As I rode in a taxi on my way to the Unicum House, the driver started chit-chatting with me. “Where are you from? First time in Budapest?” Approaching my destination, he told me that he’d never visited the museum. “I don’t really like Unicum. It’s too herbal, too bitter,” he admitted. “But my father likes it, I often buy him a bottle as a present.” Unicum, an old man’s drink? It’s true that perhaps more than with any other taste, the perception of bitterness evolves considerably as people grow older, and the thick black liqueur never had a reputation for being a smooth drink. There sure are many testimonies that Unicum is not to everyone’s taste (check out this couple’s reaction after their first sip). Even brand ambassador Csaba Gulyás is cautious in his description: “It’s a bittersweet potion, which isn’t easy to enjoy the first time, but then you cross that barrier and it becomes your favorite.” Hmmm, I guess we’ll see. Because now that I’m back home, I’m having a bona fide blind tasting of Unicum’s entire product line!
Here are my tasting notes, after matching each pour to its bottle. I’ll start with the original Unicum. In addition to its very dark color, it has all the characteristics of an herbal liqueur from another age: I smell tar and licorice, with some soapy detergent notes too, maybe like a floral-scented cleaning product recommended by Martha Stewart. It tastes super bitter, as if I’m chewing on roots and cloves. I approached the tasting with an open mind, but yes, it’s really that awful!
The Unicum Next, of a more reassuring, much lighter color, boasts a nose of candied fruits, in particular citrus and berries. I’m reminded a bit of Christmas pudding. I don’t really smell herbs! Even the taste isn’t aggressive, with some bitterness but not too much – certainly no more than many apéritifs, like red vermouth. It’s quite pleasant, though the lack of herbal notes is rather dissonant for a purported herbal liqueur.
The Unicum Szilva, macerated with plums, is again very dark, maybe even more so than the original, of which it retains many characteristics though it’s less soapy and bitter. The citrus is more present than in the original too, and it’s sweeter. The dried plums and the extra aging milden the drink so that it’s actually drinkable. I’d say it’s somewhere between the original and the Next, with an additional hint of prunes.
The Unicum Riserva is packaged in a luxurious bottle that departs from the iconic hand-grenade-meets-light-bulb aesthetic of the brand. The clear glass reveals the liquid’s paler color (similar to or even slightly darker than Unicum Next, but the latter is sold in green glass bottles), and that instantly makes it look more approachable. It boasts a nose of citrus (orange in particular) and fruit cake. It’s really well balanced: sweet but not too sugary, citrusy but in good measure, herbal but not overly much. I find it true to the original Unicum spirit, without many of that older sibling’s harsher points.
For the record, one of my two fellow blind tasters agrees with me that Unicum Riserva is the best, while the other prefers Unicum Next. All three of us agree that the original Unicum is terrible.
But how are you even supposed to drink Unicum, anyway? My guide at the Unicum House told me that it could be enjoyed cold or at room temperature, though he preferred it cold. With an alcohol content between 30% (Unicum Next) and 40% (original Unicum and Unicum Riserva), you’ll want to stick to small pours.
And what about cocktails? Apparently, people in Hungary don’t really mix Unicum, opting instead to have a shot with a beer. Yet considering the role that bitters play in cocktails, I suspect that savvy mixologists would find Unicum inspiring. In fact, Jim Meehan, of PDT fame in New York, created the Spritzz, a blend of Zwack liqueur (the international version), Sanpellegrino Aranciata, and prosecco for the Caffè della Posta in Bolgheri, Italy, owned by the Zwack family (Sándor and Izabella used to spend their summers in Bolgheri in the 1980s). Additionally, the bar of the Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Budapest serves an aged Negroni made with gin, red vermouth, Unicum Riserva, Campari, and oak moss. Armed with all this inspiration, I decided to create three cocktails of my own. The first one, the Hungarian Spritzz, is almost the same as Meehan’s, but made with more Hungarian ingredients. The second, the Tokaji Unicum Puszta, is inspired by a Hungarian cocktail called the Puszta (after the Hungarian name for the Pannonian Steppe), made with Tokaji sweet wine, apricot brandy, and another Hungarian herbal liqueur that’s not Unicum. Finally, the Transzilvanian declines the humble plum (szilva in Hungarian) in many variations: plum brandy, Unicum Szilva, carbonated plum juice, and a plum wedge (plus a few other ingredients). Three fizzy cocktails, all highlighting different fruit notes!
Yields 1 drink
60 ml / 2 fl oz Sanpellegrino Aranciata
45 ml / 1.5 fl oz Unicum Riserva
60 ml / 2 fl oz Tokaji dry sparkling wine
garnish: orange half-wheel, charred in a pan over high heat
- In an old fashioned glass half-filled with ice, pour the Aranciata, Unicum Riserva, and sparkling wine.
- Garnish with the orange half-wheel and serve with a stirrer. Encourage people to put the orange slice in the glass and stir.
Yields about 4 drinks
240 g pure apricot nectar (juice), room temperature
- Pass the apricot nectar through a paper filter over a chinois. Discard the pulp and keep the apricot water in a container in the refrigerator.
Tokaji Unicum Puszta
Yields 1 drink
30 ml / 1 fl oz Unicum Riserva
45 ml / 1.5 fl oz Tokaji Aszú 4 puttonyos
45 ml / 1.5 fl oz apricot water
60 ml / 2 fl oz Tokaji sparkling wine
garnish: 2 cm diameter disc of foie gras terrine, 2 cm diameter disc of toasted brioche
- Pour the Unicum Riserva, Tokaji wine, and apricot water in a shaker filled with ice cubes. Shake well, then strain into an old fashioned glass.
- Add the sparkling wine, and decorate with little discs of toasted brioche and foie gras terrine on a skewer.
Yields 1 drink
30 ml / 1 fl oz plum brandy
1 ml / 1/4 tsp absinthe
22.5 ml / 0.75 fl oz Unicum Szilva
15 ml / 0.5 fl oz lime juice
2.5 g / 1/2 tsp superfine sugar (optionally flavored or colored)
105 ml / 3.5 fl oz carbonated plum juice
garnish: sugar, plum wedge
- Note: plum juice can be carbonated with certain soda makers, or by using a siphon charged with a cartridge of CO2.
- Place the plum brandy, absinthe, Unicum Szilva, lime juice, and sugar in a shaker filled with ice cubes. Shake well, then add the carbonated plum juice.
- Decorate the rim of a martini glass with sugar, strain the drink into the glass, and garnish with the plum wedge.