Jun 052022
 

In less than a decade, the indigenous spirits of Haiti have gone from being local moonshine known only to locals, residents of the DR, visiting NGOs, Haitians in the diaspora and the occasional tourist, to rhums that have made their mark and become famous the world over. They are enormously complex, traditionally made, un-tinkered with and unaged, and have helped usher in an appreciation for artisanal cane spirits that would have been unthinkable to the aged-rum establishment as little as ten years ago.

The rums, with their fierce and fiery tastes, initially appealed mostly to cocktail makers (and drinkers), which is to say, barkeeps and barflies, and rum aficionados who know this stuff backwards and forwards.  But their immense and uncompromising profiles are gradually finding a more general audience elsewhere as well: the great mass of rum drinkers who are more middle-of-the-road, who inhabit the medium-to-low price range and are at best occasional tipplers of more exotic fare like this. Slowly but surely, the clairins are winning them over.

Photo pilfered from and (c) Chris Francke, with my thanks

Of course, it could be argued that a much more approachable and well-known Haitian rum brand is Barbancourt, and indeed, one of their range has already been inducted to the Key Rums pantheon. But while the clear style of the Barbancourt rums is worthy of being the first entry into the series from Haiti, one cannot seriously discuss the rums of the half-island without also acknowledging its long-made artisanal backcountry rums. They may be occasionally divisive, perhaps even an acquired taste, yet for those who take a deep breath and dive right in, they are amazingly flavourful, complex and versatile rums. Nobody who claims they love the category can pass them by, or walk away unaffected by their uncompromisingly wild and untamed natures.

For the purposes of this entry, I am limiting the clairins to the five unaged white rums distributed and popularised by the Genoese firm of Velier, not any of the aged variants that have became available as the years progressed, or any of the blends – they all take second place in my estimation to the unaged versions, and I argue that when it comes down to it, it’s the five from Velier that form the base upon which our knowledge of the others rests. You could say they are the core clairins of our comprehension of the subcategory and serve as useful stand-ins for all the others.


As a straightforward and simple introduction, clairins are unaged cane juice (or sugar cane syrup) rhums made in Haiti, usually by small village distillers using cane from small nearby fields (often their own), crushing it with primitive machinery, fermenting with wild yeast, and running the wash through bare-bones and rudimentary (occasionally home-made) distillation equipment – pot stills, for the most part.  Bottling is haphazard and it’s not unheard of for people to bring their own containers to the tiny distilleries to fill up, and the result is sold as-is, almost exclusively at the local level. Much is also sold to village pharmacies in 55 gallon plastic drums and they bottle it for the final consumers.  And it’s long been a practice for merchant bottlers in the neighbouring Dominican Republic to buy clairins in bulk and use it to give their own softer rons some kick and flavour (or to release their own “branded” clairins which are then retailed in both countries). Many larger distilleries do this and rarely or never bottle their own work.

Photo (c) and used with kind permission of John Go

Clairins, then, inhabit a sort of strange universe: they are indigenous, small batch, local spirits and one of their initial selling points to the western world was that they were made on small pot stills, adhering to very old and little-changed methods of distillation dating back to the very introduction of nascent distillation technology by the French plantocracy, more than two centuries ago. The little producers didn’t care if they got a wider distribution in the region, let alone the world, and remained an enclave of spirit making frozen in time. Unsurprisingly, this was a Thing for those of the new rum generation who sought out “natural” and “genuine” spirits that did not interact overmuch with something like, oh, modern technology.

While there are many scores of small clairin makers scattered around Haiti (500 or so, is a statistic often bruited around1), they remain primarily rural spirits like charandas in Mexico or grogues in Cabo Verde or aguardientes everywhere else (in fact, a case could be made that they are aguardientes in all but name). 

As he recounts in his book Nomade tra i barrili (“Nomad among the barrels”), Luca Gargano went to Haiti in 2012 to meet Herbert Linge and Jane Barbancourt and took the time to go around the countryside, where he started to come across these local small distilleries. He tried some of their products and was completely enthralled with the natural, strong tastes they displayed.  Unsurprisingly the first he sampled was one Michel Sajous made down in Chelo (the gent was already very well known in Haiti for his clairins), and a casual offhanded remark a few days later pointed Luca to Fritz Casimir over in Vaval; and some time after that, a chance meeting on the road led to Duncan Casimir’s place (now run by his son Faubert). 

