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.
Our instinct to classify things came 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 “correct”) 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.
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.
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 is non-standard, and each producer has their own means and methods of making the spirit. 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 mishmash 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 lack of consistent practices, the made-in-a-shed operations, the addition of fruits to the fermentation mix, the makeshift 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?
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.
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.
It sparked a debate. Those who love Clairin 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” in the Haitian sunshine.)
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.
Why drink 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. This is as single estate as they come, a true reflection of the diversity of the terroir and distilling landscape of Haiti.
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.
I’ve had the privilege of tasting the complete range of five Clairins from La Maison & Velier at around US$36 for the flight of five. It was unforgettable.
Part of the original trio, Clairin Sajous is named after its maker Mr Michel Sajous, who produces the Clairin out of his small 30-hectare Chelo Distillery, in Saint-Michel de l’Attalaye, north of Port-au-Prince.
Saint-Michel is known for producing some of the highest quality Clairin in Haiti where they are better known for using sugarcane syrup (instead of cane juice) to make the white spirit. Despite his town’s affinity with cane syrup, Michel Sajous’ Clairin is made with sugarcane juice.
This vintage uses the Cristalline varietal of sugar cane, which was fermented over seven to 10 days using wild yeast and double distilled using a pot still. The spirit is bottled straight from the still with no aging or tinkering whatsoever.
Clairin Sajous 2015 – Review
Chelo Distillery, Saint Michel de l’Attalaye, Haiti, 51% ABV.
Colour: Clear, transparent spirit.
On the nose: Very spirit driven led with the smell of ethanol, although there’s little alcoholic “bite” or singe. Quick to arrive right after is a grassy, herbaceous note that resembles cut grass and freshly chopped dill. These two high notes are most detectable and remain most identifiable throughout the nosing. A very distinctive kerosene note percolates through the aroma.
Left to sit, faint funkiness shows up. Pickle water, green olive brine, you’d almost think this was a Jamaican Overproof. There’re also notes of lime zest, reminiscent of a glass of Margarita with a salted rim, turning to a touch more savoury tomato salsa and cilantro.
Flavourful, but not the most complex.
In the mouth: For something that could easily be mistaken by the eyes as water, it is surprisingly creamy and smooth in texture. It slides across the palate with a nice viscosity. This takes a good second to heat up, and then a burst forth with a cacophony of notes – that same kerosene and green olive brine on the nose, a funky overripe banana, a floral geranium, an earthy, umami, white truffle and then some freshly turned soil. There is no discernible sequence, it is a whole lot of everything at once; an experience akin to watching a minute summary of Nolan’s latest film, Tenet.
With another few sips, the same sort of chaos ensues, but this time with my seatbelts buckled, I’m able to find dustings of powdered sugar, camphor smoke, pickled vegetables and smoked ham. It’s as if the initial notes each took a half step to the left – similar, but not the same.
The finish is very short and clean, with more brine and kerosene and perhaps some fresh soil.
The rather straightforward nose is compensated for by the slightly more complex palate. Yet like a rush of Japanese salarymen squeezing to fit through the closing metro doors in Tokyo Shinjuku Station, some order would have certainly helped.
Also part of the original trio, Clairin Vaval features Clairin made by Mr Fritz Vaval at Arawaks Distillery, which sits on the southern Haitian coast in Cavaillon. His family has been running the 20 hectare distillery since 1947, and produces the spirit using the Madame Meuze varietal sugarcane which is crushed to extract cane juice that is then fermented using a column still that, unbelievable as it may be, still uses leather trays and a condenser made of discarded petrol cans.
I have been told that Arawaks’s proximity to the shoreline made it an unfortunate casualty to floods that happened as a result of a natural disaster that occurred in 2015, which damaged its sugarcane plantation.
As with most other Clairins, Clairin Vaval’s flavour profile is shaped by the specific strains of wild yeast (which naturally grows in their cane plantation). Damage to the plantation also means an irretrievable loss of several strains of wild yeast, resulting in some variation in profile for Vaval’s Clairin pre- and post-2015. This review covers the 2016 harvest. I’d add that this change of yeasts shouldn’t necessarily make subsequent batches better or worse.
