What is Clairin from Haiti? And is it going to make a great drink?

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.

Defining Clairin

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%)

bhclairin0001.jpg

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%)

bhclairin0001_1.jpg

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.

Conclusion

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).

15 Responses to “What is Clairin from Haiti? And is it going to make a great drink?”

  1. Janessa Says:

    what a shame because Clairin Lakay is extremely popular in the states. I have never tried nor tasted 4 Kanpe – in fact it isn’t that popular. Clairin Laky is infamous for their Bwa Cochon or Ti Rose. They also sell the aphrodisiac Zo Devan, widely rumoured to put an a** whooping on any Viagra.

    Better luck next time – PS I thought Barbancourt was a french liquored widely associated with Haiti.

  2. seamus Says:

    Janessa, thanks for the very interesting info on Clairin Lakay. . .

    I was only in Haiti for a couple of weeks so my research was obviously superficial.

    Perhaps Lakay produce products in a range of different quality bands and the exported stuff is superior to the local stuff? Or perhaps what I tried was an inferior fake version of Clairin Lakay? Or perhaps it is popular in the States among Haitians, but on the strength of being a taste of home rather than a genuine quality product?

  3. Bill Rood Says:

    Just returned from Cap Haitien and drove by Distillery Larue, where Leslie Nazon crushes the cane and distills clarin. When you were there it´s possible it wasn´t during the cane harvesting season so you didn´t get a chance to see the cartloads of sugarcane pulled by tractors on their way to Nazon´s mill.

    During one of my visits we drove from Milot-Sans Souci back to Cap Haitien through back roads of the Plain Du Nord and passed at least 3 or 4 medium sized clairin stills operating- with tons of bagasse piled up outside the crushing operation. These stills looked very primitive but were located in the center of sugarcane plantations.

    I drank a half a bottle of Clairin Dou-Dou, mixed with ginger, sugar and saffron with plenty of sedimentation and strange looking stuff clinging to the inside of the bottle with no ill effects. I don´t think this is the same saffron grown in Spain used to color and season paellas and am looking into what this is. After drinking a half a bottle of this which wasn´t bad, we opened a bottle of five star Barbancourt which is excellent- smooth, tasty- not overly aromatic as many aged rums- one of the best rums I´ve tasted in a long time. Barbancourt distills straight from cane juice, bypassing the use of molasses which seems to make for a better product. This is the same as the FWI- rhum agricole, that´s distilled in the same way. Here in the Dominican Republic, where I live, all rum is distilled from molasses as the major distilleries do not own sugarcane mills nor do they produce their own molasses, instead buying it from local mills. The reason for using molasses is the fact the distilleries can store it for long periods of time without any adverse affect as opposed to cane juice, locally known as ¨guarapo¨ that turns rancid in a couple of days.

    During a trip to Puerto Rico last year I was told it´s customary to produce a type of local clairin especially during the Christmas Holidays. This seems to be a practice left over from the old days when sugar plantations were abundant throughout the island. They´ve all closed but there are still some small sugar plantations left over from those days. This production is very limited and only offered to close friends and relatives.

    In St. Martin and Tortola they used to make a guavaberry liqueur, a mixture of a local berry and rum- but I didn´t like it very much- The Guavaberry Factory in St. Martin successfully marketed this product but the taste was awful- but Steve, the owner, could sell a dead horse in a bottle.

    Pedro Justo Carrion, a local distiller in San Pedro de Macoris also produced a guavaberry liqueur, but again, it wasn´t very tasty. You can still buy the concoction at the local produce market in San Pedro-home made. Guavaberry seeds and production of the drink seems to have been a tradition brought over by immigrants from the Windward and Leeward Islands who came to work in the sugar mills on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic. Apropos, Juan Luis Guerra, the Dominican singer-bandleader of 440- popularized the name ¨guavaberry¨ in his song- San Pedro de Macoris- Guavaberry back in the 80´s.- He´s won several grammy´s for his composures and is well known throughout Latinamerica and Spain.

  4. Rogerio Miranda Says:

    I wonder if Clairin is similar to the Brazilian Cachaça? I was in Haiti a few weeks back, and now I am trying to learn more about the capacity in Haiti to distill ethanol in micro-destilleries, as a potential liquid fuel for cooking, ligthingh and powering small generators.