These three small distilleries, out of all the others, formed the initial export crop of the clairins which were to become so well known in the years that followed. By 2014 they were on sale in Europe and Velier lost no time promoting the hell out of them.  They brought bartenders to Haiti to demonstrate the country and the rhums; created the Clairin World Championship; brought out new expressions every year; started ageing some into the Ancyen line of aged clairins; blended them into various permutations, such as the Communal; and added two new mainstays from Le Rocher and Sonson by 2019 in an ongoing effort to expand the range.


The impact these rums had is undeniable and this is where it is useful to keep in mind how fast the rumworld is moving. Even in 2014 when limited-edition aged rums from independent bottlers were becoming more famous and more sought after, the market was still mostly about producers’ brand stables of progressively more aged rums (gold, anejo, vieux, 5YO and up, etc) and filtered cocktail whites like Bacardi’s Superior or various Latin Blancos.  Agricoles were a small but growing niche market, with aged agricoles being considered the ones to get, and outside of the enthusiast’s sphere of interest, “real” white rums from the French islands were relegated mostly to those islands, or metropolitan France. “Unaged” was not seen as a selling point, Rum Fire and Rumbar rums were not a thing, and the Wray & Nephew white overproof was too often dismissively shrugged off as a “Jamaican diaspora rum” or relegated to the tourist trade, not seen for the classic it later came to be.

The release of the first three clairins and the subsequent marketing and bartender involvement, gave the entire category of unaged, unfiltered, natural white rums an enormous boost in visibility, helped even more by social media and the first crop of reviewers who championed them. In the years that followed, agricole rhum makers from Reunion, Guadeloupe, Marie Galante and Martinique — among others — expanded their ranges of white rums, issued others at new proof points (mostly stronger) and even began a few annual releases here and there…the line from clairins’ success is an indirect one to be sure, but another emergent trend, that of parcellaire rhums, can owe at least a small influence to the terroire so clearly associated with each of these so-very-different Haitian whites.

The increasing visibility (and sales) of the clairins was at a minimum a contributing factor in allowing new micro-distilleries to take the chance of issuing unaged white rums of their own: the Asia-Pacific rumisphere of new brands like Issan, Chalong Bay, Mia, Naga, and Sampan may have co-existed or even predated the clairins, but I argue that they were more locally sold than exported, and the clairin tide was certainly one that helped lift their boats on the international scene as well. Aguardientes, grogues, charandas, arrack, kokuto shochu, Vietnamese rượu and many other such cane spirits which are gaining in popularity are in some small part indebted to the respect accorded to unaged cane juice rums so exemplified by the clairins. 

As recently as April 2022, Malt’s writer Han, in a retrospective on the class, suggested that the lack of acceptance of these clairins in the stable Velier’s distributed rums — as opposed to the mania surrounding the Demeraras and Caronis (all of which were aged rums) — resulted from the rhums’ peculiar inability to be neatly pigeonholed and classified, and therefore they were not considered must-haves and financial money-spinners the way the others were. That may once have been so, back when unaged white cane spirits were unusual and considered too lowbrow for wide acceptance.  That’s now changing – and indeed, Han resolutely recommends that people give these rums a closer look and maybe a re-taste to see how really good they are. What were once seen as puzzling differences inhibiting neat placement, are increasingly considered sought-after terroire-driven individual characteristics, demonstrating that the the international rhum audience is learning, adapting, accepting and growing. The clairins are going mainstream, big time.

In short, the five clairins which form the backbone of the exported Haitian artisanal rhum ecosystem – no matter from which year – are serious Key Rums, and no one can be addressed without mentioning every other. They remain affordable, they are originals by any standard, and have become regular bartenders’ backbar staples. They shine in cocktails, yet they can, for those willing to take the chance, be worth trying neat as well, because in few other spirits is the origin, the terroire, the entire process of making it, so evident as in one of these rhums. Their introduction channelled long-gestating trends already gathering a head of steam and perhaps coasted on their coattails rather than creating anything singular themselves – however, I also suggest that they enlarged and accelerated those same trends and had an influence on all rums of this type that came afterwards. They are important rhums from Haiti that need not be overshadowed by Barbancourt, other agricoles, or cane juice distillates made elsewhere, and can co-exist very nicely alongside them all as unique and flavourful rums of versatility and individuality in their own right.


