Clairin: The Spirit of Haiti

I’m not going to lie, most people who have found themselves in a rum discussion with me in the last few months have probably already heard me wax lyrical about how much I love this spirit. Needless to say, when the bottles arrived on our shelves in June 2022, I couldn’t contain my excitement.

Clairin is a spirit made from sugar cane and could arguably be classified as a Rhum Agricole. It’s unique to Haiti, but due to the historical development of the island, the style of spirit and the culture that surrounds it is something completely different to any type of sugar cane spirit I’ve come across before.

Since the heady days of the British Empire, Royal Navy, pirates and wooden ships, the rum industries of the Caribbean and Central America have all seemed to consolidate their production in much the same way. Jamaica boasts six distilleries, Barbados boasts four, while St. Lucia, Trinidad and Guyana play host to just one a-piece. Haiti, being the only Caribbean island to hold a successful insurrection by self-liberated slaves, developed it’s spirits industry along slightly less capitalist lines. As a result, there are now around 500 active micro-distilleries on the island, each serving the hyper local communities that surround them.

Historically for most of these producers, an export market has been well and truly off the cards. Enter Maison Velier an independent bottler based in Genoa, Italy who, began a project to introduce this wonderful product to an international audience. They picked the six distilleries they believed encapsulated the best expression of traditional Clairin, cut a deal, and now export small amounts in batches to a number of different markets. Incidentally, this is the same approach that kick started Mezcal’s rapid rise in popularity.

How is it made and what does it taste like?

Each expression is produced using native varieties of sugar cane, farmed without use of pesticides or herbicides, harvested by hand and fermented slowly and spontaneously without the addition of cultivated yeast. The real unique selling point is in the fermentation methods used in production, which borrow techniques from Jamaica (dunder and muck anyone?) and add their own twist to produce some seriously unique flavours.

Traditional Rhum Agricoles have in common a vibrant aromatic profile packed with citrus, ripe tropical fruits and fresh grassy notes. Most Clairins are exactly the same and built on that with their own twists personal to each distillery. Le Rocher, for example, have a recipe for fermentation that involves the addition of star anise, sugar cane bagasse and various other herbs and spices.

Here at The Oxford Wine Company, we’ve selected two expressions to get you started on your journey into the world of Clairin:

Clairin Communal – 43% abv

Communal is arguably the gateway into the range, it’s a blend of four of the island’s distilleries (including Le Rocher) and is by far the most approachable in terms of aromatics and flavour profile. There’s bags of tropical fruit, lime zest and freshly cut grass. You get notes of boiled sweets, tarte tatin, caramel and dark chocolate. This one is instantly recognizable as a Rhum Agricole but with added unique and interesting qualities on top.

This is an incredible bottle to sit with and sip neat or on ice on a hot summer’s day. It’s equally wonderful in a variety of cocktails. Try it in place of the cachaça in a classic Caipirinha or mix yourself up a Daiquiri.

Clairin Le Rocher – 46.5% abv

Le Rocher is the most intriguing, unique and complex of all the Clairins I’ve tasted. After initially being cagey, the producer, Romulus Bethel, only agreed to bottle his product for export in 2017. Prior to that, if you wanted to sample his work, you’d have to make the trip to visit him on the island.

Unlike other Clairins, Le Rocher ferments from sugar syrup (and not sugar cane juice). This means that technically, his product can’t be considered a Rhum Agricole. Fermentation occurs with a whole host of interesting, flavour enhancing ingredients added. The recipe sits for several weeks while natural yeast convert the sugar into alcohol a develop flavour. Post-distillation, the spirit gets bottled at still proof, 46.5% abv, without any dilution. Unlike a lot of other light coloured rums, there’s no maturation period involved.

Flavour-wise it’s about as complex as they come. It’s extremely pronounced (you don’t need to get too close to the glass to nose it). The best description I’ve heard is that “you get an entire cheese and meat board, including the board”. There are notes of bacon fat, Brie, Edam and wood. Beyond that there’s also a healthy whack of banana cream pie, toffee, sultanas, baked apples and even some herbal anise notes.