    In Brazil the same alambik that distill Cachaça (from fermented sugar cane juice) can also distill a second round to obtain high grade ethanol, or else install a longer distill tower on the same alambik to obtain 85-87% GL ethanol with just one distillation.

    Cachaça is usually around 38 to 46% GL, and it can be aged in oak barrels. To produce quality cachaça nowadays one must take out about 10% of the initial distilled product (head), and also the last 20% (tail), so to have a clean spirit.

  5. Marie Says:

    I feel like the writer has no idea about what he is talking about in this article. The information about clairin in Haiti is so inaccurate that I am wondering where he got this information from. I am not sure when and where exactly the writer went to Haiti, but he is no way close to knowing what he is talking about in this article. I do not understand why someone would bought the bottle of clairin if he was so worried about the sediment in it. Make no sense to me. Instead of speculating about it, the best thing would have been to ask about it. Obviously the maid knew it was not harmful.

    Janessa, Barbancourt is a typical Haitian Rhum. It is very well known for its smooth flavor. I can tell that Bill knows what he is talking about and actually learn a lot from his trip to Haiti

    Sorry if I came up strong in this matter, it is just annoying to read unverified sources talk about thing they should not.

  6. seamus Says:

    Hi Marie. I got my information from holidaying for a couple of weeks around Cape-Haitien and Port-au-Prince and asking local people about Clarin while I was there. Since I don’t speak French/Creole I often wasn’t able to make any more than superficial inquiries. I do know a fair bit about rum and alcohol though, so I have some sense of what questions to ask. My article really just reported the results of my inquiries, meaning my sources rather than myself are to blame for any misinformation.

    Of course there is nothing unusual about alcohol becoming a focus of misinformation. It happens all the time.

    Why would buy a bottle of Clarin containing sediment if I was worried about the sediment? Curiosity to learn more about ClarinI guess. Feel happy I took an interest.

  7. Marie Says:

    I understand. I know I came up as annoying but I have seen so many article that were not quite right that I felt the need to point it out. Next time, if you need more information about the use and making of clairin, you should go in the countryside ( more rural area) where it is widely used. Also a good translator and local guide will be a better help for these kind of inquiry.
    .

  8. seamus Says:

    Marie, since you seem to know quite a lot about Clarin it would be great if you could post some more about the topic here. Seriously. I’d love to hear more from you, and I’m sure others would too.

    Like you say, I should have spent more time in the countryside to learn more about Clarin since that is where it is made.

    As it was, I just asked people about Clarin (e.g. Clarin vendors in the market, barmen, taxi drivers, guests in my hotel, the distiller at Barbancourt, etc.). I got lots of different answers and opinions, making it hard to know what the reality was.

    My sense is that the distinction between rum and clarin in Haiti may be a little like that between rum/ron and aguardiente in Cuba. In Cuba it seems like rum is double distilled and aguardiente (less popular than rum, and not sold in most bars, though you still see around a bit) is single distilled. Some Cubans told me aguardiente does not have to be made from molasses (like Cuban rum) but can be made direct from cane juice. That would make aguardiente more of a home-made product – though some of the big Cuban distilleries (e.g. Mulatta) make aguardiente alongside their rums.

    But anyway, any knowledge or insights you care to share would be great.

  9. doktnn Says:

    First and foremost I, in my seven decade Haitian born and educated, just find out that the word “clairin does not figure in the french dictionaries (Larousse and Robert). I am still debating the ethymology of the word “CLAIRIN”. Should be a french-haitian word since our Kreyol language whose official orthograph date back to 1979 will spell it as “KLEREN”…

    Will provide a little more at a later time.

    vizite nou nan
    http://www.kreyol.org

  10. Frank Says:

    First of all- Barbancourt is definitely Haitian Rum- distilled in Haiti. It’s just the most mainstream and commercially successful Haitian hard alcohol by a long shot.