The Rums as of 2022

The very brief tasting notes represent a (December 2021) re-tasting of those bottles I bought and reviewed over a period of some years.  Since there’s a new version out every year or so, the ones I mention below are to be considered as representative only, and the reader should be aware of variations over the years, and from their own experience. However, I do believe that they provide a sense of the differences among them all, their similarities, and something of why they remain so enthralling.

Clairin Sajous 2013 Release, 53.5%

The first clairin I ever tried, the most shocking and still, to me, the fiercest, most rambunctious and fearless – and I feel that way about it perhaps because I came upon it so unexpectedly, without warning, and it knocked me flat. The huge nose reeked of wax, brine and gunpowder, fusel oils and lacquer, sugar water and salt beef, and the taste, solid and savage at the same time, channelled cane sap, brine, olives, unripe fruit and balsamic vinegar.   Even at 53.5% it retained seriously savage character that I’ve spent a lot of time and retatstings coming to grips with.

Clairin Casimir, 2013 Release, 54%

Of all the clairins I’ve tried, this remains my favourite, “maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerising if you are.” Floor polish, turpentine, kero on the nose, plus sugar cane juice, sweet soya sauce and salty vegetable soup, plus sultry, dark overripe fruits. Palate wise it’s so well done – thick, voluptuous, herbal, citrus, spicy and even sushi-like, just fruity and sweet enough to be really enjoyable.  I still believe it’s the most elegant of the lot, though I’m aware that others have their own favourites in the line.

Clairin Vaval 2013 Release 52.5%

Also a very good initial foray into the world of clairins, the Vaval is the third of the first edition of clairins released by Velier, and sports a more restrained but still Sajous-like nose of petrol-wax-brine explosive oomph, plus some vanilla, sugar water, unripe strawberries and tart pineapples.  The taste is almost civilised: grass, herbas and an overwhelming sense of a vegetable garden next to freshly cut grass in the sun after a rain.  It has spices, herbs, sugar cane sap and vanilla, and is a completely decent intro to the class.

Clairin Le Rocher 2017 Release, 46.5%

The fourth addition to the pantheon, Le Rocher is much more civilised than the first trio: it’s 46.5% and made from cane syrup, not juice. It smells of salt, soya and soup, and also of light, crisp herbals and fruits. Plus some carrots and a flower or three.  It tastes light and even warm, quite easy warm weather drink, though it retains much of its primitive antecedents: bitter chocolate, wax, cane sap, herbs, olives, and perhaps iodine and wet campfire ashes. Well, nobody said it was easy, not even me.  I liked it, though.

Clairin Sonson 2018 Release 53.2%

Made in 2018, ready for distribution in 2019 and then hit with delays relating to the worldwide COVID shutdown, it wasn’t until 2021 I managed to buy the fifth clairin. Like Le Rocher, it’s made from cane syrup, not juice, but when nosed, it feels like an only slightly restrained Sajous is trying to get off the leash – fuel, brine, wax, plus acetones, paint, cider and some oddly variegated fruits – bananas, gooseberries, green apples. A sweet, pungent, tart citrus-y melange combines on a rather luscious palate, and the whole thing is best taken at leisure over a period of time allowing it to open and reveal its true nature…which isn’t bad at all.


