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Weekend Cocktail: Meet Unicum, The National Drink Of Hungary

Our drink master recently drank his way through Europe. Here, he visits Hungary and tries Unicum.

BUDAPEST, Hungary — My wife and I arrived in Budapest a few days ago on the wings of Swiss Air, after a remarkably pleasant flight that was delayed only slightly by a mechanical issue in Zurich. Strangely, unlike on similarly-delayed regional flights in America, one isn’t treated like a potentially dangerous lunatic for requesting basic necessities such as water. This helped ease the tension considerably. It also helped that the flight attendants did not prevent anyone from using the lavatory. What might have been a horror story was actually a good chance to catch a nap or read a book, absent the usual anxieties of sitting on the tarmac.

Upon our eventual arrival in Hungary I was immediately struck by an odd familiarity to the place. Despite my complete lack of any but the most rudimentary Hungarian (“Beszel angolool?” was a phrase I learned very well), the people were almost universally friendly and helpful, which put me in mind of folks back home in the South. We had no trouble getting a cab to our hotel from the airport, and on the drive into the city I began to notice that the general appearance and pace of the city also reminded me of home. Something about the summer vegetation, maybe, and the semi-rural, semi-industrial outskirts of the big city that we passed reminded me strongly of my part of Virginia, although the roads were certainly better.

Consequently, I was somewhat more at ease despite being in a foreign land thousands of miles away from home. As we drove into the Pest side of the city, we were treated to a glimpse of some of the magnificent architecture that graces the skyline. Happily, the Boscolo Budapest, our lodging for the week, turned out to be similarly impressive. It was recently remodeled into a luxurious, world-class hotel, and the staff take justifiable pride in the quality service they provide.

As I said, Budapest seemed familiar in some ways, but other aspects of life there were more difficult to grasp. Tipping was somewhat fraught. We learned (within the first hour of our arrival) that your bartender expects no tip. However, a restaurant will typically fold a service fee into your bill. We read in a travel guide that medical staff also expect to be tipped, but thankfully did not have an opportunity to learn this firsthand. The Hungarian forint is not nearly as strong as the dollar, and so I was routinely astounded at the cost for things like beer—a half-liter of good beer will run you 500-800 forints depending on the establishment, which translates to about $2. It’s better to use the local currency than the Euro, which they have not fully adopted.

We spent a few days touring, either walking or taking the (very clean) Metro. On our first morning there we took in the impressive Heroes Square, visited the City Park, and had a relaxing soak at the Szecheny baths. The next day we ascended the Castle Hill in Buda and saw the incredible and imposing Matthias Church, site of a minor miracle when the city was retaken from the Ottomans in 1686. Budapest is a city of grand architecture, and one of the most striking elements is the use of multicolored tile on the roofs of several buildings, Matthias Church being one, the Museum of Applied Arts another.

An Ethnic Birthday Treat

On the 31st, my wife’s [redacted]th birthday, we went to Mass at St. Istvan’s Basilica and gamely attempted to sing Hungarian hymns as we followed along with the rest of the liturgy. The Basilica is truly a monument to God, and to the first king of Hungary. Off in a side chapel, one can view a relic of the saint—his Holy Dexter, or right hand. A 200-forint piece will light up the reliquary so you can get a few good photos.

After Mass, the rest of the day was spent doing just as my wife pleased, which mostly involved shopping and tracking down a vendor who sold Kürtőskalács, a sugar-crusted dough wrapped around a spindle and toasted over charcoal, then dusted with flavoring. That accomplished, we retired to the hotel for a rest before enjoying a four-course meal at Costes, which was easily the most expensive (and creative, and modern, and amazing) place we ate while we were in Budapest.

I can’t stress enough how fine a time we had in the city. As I write, we are on the train to Vienna for the next leg of our journey, and since I have done no research whatsoever in preparation for this trip (that was Rachel’s job) I can only guess at what’s to come.

But enough about how fancy and fabulous my life is. I know what my readers really want, and that’s the inside track on the drink situation. Thankfully, I was able to do some fairly extensive research on that while I was in the city, and would like to introduce you to a Hungarian liqueur of some renown: Unicum.

A Taste of Unicum

Invented by the court physician in 1790 as a digestive aid for Holy Roman Emperor Josef II (who cried, “Das ist ein unikum!” upon tasting it), Unicum is regarded as one of the national drinks of Hungary. With a secret formula including 40-odd herbs—passed down in the Zwack family from the beginning—it has a rich history and is sometimes referred to as the “Hungarian National Accelerator.” When taken as a shot between beers, that name is entirely appropriate.

For the longest time it wasn’t easy to find the classic version of Unicum in the States. The Communists had a little something to do with that, but later on the reason was that the distributor Diageo concluded that Americans would probably prefer the taste of their sweeter product, Unicum Next. They also thought Americans wouldn’t be keen to buy a drink with the word “cum” in the name, which just goes to show you that the world continues to underestimate our capacity for juvenile amusements. It’s still not common, but with the resurgence in craft cocktails it is becoming more appreciated and U.S. distribution resumed in 2013.

Since I was in Budapest, I had no difficulty tracking it down. I ducked into a bargain liquor store and, despite my lamentable Hungarian, procured one of the distinctive bomb-shaped bottles.

The first thing you notice about it is a color like tea that has steeped too long. The secret ingredients lend it a distinct aroma, strongly reminiscent of Campari but more medicinal, astringent, and alcoholic.

Unicum’s taste is sometimes compared to Fernet Branca or Averna. Taken as a shot, there’s a certain progression. First comes a sweet, cinnamon, orange, and herbaceous flavor that coats the mouth and quickly gives way to a mild burn. Then, intense bitterness comes through to kick you in the teeth. The bitterness lingers long after the drink is gone, but flattens to leave you with a vaguely antiseptic aftertaste. Swirling through it all is a vague sort of woodiness, both from the oak it is aged in and what seems to be pine.

It’s actually not bad, but will certainly not be to everyone’s liking. If ingested between beers, I can imagine it makes even the hoppiest brew taste sweet by comparison. In the final estimation it possesses a unique taste, a storied past, and indeed functions as an admirable digestif—which would no doubt please that long-ago Imperial physician.


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