Tucked away in the industrial part of Yonkers is the city’s first and only (legal) distillery. It’s a small operation, run solely by husband and wife David and Dorit Nahmias. Under the company name Nahmias et Fils, the Riverdale residents make small batches of high-quality rye whiskey and mahia.
Mahia is a traditional Moroccan spirit made from figs, dates or grapes; the name translates to “water of life.” Muslims are discouraged from drinking alcohol, so historically, Moroccan Jews distilled the mahia. In Yonkers, the couple makes their variety with figs, the same way Mr. Nahmias’ family distilled the drink for generations.
“I grew up watching my family, my mother, my grandmother, distilling all their life,” Mr. Nahmias, 54, said.
When he came to the United States from Morocco in 1980 with his family, he built a stove top distiller for his mother. Every few months, she would send him out to get figs and she would make mahia. Mr. Nahmias, who used to work as a software developer, said he had wanted to start a mahia company for a long time, but the timing never seemed right. Then in 2009, both his parents died and his wife lost her job. Together, they took out some loans and decided to take the leap.
“It’s a total way to connect with the heritage,” Ms. Nahmias, 48, explained. “I mean, we’re the only ones making it commercially, and we’re really revitalizing something. People have never heard of it.”
The Nahmias pride themselves on making a high-quality product. They source the figs from California, while almost everything else (including the rye) is local. Mr. Nahmias said he discards the first two full gallons of every batch he makes. Called the “heads,” those first two gallons are full of toxic chemicals that can make the drinker sick. A glass of heads smells like nail polish remover. (“It can make you go blind,” explained Ms. Nahmias.) In contrast, the “heart” — the product that eventually gets mixed with filtered water and bottled — smells like figs.