Other notes

  • There as yet is no official or regulated criterion for what constitutes a clairin. Velier came up with a series of protocols to define them, but these are somewhat contentious, and not widely accepted – not even within Haiti. This is one of those areas where the Haitian Government or the local producers should really try for a PDO or GI or some form of regulation, just to nail the term down more precisely and ensure minimum standards of production and quality control.
  • Luca Gargano, the CEO of Velier has always made it clear that none of the rums he distributes are “his” or “Velier’s” (Providence and Rhum Rhum brands excepted) – they are, front and centre, rums from the distillery and the location that are marked on the label and the box. I call them “Velier’s Clairins” here for clarity and to avoid the inevitable question of “what about all the others?” had I left Velier’s name out.
  • A very good listing of all Velier’s iterations of the various clairins can be found on Spirit Academy.
  • For now, I can’t quite make a case for inclusion of the only other clairin that is reasonably well known – Saint Benevolence – because for all its laudable charity work and exposure in the States and Britain, it remains relatively low key and uncommented on elsewhere, and lacks wide distribution outside those countries. This applies even more to other kleren / clairin makers in Haiti, like Lacrete, Beauvoire Leriche, Barik / Moscoso, Janel Menard, Cap Haitien / Nazon, Distillerie de la Rue, Agriterra Cotard or Agriterra Himbert.  These sell mostly within Haiti itself, or vanishingly small quantities abroad – many just sell bulk, and they have rarely been tried by most (including me).  I hope to change that in the years to come, as there’s always space in the list for more.
  • An excellent retrospective on clairins was Han’s, who posted first on Malt and a few day’s later re-posted on 88 Bamboo (both in April 2022). It’s one of those coincidences of nearly-concurrent publishing that crops up from time to time.
  • Hat tip to Han of 88 Bamboo for permission to quote from his article and use any photo I wished, and my deepest appreciation to Chris Francke and John Go, who took those great pictures of their own of the entire range of core clairins, and allowed me to re-post their work here.  Thanks, all of you.

 

May 302022
 

While there are hundreds of clairin makers in Haiti, and they have been making cane juice spirits there since before the country’s independence in 1804, widespread modern knowledge of the spirit only really came after 2014, when it was introduced to the global audience by Velier, the Italian company made famous by its Demeraras, Caronis, and Habitation pot still rums series. Strictly speaking, Velier’s stable of clairins consists of just five core products from five small distilleries, but this obscures the regular annual releases of the unaged whites, the aged variants, and the various blends.

Initially, clairins from three distilleries were released (Sajous, Casimir and Vaval) a fourth (from Le Rocher) was selected and became part of the canon in 2017, and in 2018 a fifth was put together from a small distillery in Cabaret called Sonson — which is, oddly enough, not named after either the owner, or the village where it is located. It was finally released to the market in 2021, but the cause for the delay is unknown. The rum, like Clairin Le Rocher (but unlike the other three) is made from syrup, not pure cane juice; and like the Clairin Vaval, derives from a non-hybridized varietal of sugar cane called Madam Meuze, juice from which is also part of the clairin Benevolence blend. All the other stats are similar to the other clairins: hand harvested, wild yeast fermentation, run through a pot still, bottled without ageing at 53.2%.

Similar aspects or not, the Sonson stands resolutely by itself. On the initial nose, the sensation is of a miasma of fuel, benzine, brine and wax in a semi-controlled nasal explosion. The thing, no joke, reeks, and if it doesn’t quite mirror the gleeful wild insanity of the original Sajous – fondly if tremblingly remembered after all these years – well, it certainly cranks out burnt clutch and smoking motor oil drizzled with the smoke of a farting kerosene camp stove. Thankfully this is brief, and setting the glass aside for a bit and coming back an hour later, it appears almost sedate in comparison: acetone, nail polish remover and some serious olivular action (is that a word?), the aroma of a freshly painted room in a spanking new house. And after that there’s apple cider, slightly spoiled milk, gooseberries, orange rind and bananas in a sort of Haitian funk party, behind which are timid scents of sugar water, fleshy fruits, herbs and spicy-hot Thai veggie soup sporting some lemongrass.  And all that in an unaged rum? Damn.

The surprising thing is, the palate is almost like a different animal.  It’s luscious, it’s sweeter, more pungent, more tart.  It channels watery, rather mild fruits – melons, pears, papaya – which in turn hold at bay the more sour elements like unripe pineapples, lemon zest and green mango chutney: you notice them, but they’re not overbearing. Somewhere in all of this one can taste mineral water, crackers and salt butter, the silkiness of a gin and tonic and the musky dampness of moss on a misty morning. It’s only on the finish that things finally settle down to something even remotely resembling a standard profile: it’s medium long, a little sweet, a little sour, a little briny, tart with yoghurt and a last touch of fruits and sweet red paprika.

