“Traditional Haitian Clairin is, in my opinion, the purest expression of rum in the world and is the result of pre-chemical agriculture in a place where the farmer and the distiller are the same person.” – Luca Gargano
Like I mentioned in a previous review, my process of discernment when it comes to buying a new bottle of liquor involves consulting my own go-to references; Malt is one of those. Through time, I’ve learned that the writers at Malt have a particular philosophy behind their reviews that adds valuable insight to my process, and I believe this has helped me consistently make wise purchasing decisions. In this sense, I don’t consider Malt to be a primary reference because the all the palates of its writers agree with mine; rather, it’s because of their approach to critical assessment.
Of course, not all references are exhaustive, and Malt isn’t either. When I first became curious about Clairin and was seeking more information about it, I discovered that it had yet to be written about in Malt. John has written most of the rum reviews, but as he previously explained, the nature of his work would result in a conflict of interest, preventing him from writing about Clairin from a fully unbiased point of view. As a newer contributor to Malt, I’d like to fill in that gap and introduce Clairin to those who visit Malt to seek more information about it.
Clairin, while very similar to rum and typically made from sugarcane juice or syrup, is categorically distinct. It is the national spirit of Haiti and is often referred to as the “rhum of the people” due to its deep roots in Haitian culture and heritage. Many individuals who comprise the Haitian diaspora say that Clairin reminds them of home like no other kind of food or drink. According to Haitian American singer Riva Nyri Précil, “Clairin originated in the countryside [of Haiti], where Vodou took root,” where Clairin was “almost always present in ceremonies or readily available in the practitioner’s household; it’s customary to pour some out for the spirits, [either] onto the ground or in a vessel as an offering, then drink a kou (or swig) in solidarity.
Currently, there are upwards of 500 micro-distilleries in Haiti that produce Clairin (this is in contrast to only around 50 active distilleries everywhere else in the Caribbean). During the time when Western colonialism was still the norm, Haiti became the first nation to gain independence in the Caribbean and Latin America in 1802 and consequently experienced an isolation that helped them preserve their traditions. As a result, compared to most other spirits that have undergone forms of industrialization at some point in their histories, Clairin continues to be produced without reliance on new technology and remains “relatively uncontaminated by synthetic chemicals.”
The value of maintaining an intimate relationship with the environment and their heritage is the guiding principle among distillers; this can be seen in their use of only manually cultivated local sugarcane, the exclusive use of wild yeast and natural fermentation, and the practice of consuming the spirit in all cultural events and without the need for dilution, added sugar or flavorings, or aging (after all, Clairin is French-Haitian creole for “clear,” according to this source).
In 2017, due to the efforts of Luca Gargano and Daniele Biondi of Velier, Clairin was made commercially available for the first time outside Haiti, in the United States. While Gargano and Biondi initially selected three distillers and their respective brands, Le Rocher was eventually a fourth brand that was also added to the line-up.
Clairin Le Rocher is a brand produced in Pignon commune (village) by Bethel Romelus. Taking inspiration from biblical references to wise men who build their houses “on the rock” instead of on sand, the religious Romelus built his distillery on a rock and named the distillery “Le Rocher.” His Clairin is single pot distilled and made from sugar cane syrup from three varieties of cane as well as from dunder, which is leftover distillate from previous batches. At 46.5% strength, this release from the 2017 crop is bottled at the same average proof that it was distilled to.
Clairin Le Rocher – Review
On the nose: Funky yet fragrant. A cup of frozen yogurt with toppings of fresh blueberries and strawberries, caramel sauce, and kiwi. The blueberries, in particular, easily (and literally) takes over the room and stays for a while. There are also aromas of dried grass, crab roe, and tire rubber, plus undertones of buttered croissants and sliced almonds. This checks many boxes!
In the mouth: The mouthfeel is oily, but the flavors are not cloying or overpowering. Light and fluffy tres leches cake covered with fresh fruits. The same yogurt bowl flavors are there but lifted by a layer of herbs and honey on the tongue. Olives. As it develops, hints of diesel, day-old sliced bananas, and slimy pineapple show up. Very refreshing and dessert-y. The finish is long, long, long and has honey, rosemary, soy milk, and a bouquet of old bananas.
