Tipple of the week: Unicum

Unicum in its distinctive bottle, with a gold cross emblazoned on a red background, the words Unicum above and Zwack underneath.

This Hungarian favourite can be found in its distinctive ball-shaped bottle with a cross on it at every bar in Hungary, it feels, and yet it’s not well-known anywhere else in the world.

For good reason. Unicum is what can be politely referred to as an acquired taste. Originally conceived in 1790, the recipe has hardly changed since the drink was first served to Joseph II by a physician (apart from a short period in the mid-1900s when the drink was produced in exile). And when it hits the back of your throat, you can tell this drink was invented by a doctor.

The bitter, herbal taste saturates your mouth, and the alcohol burns the inside of your throat as it slides down towards your stomach. Where Jägermeister dumbs down its herbal hit with huge amounts of sugar, Unicum puts the herbs and spices front and centre.

Fair warning: if you’re out with a Hungarian, and they suggest a round of Unicum, they’re probably looking for a giggle as your face contorts and spasms. If it’s your first time, sniff deeply to get a feel for what you’re about to subject yourself to, and have a sweet chaser at the ready. If you hate it, tough—the aftertaste will stick with you for a good fifteen minutes, and you’ll feel it in your belly all night long.

There’s another plum flavoured concoction bearing the name Unicum Szilva. Don’t bother. The original Unicum is an experience, but Unicum Szilva is a desperate attempt to make what is fundamentally an old man’s drink palatable to the younger generations, and it doesn’t really work.

Unicum should really be served ice-cold, so keep an eye out. Most bars have a bottle on the shelf for display, and a second in the freezer for serving, but some will just serve it in frosted shot glasses.

Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the plum flavoured Unicum as Unicum Next, instead of Unicum Szilva. Unicum Next is a different drink all together, closer to the original Unicum, but a little less bitter. Thanks Marci for spotting the mistake!