Born in a small town called Taznakht in the south of Morocco, Nahmias grew up in a family of Moroccan moonshine producers. Mahia—which means “water of life”—is essentially a fig brandy, flavored with a small amount of anise. For hundreds of years, Morocco’s mahia trade was dominated by Jews, who sold to everyone, from their rabbis to their Muslim neighbors. (At its peak in the mid-20th century, the Moroccan Jewish community numbered over 250,000; there are now approximately 2,500 Jews left, mostly in Casablanca.)
Nahmias’ mother taught him her mahia recipe, which he mimics as best he can. “It’s hard because she had no measurements,” he said. For years, he made home-brewed mahia while working as a computer software developer. But after his parents passed away two years ago, Nahmias, now 50, decided to make a career change and opened a small-batch distillery. He went to the American Distilling Institute in Kentucky to refine his skills, and bottles of mahia produced by Nahmias et Fils began appearing in New York liquor stores this summer. “I had this feeling of keeping alive something of my parents,” he said.
Now that Nahmias’ family is dispersed around the globe, mahia is his way of preserving his family’s legacy and link to Morocco.
“It’s a lot of history, a lot of culture,” Nahmias said, with a drink in his hand. “It’s part of my family—it’s part of me.”