The Zwack Unicum history - Unicum liqueur produktion, ingredients

Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary was first offered a sip of the herbal digestive in 1790 by Dr. Zwack, Royal Physician to the Imperial Court.


Legend would
have it that the royal
comment was the following:
‘Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unikum’,
giving this unique liqueur
its name.


József Zwack founded the first Zwack Co.


He was to
become a legend in the
trade and led the Company
well into his nineties. He was considered
a pioneer as he was the first to use
natural ingredients in the
production of liqueurs
and spirits.


It was on May 22, that the herb liqueur under the name “Unicum”, made according to the secret recipe dating back to 1790, was officially registered under the number: 805-071 in the original round bottle with a red cross on its belly


From 1899 a great
sum had to be paid to the
Red Cross Fund by the Zwack Co.
for permission to use the Red Cross
on the label.
After 1922 the cross was
changed to a gold cross on a red
background as it has remained
to this day.


By 1892 the production site proved too small. The Company built its present distillery on Soroksári Road in the 9th district near the Danube.


This is the center
of Zwack Unicum and
the production also takes
place here. By 2004 the buildings
had been renovated and the
distillery today looks much
as did in those
early years.


The Zwack Company was awarded the coveted title of Sole Purveyors to the Imperial and Royal Court of Emperor Franz Josef.


The Zwack Company
was one of the leading
distilleries in Central Europe,
exporting all over the world including
to the USA. Our products were
receiving many international
awards and gold


The most successful Zwack poster of all time is – the Drowning or Water Man, created by Viktor Pachl. This is the most universally recognized Unicum icon advertising the “best herb liqueur”.


advertisements are
always designed to be
witty yet easily understandable.
Over the decades this poster has
become a cult in Hungary, often
used in satire and caricature
with political figuresfeatured
as the Drowning Man.


By 1926, Zwack Lajos’s sons, Béla Zwack and János Zwack, had both joined the Company. While Béla was involved in production technology and product development, János managed the marketing and export departments.


But the brothers
disagreed on just about
everything, even football teams,
but they both contributed much
to the fortunes of the Company
which continued to flourish
between the two World Wars.


The depression of the late 20′s, early 30′s also affected the Company. The market for luxury products decreased. Prohibition in the USA reduced the export market. To make up for the deficit and utilize production space, we started manufacturing light bulbs, strip lighting.


As a result,
the very first neon
advertisements of the
country, the Zwack neon
advertisements for Unicum
were to light up the streets
and squares of Budapest.


WW II. had devastating consequences for Hungary and the Zwack distillery. Budapest was one of the worst bombed cities in Europe. The plant was destroyed. In 1945 the family started to work in two rooms in the midst of the rubble. They immediately began the work of rebuilding and modernization, and by the time it was restored to its pre-war status in 1948, the distillery was confiscated by the State without compensation.


In 1948 János Zwack put his
son on a train to the Yugoslav
border, as these were dangerous
times for Hungary’s industrial elite.
Péter Zwack finally arrived in Italy, later to be
joined by his father. János escaped with nothing
but the secret recipe for Unicum. Péter and his father
then sailed together for the USA. Béla and his wife, Dodo
chose to remain behind, and were deported to the
countryside as class enemies. When at last they
were allowed to leave, they went to Italy where
they began producing Unicum in exile.


When János Zwack arrived in the USA he discovered that the Communist State-run company was still exporting products to the USA under the Zwack name. He filed a court case against the importers and the government to retain the right to his family trademarks. In the end he succeeded: in a precedent-setting ruling the State-run company was no longer allowed to use the name Unicum or Zwack in the West.


János Zwack
did not live to enjoy
the success as he and Béla
both died within two
weeks of each
other in 1958.


In the Sixties, Péter lived first in Chicago and then in New York City with his first wife, Iris, and the five children from their marriage: Péter, Gioia, Alexa, Iris and Jancsi.


Péter Zwack – having worked for leading American spirits companies for years, including wine importers where he was instrumental with Alexis Lichine, the father of American wine-culture in launching estate bottled wines in the USA – returned to Europe to follow the production and marketing of Unicum in Italy.


At that time, Péter’s
second wife, Anne Marshall,
also participated in public relations
for Unicum which had become a very
popular drink produced under
licence in Italy. They worked
with the major spirits
company in Genoa
distributing the brand.


Péter Zwack returned to Hungary and then, together with his partner, Emil Underberg of the German spirits dynasty, formed Péter Zwack und Consorten AG and later they entered into a joint venture with the State-run distillery.


