Unicum® Bitters is from Hungary. It is a very black-coloured syrup sold in a round, 500 ml bottle with a red circle and a cross on it.
It can be served as an aperitif or as a digestif, served chilled or room temperature.
It is made from 40 herbs (the recipe is secret.) Some of the ingredients are allowed to steep for a month, others are distilled, They are then blended, and aged 6 months in oak casks.
Unicum Bitters is owned (as of 2007) by the Zwack family.
There is now a milder version of the bitters called “Unicum Next”, in which they’ve toned down the bitterness, and brought forward a citrus taste, This version is best served very cold.
The recipe for Unicum Bitters was reputedly developed in 1790 by a man named Zwack, who was physician to Joseph II, Emperor of the Austrian Empire.
In 1840, it began to be produced commercially in Pest by a József Zwack, aged 20, who called his company J. Zwack és Társa. The company made other alcoholic tipples in addition to Unicum, but Unicum was the flagship product.
In 1915, Lajos Zwack, son of József, took over the factory, with his two sons, Janos and Bela. The Zwack factory was pretty much obliterated by bombing during the Second World War. From 1945 to 1947, during a series of coalition governments dominated by Communist rule, Janos and Bela rebuilt their factory. In 1948, though, when Hungary officially became exclusively a communist state, the business was assumed by the State, as well as their home. Janos Zwack left the country, with the original secret recipe in his jacket in 1948, and came to America with his family including son Peter. His brother Bela stayed behind, but eventually left in 1955.
The communists nationalized the factory and made a version of Unicum during the communist years, but it wasn’t the exact original recipe. The communist version was sweeter.
The Zwack original version was made by some members of the Zwack family in a factory near Milan from the 1970s through to 2000, In 1970, Peter Zwack, son of Janos, moved to Italy, and joined the family business in 1972. He lived in Bolgheri, a village on the Tuscan coast of Italy. In 1988, Peter came back to Hungary and started production again using the original family recipe. The business is now 50% owned by Peter Zwack and Emil Underberg (of the Underberg Bitters family), 24% owned by Diageo, with the rest owned by various shareholders.
Children such as Izabella (born c. 1977) are now moving up into the business.
“Unicum” means “unique” in German.