The Salt
2:39 pm
Mon July 7, 2014

Couple Revives Lost Moroccan Fig Liquor, One Bottle At A Time

Originally published on Mon July 7, 2014 5:56 pm

Before the crowds descend on the Whisky Jewbilee, a kosher alcohol tasting event in Manhattan, David and Dorit Nahmias stand behind their vendor table, getting psyched up.

"This is like the big game," Dorit Nahmias says.

Events like these are a key tool for getting the word out about their tiny distillery, and the Nahmiases attend half a dozen of them per year. The product they're trying to sell is one few people have heard of: mahia. Dorit rehearses her pitch:

"We'll say, 'This is mahia. It's distilled from figs. My husband's family were distillers in Morocco for generations and we are revitalizing it here in Yonkers.' "

The tiny Nahmias et Fils distillery takes up one room in a converted warehouse space just outside New York City. In the entry area are Moroccan rugs, a decorative copper still and old photos of David Nahmias' parents. He grew up watching both parents and grandparents distill mahia over wood and fire in Morocco. Since Morocco is largely a Muslim country, Jews traditionally did the work of producing alcohol, though all enjoyed the clear liquor once it was made — even if they weren't always open about it.

"I grew up with people constantly coming to our home and asking for mahia — the Jews, Muslims, even the cops ... so mahia was part of the tradition of living with people, Jews and Muslims, together," he says.

Nahmias' father remained in his tiny village, Taznakht, almost to the end of his life, even after all the other Jews there fled to Israel and the United States. His mother spent the later part of her life in New York, and she and her son would make mahia at home every so often. Today between 2,500 and 5,000 Jews are left in Morocco, and it's tough to find mahia anywhere. The knowledge and tradition fell apart as Jews left the country.

"When you grow up watching your parents all their life making something, you don't want what they did to go in vain. You want to bring it to life," David says.

He had wanted to open a professional mahia distillery in the U.S. for years, but he and his wife both had stable jobs in the banking industry and she wouldn't hear of it.

"Why would you give all that up to start a business? It was stupid; it was ridiculous," Dorit says.

But events conspired: David's parents both died around the same time Dorit lost her job."When you don't have that kind of security anymore, you have to take a chance," she says.

Dorit obtained loans and licenses. David took brewing classes to formalize the casual learning he'd done with his mother. He says his mother "knew how to incorporate the weather into her work, how to ferment, how to taste something. I didn't have a clue why she was doing that until I went to school and realized how important those details are," he says.

In 2012, they opened the Nahmias et Fils distillery. But there's still a long way to go before they get the business on firm footing and, one day hopefully, pass it on to their three children.

At the alcohol-tasting event, mahia gets mixed reactions. Prospective customer Dean Schuckman takes a sip.

"This is excellent. It's smooth. I can taste a little bit of the fig ... it's delicious."

But another prospective customer, Dana Siegel, doesn't get it at first.

"I thought it was interesting. I kind of wanted to understand more what kind of spirit it is. If it's a flavored vodka that's one thing; if it's a liqueur that's another. I couldn't quite figure it out. But the fig flavor came through and I really liked that a lot," she says.

Technically mahia is an eau de vie, which translates as water of life and means it's a clear brandy distilled from fruit. Schnapps is a well-known eau de vie, and so is Aquavit.

Mahia joins a band of relatively unfamiliar alcohols from other countries trying to make inroads in the U.S. There are cachaca from Brazil, pisco from Chile, mezcal from Mexico. It hasn't been easy, but they've gained some market share. It's not beyond the realm of possibility for an unfamiliar alcohol to become known; it just takes a little marketing.

"It might be hard to imagine at this point, but vodka was once a weirdo spirit in the U.S.," says Derek Brown, who writes about cocktails and owns several bars in Washington, D.C. "There was an ad campaign around it, a very famous one in the 1960s, and they had famous people like Woody Allen toasting Smirnoff. And today, it is the most widely sold spirit in the United States." It also helped that vodka was a key ingredient in three popular cocktails of the day: the bloody mary, the Moscow mule and the dirty martini.

