This is Emperor Joseph II of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the late 1700s. Actually, this is the actor Jeffrey Jones (also known as Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller) portraying Emperor Joseph II in the Oscar-winning film Amadeus. Dr. Jozsef Zwack was the personal physician of Joseph's Hapsburg Court and in 1790 he created an eponymous tonic as a liquid remedy for the Emperor. It is written in the Zwack history that, using more than forty different herbs and spices from all over the world, Dr. Zwack concocted the bitter liqueur and presented it to Joseph II, who took one sip and exclaimed, "Das ist ein Unicum!" (This is unique). Zwack Unicum was born and would eventually become the official drink of Hungary, drinking much like an Italian amaro – something in between Nonino Quintessentia and Fernet Branca.
There's a pretty incredible history behind Zwack that you can look up on their website. I'll give you the short version. The Zwack family eventually founded their recipe into an official business in 1840 and became Hungary's official beverage of choice (considered possibly the oldest "shot" in the world). The business thrived into the early 20th century until the Red Army began marching westward. When the communists came to Hungary, the Zwacks fled to the United States, taking their recipe with them and leaving a fake one behind for the new regime that wanted to nationalize the company. It's been said that the recipe itself is what got János and Péter Zwack off of Ellis Island and into New York. Peter would work in America until 1988 when, just before the fall of communism, he returned to Hungary and bought back his family's company from the state. His children Izabella and Sandor Zwack run the business today.
With 220 years under their belt, the Zwack family has quite the success story for booze business. There is one flaw in their fascinating history, however. When Zwack was first introduced into the U.S. market, they assumed (likely correctly) that the American palate wouldn't be ready for the intense bitterness of Zwack Unicum. Much like Kina-Lillet became Lillet (a quinine-free version of the aperitif), Zwack Unicum became simply Zwack – a sweeter, more-tolerable version of the famous elixir. The standard Zwack is delicious and mixes well in a number of cocktails. I enjoy it. The Unicum, however, is the more potent recipe that perked up the senses of Joseph II. Up until now, Americans who were interested in the real Unicum had to stuff their suitcases on a European vacation and haul it back themselves. Luckily for us, however, those days are now over. The real Unicum is finally available stateside. And it's wonderful.
I've been spending a lot of time with the Unicum since it's arrival here at K&L. Perhaps a bit too much time. We've been eating lunch together.
We've been hitting the streets in search of action.
I bring it to work in the morning, and I take it with me when I leave the office at night. Some people think it's a bit strange, but I can't help it. I'm totally obsessed with it. It's a full liter of herbaceous splendor.
To make matters worse, there's a Plum Unicum that's been released as well, which is the standard Unicum recipe aged for six months in oak casks on a bed of dried plums. As far as I know, it's the first barrel-aged herbal liqueur (not vermouth) on the market (I might be wrong about that) and it's totally decadent. I've had a tough time deciding which one to drink at night.
Maybe I should just drink both of them.