    Second of all – I recently tried Neisson Rhum Agricole from Martinique, and it is by far the closest thing I have ever had to the Clairin I have had in Haiti. Rhum Agricole is rum distilled from pure cane sugar, as opposed to molasses based Rums. The bottle I have is the ‘blanc’ kind- unaged. There are pricier bottles that are darker in color because they’re aged, but the unaged stuff tastes strikingly like Clairin. I never bought the name brand clairin to bring back to the states, but i guess the stuff I was drinking was mostly cane sugar spirit, or at least tasted like it. I wonder if this is specifically a French Caribbean tradition, of making rum from pure cane juice, rather than from molasses, like in the former British or Spanish colonies? really different taste.

  11. Viah. L Says:

    i really feel compelled to response to this article for the simple fact that, a lot of the things that was said just bothered me, and offended me.
    i was in the middle of looking for a source where i could get clairin, or a similar beverage in taste, or was made in a similar manner…i needed it so bad that my research has led me to reading this article,,,and since the holidays called for a special drink of mine “cremasse” which is similar to eggnog here in the USA(i wouldn;t know how to spell it either, the more reason for me to visit Mr Doktnn website).

    but i have to say i love Marie, for her comment, and Bill for shedding a positive light on the product of my home country….
    i just see this article as a negative scrutiny expose, but what i don’t understand is why would someone go to such an extent to degrade something that is very well common enough to raise interest from people from accross the world…and then make it and the people who tell you about and produce it look bad

    anyway another point to see here, the distiller of the Clairin Lakaye: 4 Kanpe—- like any other businessman, first mission was probably to make profit from his product, and people health wasn’t the focal point here, while i said it like that, i mean the producer was probably so concerned about making money that he would never plan on affecting people health, instead wanted people to buy more and more of the product after having trying it,

    my English need some work, but i wanted to stand up for something tthat i
    truly cherished, that was disparaged——–
    Marie i can see is a very wise and respectful person, but i can;t help being direct about the author of the article being very negative

    i am an Haitian, but if you asked me i wouldn’t know what to tell yuou about it, as i have not the first clue to how it is made, hence why i read the article in the first place to try to find out, although i learn a little from the difference between clairin and rum
    i feel like the author didn;t stick to the goal in mind to explain what the product was and instead choose to say it is still unexplained, nevertheless a poison

    half the town here eat and drink stuff from restaurant all the time and they have no clue how these food, such as the burgers, the nuggets, etc are made how they differ from each other and stuff, so why you expect the hotel guests to know so much about it,
    aaahhh, that was just a crazy move writing that article
    thank you verymuch

  12. Leticia Avierkiieva Says:

    Dear Sir or Madam,
    My name is Leticia Avierkiieva and I am a contributor at http://www.mycitycuisine.org, a wiki project. I am currently working on an article about Clairin for the project, and am in need of a photo for the article.
    I wanted to inquire in regards to your photo:
    http://bunnyhugs.org/2008/10/15/all-about-clairin/
    The photo would be perfect for the article. Would you be willing to give mycitycuisine.org permission to use your photo for the project?
    If you agree to let mycitycuisine.org to use the photo, please specify the terms of permission in your reply so I can upload this photo with the correct license terms.
    1.) I certify that I am the owner of the photo(s). I grant the publisher of mycitycuisine.org the right to use the photo(s) on mycitycuisine.org and in its companion mobile software with attribution to me as the photo owner.

    OR
    2.) I certify that I am the owner of this photo. I release all rights of this photo and place this photo in the public domain.
    I thank you in advance and look forward to hearing from you.
    Best regards,
    Leticia Avierkiieva (please reply to gourmand86@yahoo.com with this request)
    PS: mycitycuisine.org is a wiki project so you are encouraged to contribute to it by sharing your knowledge of your local cuisine. Thank you.

  13. JeanClaude Says:

    I did not notice where you mentioned that Clairin is used in the making of Cremesse. Cremesse is a sweet and creamy alcoholic beverage native to Haiti. Regarding the history of Rum Barbancourt refer to this website,http://barbancourt.net/histoire-rhum.php?langue=en. I would be interested to know where I can find some Clairin in the U.S. (if any where)?

  14. margaret noailles Says:

    I leave in florida broward county i need to know were i can find clairin lacay or clairin nazon to buy. thanks

  15. Pattycookie Says:

    I’m working on a kleren project and have a friend that use to own a kleren bar in Haiti. So, stay tuned for clarity.

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