When the world thinks of Haitian rum it generally thinks of Barbancourt, an exceptional product compared by some with the finest cognac. Barbancourt is universally well received and can hold up its head in the finest of company. Few care to know Clairin, Haiti’s ‘other drink’, Barbancourt’s rustic and alcoholic cousin, a relative frequently found incoherent and exhibiting delirium tremens.
While traveling in Haiti I made an effort to get to know Clairin. It was no easy task. Requests for information were often met with nonsensical babbling, contradictory answers, and invitations to have a swig of something horrible. Only occasionally was I rewarded. At the end of it all I was left thinking Clairin is probably a waste of time. I would like to be proved wrong, but for now that is how I see it.
Students of older cocktail recipes will probably have seen the occasional reference to Clairin. Few people are likely to have Clairin at hand, but cursory research will tell you it is a rustic, clear, high-proof, sugar-cane (as opposed to molasses) rum from Haiti. So far as I can tell this definition is only partly correct.
Whatever Clairin may once have meant, in modern Haitian usage Clairin is a generic term for a cheap locally manufactured spirit. The name derives from a French term for a kind of pick-me-up. Many perceive Clairin as a social problem, an addictive substance, and something consumed solely by alcoholics. Others see Clairin as no different from rum. Nobody could give me a clear definition of how Clairin differed from rum. The general consensus did not go much beyond the idea that Clairin was ‘the cheap stuff’.
There is no precise definition of Clairin, and in Haiti a range of different products are all labeled Clairin. A few points follow:
- Clairin is not necessarily an unaged sugar-cane spirit. Much of the Clairin consumed in Haiti is (artificially) flavored and colored. You tend not to see these colored Clairins in stores, but they are ubiquitous in roadside markets. Obviously the base spirit of these artificially flavored Clairins is unclear. Some unflavored Clairins appear to contain industrial alcohol rather than being pure sugar-cane spirit. Clairin often contains odd sediments. Basically, Clairin can range from rough-but-pleasant unaged sugar-cane rum to unidentifiable and undrinkable hooch.
- Clairin is not necessarily high proof. The garishly colored and flavored Clairin sold in markets generally lacks labels stating alcoholic content. However, tasting some of these suggested they were no stronger than regular rum – probably weaker. The popular Clairins carrying regular labels and produced in larger distilleries mostly cluster around 40%. Some are in the 50-60% range. Clairin generally seems weaker than the high-proof rums popular in places like Jamaica. While most Haitians will tell you Clairin is stronger than rum, the facts do not really bear this out. Of course, most Haitians will also tell you that that Barbancourt 5 star is stronger than the 3 star, which is stronger than Barbancourt White. In fact all these Barbancourt rums are the same strength. It seems like just another case of myths being spread about alcohol.
- Clairin is cheaper than rum.
- Clairin is not necessarily rural, home-made, or in any way artesanal. The leading brands come from reasonable-sized distilleries. The nastier brands seem to be compounded in makeshift laboratories. High quality artesanal Clairin is probably out there somewhere, but I can guarantee that almost nobody in Haiti is drinking it.
- Regarding a professional local definition of Clairin, the distiller at Barbancourt told me that the difference between rum and Clairin lay in the proof to which the spirit was distilled. He said Clairin was often distilled to very low proofs, of just 30% or so, and bottled directly without the addition of water. Many of the Clairins I saw were inconsistent with his statement. His comments are probably true of some Clairin though, and perhaps the more traditional Clairin is made this way.
- There seemed to be a sense that aging Clairin (the good stuff anyway) led to it becoming rum. For example, there was talk in Cap-Haitien that the producers of Clairin Nazon had been experimenting with aging their Clairin in order to sell it as rum.
- None of the bars I visited in Haiti stocked Clairin. These were all hotel bars. None of them even stocked Barbancourt White. Although the Barbancourt website lists a couple of cocktail recipes that use Clairin, it does not appear to be a staple item in high-end bars in Haiti.
- The popular way to drink Clairin seems to be either straight, or mixed with energy drinks of the Red Bull variety (there was a local brand called something like Ragman). Nobody mentioned doing anything more interesting with it.
It seems like time for a Clairin comparison. Two of the more common brands are reviewed below.
Clairin Lakay: 4 Kanpe (50%)
This was the first bottle of Clairin I saw in Haiti. Naturally I bought it. Later I found that the producer was a large one and offered a range of products. This Clairin came in both high and low proof versions (ranging from 40-60% alcohol by volume), as well as in a lurid red variety.
The label features the famous Citadel. This inspiring label art contrasts with the bottle’s slightly alarming contents. The spirit is a light straw color, with a weird metallic hue. A black sediment sitting in the bottom of the bottle is easily disturbed and takes a long time to settle. The inside of the bottle cap was perfectly clean and un-rusted, and all the other bottles on the shelf shared the same sediment. Presumably the sediment is meant to be there, or at least it is something whose presence does not alarm locals the way it alarms me. The producer is Distillerie H. Jean-Jacques, and wisely provides no address.
The nose is strongly chemical and sour, with a hint of anise and nothing I would associate with rum. The taste contains lots of alcohol, a distinct sweetness, a plethora of unidentifiable chemicals, and no perceptible rum or cane sugar. Besides the lack of any pleasant flavor, this stuff is surely a major health hazard. If you were unlucky several glasses might kill you. God knows what the sediment is. I’m guessing rust particles from an ancient still.
This bottle went straight in the bin. It was with considerable interest that I observed the maid later rescue it from the bin. I have to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that she turned up to work the next day displaying no ill effects. However, despite having some renewed respect for the Haitian constitution, I stand by my recommendation of ‘avoid’.
Clairin Nazon (40%)
The label depicts a wholesome rural scene of sugar cane being transported to the distillery by bullock cart. The little plastic bottle hints at cheapness, but the spirit itself is crystal clear and sediment free. The producer is Distillerie LaRue in Cap-Haitien. Not to complain or anything, but I passed the distillery a couple of times and never saw the bullock cart.
The nose is all sugar-cane rum. The grassy notes typical of a Martinique agricole are very much in evidence. That said, the aromas are not very intense or sweet, and compared to a Martinique agricole this stuff smells thin and sour. Tasting reveals the palate to be thin but not unpleasant. The alcohol comes across fiercely while the cane flavor is light. I would rate this as a rough but inoffensive sugar-cane rum.
Currently Clairin does not exist as a useful category. Most of what is labeled Clairin in Haiti is undrinkable poison with little resemblance to rum. The Clairin that is drinkable lacks unique characteristics and is low quality. Clairin is not a staple item in high-end Haitian bars, and is not widely used there in quality mixed drinks. Recipes that call for Clairin are probably best made with something like Barbancourt Blanche (for the sake of the Haiti connection), or an unaged Martinique rhum (for the sake of the lower distillation proof).