Every clairin I’ve tried – and that includes the other four Velier-distributed versions, the Benevolence and a couple from Moscoso distillers – is different from every other.  Even where there similar elements, they bend in different ways, and admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to remember that they are supposed to be sugar cane juice based drinks at all. The heft of the Sonson, and the amount of disorganised flavours at play within it, is really quite stunning…and disconcerting. I think it’s that first nose that confounds, because if one can get past its rough machine-shop rambunctiousness, it settles down and becomes really nice (within its limits – I agree, it’s not a rum for everyone).

It’s also a rum to take one’s time with: after leaving my glass on the go overnight, when I sniffed it the following morning most of the oily rubber notes had gone, leaving only fruit and cereal and estery aromas behind, and those were lovely.  Yet the rum will polarize, because it is cut from a different cloth than most rums or rhums we know and like better, and its peculiarities will not find fertile ground everywhere. I believe that the clairin Sonson is a rum that required courage to make and fortitude to drink… and perhaps a brave and imaginative curiosity to love.

(#912)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The word clairin means “clear” in Haitian creole
  • Of the five Velier-released clairins, I still like Casimir, Vaval and Le Rocher best on a tasting basis, but admire the Sajous and the Sonson most for sheer audacity.
  • Other reviews in the blogosphere are middling positive:

 

Jan 072016
 

Casimir 3

This rum is like Hooters: delightfully tacky, enjoyable as hell, and unrefined to a fault.  And once you’ve given it a shot, it’s like you have a sneaking suspicion you’ll soon be back, grumbling all the while Poukisa rum nan toujou fini?”

The Clairin “Casimir” white rum, the third of the Haitian Clairins, is maddening and strange if you are not in tune with it, mesmerizing if you are. I noted in a comment on the Vaval that it’s tough to love, and the same applies here, only more so. If you have not thrown the thing away in disgust after ten minutes, it’s very likely that thereafter, you will never entirely get it out of the mental arsenal of your tasting memories.  

Does that make it a good rum? Not necessarily for all people, in all places…although it does make it an original, cut from wholly different cloth.  And as with any such thing, we must be ready for strange detours, waves of difference and surreal experiences without clear analogues in our minds…except perhaps other Clairins.  I first sampled the Sajous back in Paris in April 2015 and was enthralled on the spot; my love affair continued with the Vaval, and I felt it was only fair to get the review of the Casimir out the door just so the full set was available for those who don’t mind straying not only off the beaten path, but into another country entirely.

Casimir

I make these points to prepare you for the massive pungency of the Casimir’s initial attack. As I’ve mentioned before for the other two, I recommend approaching it with care (maybe even trepidation) especially if this is your first sojourn into the world of these organic, traditionally-made, pot-still, unaged white full-proofs. Because while it initially presented to the nose very prettily, this was just a way to lure you into the same smack in the face. Powerful, pungent scents of boot polish, fusel oils, freshly lacquered wooden floors lunged smoothly out of the gate, skewering the unwary sniffer. I felt the sugar to be stronger here than on either the Vaval or the Sajous, with additional notes of soy sauce, teriyaki chicken with loads of green vegetables, Knorr packet soup, thick, heavy and my God, it didn’t ever let up. Even at a “mere” 54% it handily eclipsed the 57% Rum Nation Jamaican white pot still rum in sheer potent olfactory badassery. The Casimir quite simply makes you rethink what ageing means – nothing this young and unrefined should be this remarkable.

On the palate, I remember thinking, Man this is great. It had the smooth, hot body of an energetic and buxom porn star, and took a sharp left turn from the nose, starting out with sweet sugar water and cucumber slices in diluted vinegar…it sported a mouthfeel that alternated between silk and steel.  Mint, marzipan, more floor polish, faint olive oil notes drummed on the tongue.  It had less of the fusel oil that so marked the Sajous, with dill, coriander, lemon pepper, fennel, fish sauce, and some weird mineral/vegetal component that reminded me of peat for some reason. I don’t know how it managed that trick, but somehow it walked the delicate line between tongue-in-cheek titillation and overt sleaze. Really quite a lovely taste to it, the best of the trio.  And the finish, no major complaints from me there either, it was long, sweet and oily, with just a note of kerosene in the background to mar what was otherwise a great drinking experience, and I gotta tell you, I really liked this one (different though it was).

