Nahmias et Fils Distillery: Spirit of Morocco Lives On in Yonkers
If you're like me and most people, then your familiarity with Moroccan culture probably extends to a delightfully cheesy restaurant experience: six or seven courses eaten with your hands. You luxuriate on floor cushions, interrupted only by an occasional bellydancer and Aladdin-costumed waiter showing off his tea-pouring skills. When I walk into Nahmias et Fils Distillery in Yonkers, NY, I'm not expecting to find an approximation of such extravagance. But that just shows I have not done my homework.
David Nahmias, and his lovely wife, Dorit, invite me to sit down on a bench of typically Moroccan covers and cushions, meaning they've been bedazzled to within an inch of their life. I'm beneath a wall of portraits, flags and maps, all of which point to David's North African beginnings. There's something very comforting about hospitality in that part of the world. As Dorit pours me samples and offers every type of soda water as a chaser, David tells me his story. I feel myself relaxing into the pillows already.
Mahia is a brandy made from fermented fig. It has been made in David's family for a long time, but he goes as far back as his grandparents, Saada and Moshe. They would whip up a batch whenever the extended family got together. Since David comes from a small, close-knit village in Morocco, it sounds like that was often.
David moved to New York with his mother in the 1980s. She missed home (I guess the Moroccan restaurants weren't authentic enough) so she would make mahia every now and again, using figs from the grocery store. She passed away in 2010. To honor her, David and Dorit decided to go into mahia production full time and open the distillery. Fortunately, New York's laws had just then updated to allow craft distilleries to operate legally under a specific license.
One thing that quickly endears David to me is how explanation is not enough for him. He will break off mid-sentence and search around for something to grab, to illustrate a point. For instance, he is telling me how he ferments the figs when suddenly he runs off into a corner of the room. He comes back with a box of semi-dried figs, shipped from California. He squeezes them through his fingers, demonstrating their fate in the mash tun. The figs will ferment for two weeks, using fruit yeast. The resulting beer is then added to the still along with aniseed, and it is distilled twice in his copper pot still.
David tells me there is no sugar added in the process, and tasting is believing. The nose is of a slight raisin-ness, but I'm getting mostly wet earth, or something slightly more vegetative, like leaves. Same with the palate. There's definitely a fig flavor, but it is overshadowed by a musk or funk.
As diverse as American cuisine has become, our national liquor cabinet hasn't quite caught up. That may be why David also makes a couple different whiskeys and an apple brandy.
There are two types of rye whiskey, both made of 100% NY rye and 80 proof. One is unaged. The other is aged in new oak for about one year. The unaged rye smells sweet and grassy, while tasting mostly of earth and some chocolate malt. The aged rye has a lot of barrel smells: wood, tannins, caramel. The palate is smooth, with a grainy sweetness, followed by a bit of fruit on the finish.
The apple brandy comes starts as several varieties of cider apples, pressed into juice and fermented. The beer is then distilled twice, aged in new oak barrels for less than a year and bottled at 80 proof. The resulting nose is both sweet and woody, but not particularly of apple. Same with the palate: more oak and grain than any particular fruit.
Lastly, I get to try a single malt that is still aging. It's on year one of a projected two. I'm offered a sample straight from the barrel, so it's around 110 proof. The nose is strongly of wood and some yeast. The palate has a great deep, sweet notes and a hint of melon, rounding out with some bitter, like a rind, on the finish.
The spirits at Nahmias et Fils are second only to the hospitality and friendliness shown by David and Dorit. David suggests we take a trip to Morocco next year, in response to my question about how prevalently mahia is found there today. That's just the kind of guy he is.
All this talk of Morocco makes me hungry for a hot, crispy bastilla. I don't dare mention that to David, even though I'm sure he has a family recipe for that too and would be happy to cook up an example. Just a glimpse of how easy it would be to lose track of an evening, when you're a guest to David and his whims of passion.