A big bottle of Unicum Riserva
A big bottle of Unicum Riserva

Unicum, the bitter healing liquor of Hungary

It’s bitter, contains more than 40 herbs and has a film-like history.


When it comes to fun, Hungarians know the drill. Budapest offers countless alternatives whether you’re planning to stay sober and visit one of the many escape rooms or spice up the night with a ruin pub crawl. If you’d rather stay on the tipsy side, you can visit a rooftop bar, go wine tasting, or get a taste of Hungary’s (in)famous spirit, pálinka. However, not many know that Hungarians have another magnificent national drink that started its career as a medicine back in 1790. Read on if you’d like to know Unicum a little bit “bitter”!

The film-like history of Unicum

It all started with an indigestion problem Habsburg ruler Joseph II experienced in 1790. Luckily, Dr. Zwack, royal physician to the Imperial Court came to the rescue and created an herbal remedy to help the Holy Roman Emperor ingest. In the following decades, the unique elixir spread in popularity until József Zwack, a venturesome descendant of the doctor founded the famous Unicum Company named “Zwack” in 1840. The next milestone for the product was in 1983 when the drink was registered as a “liquor to protect the strength of the stomach, marketed under the name Unicum”, made according to a recipe from 1790, and poured in the original round bottle with a red cross on its label. By 1895, Zwack was producing more than 200 liquors and spirits and was proudly exporting them from the distillery that is still in use today. To this day, the company receives the title of High Representative Imperial and Royal Court Supplier. In 1909, one of the best-known icons of the company, the “wet man”, was created by Viktor Pachl for a poster. 

Unicum posters through the years
Unicum posters through the years

The global crisis of 1920s and ‘30s didn’t spare the Zwack company either. Not only did the domestic market shrink, but exports started to decline as well due to the alcohol ban in the US. To balance this out and take advantage of production capacities, they started manufacturing incandescent and fluorescent lamps. During World War II, Budapest was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Europe, and among the huge losses the city suffered was the Zwack factory getting destroyed to the ground. By the time it was fully restored to its pre-war condition, the factory was nationalized by the communists in 1948 without any compensation. János Zwack, who fled to the United States, later learnt that his family name was still in use: the nationalized company continued to export Unicum from Budapest under the name Zwack. After filing a lawsuit against the Hungarian state, he won an unprecedented victory: the socialist, state-owned company was not allowed to use the name Zwack or Unicum anymore. 

Gift box of Unicum
Gift box of Unicum

The other Zwack, Péter, didn’t stop there, he went straight to Jim Beam to sign a deal for selling vodka, gin, and slivovitz to keep the brand alive. But they didn’t give up on Hungary either! Péter returned to his homeland and partnered up with German liquor manufacturer Emil Underberg to establish Peter Zwack & Consorten AG and create a joint venture with the still state-owned Budapest Liquor Company. After the end of the socialist regime, in 1992, they repurchased the company from the state as part of a privatization program and established Zwack Unicum, the company we know today. 

The tasty products of Unicum

Beside the flagship product made according to the secret formula of more than forty herbs, they offer Unicum Szilva, Unicum Riserva and Unicum Barista. Szilva translates to ‘plum’, so, as you would expect, it’s rested on prunes and then matured in oak barrels to achieve a light, harmonious, and fruity flavor. Unicum Riserva, dubbed the company’s ‘super premium herb liquor’, is produced using a unique double-barrel aging process. The liquor is first matured in 80-year-old barrels, then transferred to barrels from Tokaj cellars, which gives the drink some roundness, softness, and the unmatched character of Tokaj. And finally, Unicum Barista is made using Arabica coffee, combining the tradition of bitter liquor and coffee consumption. 

Unicum in different sizes but the same shape
Unicum in different sizes but the same shape

A few tips to spice up your Unicum experience

We’re not trying to sell you a pig in a poke: Unicum might not be for everyone. It’s very bitter and strong, so not your usual, easy-going type of shot. But do not worry, we have a few long drink and cocktail recommendations with Unicum in the focus. First and most simple, spice it up with some tonic and ice to have an amazing bitter long drink.  For a more delicate taste, there’s Zwack & Soda with 40 ml of Unicum Szilva, 20 ml lime juice and 15 ml of sugar syrup. Top it with a few slices of lime and lemon to make it tempting for the eye as well. You probably heard of Old Fashioned, but what’s up with Riserva Fashioned? As you may already suspect, it’s the same as it’s well-known brother but with Unicum Riserva instead of bourbon. The list could go on and on, but it’s best if you visit the Unicum’s official website and find your favorite combination yourself. 

A good looking Zwack & Soda
A good looking Zwack & Soda

If you’d like to hear their story with visual additions and try their products at the same time, visit the Zwack Museum in Budapest! It has earned a spot in our Top 100 things to see in Budapest article, so we wouldn’t miss it!

Q & A

What’s Hungary’s national short drink?
It’s definitely pálinka, but if you’d like to try something else, Unicum is another famous Hungarian liquor. It includes more than 40 herbs, so it counted as a medicine for a hundred years. It’s quite bitter, but fortune favors the brave!
What is Unicum?
It’s a signature Hungarian liquor that includes more than 40 herbs and has a characteristic bitter flavor. Its history goes back to 1790 and was used as medicine for nearly 100 years!
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