Stalking The Wild Hungarian Bitters
John North Radway
Posted on March 16th, 2012
In 1790, one Mr. Zwack, court physician to the Habsburgs, presented his latest medicinal concoction – a dark, herbaceous, and probably frightening bitters – to no less prestigious a drinker than Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor. Legend has it that after taking one sip, the Emperor said to the expectant Zwack, with superb Old World tact: “It’s very… unique.” (The Emperor died a month later. I imply nothing.)
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I think there’s no better way to translate the admittedly more dignifying “Das ist ein Unikum!” that named a living legend among digestifs. Unicum, the national drink and perhaps the national pastime of Hungary, is an acquired taste that even seasoned bitters-lovers might find themselves unwilling to acquire. For me it was love at first sip – but I was just a kid at the time, a typical boy priding himself on his impervious palate, and I wasn’t going to let my grandparents see me grimace. (I’m sure my words, less elegant than the Emperor’s, were something along the lines of “Eww, that’s awesome!”)
Now this talk takes a dark turn, dear reader. Several years ago, quietly, probably in the middle of the night, Unicum began to disappear from the U.S. market. It was mysteriously replaced by an unfamiliar product in an uncannily similar bottle, called “Zwack.” If you ask around, you’ll hear at least two explanations for this switcheroo. Some say that the Zwack family, fleeing the iron fist of communist oppression after World War II, took the original Unicum recipe with them into exile, leaving the Soviets with an inferior decoy formula. By this reckoning the new “Zwack” is in fact the old, authentic Unicum, resurrected for a glorious future in the 21st century. Others, however, claim that the Zwack corporation is just trying to increase its U.S. sales by peddling an insipid and saccharine innovation to legions of American frat boys whose idea of continental elegance is a shot of Jägermeister. Every drinker may choose her own truth, but the fact that “Zwack” has appeared only in the U.S. casts a shadow of doubt on the former, more generous theory.
This sort of thing isn’t unusual these days. Have you noticed how ruby-red Campari is now candy-pink? And don’t tell me it tastes the same. It doesn’t. The Campari Recipe Fiasco offends me intellectually; old spirits deserve more respect. But the Unicum ruse – the “Zwack” Gambit, we’ll call it – offends me personally. I love Unicum. And I don’t stand idly by while something I love is destroyed. I go out and find it, and then I horde it.
I’ve never held with those who think Manhattan is the center of the universe. The center of the galaxy, now – I might grant you that, if you’ll let me twist your words to mean “supermassive black hole.” Manhattan is the Great Attractor (yes, I’m mixing cosmological metaphors) – if you can’t find something there, you probably can’t find it anywhere. So, the last time I found myself in the Big Apple with a few hours to kill, I decided to give myself a little mission – a quest, you know, a flirtation with the impossible – to try to find, somewhere amid the treasure and detritus of the metropole, a bottle of the real stuff.
My goose chase starts, conventionally enough, at the nearest upscale liquor store, a wine and spirits specialist at Broadway and 107th. The man behind the counter is friendly, knowledgeable, and when I tell him the sorry tale I’ve just told you, I think he feels a little bit of my pain. He’s a born optimist, I can tell, and he says he’ll give it his best shot. But I’ve heard this line before. It always ends the same way: a voicemail saying my order is in, a trek across town, a moment of skeptical, fluttery hope – and behind the counter a bottle of “Zwack,” which, if it had a nose, would be thumbing it at me. I know his heart’s in the right place, but this time I’m not going to fall for it. I wish him luck and decide to test mine with a little reconnaissance.