Peter’s wife and their
two children Sándor and Izabella
also came with him to Hungary.
“I was one of the last to leave,
and today I am one of
the first to return,”
Péter is quoted
as saying then.


In 1992 Zwack Unicum Plc. was founded when the partners submitted a successful bid during the privatization process and were thus able to buy back the enterprise from the State. In 1993 the company went on the Budapest Stock Exchange.


In 1993,
26% of the
Zwack Company
shares were acquired
by the great multinational
spirits company, the IDV which
later merged with UDG
to become the present


In 2004, under the aegis of Sándor and Izabella, the Company developed Unicum Next as the drink of the next generation. This easy-to-drink herb liqueur is exported under the name Zwack Liqueur.


It is made
in the same way
as Unicum but the bitter
herbs are reduced and the
citrus character is enhanced
making Next a refreshing
herb liqueur.


In 2008, after 20 years as Chairman of the Board, Péter Zwack passed the baton to his son, Sándor, while his daughter Izabella also became a member of the Board of Directors. In this way family tradition has continued into the sixth generation


Péter Zwack
never really retired:
he remained as Honorary Chairman,
taking an active part in the life
of the Company until
his death in 2012.


Unicum, this grand old brand has gathered momentum: both Unicum and Unicum Next acquiring a new look in 2009 while remaining rooted in tradition.


Zwack has
remained a dynamic
company in constant renewal
based on centuries of tradition
and professional endeavour. It should
not come as a surprise that Think Positive
is the Company slogan as this has
been the driving force behind
the Company’s


The Zwack Company launched a new herb liqueur again, the Unicum Plum. Unicum Plum is made exactly like the original Unicum, but it is the first herb liqueur in the world to be aged on flavorous plums in oak casks, that is why it is so special and unique.


The finest plums
are dried very carefully
to preserve the essence
of the fruit, giving this herb
liqueur its smooth velvety
taste and rounded


Péter Zwack in memoriam

Born: 21st May, 1927

Educated at the Cistercian Monks School
and the University of Budapest.

Spent the war hiding in a cellar.

Fled Communism in 1948.

Sailed with his father to the United States in1950.

Worked in the spirits business for twenty years.

Campaigned to raise funds for Hungarian refugees in 1956.

Married Iris Rogers and had five children: Péter, Gioia, Alexa, Iris and Jancsi.

Returned to Europe in 1970.

Married Anne Marshall in 1973 and had two children, Sándor and Izabella.

Came home to Hungary in 1987 and with his partner, Emil Underberg, bought back the Unicum Distillery from the State in 1992.

Was nominated Ambassador of Hungary to the United States in 1991.

Chairman of the Board of Zwack Unicum for almost two decades. Member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1994 to 1998.

Honorary Citizen of Budapest, Hungarian Republic’s Order of Merit, Cavaliere della Repubblica Italiana.

Died in Italy, August 5th 2012.


Distilled from over forty herbs, Unicum is one of the oldest herb liqueurs in Europe.  The way of production and the secret recipe has remained the same since Unicum was invented in 1790 and after six generations is still in the Zwack family. The recipe’s only copy is entrusted for safekeeping to the Archdiocese of Pannonhalma. Now we reveal some of the secrets.


The majority of the herbs, and spices used in Unicum comes from the Carpathian basin, but ingredients are also imported from Morocco, China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Americas and Australia. The herbs are measured by hand to this day, while   some special ingredients, known as the „heart” of Unicum, are personally weighed out by a family member, currently by Péter Zwack’s widow, Anne Marshall Zwack.


The 2 ways of extracting flavour/fragrance is maceration and distillation. In the case of Unicum half the herbs are macerated, the others are distilled. Sometimes the same herb is used in maceration and distillation. During maceration, the herbs are immersed in corn alcohol, a process that gives intensive, rich taste to the drink.


There are some herbs which release their fragrance much better through the so called distillation. The special equipment used in this process has essentially remained the same, just like the treasured recipe, the secret of producing Unicum, since this liqueur was invented. It is the distillation process which gives Unicum its inimitable bouquet.


The macerated and distilled herbs are then blended together in a traditional wooden vat. To ensure that the Unicum should be consistent in quality, the Master Distiller together with a Tasting committee, headed by a member of the family, frequently taste the Unicum from the vat.


Ageing in oak casks confers on Unicum the final complexities in taste and bouquet.  Unicum has been aged in oak ever since it was invented in 1790. In a labyrinth of cellars running under the Soroksári Road distillery Unicum today is aged in 500 oak casks.