has a citrus flavor and higher sugar content. It resembles Jagermeister a bit more and is more consumer-friendly. Unicum Riserva is an aged liquor, the finest of all Unicums as it is marketed. They also produce a plum flavored Unicum, which is quite tasty, but nothing beats the original.
Where Can I buy Unicum in Budapest?
You can get Unicum practically everywhere in Budapest. You can buy it in stores and souvenir shops, where you can get it in a nice metal case, or with decorative shot glasses. You can drink it at any ruin bar, sports bar, good old dive, snazzy elite haunts, and basically any place that sells hard alcohol. It is an absolute favorite among Hungarians, so any place that sells shots or spirits will have Unicum. One of the best places to try this king of bitters is the Zwack Unicum Museum, sometimes called Zwack Museum or House of Unicum. This is where they make Unicum, with a recipe that is safely guarded and kept secret.
Zwack Family History
The producers of Unicum, the Zwack family has a very interesting history, one that reflects the turbulent nineteenth and twentieth century in this part of the world all too well. In 1790, Physician to the Royal Court József Zwack made the tincture as a digestif, to aid with indigestion. Zwack and Co was founded on the success of this drink in 1840. What is known is that Unicum contains over 40 herbs, and is aged in oak casks for over six months. The family prospered and became quite wealthy, until the Second World War changed the face of Europe forever.
After the War
The Zwack liquor factory was destroyed in the Second World War, and most of the Zwack family, being of noble descent, had to flee the country and emigrated to the USA. They left behind a false recipe, and Unicum was made in Hungary according to this intentional deception for over 30 years. Béla Zwack fled to Italy in 1950, and established a liquor factory there, where he made Zwack Unicum in its original form. The family returned to Hungary in 1989, and started making the original Unicum again, much to the delight of Hungarians everywhere.