Clairin Vaval 2016 – Review
Arawaks Distillery, Cavaillon, Haiti, 48.8% ABV.
Colour: Crystal clear.
On the nose: Again, the same initial ethanol, with gasoline notes springing forward, but this is really not as aggressive as you might think. Here, there’s a very dominant note of mint jelly or mint-infused water. It has more depth than the other Clairins, with balsamic notes, olive, brine, fennel. Comes across somewhat Mediterranean.
There’s a freshness and bitterness that is reminiscent of watermelon rinds or cucumbers, a sort of wetness that is evocative of a mangrove shoreline. The base note of sugar cane juice is more apparent here as well. It is a very distinctive aroma the Vaval has.
In the mouth: The mint-infused water on the nose carries on to the palate. Thick, buttery, yet awfully smooth texture. The fresh mint is quite stark on the palate but it is accompanied by a woodiness that one might associate with a potpourri.
The herbaceousness here is very fresh and juicy, but also quite rich, you could almost mistake it for English mint sauce and eating sliced cactus (a fairly common snack in South America). There are other notes of lime zest and salt, green mangoes and some honey sweetness. Quite vegetal but not in any way off-putting.
The finish is longer this time, the minty notes linger along with the gasoline notes, which surprisingly gets more honeyed and sweeter over time. But otherwise, quite clean and crisp.
Clairin Casimir is produced by none other than Mr Faubert Casimir, who took over the remote 50-hectare Barradères Distillery not far from Port-au-Prince from his father in 1979. Considered locally to be a real maestro of Clairin-making, he uses Hawaii White and Hawaii Red sugarcane which are crushed to produce cane juice that is then, more peculiarly, mixed with lemongrass leaves, cinnamon, citronella and ginger for fermentation and subsequent distillation.
Clairin Casimir 2016 – Review
Barradères Distillery, Barradères, Haiti, 48.3% ABV.
On the nose: Ethanol, kerosene, but noticeably lighter this time. The nose is less pungent than the other Clairins with more base notes. It is grassy and meadow-y, with fresh cut grass and the aroma of wild flowers.
There are jammy notes here, more specifically strawberry jam or cherry compote. There’s the funky hogo of overripe bananas often associated with Jamaican rums, as well as “orange duck with a side of plum sauce” as one writer I’ve seen put it. It is such a specific, déjà vu-evoking note that there is no other way to put it. Generous spreads of herbed butter as well.
The nose on the Clairin Casimir is the most muted of the lot, but this has an interesting complexity and subtlety.
In the mouth: Initial notes resemble mild clarified butter in both taste and texture. And then as if the bass was dropped we have a burst of bright, ripened fruit. Loads of ripened banana, strawberries, Mikan oranges and sweet-and-sour plum reduction coming forth.
This is accompanied by brighter, brinier kerosene notes and some pungent spiciness; cardamom pods, star anise and cloves.
The finish is mid-length and tunes up the sweetness and fruitiness by several notches. Very creamy and buttery, kind of like a lychees and cream cake. Confectionary-like and delightful.
A tricky one, this next Clairin! The Le Rocher, launched in 2017, breaks the trend – it isn’t made by a person named Le Rocher. Instead, it is crafted by one particularly spirited and spiritual Mr Bethel Romelus. Le Rocher actually means “The Rock”, and takes its name from the Bible verses Matthew 7: 24-27, where Jesus expounds on a parable emphasising the need to build a strong foundation; to build a house on a solid rock and not sand. The distillery is located in the village of Pignon, not too far from where Michel Sajous produces his juice.
One thing to note about Clairin Le Rocher is that unlike the first three, it is made using sugar cane syrup from three varieties of sugarcane, procured from the town of Saint-Michel (as mentioned above, Saint-Michel is known for its cane syrup). The cane syrup is then run through a discontinuous pot still in similar fashion to the other Clairins.
Another thing that is quite unique about the Le Rocher is Bethel’s use of dunder (the liquid left in a boiler after distilling a batch of rum). A third of the material from the previous round of distillation is carried forward to each subsequent batch. It is a process that would instantly remind rum lovers of the Jamaicans.
