Like most spirits tightly woven into the fabric of their respective cultures, clairin—an age-old style of rum native to Haiti—is best sipped with a deep understanding of its roots and meaning. In clairin’s case especially, it’s a story that can only be told by those who’ve lived it.
“Clairin originated in the countryside [of Haiti], where Vodou took root,’ says Haitian-American singer, songwriter and artist Riva Nyri Précil. She and her husband, performing artist Monvelyno, are known for their annual Fèt Gede (Haiti’s Day of the Dead) each November, during which clairin is offered to VIP attendees both in the physical realm as well as spiritual. “Clairin is almost always present in ceremonies and/or readily available in the practitioner's household—it’s customary to pour some out for the spirits, [either] onto the ground or in a vessel as an offering, then drink a ‘kou’ (or swig) in solidarity,” Précil adds.
Stéphanie Simbo, global brand manager for Maison Ferrand and founder and executive director of Beyond Bars Akademia in South Africa’s Western Cape, stresses the importance of clairin’s direct connection to Haiti for the diaspora. “Clairin reminds me of our independence, the music, the people—it is so much more than just a liquid, it’s the link that makes us understand Haitian culture even if we haven’t lived it,” she shares. Alongside Rhum Barbancourt, clairin is the drink of choice at birthdays, weddings, holidays, casual get-togethers and more; every New Year’s Day, Simbo’s family serves a shot with a bowl of soup joumou (a Haitian squash soup) in honor of their ancestors’ hard-won independence.
What Is Clairin?
Its backstory certainly sets crystal-clear clairin apart from the other subcategories within the world of sugar cane spirits, but how exactly is it made? And what does it taste like? Clairin is made from the juice of locally-grown wild sugar cane, which is usually pressed manually by way of animal power. The juice is then fermented using indigenous yeast strains before pot still distillation, and the result is a raw, funky and rustic spirit with distinctive grassiness. For Simbo, clairin is as close as one can get to experiencing the country’s terroir from afar. “Usually, when you drink rum, you’re expecting things like vanilla, chocolate, spices, but with clairin, it’s grass, forest, mineral, and vegetal notes,” she adds.
Clairin in the U.S. Market
Until recently, Haiti’s national spirit hasn’t exactly been easy to come by in the U.S.—that is, until Boukman Rum and The Spirit of Haiti began setting things into motion. “I’d seen authentic spirits start as small categories and grow into quite big ones, like Irish whiskey, which was not a big deal [in the early aughts], and mezcal from Mexico,” says Adrian Keogh, who launched Boukman in 2016 alongside Haiti native Josette Buffaret Thomas, the daughter of a sugar cane cutter. “[We] felt Haiti had those elements in place. Not only is the spirit itself the real deal, but it’s cradled in the culture, its music, its stories,” Keogh adds.
The Spirit of Haiti, which is owned by La Maison & Velier, is now importing three distinct bottlings (as well as an exclusive blend) from three very different local distillers, selected after sampling hundreds of clairins throughout the country. In each case, what you find in the bottle is what the distiller has been making for the community for years, and every bottle is emblazoned with the distiller’s name.
Faubert Casimir, Michel Sajous and Fritz Vaval are the first local distillers to make their work available. “The difference between the three clairins is the difference between three producers from three villages in three different terroirs,” says Perry. They include the type of sugar cane used in each region and the wild yeast found there. Of course, she also emphasizes the importance of the distiller’s creativity—or as she calls it, “the terroir of the producer’s mind.”
With Boukman, Keogh sought to export the traditional herb- and bark-infused clairin trempè—“the fernet of Haiti.” In contrast to The Spirit of Haiti’s approach, Keogh felt that the powerful flavor of pure clairin might attract only those with truly adventurous palates, whereas the flavors inherent in “clairin trempè had a range of complexity that would have a broader appeal and therefore have a bigger social impact in Haiti.”
Clairin and the Haitian Diaspora
Bringing clairin to America hasn’t just been about introducing the spirit to a new market, but also about bringing a piece of home to the Haitian diaspora—even those who might not have had a taste for it in the past. Chris Paul, an esteemed Haitian-American chef in the Philadelphia area, rediscovering clairin after being around it as a kid has played an integral role in reconnecting with his family’s culture through food and drink. “Growing up in Haiti until the age of 10, I didn’t have much personal experience with clairin besides from stories I overheard of local drunks,” Paul shares, noting that the spirit is colloquially referred to as tafia. After his family emigrated to the U.S., Paul recalls returning to Haiti for vacations in his teenage years, during which he’d often encounter street merchants selling clairin in various flavors—it wasn’t until adulthood, though, that he’d begin to see what the spirit was all about.
“As my palate improved with my culinary career, I started diving into more complex spirits starting with whiskeys and gins, [and about] 10 years ago I was reintroduced to clairin by my cousin, who actually distilled it,” says Paul. “It became my go-to drink when I vacationed in Haiti, usually mixed with Coke, ginger ale or fresh fruit juice. While in the states I settled for Rhum Barbancourt, which is a great rhum, but I was never able to find clairin until Clairin the Spirit of Haiti.” Today, Paul celebrates Haitian culture through culinary pop-ups in partnership with The Spirit of Haiti—Lakay, which means “home” in Haitian Creole, is the chef’s gustatory ode to his roots and takes place primarily at bars and restaurants in Philadelphia.
Named after an early revolutionary leader in Haiti, Dutty Boukman, the rum is part of a program to highlight the country’s agriculture as well as its pride. “It’s about building the capacity there so they can do it for themselves and also presenting it within the culture,” says Keogh. “Hence the choice of the name Boukman. Boukman fought for physical freedom; this is about economic independence now.”
The Solidaridad organization, an agricultural nonprofit that teaches farmers techniques to double their income, is training Boukman’s sugar cane producers. The brand has also earmarked 10 percent of its profits to Haiti Futur, which invests in rural education. (Keogh estimated that profits are another year or two away.)
Clairins are appearing on cocktail menus across the country, but the Clairin Regal Sour is one you can make at home. Before she was The Spirit of Haiti’s clairin evangelist, Kate Perry was the general manager and a bartender at Seattle’s celebrated Rumba, considered one of the top rum bars in the country. To showcase clairin’s properties, she has devised this sour inspired by the remarkable flavors of Haiti.