Clairin is a first-of-its kind brand from Velier’s famous Luca Gargana, bringing the true, unbridled spirit of Haiti to the world. We learn about these unique rhums and how the special edition Clairin World Championship Rhum Blend came into being.
What is “clairin”?
Clairin is the native spirit of Haiti. A raw, unaged spirit produced from distilling naturally fermented sugarcane, it bears a striking resemblance to rhum agricole or cachaça, and is made and drunk widely throughout the country.
Small, often one-man-band, distilleries (some 532 at last count) are scattered throughout Haiti, creating these natural rhums from chemical-free farmed and spontaneously fermented, indigenous, un-hybridised sugar cane.
Biodiversity differentiates the sugar cane that clairin distillers use, but growing and brewing practices also impact the flavour. The crop is grown organically either in the wild or in polycultures, before being harvested by hand. These are then crushed in wooden mills powered by animals (similar in style to the tahona used in the production of mezcal and tequila) or by iron rollers. Natural yeast from the sugar cane ferments the juice over a period of around 120 to 168 hours. Some distillers add ingredients during fermentation to flavour the product; these include citronella, cinnamon and ginger.
The mixture is then batch distilled in artisanal stills (typically handmade pot stills with attached copper rectification columns of no more than six plates) heated by fire, often run on the bagasse by-product. This is bottled at distillation strength (often around the 50% ABV mark) and enjoyed widely throughout Haiti.
Clairin the Brand
With no exports since Haiti won independence from its French colonisers in 1804, clairin as a spirit remained a strictly Haitian enterprise, more likely sold in plastic jugs on the side of a road that in glass bottles touted in fancy spirits shops. However, in 2012, the winds of change began to blow.
Rum’s most famous importer, Luca Gargano (Velier) – best known for working with rare barrels and the elevation of Caroni to cult status – decided that he wanted to bring clairin to the back bars of the USA. Together with his colleague Daniele Bondi, Luca began to Haiti in search of what they saw as the best producers of this uniquely Haitian spirit. After many trips back-and-forth, they settled on four distillers that were making exceptional clairin in their own respective regional styles: Michel Sajous, Faubert Casimir, Fritz Vaval and Bethel Romulus. Luca bottled each of these, labelling them with the village origin, harvest year, sugar variety, type of fermentation and the distiller’s name.
American bartenders quickly adopted the spirit (its novel nature and similarity with unaged rhum agricole, as well as Luca’s reputation, made it instantly appealing), promptly followed by European bar folk and beyond. Nowadays, Clairin Communal – a blend of eaux-de-vie from the municipalities of Cavaillon, Barraderes, Pignon and St. Michel de l’Attalaye – can be found in bars around the world, with single distiller expressions an exciting lure for any spirit enthusiast.
The Spirit of Haiti Clairin World Championship 2017
In 2017, Velier sponsored its second Clairin World Championship – a cocktail competition challenging bartenders from around the world to come up with an original drink that best showcased Clairin. Whilst there is no tradition of making mixed drinks with clairin on Haiti, the Clairin World Championship aimed to expand the scope of the spirit, blending this distinctly Haitian product with the craft of the international bartending community to open up new lines of conversation.
Entrants to the web contest (which saw participants submit a recipe for a cocktail and record the prep in a short video that highlighted how they had captured the spirit of Haiti) were whittled down to eight international bartenders. This group joined Luca in Haiti to discover the places where Clairin’s Vaval, Sajous, Casimir and Romelus originated from, taking in the sites, smells, tastes and sounds of the country, before going head-to-head with one another in the final cocktail competition in April 2017 at Hotel Florita.
The winner was the UK’s Georgi Radev (ex-Mahiki, owner of tiki bar Laki Kane) with his Last Freedom cocktail (Clairin Sajous infused with papaya, Soursop syrup, sugar, milk, pineapple juice, lime), served in a hollowed out papaya and garnished with a banana leaf, pineapple slice and hibiscus flower.
Clairin World Championship 2017 Sajous, Casimir, Vaval, Romelus Blend
To commemorate the boozy battle, the special edition Clairin World Championship 2017 blend was released with the names of all the finalists on the label. The liquid itself marries Vaval, Sajous, Casimir and Romelus together in a similar manner to Clairin Communal. This edition has been brought down to 46% ABV, making it a phenomenal cocktail ingredient as well as a flavourful sipper.
Tasting Notes – Clairin World Championship 2017 Rhum
Very similar to cachaça on the nose with a passing resemblance to an unaged Jamaican rum. Lemon rind, funky vegetation, freshly cut sugar cane, cream soda, lime cordial, young pineapple, vanilla, foam banana sweets and malt vinegar create an unusual and exciting bouquet that has us intrigued.
A lot drier than the aromas suggested but incredibly smooth and creamy on the palate, with a warming alcohol kick. Spice wafts through the mouth, backed by a fruit-vegetal ensemble. Flinty notes hiding amongst citrus weirdly makes us think of a Sauvignon Blanc or mellow Chenin Blanc but maybe that association has something to do with the light natural colour of the liquid. Unlike many agricoles, this isn’t what we’d instantly describe as “grassy” and is beautifully nuanced in its profile. As we continue sipping, a little smokey vegetation makes its way onto the palate, whispering at a mezcal.
All-in-all, it’s an impressively clean and complex spirit that is delicious on its own as well as being both versatile and flavoursome enough to transform a cocktail.
Works wonders in a Ti Punch and makes a great Daiquiri.
£50.95. Buy the special edition here at The Whisky Exchange.