A Trip Through Clairin, The Spirit of Haiti
(Image Source: AFAR Magazine, Liquor Mojo)
The thing about categories.
People love categories.
They serve as mental heuristics that allow us to “bucket” things and have a reference point to understand a thing across certain parameters. They’re especially useful in the world of r(h)um. Colour, country, aged/unaged, type of distillation apparatus (e.g. column or pot still), style – these are various parameters used to give structure and realistically allow us to make sense of the wilderness that is rum. Without them, the variety of rums is simply too wide for a broad stroke understanding of the three- (or four-) lettered category of spirit.
It’s a lot handier to know what to look for and cross off a couple of checkboxes. “This is just another type of rum. It’s made in a certain way, it’s got that classic funk, spices, brown sugar, grassiness, tropical fruits…” Because without some structure, you wouldn’t even know how to begin evaluating the drink.
The existing categories do help us make easy comparisons and quickly decide where we stand on an issue. Yet, the very reliance on static categories limits our experiences with new things at the bar. We now have preconceived ideas about what something ought to be. That’s us unfairly imposing some sort of value judgement without objectivity. Before the fated sip, we’ve already been told what to expect based on existing categories. We’ve already tasted it in our heads.
Luca Gargano wants the world to taste rums as they are, rum or otherwise. (Image Source: Brian Finke, AFAR Magazine)
Our instinct to classify things comes to a head when renowned tastemakers La Maison & Velier pounded the table and said to the wider spirits community: you should try this exotic Haitian spirit that resists classification. There’s too much to unpack about Clairin’s craft and national significance.
You can’t just call it a rum. Not really – rather than molasses, it is made from sugar cane syrup or cane juice. Is it rhum agricole? Not exactly. They have very different stills, different traditions and different fermentation practices (or the lack of one). Even the name “Clairin” is translated as “clear” in Haitian Creole, which is to say Clairin is typically a transparent spirit that is consumed without aging. Locally in Haiti, there is an overwhelming preference for the clear spirit to remain just that, clear and unaged. This defies an arguably more conventional (don’t mistake that for “better”) wisdom that tends to preach “older is better”. This also makes it difficult for some to see an unaged Clairin as on par with aged rums, worthy of just as much appreciation.
If you swapped them around, just the glasses of Clairin, you wouldn't be able to tell which was which by sight alone. Yet take a sip and enter a world that is so much more. (Image Source: La Maison and Velier)
It wasn’t easy convincing the people to try Clairin, mind you. How do you convince rum, whisky and brandy lovers to put aside their revered institution of oak maturation? At least, the clout and sway of Velier chief Luca Gargano helped. His influence on the arena of spirits is as close to what Jesus is to religion. I’ve seen some, in their inebriation, speak of him with similar reverence. I’ve digressed.
The “enhancement” ageing imparts to spirits is well studied – mellowing of the hotness of the alcohol to allow the spirit to bring forth a greater complexity of flavors, a greater harmony of the blending of its contents, a richer, deeper, rounder and more intense character is developed, not to mention the imparting of woodiness (we’ll exclude the use of cask finishings here) which is itself a veritable flavoid, and of course, who could forget the simple yet sheer ecstatic aestheticism of a gorgeous glimmering amber liquid (most spirits come out transparent upon distillation and take their amber hue from the oak barrels in which it is matured) which shines like a diamond in the glass vessel of which it is contained.
As the saying goes, when in Haiti, do as the Haitians do. (Image Source: Uncommon Caribbean)
As you can see, the magic it brings is touted in an almost mystical fashion as observed by the words used to describe its effects. The Shochu category is at least one major beneficiary of having included ageing in their otherwise age old traditional craftsmenship that did not otherwise prescribe the fabled step. Some of the best Shochus are now aged in oak barrels.
I felt that this prelude was necessary because when it comes to a review of Haitian Clairin, we have to throw our preexisting classifications out the window.
What is Clairin?
Clairin is well… Clairin. I might reductively call it Haiti’s (dare-I-say) “rum-like” unaged spirit. But it is a category of its own, and cannot, should not be understood through the coloured lens of any other existing category.
Perhaps best described as “clear white creole still rhum” (by rum blogger, TheLoneCaner), it is a spirit drink that has existed for close to two centuries on the half-island, and is said to remind the Haitian diaspora of home. Yet it is a loosely defined category given that it is produced by at least half-a-thousand local distilleries (called guildives) that more closely resemble makeshift sheds. Production standards are non-standard and each producer has their own means and methods of making the spirit.
