The House of Zwack produces a few great herbal liqueurs that fall into the digestif and amaro category. These spirits are flavorful, made from a secret recipe of 40 herbs and spices and the individual bottlings have unique characteristics within themselves.
The story of Zwack is a long one, beginning in 1790 with Dr. Jozsef Zwack and the ailing Emperor of Hungary, Joseph II. As with many liqueurs that date back a few centuries, this recipe was Zwack's medicinal remedy for the emperor and it was such a hit with the ruler that he reportedly said, "Dr. Zwack, Das ist ein Unicum!," meaning unique. It soon led to Budapest's first liquor producer, became a popular shot, and was known as the national drink of Hungary.
Today, the House of Zwack produces three bottlings that are available in the United States: Unicum, Zwack, and the newest, Unicum Plum. In 2013, Unicum and Unicum Plum were released in the United States. All three bottles look similar to one another, so be sure you are picking up the one you want.
Unicum is the original bitter liqueur from the House of Zwack, the one that Dr. Zwack concocted in 1790 and has pleasured the palates of Hungarians ever since. Given that heritage, and the claim that is the oldest shot in the world, this is one you may break out if you and your friends are up for a round of shots, though you may want to chill it first. It is rich, bitter, and has a bold herbal flavor and I found it great when chilled and sipped straight after dinner.
Actually, Unicum is not new to the United States, it was imported here on and off for about a decade prior to 2005, at which time Zwack was introduced and deemed a product Americans would enjoy more. However, we have found a renewed appreciation for all things bitter and herbal here and that is why Unicum is back. I predict that you will be seeing this more often in cocktail recipes in the near future. For now, try it in Zwack cocktails and in place of Averna and Strega in recipes that call for those herbal liqueurs to get a feel for it. Simplicity may be its best use and The Emperor cocktail below is a great place to begin mixing Unicum.
Zwack is rather well-known in the United States and is often compared to Jagermeister, with Zwack often being considered an gentler upgrade from Jagermeister's often notorious reputation. Zwack uses the same base recipe as Unicum, with a few of the ingredients adjusted. Notably, it is slightly sweeter, the bitters are reduced, and the citrus elements are enhanced. It is a wonderful bouquet of herbs and the citrus finish is rememberable.
Drinking Zwack is a matter of preference and some (including its producers) suggest drinking it as an ice-cold shot. I'm with a handful of other Zwack fans, and prefer it slipped slow and served on the rocks (an ice ball is perfect). If you are into the bomb shooters (e.g. Jager Bombs), you may want to drop Zwack into a glass filled with an energy drink for a drink called the Mad Hungarian. It is also seeing some use in cocktails and can be used as a substitute for other amaros and herbal liqueurs such for cocktails like Belle of the Ball and Happily Ever After. Depending on your taste, this could easily become your favorite digestif.
Unicum Plum is the newest liqueur in the House of Zwack portfolio and it is very interesting. It uses the Unicum recipe, but it spends six month in oak casks with a unique bed of dried plums, another Hungarian favorite. This marriage between a complex herbal spirit and the sweetened tones added by the plums is simply delightful.
This quickly became my favorite of the three to use in cocktails. It works wonders in most of the recipes mentioned above, and it is fantastic in whiskey cocktails, including The Diplomat below.
About House of Zwack Liqueurs
- Hungarian herbal liqueur first produced in 1790.
- Made with a secret blend of 40 herbs and spices and remains a Zwack family operation.
- Unicum (reintroduced) and Unicum released in U.S. in April 2013
- Retail for around $31.99/1 liter bottle
Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.