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Hungarian liquor magnate Peter Zwack dies

Peter J. Zwack, a Hungarian-born liquor magnate who helped safeguard the secret formula for his family's prized Unicum digestif during years of Nazi and Soviet occupation and served a tempestuous stint in Washington as ambassador from Hungary in the early 1990s, died Aug. 4 in Venturina, Italy.

He was 85 and died, apparently of overexertion, while swimming at a hot springs spa near his home in the Tuscan town of Bolgheri, said his son Peter B. Zwack.

A celebrity in his native country, Zwack had managed in the late 1980s to reclaim control of his family's famed Zwack distillery -- the producer of Unicum, an 84 proof bombshell sometimes called the Hungarian national shot -- after four decades of Communist government ownership.

Zwack and his family had fled to the United States in 1948, after the government nationalized the distillery. They left behind a bogus recipe for Unicum, a concoction made from 40 herbs and roots that was created, according to family lore, in the late 1700s by a Zwack ancestor.

During Communist control in Hungary, the government-owned Zwack distillery produced a version of Unicum that was not quite right. Zwack's father had tucked the bona fide formula in his back pocket when he escaped from Budapest to Vienna, hidden under an oil drum on a Soviet truck. Zwack later helped store the recipe -- split into four parts for added security, according to news accounts -- in safety deposit boxes at four New York banks.

He had arrived at Ellis Island stripped of his considerable family wealth. He sold vacuum cleaners before finding work, first in New York and later in Chicago, in the wine-and-spirits import-export trade.

In 1988, the reform-minded "goulash Communists" invited Zwack to return to Hungary. He agreed and, over time, reclaimed control of the distillery. Today it is known as Zwack Unicum, a publicly listed company owned by the Zwack family with several partners.

"People think I showed faith in Hungary when not too many others did," he told The New York Times in 1989. "They had been fed this picture of a fat capitalist who smoked cigars and beat up the workers, and they saw me, a skinny guy who doesn't smoke, wears beat-up clothes and behaves more like the workers than the Communist bosses did." As his country transitioned into democracy, Zwack was invited to serve as ambassador.

But after seven months, Zwack was removed from office. In an interview with The Post, Zwack attributed his removal to a conflict with his deputy chief of mission. The Post noted that, at a time when Hungary needed competent representation in Washington, neither Zwack nor his deputy had diplomatic experience.

Peter Janos Zwack was born in Budapest on May 21, 1927, his son said. In interviews, Mr. Zwack could be coy in revealing his exact age.

The marriage to his first wife, the former Iris Rogers, an American, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Anne Marshall Zwack of Bolgheri and Budapest; five children from his first marriage, Army Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack, now serving as a defense attache in Moscow, Gioia Zwack of New York City, Alexa Peterstam of Coral Gables, Fla., Iris Zwack of Newport, R.I., and John Zwack of Weston, Conn.; two children from his second marriage, Sandor Zwack and Izabella Zwack, both of Budapest; and 10 grandchildren.

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