150 Years of History in a Shot Glass

150 Years of History in a Shot Glass

As with so many things Hungarian, the country’s best-loved liqueur has a storied, and dark, past. It’s history begins in 18th century Vienna, at the imperial court of Joseph II. A Jewish court doctor, Joszef Zwack, presented the ailing emperor with his herbal tonic, concocted as a cure for indigestion. Upon tasting it, the Emperor declared: “Das ist ein Unikum!” (this is unique), giving the drink its name: Unicum. 

The first taste of this dark, pungent liqueur normally elicits a similar, albeit less polite, reaction from most who try it. Yet, in Hungary, the drink has an almost mythological status. It's ubiquitous across the country, drunk as a digestif, aperitif, and cure-all in equal measure. 

Its story, beginning at the heights of Hapsburg society, mirrors some of Hungary’s most dramatic historical episodes over the past century and a half.

The story of Unicum begins in 1790 when Joszef Zwack invented the drink, distilling more than forty different herbs and spices, in order to cure the emperor’s indigestion. The secret formula became a commercial proposition in 1840 when Dr. Zwack’s descendant, another Joszef Zwack, opened a distillery on the Pest side of Pest-Buda. The Zwack Company mass produced and sold Dr Zwack’s formula as Zwack Unicum. 

The company, buoyed by the success of its flagship liqueur, grew rapidly, producing over two hundred different liquors and brandies. Their reputation for quality grew to the point where, in 1895, Zwack was named the sole supplier of spirits to the Hapsburg court in Vienna. The Zwack family’s success echoed the atmosphere of Jewish entrepreneurship and bourgeois accomplishment in later nineteenth century Hungary.  

Middle-class development in Hungary could easily have been led by the large, educated, and mostly landless petty gentry. Because of their noble status, however, the “sandaled nobility” preferred to leave the trials of the marketplace to other nationalities: primarily Jews and Germans.

Many Jews had worked in professions, much like Dr. Zwack, and owned significant capital but no real property. After emancipation in 1848 and 1867 they could now invest in new credit institutions and businesses, like the Zwack distillery. Jews came to dominate urban entrepreneurship in Hungary and led the growth of Hungary’s emerging middle class.

As with so many other Hungarian Jewish families who succeeded in business, the Zwacks eventually converted to Catholicism in 1917. Despite their conversion to Catholicism, the Zwack family was classified as Jewish by Hungarian Arrow-Cross Fascists after 1944.

Saved from Auschwitz by the efforts of Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, they were unable to prevent the destruction of the family distillery during the bloody siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944-5. From 1945 to 1948 the Zwack distillery was rebuilt at great expense.

At the same time, the Hungarian Communist Party grew steadily more powerful. Under General Secretary Matyas Rakosi, the communists came to occupy key government posts. In 1948 the communists forced a merger with the remaining social democratic opposition and took power in Hungary. 

Stalinist central planning was rapidly applied to the Hungarian economy.  In 1949 all factories employing more than ten workers were nationalized. All told, more than 800 industrial and commercial enterprises, including the Zwack distillery, were taken over by the state.

With Stalinist economics came Stalinist terror. Facing political repression and widespread nationalization, many Hungarians, especially the economic and political elite, fled to Western Europe and the United States. Most of the Zwack family, having lost their family business, went to Italy and America. Janos Zwack took the family recipe with him to New York where it resided until 1989.

As the Zwack family began rebuilding their name in the West, the communists resumed production in the old Zwack distillery, using a different formula lacking about 20 herbs, which they sold as Zwack Unicum. In the summer of 1956, Janos Zwack sued the American distributors of the government produced Unicum. US courts ruled that the use of the Zwack name on the bottles was illegal as the distillery had been nationalized “by coercion and duress.” 

Though government Unicum continued to be produced, it could no longer be sold as Zwack Unicum in America. In their exile, the Zwack family had to give up their property and livelihoods and make a new life in the west. By fighting to preserve their family’s role in Unicum, the Zwacks maintained a link with Hungary. When communist rule ended, that link would bring them back to Budapest, this time as part of a new generation of post-communist entrepreneurs. 

Even before the fall of Hungary’s communist government in 1989 certain sectors of the economy had begun to privatize. As early as 1988 the Hungarian government began selling state assets to investors, usually with foreign financial backing. 

Hungary originally had a leg up in its transition to market capitalism after ‘89. As a product of Janos Kadar’s consumerist ‘Goulash Communism’ Hungary already had a relatively decentralized economic system, comparatively advanced two-tier banking, and a pro-market legal framework.

After 1989 Hungary was the largest foreign direct investment (FDI) recipient of the ‘Visegrad 4’ economies: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Backed up by capital accrued in the west, Janos Zwack’s son Peter returned to Hungary in 1988. He bought back the company and the old family distillery in 1989 and immediately resumed production using the old formula.

Hungary’s, privatization was relatively orderly and well regulated. That orderly privatization, however, relied almost totally on foreign capital. After 1991 more than 28,000 state owned companies were sold. Of those companies, roughly 20% went directly to foreign investors, and even more to Hungarians like Peter Zwack who had secured foreign backing.

Since its return to Hungary, the Zwack Company has continued to grow. By 2010, two years before Peter Zwack’s death, the family business was the 186th largest company in Hungary. Peter Zwack himself was the 29th richest man in the country. 

Hungarians take their Unicum very seriously. The only person outside the Zwack family who has access to the secret formula is the Bishop of Esztergom, the most important catholic hierarch in the country. The Bishop is under strict instruction to release the formula only once everyone in the family has died.

Somehow this drink, very much an acquired taste, has become inextricably linked to Hungary. The fortunes of the Zwack family have risen and fallen with their country. Born around Hungary’s 19th century golden age, the family business reaped the rewards of Jewish emancipation only to suffer the trials of Hungary’s painful twentieth century. Forced from their homes with little more than Dr. Zwack’s formula, they kept the family name, and their flagship liqueur, alive. When the opportunity to return came, the Zwacks, like so many other Hungarian families, started the painful process of reconstruction.  Through their work they have restored to Hungary not just a popular brand but something deeply connected to its history. 

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