Jewish cuisine has never been known to center heavily around alcohol. Manischewitz is — for better or worse — what likely comes to mind when it comes to Jews and drinking. The sweet kosher wine is the gefilte fish of booze — Jews either love it or hate it. But in Hungary, there is a different and much beloved Jewish drink to try. It goes by the name of Zwack Unicum.
An unicum is a Hungarian digestif that is usually enjoyed after a meal, although it’s not uncommon for drinkers to sip it on its own. Sometimes compared to Jägermeister, it’s known for its slightly sweet flavor mixed with more than 40 kinds of herbs and spices. It is often consumed as one shot, but some prefer sipping it slowly on its own or on the rocks. If you’re really going to town, you can mix it with an energy drink to make a concoction called the “Mad Hungarian.”
The digestif goes back to the year 1790, when Dr. József Zwack, a royal physician to the Imperial Court of Joseph II, poured the monarch a sip of his liqueur to help with his indigestion. After taking a zip, Joseph II proclaimed, “Das ist ein unikum!” or essentially, “Now that’s an Unicum!” And so the Zwack name became inseparable from the unicum as news of his digestif spread outside the walls of the royal court.
But it wasn’t until 1840 that a descendant of Dr. Zwack set up the first Zwack factory. His name was Jozsef Zwack, better known as “The General” who led the fledgling company for decades to come, even into his nineties.
The present day Zwack distillery and headquarters was built in 1892 on the banks of the Danube in Budapest and has since become one of the dominant distilleries in Central Europe. It has sold over 200 different liqueurs and spirits with exports reaching all corners of the globe, including the United States.
The Zwack family was Jewish. Brigitta Szakács from the Zwack Museum’s Visitor’s Centre explained that the family converted to Christianity in 1917. But in World War II, they were still seen as Jews by origin and thus were persecuted. The distillery was bombed by Allied air raids on April 3, 1944.
“The plant is believed to have been looted by the retreating Germans, while the Soviet soldiers used the barrels to make pontoon bridges across the Danube,” she said. “The Zwack family was hiding in a family cellar on Gellert Hill.”
János Zwack, co-owner of the distillery with his brother Béla, and his wife Vera were good friends of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who went on to save hundreds of Jews from deportation.
“Wallenberg himself had his office on the floor above the cellar where the family was hiding,” Szakács explained. “Wallenberg saved many Jews by issuing Swedish Free Passes, including passes to members of the Zwack family.”
After the war, the Zwack family returned and brought the distillery back to its pre-war status by 1948 — just in time for the new communist state to confiscate it without compensation. After the fall of communism, the Zwack family was able to get the distillery back once and for all in 1992. To this day in Hungary, Zwack Unicum remains a highly popular, unique and slightly bitter liquor with distinctly Jewish roots.