Clairin Le Rocher is expressive and engaging. It has a distinct freshness that cooperates with and develops well alongside funkier flavors. I adore the texture, too. Personally, there’s a unique appeal to the experience of leaving a room even after I’ve finished drinking and coming back to scent of the blueberries, a tangible reminder of what I just enjoyed.
The packaging is vibrant and intriguing but also provides consumers with valuable information (in French, but nothing that a brief Google translation can’t address) about who produced the spirit and how it was produced. I purchased this bottle locally for only $45, which is the same as its price at Astor Wines & Spirits, and it costs only £53 (around $70) from Master of Malt and The Whiskey Exchange. Obviously, its value for money is unquestionable.
If you or anyone you know doesn’t associate much flavor or sensorial joy with unaged spirits, perhaps because they pale in comparison (pun intended) to older spirits that have been aged in this or that kind of cask, I would not have second thoughts about recommending Clairin as “Exhibit A” of why you or they are mistaken. In fact, Clairin makes a good case for the value of pre-maturation steps in the production process like fermentation and distillation, which are not often considered as sexy or as romantic as cask aging even by countless enthusiasts. Like I said, it checks many boxes.
The second image of Clairin Le Rocher is courtesy of The Whiskey Exchange.
And this is largely why Clairin is called the Mezcal of the Caribbean
Hey, John! Oh? How come? (I’m not that familiar with Mezcal, haha!)
This didnt paste. “Currently, there are upwards of 500 micro-distilleries in Haiti that produce Clairin (this is in contrast to only around 50 active distilleries everywhere else in the Caribbean). ”
Lots of micro distillers.
That’s really interesting, I thought it was related to flavor or the production process. Thanks for the information!
Thanks for this review, I hadn’t heard of Clarin before! Pretty interesting. I’ll have to see if it’s available anywhere here in Canada.
Hi, Surfs! Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m glad that you found Clairin interesting! Fortunately, La Maison du Whisky imports to Canada, too, so I hope Clairin is part of the products they bring in. Cheers!
You’ll have to check French Canada. I think I’ve heard it’s available there.
Very informative review. Even though I own a couple of bottles of Clairin, I learned a tremendous amount.
I bought a bottle of this same vintage pre-Covid and concur with your enthusiasm. Unaged rum is my favorite kind. (Although I am also enjoying a 12-year-old Foursquare at the moment.) I think there are prejudices about aging that derive from the whisky world where aging is really necessary. Then that mindset is transferred to other spirits to the detriment of the appreciation of their special qualities.
Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad that my piece was helpful for you!
In the whisky world, I think a big part of why aging is necessary for flavor is because it’s been required by law as well. When it comes to Scotch, for example, there’s no need to craft complex and characterful distillate if unaged distillate cannot be sold and if much of the whisky’s flavors are expected to come from casks anyway. I agree with you; this same approach doesn’t always work well for other categories. I’ve had an aged Clairin that I plan to write about eventually, and it didn’t impress me because aging took away some of the funk I enjoy with Clairin. Thankfully, there are more unaged options. Cheers!
Wonderful review! Can’t wait to try some Clairin, though I am undecided between the different batches. I have just recently got into rum and was debating where to go next after Appleton 12 and Doorly’s 12, I was curious about Rhum Agricole but when I learned about this stuff – the hundreds of small batch producers, the use of wild yeasts and natural fermentation, the lack of industrial techniques, the connection to local producers etc. etc. I’ve decided I might try some of this next.
I am so fascinated by what quality artisinal producers can do with unaged spirits like this. It really goes to show that the cask doesn’t do it all, and the role that fermentation and the like plays in the flavour. You are starting to see a revival here in Ireland for example with poitin, and Killowen distillery also make use of wild yeasts and open air fermentation and the like. Their Bulcán poitin (Part 1 is the unaged version) is one of the best examples of Irish spirits full stop, even above a lot of aged whiskeys.
So yes, excited to try some Clairin when I can! Not sure which one I’ll go for.
Thank you for your words and for spending the time to read my piece! I absolutely agree with you; cask maturation and age aren’t always the sole markers of quality, especially when one is after flavor. Have you thought about going for both a Clairin and a Rhum Agricole so that you can compare and learn about both?
I’m afraid I haven’t had enough Clairins to get to point you toward a specific brand that you might like, but when I first decided to go for it, I hit the ground running and went for a random bottle (Le Rocher) that I ended up loving. Maybe that might work for you, too! Cheers!