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.
“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 the spiritual one. “Clairin is almost always present in ceremonies 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,” adds Précil.
Stéphanie Simbo, the global brand manager for Maison Ferrand, stresses the importance of clairin’s direct diasporic connection to Haiti. “Clairin reminds me of our independence, the music, the people. It's so much more than a liquid; it’s the link that makes us understand Haitian culture, even if we haven’t lived it,” she says. Alongside rhum agricole, 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 joumou (a Haitian squash soup) in honor of their ancestors’ hard-won independence.
What Is Clairin?
Clairin is made from the juice of locally grown wild sugar cane. 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. It's generally considered distinct from rum, which is most often distilled from molasses, but is quite similar to Martinique's and Guadeloupe's rhum agricole, which is also distilled from sugar cane. 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 and spices, but with clairin, it’s grass, forest, mineral and vegetal notes.”
The U.S. Market
Until recently, Haiti’s national spirit hasn’t been easy to come by in the U.S.—that is, until Boukman Rhum and The Spirit of Haiti began rolling into market. “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. Not only is the spirit itself the real deal, but it’s cradled in the culture, its music, its stories,” adds Keogh.
The Spirit of Haiti, which is owned by La Maison & Velier, is now importing three 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 Kate Perry, the U.S. market manager for The Spirit of Haiti. 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 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,” he says.
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. Chris Paul, an esteemed Haitian American chef in the Philadelphia area, rediscovered clairin after being around it as a kid and 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,” says Paul, 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, when he would often encounter street merchants selling clairin in various flavors. But it wasn’t until adulthood that he began to understand the spirit.
“As my palate improved, 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 distilled it,” says Paul. “Clairin 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 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, this rhum 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 the spirit 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, has trained Boukman’s sugarcane producers. The brand has also made a long-term commitment to donating a portion of its profits to local organization Haiti Futur, which invests in rural education.
Clairins are appearing on cocktail menus across the country, but the Clairin Regal Sour is one you can make at home. To showcase clairin’s properties, Perry, who before joining The Spirit of Haiti was the general manager and a bartender at Seattle’s Rumba, considered one of the top rum bars in the country. created this sour inspired by the flavors of Haiti.