Maurice Kanbar, Who Defuzzed Sweaters and Defanged Vodka, Dies at 93

Maurice Kanbar, Who Defuzzed Sweaters and Defanged Vodka, Dies at 93

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 late 1950s, they ran a textile company called the Spandex Corporation, which made the stretchy synthetic fiber invented by Dupont but sold it at a lower price.

After moving to San Francisco, Mr. Kanbar invested in real estate there and made news for evicting longtime tenants of a building he owned. He also bought $100 million worth of property in Tulsa, Okla., and invested in a tea company in Hawaii, among other ventures.

And he produced movies, notably “Hoodwinked,” a 2005 animated reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood story that did pretty well at the box office, and its sequel, “Hoodwinked Too!” (2011), which did not. He was a generous donor, mostly to educational institutions, including the Cooper Union, New York University and Philadelphia University, to which he gave $21 million in 2014.

Mr. Kanbar held some three dozen patents, including one for a swizzle stick that converts to a pair of magnifying glasses. There were a few flops — a soft drink made from 80 percent cola and 20 percent diet cola was one example — as well as a few inventions still on the market that many consumers may never have heard of, like SooFoo (short for Super Good Food), a grain product made from lentils, brown rice, barley and other grains; Tangoes, a puzzle game; and Zip Notes, a roller dispenser for Post-it-style notepaper. He also trademarked the name Wagel, for an idea for a healthy bagel, but never brought it to market.

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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