The revolution that began in the late 18th century set Haiti apart from the rest of the Caribbean. What began as a slave uprising lead to more than a decade of bitter struggle, through which the fledgling state won its independence from French rule. After the conflict, many of the plantations built by the colonial regime were in ruins. There was little desire among the newly liberated population to rebuild them so the cultivation of cash crops like indigo, tobacco, and sugar continued on a small scale, serving families and communities. For better and worse, this post-revolution agriculture proved resistant to change and remains relatively un-industrialised to this day. Travel to Haiti and you’ll find ancient varieties of sugar cane growing near-wild among the corn and fruit trees – untouched by genetic modification and chemical intervention. This county’s remarkable history has created a unique type of agriculture, which in turn has given rise to a unique style of rum.
Clairin is made by fermenting cane juice and distilling the resulting cane wine. One of the best-known producers, Michel Sajous, plants numerous species of cane on his land near the city of Saint Michel de l’Attalaye, though he favours an heirloom strain called Cristalline. His crop is cut by hand and pressed to extract its juice, which is then reduced slightly over burning cane fibres. The concentrated liquid is then left to spontaneously ferment in the open air for about 10 days, or ‘until the bubbles stop’. This cane wine is then pot-distilled to an ABV of around 55% and bottled without ageing, filtration, or additives. Clairin Sajous is funky and herbal with aromas of mandarin, grape, petrol, and banana – though vintages do vary. This is totally different to the style made by Fritz Vaval at Arrawaks distillery in Cavaillon. He grows Madam Meuze cane on 20 hectares near Haiti’s south coast, ferments only raw cane juice, and distils using a short column with a homemade condenser. Clairin Vaval has a briny, green olive quality, with pineapple and preserved lemon on the palate.
More than 500 small distilleries, or gildives, across Haiti produce Clairin, and each one could reasonably claim to show individual terroir. The equipment varies enormously from one to the next but you’d be unlikely to find much in the way of mod cons. While rum production in other Caribbean nations has generally become more efficient and industrialised, Clairin has absorbed minimal foreign influence in the last 200 years. It’s precisely this lack of manipulation that has made the spirit of Haiti so distinctive and fascinating. As the eyes of the world fall on this unique product, its economic potential has begun to grow. But a delicate balance must be struck to make sure this newfound attention does not infringe on what makes Clairin special.
Across Haitian society there’s concern that while outside influences promise economic advantages, they also carry risks. The nation’s farmers are famously resistant to the introduction of genetically modified seeds and pesticides, for instance. Their traditional methods have created a natural way of growing crops that is, by its nature, organic and un-beholden to international agribusiness. However, the lack of modernisation has brought its own burdens. This is a people who have suffered punitive restitutions imposed by their former rulers, successive corrupt governments, and a string of natural disasters. For their fortunes to improve, things have to change. International interest in Clairin represents a source of income for those who make it. But a balance must be struck to preserve its integrity.
Italian bottler Habitation Velier has championed Clairin internationally for nearly a decade. Since CEO Luca Gargano and rum category manager Daniele Biondi visited the country in 2012 they have released single vintage expressions from various producers as well as a handful of blends. The latest, Clairin Sonson, debuted in the UK earlier this year bringing the number of distilleries in the range to five.
When asked if there are plans to further increase the offering, Biondi says that the idea is to take it slow. ‘We don’t have any new producers to add in the short term. It took nine years to reach this point and it was not so easy. We prefer to establish solid relationships and processes rather than rush things.’ Biondi keenly feels the need to protect Clairin’s essential nature. ‘If you create a project to honour ancient techniques that have almost disappeared from the world, the first consideration has to be to preserve them. Not only to keep the quality, but to keep the producers’ way of working which has been established over generations. We can’t change that local balance, we can only accept and learn from it. From the beginning, we created our definition of traditional Clairin, which is a list of things to preserve, from the natural agriculture with no chemicals, to the spontaneous fermentation, and ancient distillation techniques.’ It’s clear that great pains are being taken to maintain the integrity of Clairin at the source. But as the world gets wise to the quality of these rums, their time evolving in isolation is coming to an end.
In 2015, casks stencilled with names like Hampden and Caroni began to arrive in a warehouse in the Haitian capital. By maturing small quantities of Clairin in casks from these storied distilleries, Velier and its partners are making a bold statement about the spirit’s future potential. Bottlings of aged Clairin are not widely available at present, but their emergence marks the creation of a new sub-category. Perhaps even the first step in transforming an agricultural product into a luxury commodity.
In 2019, the Port au Prince distillery began production under the direction of long-time Velier collaborators the Linge-Barbancourt family. Daniele is keen to say that the spirits coming from the plant’s pot still are definitionally different from those made by Sajous or Vaval. ‘The name Clairin refers to local product made in the villages, for the consumption of the village. The farmer is the producer and is the owner. Providence on the contrary is a new business and the concept behind the rum is innovative and not “traditional”.’ Even so, the distillery’s first release showed some very Clairin-like qualities that hint at common DNA. Providence: First Drops, has a really wild nose with Greek yoghurt, dark fruits, cut grass, and capers. An interesting blend of styles and influences that hints at interesting things to come.
So far, efforts to bring Clairin to a wider audience have been respectful of tradition. With any luck, the incorporation of outside influences will represent a broadening of Haitian distilling culture, rather than a compromise of its principles. New ventures and experiments have not yet changed the fundamentals of farming, fermentation, or distillation practised across the countryside. And for now, at least, Clairin remains Clairin.