Experiencing Haiti’s rough-hewn culture can resemble time travel, and the culture around clairin, the local spirit, is no exception. Clairin, known as the rum of the people, is an un-aged clear cane spirit produced by 500 to 600 micro distilleries that dot the countryside, each with its own taste and terroir, where locals drop by with plastic jugs to fill for their households.
Haiti’s distinct culture is due, in no small part, to the 1791-1804 slave rebellion and subsequent independence from France. Sugar cane was brought by Columbus, and the non-monoculture style of agriculture _ where mango trees, corn stalks, banana bushes and manioc plants grow right next to sugar _ results in super-rich soil. The cane is cut by hand, and no chemical fertilizers are used.
Undiluted cane juice ferments naturally in the hot tropical climate _ the open tanks attract natural yeasts. A trick Haitian distillers have learned to lengthen fermentation time in such hot weather is to control the pH with the addition of acidic ingredients, such as lemongrass or citrus, which add complexity and their own specific hints of flavor. The distillate is also left unfiltered, resulting in even more complexity of taste.
Often compared to the rhums agricoles of Martinique, in many ways this wild spirit is more similar to mezcal, with its use of archaic production methods, indigenous yeasts, wild cane (instead of agave) and pot stills, created region by region based on local tastes and traditions.
In 2017, the first clairin was officially exported to the U.S., and in April 2018, Slow Food launched a presidium in Haiti to protect and promote the traditions around its production.
You can now find several examples of this spirit here in the States. Vaval, on the southern Haitian coast, has been made the same way since 1940, using French methods similar to cognac production. The distillery’s location by the sea imparts briny seaweed notes, but the spirit’s taste is distinctly floral with slate minerality.
Le Rocher, a distillery at a higher elevation, makes clairin from syrup produced by boiling the wild cane juice, in a more Jamaican single pot “dunder” style. Bottled at still proof of 47.2% alcohol, like all clairin it is high in alcohol, but it offers an undiluted taste of the region’s terroir, showing aromas of cooked banana and spice.
Kevin Beary, beverage director at Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash, first tried clairin about four years ago when mixologist Kate Perry (now a representative for clairin importers La Maison & Velier) had a stash behind the bar where she worked. “It was so exciting to me, to be able to taste the diversity in rums from Haiti. The fact that they come from mom and pop operations allows for so many variables in production, from distillation to fermentation.”
Beary likes to play with clairin in stirred cocktails, especially in an inverted martini style. He mixes 1 ounce Vaval clairin with 2 ounces of blanc vermouth and adds just a teaspoon of sweetened rhubarb or pomegranate juice for a lift of acidity, plus a drop of saline. He serves the pale pink drink straight up.