The Casimir is made by those friendly Haitian folk down by Barradères, which is a small village in the commune of Nippes Department in the southwestern leg of the half-island. It’s not far from Port-au-Prince, but still needs a tough-ass 4×4 to get to since it is (to use West Indian parlance) “way down dere behine Gad back.” Not much going on in the village, it’s subsistence farming all the way – but this small place has more distilleries than Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica combined – thirteen in all, though admittedly these are small-shack Mom-and-Pop operations for the most part and not industrial powerhouses in the business of stocking global shelves.

Faubert Casimir is a second generation distiller (his father began making the white lightning back in the late 1970s), and is considered by some to be the local maestro of Clairins. The rum derives from Hawaii White and Hawaii Red sugar cane grown on the 120-acre “plantation” out back, and, in a peculiarity of the region, the makers add some herbs or vegetable matter to pure cane juice in fermentation, to enhance the flavors. M. Casimir himself adds leaves of citronella, cinnamon, and in some batches, ginger, and some of that evidently carried over into the final product.  Does that make it an adulterated rhum?  Maybe.  But for something this rich and powerful and bat-bleep-crazy, I’m willing to let it pass just to observe how joyously these guys run headfirst into a wall in making a rhum so distinct. 

Of course, if you have already tried the Sajous or the Vaval (or read my notes on them both), none of this will come as news to you.  And you might think, “Bah! They’re all the same, so why buy three when one can tell the tale?” You’d be right, of course…but only up to a point. They are variations on a theme, each with a subtle point of difference, a slightly different note, making each one similar, yes….and also unique. Perhaps you have to try all three to get that…or simply be deep into rums.

Yon gran mèsi, Faubert

(#248 / 86.5/100)


Other notes:
I love those bright, hectic, almost primitive labels — as an attention-getter, the bottle this rum comes in ranks somewhere between running naked through your dronish cubicle farm and throwing a brick through a shop window. The Haitian artist Simeon Michel provided the paintings for the Casimir and the Sajous (but alas, I have no clever story for this one).

Casimir 2

Nov 162015
 

Clairin-Vaval-etichetta-2014

Looks like water but goes down like a charge of cheerfully boosted C4. You won’t mistake it for any other rhum…except maybe its cousins.

(#241 / 84.5/100)

***

Full of get-up-and-go instilled by the momentous encounter that was the Sajous, I sprang for both the Casimir and the Vaval (plus a Sajous of my own) at the first available opportunity.  Because come on, originality and going off the reservation in the rum world are vanishing ideals, and it’s not often that a rhum is so amazingly, shockingly off-base that it’s in another ballpark altogether.

Such a rhum was the Clairin Vaval, produced by Fritz Vaval of Haiti in his charmingly old school column still — made, if you can believe it, with leather trays and a condenser made from old petrol cans. Luca Gargano of Velier, while gaining greater fame for his own rums and his push for a clearer classification system for the spirit, was the man behind the attempt to bring the Haitian clairins to a wider audience a couple of years ago.  Good for him for using his bully-pulpit for such a cause.  Because while the clairins are not to everyone’s taste, I can tell you with some assurance that they are among the wildest, angriest and most rip-snorting rums available…and also, to my mind, ferociously, laughingly good.  You can almost imagine the Fritz’s fiendish giggles in your mind, as you gaze at your glass the first time you try the Vaval and give vent to a disbelieving “Putain mais c’était quoi ça?”

By now I was more familiar with, and expecting, the initial salt wax nose-bomb, so after experiencing that (I hesitate to say enjoying, since that might stretch credulity to the point of disbelief), I paid rather more attention.  There were fusel oil and kerosene backbones to this colourless liquid, mixed in with gherkins, vinegar and garlic (really!). The pungency of the rhum was as ripe and randy as the Sajous, and only grudgingly gave way to vanilla, sugar water, freshly sliced cucumbers and a sort of clear lightness of watermelons and maybe pineapples – very very light fruit, being hammered home by strong overtones of an unaged pot still product.

The palate was much the same, just more of it. