Clairin. Its history goes back to at least the 18th century when the Caribbean was still colonized by the European powers. Despite its long existence, it’s considered a new spirit to the rest of the world.
In fact, Velier’s Luca Gargano claims that the word clairin would result in no matches in online searches during the early 2000s. Much like Mezcal, before it was “discovered” by foreigners, it was only consumed by locals. These days, when clairin is mentioned, it’s almost guaranteed that Velier’s range of clairin (that Han and Jigs discussed and reviewed( will come to people’s minds.
Again, much like Mezcal, there are still lots of small-scale backyard-type producers all over who haven’t had their distillates bottled and exported yet. I recommend you abandon the romantic image of finding endless amounts of good, secret clairins. Credible industry folks have mentioned a lot of these are made in poor quality.
While I love the clairin being represented by Velier, it’s always nice to learn of new brands. Until recently, the only other brand I knew of is Saint Benevolence, which seems to be more available in the US. The newest brand I became aware of is this Kléren Nasyonal Traditionnel 22 from Moscoso Distillers, aka Barik. A huge thanks to The Lone Caner for this sample, and letting me leech off his notes.
Moscoso Distillers is a 3rd generation clairin-maker founded by Jules Moscoso. He came over from the Dominican Republic during the 1900s. Initially, they produced and sold clairin. Later on, they also sold 95% alcohol to hospitals and pharmacies, rum stock as base for other clairin makers, and even essential oils. One of them ended up being the base for what turned into Chanel No.5. The business got big enough that aunts, cousins, and uncles eventually became involved.
Jules was a known tinkerer. This seems to be a common trend among Haitians and clairin producers. Most, if not all, the clairin stills are said to be patchwork of scraps. I recall one of the Velier clairin to have been distilled from a still that used to be a part of a train.
In the 1950s, Edouard Moscoso started handling the business. At this point, bulk and retail clairin sales remained steady, but the industry was moving toward larger distilleries. This meant more industrialization. In the 1970s, business and Edouard’s health regressed to the point he had to ramp down production in the 80s. For a period of 20 years, Moscoso as a clairin maker almost disappeared.
Today, they’re handled by Michael “Didi” Moscoso. He spent some years moving from job to job, but he grew up in the family business and had apprenticed at his uncle’s more modern clairin operation. He eventually took over a near-abandoned clairin distiller in 2008. From the start, he moved away from the typical run-down look that clairin has. He wanted something more professional: something with consistent quality, and double-distilled.
However, refurbishing a distillery is expensive. He had to beg, borrow, and scavenge for scraps. It took sourcing items like abandoned kitchen equipment, wires, and screws to help repair and refurbish the distillery. He even had to raid family treasure chests when he could. Aside from that, he got help from his uncle and father. Despite all of that, it even took all of his savings, personal loans and credit cards to accomplish this. Finally, there was a successful test run at the end of the year. Commercial production began in January of 2009 to make bulk clairin for local producers and exporting. Other SKUs like caramelized, infused, and white rums were also made.
If financial troubles weren’t enough, an earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. This destroyed a lot of the island’s infrastructure. The scale of increased industrial ethanol also presented a challenge. A small amount of true funky, flavorful and pungent clairin would be mixed with ethanol. This increased the amount of low quality “clairin,” which pushed down the sales of the legit stuff.
Things even went from bad to worse in 2014. Industrial ethanol became more imported, which ended the sales of bulk clairin. This made Michael shift to bottling his products instead of bulk sales. After the earthquake, he started tinkering with his sugarmash. This eventually led to his creating the Traditionnel 22.
I find this note from The Lone Caner to be interesting: the traditional rundown look is due to the country’s peasant-like and unsavory reputation, which has been inherited by clairin. Another reason is it keeps the authorities away. If an operation seems a bit too professional, the taxman would come sniffing around. This kind of corruption has prevented modernization of clairin.
Kléren Nasyonal Traditionnel 22 – Review
55% ABV. €48 from Excellence Rhum.
On the nose: This doesn’t have the burn that you’d expect for the ABV it has. The grassy funk I get from this reminds me of the style of the Sajous Clairin. There are aromas of petrol, cane vinegar, cane juice, cane stalks, pineapple crown, pineapple tepache and pineapple shrub.
In the mouth: Full bodied, but not as complex as the Velier ones. The different notes here are muddled unlike on the nose. I get bits of petrol, cane juice, cane vinegar, grassiness, and pineapple shrub.
This is certainly a clairin. My following comments may come across as biased, but there’s no other choice. I have to compare it to Velier’s Clairin since they’re the most popular and easily accessible ones. Also, they’re the only other clairin I’ve had so far.
I find this lacks the complexity and delicate nature the Velier ones have. This being made from a sugar mash is also unclear to me as I don’t know what sugar mash means. The image sugar mash gives me is it’s a base of processed sugar rather than the cane juice or cane syrup clairin we’re used to.
If it’s from a base of a processed sugar mash, call me surprised. I didn’t think something like that could be good. I’m not calling this bad, as there are no bad flavors. But I also wouldn’t call this great.
Regardless of how I didn’t give this flattering comments, this is still worth trying. I’d consider this a beginner’s brand before diving into Velier’s clairin range. For the agricole drinkers, think of this as a St. James or Clement while Velier’s is more like a Neisson or JM.
Image courtesy of Excellence Rhum.