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For Unwelcome Guests, This Drink is as Good as a Molotov Cocktail

If you were a Hungarian, you would not be asking me. Instead, you would be rinsing the glass with an evil glee itching to serve him your national drink – Unicum Zwack, a bitter liqueur.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:September 17, 2017, 10:39 AM IST
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For Unwelcome Guests, This Drink is as Good as a Molotov Cocktail
In 1840 József Zwack founded the J. Zwack & Co., and went official; he became the first Hungarian liqueur manufacturer. (Photo: unicum.hu)
News18 Tippling Point Imagine you are at home, busy, working against a deadline; you don’t have time for any s**t.

A bore rings you up and announces he is on his way to your home to spend the whole day with you. Poof! You are bombed! Is there anything in the world which would drive him away?

If you were a Hungarian, you would not be asking me. Instead, you would be rinsing the glass with an evil glee itching to serve him your national drink – Unicum Zwack, a bitter liqueur.

How could a drink deal a bore!

(Be patient. Before I tell you let us take a flashback to the 18th Century Budapest, Hungary).

“Das est ein Unicum!”

Cried Emperor Joseph II of Austro-Hungarian Emperor, soon after he was served with the potion. A few minutes ago he was crying on the same bed, not this excitedly as you just heard him now, but reeling under severe stomach cramps and he wanted some bloody drug that would allay his pain.

Remember. The year was 1790. The doctor was the court apothecary Joszef Zwack. The patient, the Emperor himself.

Zwack had only one medicine with him, untested yet – a soup of 40 different herbs steeped in alcohol. Undaunted, he ladled it into a glass. The Emperor had no other option but to quaff it in one go.

“Das est ein Unicum! This is unique!” cried the Emperor.”

Zwack nodded as he saw his magic potion work and decided then and there what name he should call his new drink with – Unicum.

It got stuck.

In 1840 József Zwack founded the J. Zwack & Co., and went official; he became the first Hungarian liqueur manufacturer. By the turn of the century the company had become the leading distillery in central Europe producing more than 200 liqueurs and spirits other than Unicum.

All was sunshine for the Zwack family until the Second World War when Budapest came under siege. One of the first targets of the enemies as they barged into the town was the Zwack distillery and they razed it to the ground.

After the war Unicum struggled to rise from the ashes but its face fell as it caught at a distance on the long and dusty road, the Russian tanks rumbling in.

The new socialist regime in Hungary had little sympathy for private entrepreneurs like the Zwacks. At that time brothers Janos Zwack and Bela Zwack, grandchildren of Jozsef were running the Unicum business. Just before orders came to take over the distillery, Janos fled to the US with his son Peter.

He had one more thing with him – the secret recipe of Unicum.

But, Bela, who also knew the recipe, stayed behind and welcomed the Russians. Do you have the recipe? They asked. Yes.

Hungary continued to produce Unicum even without the help of a family who ran away to the US with the secret recipe. But few knew one thing – the recipe Bela gave the Russians was fake. Communist Hungary was taken for a ride for they were not making the real Unicum.

The original recipe was now safe in a bank locker in New York.

Who bothered!

If you think that the Zwack family had the last laugh over the matter you are mistaken. Soon they found themselves laughing with the other side of their mouth. Unicum , fake or original, was still a hit in Hungary!

People with weak memory of taste continued to associate the name with the old drink. When Peter Zwack came back from the US forty years later to claim back his old distillery at Budapest, he found to his shock that his country had already warmed itself to the fake drink. It took quite some effort to woo them back to the original Unicum, Peter later said.

Imagine the pain behind building a drink with forty different herbs! What a symphony at the end!

Unicum is like a castle of cards. You pull one ingredient off, the whole drink would collapse bringing down its unique taste. The drink is meticulously prepared under the supervision of the Zwack family. Some herbs and spices are distilled, some are macerated, then blended together and are aged in oak casks for six months.

Except for the immediate family only one other person holds the key to the recipe – the bishop of Esztergom. The world should not lose if something happens to the whole family…

One of the unique selling points of Unicum is the shape of its bottles.

During the resistance movements, students used bottles of Unicum as molatov bombs to be fired at the Russian tanks. More. In countrysides people used to adorn the walls inside their homes with posters of Unicum which depict an almost drowned man finding his saviour in a bottle of his national drink floating towards him.

What a symbol for national resistance and freedom!

Unicum is usually enjoyed as a shot to be enjoyed at room temperature. Use ice you spoil it. Some use it as an aperitif and also as an accompaniment to beer. When you pay a visit to a Hungarian friend’s home he would ceremoniously pull out a bottle of Unicum to treat you.

And it’s time babe, to run!

Unikum has an acquired taste. Many swear that it tastes like battery-acid wedded to rusted iron. You need someone to put a gun to your head to get back to the drink for a second time. People usually drink it to show their grit and manliness.

Now you know how to deal a bore. Go Hungarian. Pull out a bottle of Unicum from the closet and welcome the guest with a smile.

A single shot of it would suddenly remind the guest of some other engagement he should be attending now.

If that fails think of those times when they used these bottles as molatov bombs.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
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