Our fellow Malt writer Jigs has also recently written on the Le Rocher, so do check his review out.
Clairin Le Rocher 2017 – Review
Le Rocher Distillery, Pignon, Saint-Raphael, Haiti, 46.5% ABV.
Colour: Is it possible to be more transparent than water? Clear, colourless spirit.
On the nose: Noticeably less bright and acute; if the other Clairins presented the typical newmake kerosene scent, this one’s diesel. It’s the same synthetic, industrial, plasticky, Play Doh scent but deeper, less aggressive and even confectionary-like. No less pungent though. This note could be identified as Tutti-Frutti flavoured ice cream.
This interestingly allows other scents through, such as bouillon cubes, chicken consommé, dashi – it’s at once salty, rich and oily. There are also more umami notes like black truffles, morels, kombu. The grassy notes still exist but are further beneath the layers.
Perhaps the most complex of the lot of Clairins.
In the mouth: The initial vibe is an easy greeting, albeit a crowded one. It is creamy and silky as with the other Clairins. As with the Sajous, it comes with a wave of different flavours – high notes ranging from funky hogo, tropical fruits, candy corn, to lighter florals and fresh laundry, and then sea spray and dill, rosemary and lemongrass herbs, pickled cucumbers, and lastly earthier notes like mushrooms and soil.
It is at once, funky, fruity, almost saccharine. It’s floral, salty, acidic, herbaceous, umami and earthy. There’s every note you could look for on the spectrum, but what do you even make of it?
As with the nose, the palate is probably the most complex. It somewhat resembles the Sajous, if amped up by a couple of notches. Everything is just more intense. Yet, there is little definition to each note, and they all choke their way through at the same time, leaving not too much space for savouring.
The finish is long drawn out, with a taste and texture that somehow reminds me of Greek yogurt with the slightest hint of honey. Toss in a twig of rosemary and we’re about there.
The fifth and final instalment, the Sonson, was released in 2021, having more in common with Le Rocher than the original trio. Not only is it not produced by anyone named Sonson (not even middle names), but like the Le Rocher, it is produced using cane syrup.
Sonson originates from the Cabaret village north-west of Port-au-Prince, and is produced by Mr Stephan Kalil Saoud, a third- generation Clairin maker at the Sonson Distillery, using the Madame Meuze varietal of sugarcanes. Just like its cousins of the same range, and Clairins more broadly, it is wild fermented. The syrup is then carried out in a single pot still and distilled over an open fire. There’s a fair bit written on the provenance of the Sonson Distillery, but I’ll leave you to read about it on your own.
Clairin Sonson 2018 – Review
Sonson Pierre-Gilles Distillery, Cabaret, Haiti, 53.2% ABV
Colour: Clearer than clear. Colourless spirit.
On the nose: Bunsen burner gas, propane; very bright and rambunctious but also grassy and vegetal. Simultaneously very much bigger on the synthetic and grassy new make profile. Freshly cut grass, Clamato(an oddly specific thing I got to try from a Canadian cousin), tart unsweetened Greek yoghurt.
Squeeze of lime, chili flakes, a chalky flint-like minerality and some sour cream. Lots going on, but it’s all very discordant, like a punk rock band where everyone’s playing a different score.
In the mouth: Creamy, sweetened simple syrup, with something of pandan cake top notes, desiccated coconut, again with the chili flakes and flaky sea salt. There’s even something very apparently absent in the other Clairins – it’s somewhat smoky and briny. Is this peated?
More floral notes come through, with the smell of ixora sap. More Clamato, some crushed blackberries and grilled pineapple slices, old wet wood, again with the kerosene and some tobacco leaf.
Some aeration brings out more tropical fruits – primarily pineapples and coconuts, and the base cane syrup. It’s not boring that’s for certain, but do I like it? I can’t say. It’s equal parts complex and confusing.
The finish is short, with really not that much going on. It could have passed off as sugared water.
This sub-genre still leaves so much to unpack and so much to expound. There’s its national significance. Then there’s the question 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).
Taste this with fresh eyes and palates. This is large, this contains multitudes. Most importantly, this is honest.
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 absolute 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 a strong opinion. But I stand by all personal opinions and scores expressed herein.