Equal part man and animal is put to work in making Clairin, each sugarcane plantation the backyard of the guildive. Micro-terroir at its finest. (Image Source: Wine Enthusiast Magazine)
Most of these backyard producers harvest and (with working animals) press their own sugarcane, leaving the sugarcane juices to ferment spontaneously under the naturally occurring yeasts in the environment. After an extended fermentation, where some producers even toss in herbs, fruits and spices to the mix, the wash is run through a makeshift “pot still” that is more often some mish-mash of a column and a pot still; one would be forgiven for believing Angus MacGyver was a real person, well and alive in Port-au-Prince. Each guildive is as unique as the next and their methods as idiosyncratic as they get.
Here's the tricky part.
Many rum lovers are beholden to the existing standards and classifications. They’re really uncomfortable about the idiosyncrasies, the lack of consistent practices, the made-in-a-shed operations, the addition of fruits to the fermentation mix, the make-shift pot stills made with discarded gasoline cans (good lord). They also scoff at the lack of aging. Without hesitation, Velier inducted Clairin all the same, presenting it in its authentic Haitian style and unadulterated (i.e. unaged) state. The Haitian locals enjoy this spirit without aging. How would we know any better than them?
The Sonson distillerie is a simple pot still heated directly over a fire. (Image Source: The Buyer)
Velier’s philosophy has been to bring Caribbean spirits to the world stage in a manner that respects their origins. The Habitation Velier series carries the tagline “The House of Pure Single Rums” – reflecting their search for single estate rums showcasing terroir – whether it is Guyanese Demerara or high-hogo Jamaican rum. The brand’s reputation has been built on bringing us Caribbean spirits in a pure and unadulterated way, in their house style, warts and all. Representing Haitian Clairin in its full glory continues this mission.
In French cuisine, there is a saying “the role of the chef is to bring out the best in the ingredients and to not do too much damage to it with his or her cooking”. It would appear as if Luca empathises the same.
(Image Source: The Lone Caner)
This is important because when it comes to Clairin – the spirit of Haiti, classifications matter and they don’t.
What is Clairin? Clairin is well… Clairin. That’s as far as Velier is concerned.
It is a category of its own, and cannot, and should not be understood through the colored lens of any other existing category.
The introduction of Clairin to the rum world was met with a mixture of shock, awe and even horror. Three core Clairin producers were first introduced – Michel Sajous, Fritz Vaval, and Faubert Casimir (known hereinafter as the “original trio”), before the range was expanded to include Le Rocher and Sonson.
The white spirit is unabashedly a reflection of its rugged provenance. To appreciate it, one must look past the comfort zone of what is definable and embrace idiosyncracy. (Image Source: Uncommon Caribbean)
It sparked a debate. Those who love it praise its raw, unadulterated, yet intensely flavourful profiles, and distinctive variety – each Clairin remarkably different from the next. The critics on the other hand, diss the rawness, the hotness, the unrefined edges, the overly-amped up flavours, and the lack of a clear shared distinctive standard that defines the category. The bulk of the criticism has to do with it being designed to be consumed unaged. It just seems like two sides of the same coin to me.
Most critics also appear to be benchmarking Clairin against other categories of spirits. “How does it compare to other rums or rhum agricoles, or maybe cachaca?” “Why isn’t it aged?” (Note: aged versions have been produced, but their quality has let’s just say lost a bit of the shine in the Haitian distilled sunshine.)
Why haven't the Clairins received the same affirmation as Velier's Demerara's is worth thinking about. (Image Source: Lone Caner, Rumclubfrancophone.fr)
The Haitian spirit has been a hidden Caribbean gem that has existed since the 18th century, until Velier came along. And despite Velier’s track record of elevating localised sub-categories to international fame (not least for Demeraras and Jamaican rums), its efforts to popularise Clairin have not paid off quite as much. I suspect a good part of this is simply due to Clairin’s resistance to classification, and the inability for the global audience to look past this.
Rum heads some time forget to appreciate the sheer hand labor that goes into the production of these incredible spirits, something that can't necessarily be said about other spirits. (Image Source: Uncommon Caribbean)
The case for Clairin.
It is an ancestral spirit, an embodiment of Haiti’s soul. It is as “pure” as Velier would have it – reflective of the rich tapestry of Haiti’s history and resilience of their people. It pulls no punches and makes no apologies for its untamed disposition – it is proud of it. This is as single estate as they come, a true reflection of the diversity of the terroir and distilling landscape of Haiti.
The same idiosyncrasies that make rums so unbridled in its astounding intensity is the same lack of consistency that some criticise. It must be said that they go hand in hand. To appreciate the purest rums, one must take it all in as it is made. (Image Source: Uncommon Caribbean)
How often does the spirits world get a chance to taste something with fresh eyes (or should I say palate)? We have to get over our fondness for classifications and as our dear friend John reminisced in 2019 before he embarked on an instructive trip through Guyana’s Demeraras, be as inspired as Anthony Bourdain to explore some Parts Unknown.
Now, let’s have some fun.
