Wine talk: Under the fig tree

Arak, the indigenous spirit of the Levant, is undergoing a revival in Israel.

Arak (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Paradoxically, even though Jews were never big drinkers, they have been disproportionally involved in the drinks business over the years. In Eastern Europe, a high percentage of Jews were distillers because this was one of the few jobs permitted. When they moved to America, many took up the old profession, this time producing illicit whiskey during the time of Prohibition. The illicit producers then were to become the basis of a rejuvenated whisky industry afterwards.
Israelis, particularly the young, drink an inordinate amount of vodka. It is by far the largest-selling spirit in Israel.
Arak, though, is the regional indigenous spirit of the Levant. It is undergoing a revival in Israel. Yet Jews the world over seem to have a relationship with Scotch whisky, particularly malt whisky. I have even referred to Scotch as the Jewish spirit because of the Jewish people’s apparent fascination with it.
However, none of these spirits may be said to belong to the Jews. Whisky belongs to the Scots, Irish, Americans or Canadians, depending where it is made. Arak is really at home in Lebanon. Vodka is a product of Poland and Russia, though it has become more global recently. However, there are two little-known spirits that were made by Jews and for Jews. I am referring to the Moroccan Mahia and Tunisian Boukha.
Both of these may be considered an eau de vie. The French term translates as “water of life.” They are really brandies made from fruits. An eau de vie is made by crushing and fermenting the fruit and then distilling the liquid mash, or fruit wine, produced. The result is a colorless, dry spirit with, ideally, a delicate fruit aroma. The whole idea is to capture the flavor of the main ingredient. The most famous eau de vie is arguably Kirsch, made from cherries. The best eau de vie comes from France – Alsace in particular – Germany and Switzerland. Both Mahia and Boukha come from North Africa and were traditionally made from figs.
Figs are well documented in Jewish folklore and literature. Micah’s vision of peace and prosperity was that everyone should sit under his vine and fig tree. The fig is also one of the seven blessed species of the Land of Israel.
In practice, the window of opportunity to enjoy fresh figs is not so great. They can be used to make jams, but most are dried because the sensitive, small ripe fig does not travel well. The fragile fruit begins to deteriorate from the minute it is picked. Therefore, to put aside figs for distillation was a sensible solution for the fruit’s short shelf life.
Food writer Claudia Roden, doyenne of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, explains in The Book of Jewish Food that Mahia “could be made with dates, raisins, and especially figs, that were flavored with aniseed.” She describes how it was made: “Figs or another fruit were covered with water, mixed with sugar and aniseed, fennel seed, or rosemary and left to ferment for three weeks. The mixture was boiled and the cooled vapor distilled in an alembic.” Roden describes the production of Mahia as a Jewish cottage industry.
“The bottle of Mahia was on the dinner table along with the whiskey and Coca-Cola.” The word Mahia also translates as “water of life.”
A new micro-distiller in New York has revived the ancient tradition. Nahmias et Fils, located in the Yonkers YoHo Art District, has been founded by Dorit and David Nahmias. David Nahmias’s family were distillers of Mahia in Taznakht, Morocco. His parents and grandparents were small batch distillers from 1900 onwards.
Now, after many years in the business and corporate worlds, they have decided to honor the family by renewing the tradition. They produce a handcrafted small batch Mahia with an expensive deluxe look.
The Bokobsas have been the address for Boukha for many years. The family originated in Tunisia. Abraham Bokobsa made the first Boukha in Soukra, which is near Tunis, in 1880. The name Boukha means “angel share.”
This refers to the percentage of spirit that may be lost to the angels through evaporation. Since anything from 2 to 4 percent of the alcohol may be lost, it explains why angels are happier nearer distilleries. The family continued the tradition when they relocated to France. Today Bokobsa, still a family firm, is the international flag bearer of Boukha and also a major producer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits.
Both the Boukha and Mahia are best used as aperitifs. Some prefer to sip them as a digestif as an after-dinner drink. They both lend themselves to creative cocktails. Bokobsa and Nahmias have made it possible for you to sit under your vine and fig tree to sample the true Jewish spirits of Boukha and Mahia.
I have tasted the Nahmias Mahia and the Bokobsa Boukha recently, and these are my comments.
Mahia, Nahmias
This is 40% alcohol. It comes in a handsome white frosted bottle with an intricate Moorish design on the label. Its presentation makes it the perfect gift. Its aroma is very delicate, almost indistinguishable, against the dominant alcohol. The aniseed flavoring is not apparent on the nose at all, but it does come through in a lazy, laid-back, subtle way on the taste. Kosher.
Price: $40 to $50 (not yet imported to Israel) Boukha, Bokobsa
Slightly less alcohol at 37.5%. It is in the traditional oblong “Big Ben” style bottle with a long neck associated with Bokobsa. The nose is of young spirit with fresh fruity notes. The spirit is slightly oily on the taste. I prefer this one chilled or with ice added. It is the Boukha to use for mixing a cocktail. Kosher.
Price: NIS 149 Boukha, Bokobsa Cuvee Prestige
Of the three products, this is the one with the most recognizable fig aroma, which is readily accessible without the alcohol getting in the way. This is the better of the two Boukhas to drink straight. Best served in a small, thistle type glass at room temperature. Kosher.
Price: NIS 183
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.