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Zwack Unicum and Family Legacy

I am fascinated by the story of Zwack Unicum. One of Hungary’s most prized national drinks, its signature bottle graces every bar in Budapest. 

The stories behind alcohol are often the stories of how our world was built. The old USAmerican judge with the jug of XXX white lightning on his stand, taking a nip when he needs it so as to remain impartial. How warming oneself up with liquor is called “booze jacket” in the US, and “chaqueta de vino” in Chile. The creation of beer to combat tiny intruders in the water.

These and so many others show us how the rivers of alcohol reflect human life, for better and for worse.

Zwack Unicum barrel

I try Zwack Unicum for the first time at the factory, grimacing at the eucalyptusy plum flavor at first. I overcome it and am immediately happy to find it not so sweet, and surprisingly health-forming. Going into the Zwack factory I have a head cold, coming out, I am cured.

Zwack Unicum Ingredients

The story goes back to the late 1700’s. A medical doctor for the Austro-Hungarian empire surprised his ward Emperor Joseph II with it as a tincture of medicinal herbs. The tale tells that at the taste he said “Das ist ein Unicum!” and that’s how Zwack Unicum got its name. 

It became the national liquor of Hungary, but then hard times befell. In the early 1900’s the Hungarian Jewish Zwack family converted to Christianity, but During World War II they were classified as Jewish. They were saved from the concentration camps by a Swedish diplomat. The Zwack factory was bombed to pieces, but that didn’t stop them. Zwack family kept production going as long as they could amidst the ruins of their factory. 

Zwack Unicum Factory

The Zwack family built it anew from nothing, but then after the war, a particularly brutal arm of Soviet communism nationalized (aka STOLE) the Zwack factory, and most of the Zwacks fled the country to the United States.

They settled in the Bronx, which gives me sweet feelings as my Jewish refugee ancestors settled in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

One of the Zwacks stayed in Hungary and gave a fake recipe to the government. He ended up working in the factory alongside his former employees.

Forty years later, just as the communist control of Eastern bloc countries was crumbling, Péter Zwack, great-grandson of the original creator of Zwack Unicum, returned to Hungary and started producing it again with the original recipe that he had kept safe in New York.  He then purchased his family business back from the Hungarian State, and re-introduced the original product to the Hungarian Market in 1990.

That same year, Péter Zwack was named Hungarian Ambassador to the United States. By this time he was an American citizen, and gave up his citizenship to take the post.

Twenty years later he handed over ownership of the company to his children, passing down the Zwack legacy. The great-great-grandkids of the original Royal Physician to the Habsburg Court, Dr. József Zwack, introduced Zwack Unicum to the American market as a kind gesture to pay back the US for providing refuge to the family.

Zwack Unicum process

I love that the story is so unique, and a beautiful expression of Jewish perseverance, Hungarian talent, and the American dream.

And now, a family story from my own family:

SS Anchoria

My paternal great-grandfather Aaron arrived in the United States aboard the S.S. Anchoria on March 12th 1888. The ship departed from Glasgow. No one knows how he got from Poland/Russia to Glasgow. His 2 year old son Herman arrived in the United States in 1890. His wife Eva made it to the US in 1892. This pattern shows the desperation: no one sends a two-year old alone on a trans-atlantic voyage voluntarily. 

It also shows that it took exactly two years of work in the United States to be able to afford passage for one family member.

My paternal great-grandparents lived in Harlem, which at the time had the third largest Jewish population in the world. Most of what are now considered black neighborhoods in New York were Jewish neighborhoods before. Non-Jewish white landlords would not rent or sell to black families, but the Jews would.

My great-grandparents were fleeing persecution and saw the Pogroms coming, and all of them made it to the United States. This is a similar story to my maternal grandparents. My maternal grandfather arrived in the United States from Russia on September 14, 1906, aboard the SS Smolensk. He was from what is now called Latvia, and given that date he must have known that the surrounding parts of the Russian Empire were actively persecuting Jews.

I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t run.

On February 25, 1910, my paternal great-grandfather made the front page of the New York Times. The story goes that he was trying to take the New York subway, but accidentally dropped his change (a dime) into the box where he was supposed to deposit his ticket. The staff told him that he would have his money returned once they finished taking tickets from everyone, but he demanded it be done immediately, holding up the train traffic and making a stink. He and his son (my great-uncle) Herman were therefore fined and jailed overnight. 

It took me a long time to see the coded racism in this article, but once it popped out, I can’t ignore it.

My great-grandfather wasn’t a tailor. Tailor was code for “Jew”.

He probably wasn’t making a stink or holding up the line, but this media story of Jewish stinginess was used to justify the treatment by law enforcement, the same way that the media today portrays young black men as thugs and is complicit in systemic injustice and brutality against black Americans.

In today’s dollars, the amount that he was fined was about $150, which for an immigrant family in 1910 was extraordinary. Did the cops (undoubtedly Irish, they all were at the time) beat him up after hauling him away?  How did Eva find out her husband and son had been arrested (presumably they hadn’t a telephone in 1910)? She must have been frantic when they didn’t come back from work

My paternal grandfather was born when my great-grandmother was 42 or 43 years old. They called him a “change of life baby”. Due to this and the short lifespan of Jewish refugees (both of my maternal grandparents were dead by the time my mother was 16 years old), by the time he came of age his parents were dead. There are few stories that bridged the gap, and very little is known about my family history on both sides.

It’s in this loss of family history more than any other way that I distinguish myself from white Americans. 

Legacy is a privilege.

Another story about family

Some distillate romps:

Singani or Grappa

Ruta Del Mezcal


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