Bambi — Hungary’s (in)famous national soft drink

Before Coca Cola was introduced to Hungarian consumers in 1968, and prior to Pepsi’s 1970 debut in socialist Hungary, the young and the old alike drank and presumably enjoyed an orange soda called Bambi. Earlier today, being in Budapest, I decided to stop by one of my favourite retro-themed cafés–Ibolya Presszó, located in Ferenciek tere–and give Bambi a try, alongside some water, coffee and the morning paper, for good measure.

Bambi at Ibolya Presszó (Photo: C. Adam)

Bambi at Ibolya Presszó (Photo: C. Adam)

It must be nostalgia for one’s youth that drives some Hungarians to purchase the small, 250 ml bottles of Bambi–an orange soda that screams of artificial flavour, but comes in a nifty, clipped bottle. The soda itself isn’t unpleasant, it’s simply nondescript. It’s history, however, is as colourful as this region of Europe.

Bambi, named after the favourite Walt Disney animated deer from the 1942 film, was first bottled in Budapest’s 8th District and sold in 1947, right on the cusp of nationalization in Hungary. When Stalinist Hungary ended all forms of private enterprise, bottling of Bambi was assumed by a Budapest municipally-owned company. In the fifties and for much of the sixties, Bambi was Hungary’s only ready-made soft drink and as demand grew, equipment arriving from the German Democratic Republic was used to bottle the one and only beverage in larger quantities. Eventually, Bambi became available in punch and berry flavour as well. As Sándor Csiki writes: “Bambi made an appearance at the tiniest village festivals, during May Day celebrations and in processions, as well as at hundred thousand-strong rallies, underneath the portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and on red felt tables, next to ashtrays.”

When Coca Cola was introduced to the Hungarian consumer in 1968 and then Pepsi in 1970, Bambi faced real competition for the first time. Hungarians began to prefer Coke and Pepsi products, and the authorities tried to keep Bambi alive by ensuring that any purchase of foreign soft drinks by stores was matched by an obligatory equal purchase of Bambi.

By the late seventies, however, the Bambi brand was disappearing, simply as a result of the law of supply and demand. Demand had collapsed, as new flavours and colours poured into Hungary from the West.

Today, a municipal company in Budapest that operates the city’s thermal baths —Budapest Gyógyfürdői és Hévizei Zrt.-nél (BGYH) — also produces Bambi, but in very limited quantities. The drink is now only available at Ibolya Presszó and approximately 5,000 bottles are produced a year. So Bambi is a rarity…and perhaps a delicacy?

Most people who still opt for this at the Ibolya are well over seventy…which is probably why the waiter raised a bemused eyebrow when I placed my order.

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