Sunday, August 8, 2010

Zwack Maximilian

As a small country, Hungarian produces an abundant assortment of beer, wine, spirits, and liquors. One that I have always shied away from is the very popular Zwack Unicum - a licorice-flavored digestif liquor that was first produced in 1790 during the Habsburg dynasty. However, when Mrs. WineCompass returned with a bottle containing the Zwack label, I took a deeper interest in the distillery and found a very adventurous and enduring family history. The bottle in question was the recently released Zwack Maximilian, a brandy made in Kecskemet from late-harvest Furmint grapes grown in the Tokaj region. Great grape, great growing region - a nice start. Then the brandy is aged in oak barrels and bottled by hand, and the result is a fine, fine brandy. And it has an interesting story - made from a long-lost family recipe first concocted in 1912. From 1790 to the second world war, the Zwack distillery operated continually in Budapest under several forms of government - mostly unopposed. However, WWWII was different and the distillery was destroyed along with the rest of the city by American bombers and Soviet troops. The rest is from the company's history page:
  • "After the war, during which the family lived in a cellar with two unexploded bombs, which they nicknamed Rózsa and Zsuzsa, over their heads, Mitzi's two brothers, János and Béla, completely rebuilt the factory using the most modern technology available at the time. When, in 1948, the firm was finally ready to resume production at pre-war levels, the newly instated Communist government confiscated everything the family possessed with no compensation and "the world as I knew it", to quote Péter Zwack the present heir to the Zwack Company, "came to an end". János fled to the West sitting on his shooting stick under an upturned barrel with the Unicum recipe in his breast pocket, having bribed the Russian drivers to take him across the border. Béla chose to remain in Hungary and was deported, together with thousands of other "class enemies", to eke out a miserable existence on the Great Hungarian Plain. Péter Zwack took a train to the Yugoslav border and then walked his way to Trieste where, with an overwhelming surge of joy and relief, he saw the British fleet at anchor in the bay.
  • Péter Zwack returned to Europe in 1970. By then Unicum was already being successfully marketed and distributed in Italy, while Péter Zwack's role became that of opening up new markets and reviving old ones. As the winds of change swept over the whole Eastern bloc, Péter started to receive overtures from Hungary inviting him to return and take over the running of this old family factory.
  • In 1987, while Hungary was still a Communist country, he took a gamble and returned home together with his family.
  • Initially, he entered into a Joint Venture with the Hungarian State, and then in 1991, together with his partner, Emil Underberg, also a family company, he repurchased the entire State-owned conglomerate incorporating thirteen factories and thirteen hundred workers."

Today the distillery operates out of Kecskemet, a plant I must visit on our next trip overseas. And as for Unicum, maybe I was sampling the communist version and not the family version. The Zwack Maximilian - may last another week.


Anonymous said...

Do you know where I can buy a bottle of Zwack of Maximilian (Spirit of Tokaj)?
I love in Ontario Canada. Thanks for your help.

Todd M. Godbout said...

I'm not sure if it is available in North America - I'll start checking