Hungary has a national drink, and it is Zwack Unicum, an herbal liquor, and I wish that was what I was writing about, but it is apparently not available in the US. No, instead I will be writing about the version that is available domestically, produced for the American market, which is sweeter and has a citrus quality. I presume the Budapest-based company tried some American hobo wines and decided that this must be what Americans like, and, honestly, they are not far wrong. We do like sweet drinks with a hint of citrus.
The American Zwack is amber colored, easy to drink, and herbal without being medicinal. It's not typically associated with Jews, but it should be. It was, after all, invented by a Jew.
Specifically, Zwack was created by Dr. József Zwack, the Royal Physician to the Habsburg Court, for Emperor Joseph II in 1790. Weirdly, this is a fact that I only really find online on White supremacist websites, who always seem to keep tabs on businesses with Jewish origins for presumably nefarious purposes. There is an interview with one of Zwack's heirs on the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation's website that confirms his Jewish ancestry, although the heir's immediate family converted to Catholicism in the early 20th century.
There is a terrific Washington Post story about this heir, Peter, and his decision to bring Zwack liquor back to Hungary after the Second World War on the Washington Post from 1990, and while it doesn't much discuss József Zwack, it does paint a marvelous picture of the Zwack family prior to the war:
The Zwack family, "predominantly Jewish merchant aristocrats" — though Peter Zwack was born a Catholic — was part of a group of Jewish intellectuals, artists and supporters of both who planted and tended the Austro-Hungarian blumenzeit (the blooming time) at the turn of the century and again between World War I and World War II.As the story details, Zwack disappeared in Hungary during the war, its factories destroyed, its family fled to America, and after the war the drink was nationalized by the Communists, although with a substitute recipe, as the Zwack family brought the original recipe to America with them (literally secreted in Peter Zwack's pocket).
Zwack likes to tell about his father, John, who before World War II wore only silk shirts and sent them to Switzerland to be cleaned. The senior Zwack subscribed to three opera seats so he'd have elbow room during the performances.
Those were the days when the family owned two castles, one near Budapest, the other in the south of Hungary; a town house, now the Turkish Embassy, on Castle Hill, the aristocratic section of the Hungarian capital; 12,000 acres of land; and the factory that produced Unicum liqueur, the never-empty bottle from which all this wealth flowed.
The drink was originally conceived as a cure for indigestion, and it is still often drunk as a digestif, after a meal to aid indigestion. Although, as I mentioned, the American version is sweeter than the original, it is still possible to taste the drink's carminative herbs, which have a bracing bitterness to them; if you have ever drunk the Italian amaro liqueur, the flavor will be familiar.
So put on your freshly Swiss-cleaned silk shirt, buy three tickets for the opera, and enjoy a Hungarian meal of sour cherry soup, beloved by Hungary's Jews, before capping it off with some Zwack to aid indigestion. We can't all be Budapest Jewish merchant aristocrats, but we can all live like one.