Just a few blocks north is a Hungarian bakery, the kind of establishment where you can buy pastries stuffed with poppy seeds and drink black, black coffee. I walk in and give the place a once-over. A lot of men with hats are reading scattered pieces of the morning paper. It’s 1:00 in the afternoon. Perfect. I don’t want to blow my cover too soon so I order a prune Danish. Listen, I say to the waitress who brings it, I’ve got a kind of a funny question. And then I ask: Where can a guy go in this town to get a bottle of Unicum? She gives me a look that says I’ve struck a nerve. Unicum? she asks, like she’s playing for time. Yeah. Unicum. She doesn’t know, but says maybe I should talk to Éva. Behind the counter. The one with the lipstick and the distinctly Eastern European hairstyle.
Éva doesn’t know a thing – or if she does, she’s not telling. You can’t get Unicum anymore, she says. I didn’t walk three blocks and buy a Danish just to hear what I already knew, so I try to keep her talking. I don’t get far. There are places you can drink Unicum, she tells me, but you can’t buy it here. Anywhere.
At least it’s a straight answer. And the Danish wasn’t half bad. I tell her thanks anyway and turn to the door, but before I take two steps I hear the one word you always hope for in these situations: Wait.
I wait. There’s a Hungarian – she hunts for the word – meat store. 5th Avenue and 84th Street. Or somewhere. I’m not sure. You – could try there.
I walk out, hiding a skeptical grin under a third-rate poker face. So this is how it’s going to be. Twenty blocks and a hike across the Park to look for a meat store that might not even be there. I wonder if it’s going to rain. I wonder if Éva’s information was worth the price of the Danish. And I wonder why I feel like Dashiell Hammett is narrating my afternoon.
The meat store isn’t easy to track down. When I finally find it, over on 2nd Avenue, it looks like the real thing, the kind of place you’d go if you needed a boar’s head on short notice. But even from across the street I can tell that something’s not right. No sausages hanging in the window, no silhouettes of meat-hungry customers, and the windows have a grayish tint that I don’t like the looks of. I walk by casually and steal a quick glance at the sign on the door. “Temporarily closed due to fire damage,” it says.
Dammit. Someone got to them before I did.
This looks an awful lot like a dead end, so I walk up 2nd Avenue letting my head hang and trying not to think about the lovely, ghastly bitters in the round, dark bottle. Game over? I’m so low I almost don’t notice that all around are storefronts trying to snap me out of my funk with signs advertising paprika, stuffed cabbage, savory crêpes, winter salami, halászlé, hideg meggyleves, Trappista, Pálpusztai, gulyás and goulash. Finally the obvious finds its way through my thick skull: I’ve stumbled into the heart of Manhattan’s largest Hungarian neighborhood. If there’s a bottle of Unicum anywhere in this city, it’s 50 yards from where I’m standing.
I sidle into André’s Café, a tiny, tidy, tempting restaurant a few blocks further up. The sour cherry soup looks like good men would give their lives for it but I’ve got business to attend to. I lean over the counter and ask the usual questions. This time I get an answer that sets my heart racing and my tongue watering. Try the liquor store on the corner of 80th. Or the one on the corner of 82nd. Or anywhere else, really. It shouldn’t be hard to find.
It shouldn’t be hard to find. No one should ever have to hear those words. Because, of course, it is. I duck into three or four shops where bottles of Bull’s Blood wine and pálinka fruit brandy practically throw themselves off the shelves into your arms, and I grill three or four friendly, willing, helpful shopkeepers who gesture sadly toward the rack of “Zwack” in the corner and tell me, in so many words, Yes – we have no Unicum.
And this time I believe them, even if it breaks my heart a little. If there were any Unicum to be found in America it would be here. It’s the center of the whirlpool, the place where the last five bottles in the world would inevitably drift, find each other, swap stories of the good old days and grow old and dusty together. But I’ll bet some greedy bastard walked in a year ago and bought them all. Some greedy bastard just like me.
I walk back uptown a little sadder and a whole lot wiser. They can’t say I didn’t try. At least I know the truth now, even if the truth is bitterer than the drink itself. And I take some comfort in the thought that somewhere out in the world, maybe in some agency liquor store just across the Canadian border, there’s a bottle of Unicum with my name on it.