Haiti has spent most of its history left out of the industrial advances experienced elsewhere. But as the developed world now increasingly seeks authenticity and tradition in its food and drink experiences, the old-fashioned agriculture of Haiti looks a lot like the organic future desired in the West.
There’s no more compelling example of the island’s rich bounty than the uniquely Haitian style of rum called clairin (kleren in Haitian creole) due to its crystal clear color. It’s available in the U.S. for the first time thanks to the efforts of two innovative companies on two different paths: Boukman and The Spirit of Haiti.
Distillery in Cap-Haitien, Haiti (image: Ralph Thomassaint Joseph)
“I’d seen authentic spirits start as small categories and grow into quite big ones. Like whiskey from Ireland, which was not a big deal 20 years ago, and mezcal from Mexico,” says Adrian Keogh, the co-founder of Boukman. “I 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.”
“This liquid isn’t just the local spirit of Haitian villages but the grandmother of rum as a category,” says Kate Perry, the U.S. market manager for La Maison & Velier, the global distributor of The Spirit of Haiti. “Clairin is still produced in the same way as ancestral cane spirits globally. You find a similar method in forest distilleries in Brazil, in the grogue production of Cape Verde, in Mexican villages, in parts of Madagascar—this is the ancestral way of producing cane spirits around the world.”
(image: Ralph Thomassaint Joseph)
For generations, the U.S. market shunned deeply flavored spirits, preferring neutrality for combination with mixers. During that period, “rum seemed to be treated as the Caribbean vodka,” according to Alexandre Vingtier, the editor and co-founder of the award-winning French magazine “Rumporter.”
“The perception of rum is slowly but surely changing toward more aged and heavier profiles with many more nuances,” he says. “This trend might catch a lot of new consumers who are more used to whiskey, brandy or even agave spirits but also craft beers or terroir wine. Rum will no longer be only a party drink but a spirit with provenance and ethos.”
Fermentation at Distillerie Son Son
Onto this evolving scene comes Haitian clairin, a raw, rustic spirit with pronounced grassiness deriving from its origin in fresh sugar cane juice. Almost everything about its production is the same as it was during the 18th century, from the sugar cane varietals used in fermentation with wild yeast to the pot stills that crank up the funkier notes. The result is an arousing conflagration of taste that boots the notion of neutrality out the window.
The Spirit of Haiti is now importing three distinct bottlings 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 each bottle is emblazoned with the distiller’s name.
The Spirit of Haiti’s three clairin bottlings: Sajous, Vaval and Casimir, from left (image: Justin Alford)
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.”
The Spirit of Haiti’s Casimir distillery
Named after an early revolutionary leader in Haiti, Dutty Boukman, the rum is part of a program to elevate 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.)
With more direct flights and a rebounding hotel industry, now is a great time for Americans to explore Haiti for themselves. But an expression of its land, and the history of Caribbean rum, can be found on our shores, in each of these fascinating bottles.
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.