Get to Know Clairin, the Mezcal of the Rum World
Haiti is not a large nation. Taking up only a third of the island of Hispaniola, the country is about the size of New Jersey. But there are 500 distilleries, dotting the valleys, tucked into the jungles, perched in the mountains, and hugging the coast. A single Haitian brand, Barbancourt rum, has become an internationally recognized, but its popular double-distilled, do not give an accurate representation of how Haitians in the villages regularly consume the spirit of the island. Generations of rural distillers, producing spirits on homemade stills, have developed distinct spirits from elsewhere in the Caribbean. And for the first time this rum, called clairin, is available outside of Haiti.
Three varieties of clairin-Sajous, Vaval and Casimir-have made their way to the US Each type is named for that spirit’s particular distiller: Michel Sajous, Fritz Vaval and Faubert Casimir. For those neighbors, who is a juggler at the local market. But now, their spirits are filling the globe thanks to Daniele Biondi and Luca Gargano of Italian spirits import Velier (which partnered with the French House of Whiskey in 2017 to form La Maison & Velier ).
Biondi and Gargano developped a passion for clairin while visiting Haiti in 2012 and, after tasting clairin from around the country, they began bottling the waters and additives. Every bottle is labeled with the village of origin, the harvest year, the sugar cane variety, the type of fermentation and the distiller’s name.
Similar to mezcaleros throughout Mexico creating discrete styles based on different types of agave, Sajous, Vaval and Casimir. The European sugar crop in Haiti under the rule of 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe, but that ended in 1804 when Haiti overthrew colonial rule. The revolution destroyed many plantations and the sugar trade quickly fizzled the island fell into massive debt (caused by arduous reparations to the French and embargoes from other European nations). While Haiti still struggles economically, the nation’s sugar cane has thrived. Untitled by industrial agribusiness and homogenization, Haitian sugar cane.
Biodiversity differentiates the sugar cane that clairin distillers use, but growing and brewing practices also impact the incredible flavor. The stalks are grown in polycultures, and distillers harvest them by hand. Wooden mills are not uncommon (some producers use iron rolls), crushing the sugar cane with animal power much like a tahona traditionally used to crush agave piñas for tequila. Natural yeast strains from the cane itself ferment during the extensive wash, which can last up to a week. Casimir add other ingredients during fermentation like citronella, cinnamon and ginger. While methods vary among distillers, Biondi and Gargano have codified these artisan practices to help limit the impact of their own commercialization. They vow to help preserve traditional methods, even if they help distillers find ways to produce more clairin.
For now, clairin is only available stateside in New York, where it has appeared in cocktails at Leyenda , Grand Army and Gladys , but you can buy Astor Wines & Spirits . The artisanal distillation processes yields yield each year, but here’s what you can expect from the 2016 vintage currently on the market:
Clairin Sajous ($ 45)
Michel Sajous creates a bright and greasy rum at his distillery, called Chelo, in Saint-Michel de l’Attalaye just north of Port-au-Prince.
Aroma: Banana green, cherry, fresh cut grass
Taste: Wet earth, castelvetrano olives, white pepper, touch of mango
Finish: Clean, with a mouth-tingling heat that dies slowly
Suggested Cocktails: Split with dark rum in a Daiquiri , Sajous reads a vegetal tinge to the Rum Sour classic. Meanwhile, mixed into a Dark ‘N’ Stormy , with a quarter-volume of demerara syrup for a little depth, the Sajous makes a bright and energetic variation on the gingery Highball.
Vaval ($ 45)
On the southern coast in Cavaillon, Fritz Vaval of distillery Arawaks produces a vibrantly funky rum that smells of pungent bananas and a touch of saline, and tastes of baking spices, lime juice and kelp.
Aroma: Overripe mango and banana, dates
Taste: Seawater, lime juice, ginger, lemon, vanilla
Finish: Dry and long, with notes of almond and fresh wood
Suggested Cocktails: In a cocktail competition hosted by LM & V, Sean Johnson of Subject in New York found the pungent Vaval mixes perfectly with cocoa cream and banana liqueur, balanced with a touch of grapefruit juice. The result surprisingly tastes like apple juice, with notes of overripe fruits and spiced chocolate.
Casimir ($ 45)
The most remote of the trio, in the foliage and in the foliage of Barraper, Faubert Casimir, his distinctly savory rum, which smells of barbecue sauce and maple syrup, and dries the mouth with tastes of apricots and almonds.
Aroma: Grilled meats in barbecue sauce, rubber, sherry, maple syrup
Taste: Apricot, mango, country ham, truffles
Finish: Short, with sweet molasses
Suggested Cocktails: Shaking the Casimir into a Rum Flip is something extraordinary. The demerara syrup has a sweet, but it is the texture that really blew us away, perfectly balanced between crisp and luscious, with less than a Flip made with dark rum. The drink is equally sweet spiced, nutty, vegetal and meaty.
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