Shots for America

Bartime with the Hiltons of Hungary.

When Izabella and S?or Zwack wanted to break into America, they started in Cleveland.
When Izabella and S?or Zwack wanted to break into America, they started in Cleveland.
Sándor Zwack, heir to Hungary's largest liquor fortune, is trying hard to endear himself to a local bartender.

"Cleveland is a great city, full of hardworking people, just like Hungary," he says in a burly accent. "It reminds me of our country."

The bartender nods seriously, absorbing Sándor's worldly insight, then asks, "Do you know Borat?"

Zwack doesn't understand the question. So he holds up his shot in a toast. "Egészségedre," he proclaims.

"Eggo-awa-yah," the bartender repeats, as if he's toasting a popular brand of waffles. He tosses back the shot, then smiles. "Sweet," he pronounces. "Goes down easy."

Sándor Zwack and his sister Izabella are the Hiltons of Eastern Europe. With their Michelangelo-like noses and mathematically proportioned bodies, they look like walking art exhibits, their faces among the most photographed in Hungary. And they'll soon become even more rich and recognizable.

The siblings will soon inherit Zwack Unicum, one of Europe's most fabled liquor companies and makers of the national shot of Hungary. Zwack, a Jäger-like drink, goes down like cinnamon-flavored tea, without the fiery afterburn of whiskey. First introduced in 1790, it sells well in Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. But it's never crossed the Atlantic to the U.S., home to a potential 300 million drunkards.

"If we want to be known globally, then we have to be in the states," Izabella says.

To make Zwack palatable to Americans, sugar was added, and the alcohol was cut from 40 to 35 proof. "It makes the drink go down smoother," Izabella says, too polite to say what she's really thinking: Americans are wimps.

But when it came time for the American launch, the company bypassed all the usual media centers, choosing Cleveland instead. "There are more Hungarians in Ohio than in any other state and a higher concentration of Hungarians in Cleveland than in any other Ohio city," explains promoter Mike Manning.

Tonight is Sándor and Izabella's coming-out party, and they're understandably nervous. Like popularity-seeking teenagers, they keep checking with the bouncer to see how many people have arrived. Last count: 240.

The number pleases Izabella, who decides she can finally eat now. Unlike the heiresses of America, Izabella, a tall, dimpled 30-year-old with the bulging calves of a mountain climber, doesn't consider an asparagus stalk a meal.

"Have you tried the goulash?" she asks, pointing to a mishmash of soupy meat and potatoes, then shoveling a pile onto her plate.

The bar has been Zwacked out. Red stickers adorn the walls, tables, and floor. Scantily clad Zwack girls hand out free shots and take Polaroids of patrons smiling goofily next to an enlarged picture of a Zwack bottle. The crowd of bar rats and professional schmoozers seem taken by the drink.

"We bought two bottles of Zwack last week," says Tino Roncone, marketing director for the Velvet Dog, freely offering up his critique. "There are two things any drink needs to succeed here. One, the bartenders need to get behind it. Two, the customer needs to think it's cool."

Some bar owners are already sold. An older man introduces himself to Sándor and Izabella. He'll be opening up a new Lakewood brewery in March. There will be no Jäger, he announces. Only Zwack.

"It has such a strong family history," says Bob Wright. Plus, "it's exciting that the Zwack family chose Cleveland for its kickoff."

About three shots deep, Izabella needs a smoke. On her way out, she's accosted by four people who want to discuss her psychedelic stockings.

"I got them in Vienna, but they sell them in New York too," she says helpfully, not realizing that most don't have the money for regular Manhattan shopping jaunts.

Both men and women openly salivate over the fresh-faced heiress.

"Very beautiful," says Marcus Sims, marketing director at The View, a downtown bar. An older Hungarian taught him the art of cunnilingus, he says. He's always been awed by them.

Izabella smiles politely, but doesn't ask him to explain.

Someone else asks her about the differences between Hungarian and American men. She pauses for a moment, considering.

"Hungarian men are more macho. They're sometimes known for cheating," she adds, as an inebriated customer holds onto the railing to keep from falling. "But the one thing I can say is that Hungarian men can hold their liquor."

Sándor, now on approximately shot no. 6, is testament to this thesis. "I think my dad dipped our bottles in Zwack," he jokes as he raises another toast.

Izabella downs the shot with him, then asks for a beer. "Don't tell anyone," she whispers.

At 11, she begins to yawn. "I think I need to get a taxi."

This, it seems, is the second difference between American and Hungarian heiresses. Izabella knows how to make a graceful, early exit. As she slips quietly out of the bar, the party rages on around her.

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