The Nahmiases have succeeded in getting some cutting-edge mixologists to incorporate mahia into cocktails on their menus in Los Angeles and Providence, R.I., and they're pushing for more all the time. The couple have no plans to give up on their mahia revival quest anytime soon. They've put all they have into it.

"It's too late to turn around and go back. No way," Dorit Nahmias says. "We gotta make it work. We have no choice."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For centuries, Jews in Morocco distilled a clear liquor made from figs or dates. It was called mahia. The practice of making mahia had all but disappeared. And then a Moroccan Jew living in New York decided to revive his family's distilling practice. Alex Schmidt has this story about one couple's efforts to make a viable new business out of an ancient tradition.

DORIT NAHMIAS: Is it the fourth one? I'm not sure. Did you taste it?

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: It's the middle of the workday and David and Dorit Nahmias are busy in their tiny distillery. In the entryway are Moroccan rugs, photos of David's parents and an old-fashioned copper still. This is the sort of contraption David's family used to distill in Morocco.

DAVID NAHMIAS: I grew up, you know, people constantly coming to our home and asking for mahia - everyone, the Jews, the Muslims, everyone, including the cops. (Laughing). So mahia - it was part of the tradition. Living with people, you know, Jews and Muslims live together.

SCHMIDT: David had wanted to start a professional mahia distillery for as long as he'd known his wife. But they both had stable jobs in the banking industry and she wouldn't hear of it.

DORIT NAHMIAS: Why would you give all that up to start a business? It was like - it was stupid. It was ridiculous.

SCHMIDT: But then a few years ago, David's parents passed away at the same time Dorit lost her job.

DORIT NAHMIAS: When you don't have that security anymore, you have to take a chance.

SCHMIDT: Now, the equipment is more professional than home-brewing back in Morocco - shiny, cylindrical, industrial-sized stills. But most people have no idea what mahia is. The Nahmiases are trying every marketing tricks they can to gain a foothold. A major one - alcohol tasting events like Manhattan's Whiskey Jewbilee. Attendees paid over $100 bucks a pop to come here and sample fine whiskey and other liquors. The Nahmiases also distill whiskey, which gives them an entry-point into markets that might otherwise be closed to them. The crowds stream in and David starts pitching.

DAVID NAHMIAS: Hundred percent from figs. There is no sugar - no sugar, no chemicals, nothing. And it's very natural.

SCHMIDT: Dean Schuckman takes a sip of the clear liquor.

DEAN SCHUCKMAN: This is excellent. It's smooth. I can taste a little bit of the fig. It's delicious.

SCHMIDT: Score one point for mahia. But then Dana Siegel takes a sip and she just doesn't get it.

DANA SIEGEL: I thought it was interesting. I kind of wanted to understand a little bit more - what type of spirit it is. If it's a flavored vodka, that's one thing. If it's a liqueur, it's another. I couldn't quite figure it out. But the fig flavor came through and I really liked that a lot.

SCHMIDT: Technically, mahia is an eau de vie, which just means it's a clear fruit brandy. Schnapps is eau de vie and so is aquavit. Mahia joins a band of unfamiliar alcohols trying to gain a market in the U.S. There's cachaca from Brazil, pisco from Chile. Derek Brown writes about alcohol and owns several bars. He says sometimes unknown spirits do become popular.

DEREK BROWN: It might be hard to imagine at this point, but vodka was once a weirdo spirit in the United States. There was some advertising campaign around it - a very famous one in the 1960s. And they had very famous people like Woody Allen, you know, toasting to Smirnoff. And today it is the most widely sold spirit.

SCHMIDT: The Nahmiases have gotten some cutting-edge mixologists to incorporate mahia into cocktails on their menus. Step-by-step, they hope they'll build this ancient family tradition into a business they can pass on to their kids. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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