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.
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