Given the nuance I wanted to achieve with this topic, I felt it was necessary to delve into each nook with the utmost curiosity and patience, peeling off layer by layer. As such, this post will serve as a master thread for the topic of Clairins and below you'll find the links to my respective reviews of the individual single estate bottlings, along with a summary of what I thought of them.
A visual map of the current five distilleries that comprise LM&V's single estate Clairins. (Image Source: Rumporter)
A Summary Thus Far
My Rating:🌪 🌪 🌪
This gets 3 hurricanes from me. A really complex and flavor bomb hurricane mind you. But it comes at you all at once and that can be much. Proceed with excitement but take your time.
If you want the classic most right down the center Clairin, go with the Sajous. With the Clairins, this is probably the expression you should use as the benchmark.
My Rating:🌵 🌿 ✨ 🥗 ❄️
Lots of greens, salad lovers take note! It reminds me of one of those vegetable water cleanses people get up to. Very squeaky, clean, crisp, salad bomb. It'll take you by surprise.
This Vaval is alittle less beginner friendly, yet from my (limited) surveys, it seems to be a favorite with rum lovers given its profile resemblance to traditional rhum agricole. If you fancy the infused water they serve at cafes, you'll probably like this. Rum lovers, you probably want to hone in on this one. (Do take note batch differences are probably most noticeable with the Vaval, before and after 2015, when a flood significantly altered the terroir.)
My Rating:🌟 🍰
The most delightful finish really takes the *cake* here. Don't be fooled by the more muted nose. It really takes its time to arrive, but arrive it does! And what a reward! I absolutely enjoyed it.
By comparison to the Vaval, which was more a fan favorite with rum lovers, the Casimir seem to be a bigger hit with more agnostic/casual drinkers. It's certainly more approachable palate-wise and is abit like a candy or cake shop - sweeter, more fruity, brighter, which I suppose has more general appeal. If you're just starting out, definitely try it, there's a good shot, this will be your favorite.
My Rating: 🏋️♀️
This one's very reminiscent of the Sajous, could be because they source their sugarcane material from the same town, although one's juice and one's made of syrup.
Like the Sajous, this is very classic Clairins (if there was such a thing) and could very well serve as the benchmark for a meaningful Clairins tasting. It's an amped up version of the Sajous - lots of flavors and complexity but falls short on the same flaws of the flavors being difficult to disentangle. If Sajous is the classic, call Le Rocher classic plus.
My Rating: 🎪
This is probably the most unique of the Clairins thus far (the fifth in the series), and I would say the most potentially divisive. You either like it or you don't.
It has some very interesting flavors that keeps you entertained but they seem to be discordant, flying in every which direction. You just can't quite seem to grasp where it's headed but you can't keep your eyes off it.
It's like Keeping Up With The Kardashians but Clairin.
My Recommended Tasting Order:
1. Clairin Sajous
2. Clairin Le Rocher
3. Clairin Casimir
4. Clairin Vaval
5. Clairin Sonson
I would recommend this order of tasting (keep in mind this is simply my humble opinion), which allows you to first set a benchmark with the Sajous (which I find to be the most classic profile if there was one), take it up a notch with the Le Rocher, which I find to be classic plus. Then follow it up with the Casimir and the Vaval, to kinda dabble on the left and right of the classic, so you stretch what you think Clairins can be. Finish it with the Sonson because it'll throw what you just established of Clairins out the trash. Always be open to new experiences.
I’ve had the privilege of trying (on my own wallet) the complete range of five Clairins from La Maison & Velier all at once, and for the first time ever for each of them. Trust me, it is an unforgettable story and an even more unforgettable experience.
This sub-genre still leaves so much to unpack and so much to expound. There’s its national significance to the half-island of Haiti, and then there’s its cultural significance to the world of r(h)ums. There’s also the peculiarity of why the rum world hasn’t taken as kindly to the Clairins as they have Velier’s past wins. It’s certainly got all the right ingredients – it’s got interesting provenance, broader cultural significance and an unusual process that makes for astounding conversation pieces. Its profile is electrically charged, flavours on high, characters as diverse and as complex as they come. It’s the new-old kid on the block that doesn’t fit any familiar classification.
You might not begin to appreciate them unless you accept the simple truth that a Clairin is a Clairin and doesn’t seek to be anything but. It is the spirit of a resilient and hardy nation (look up the country’s geography and go down the rabbit hole of the origins of a peculiarly-placed border splitting the island right down the middle).
I feel the need to disclaim that Clairins are some divisive stuff. I wouldn’t be so binary as to cut it right down the middle and divide the camps into lovers and haters. Even amongst those who’ve fully embraced the Spirit of Haiti, there’s a great deal of disagreement on which Clairin is most preferred. My article will not fully reflect the views of everyone who has an opinion on it. But all opinions and ratings expressed herein are categorically mine.
Taste this with fresh eyes and palates. This is large, this contains multitudes. Most importantly, this is honest. I hope more people can try this and come to their own conclusions.
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