When he complained that spirits like bourbon and cognac gave him a headache, his doctor told him to switch to vodka. When he reported that he was still getting headaches even after one drink, his doctor explained that the vodka he was drinking probably contained congeners, which are the natural byproducts of the distilling process that give some people headaches. Mr. Kanbar hired a distiller who figured out how to remove them and began to sell a vodka he named Skyy (the odd spelling meant the name could be trademarked), pitching it to bartenders and reporters in San Francisco, where he had moved in 1984.
“Not too many good ideas come after drinking a couple of screwdrivers,” Robert Slager of The San Francisco Examiner wrote when he reported on Skyy’s birth in 1992. When Mr. Kanbar saw David Letterman brandishing it on his late-night talk show, he wrote in “Secrets From an Inventor’s Notebook,” published in 2001 by Council Oak Books (a publishing company he happened to own), he knew he had a hit. In 2001, he sold most of his stake in Skyy to the Campari Group, the Italian distillery, for a reported $207.5 million.
Maurice Kanbar was born Moshe Shama on March 1, 1929, in what was then Palestine and emigrated with his family to the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1936. His father, Meier Shama, was a house painter; his mother, Hana Kanbar Shama, was a chef who worked in hotels and summer camps. Moshe and his two brothers’ first names were Americanized, and when they were older they began using their mother’s birth name.
Maurice studied chemistry and engineering at the Philadelphia Textile Institute, which later became Philadelphia University. His first business had been Harmaur Photographers, which he and a friend, Harvey Roer, started when Maurice was 13 and Harvey was 12. (They took photos of the neighbors’ children.) In the…
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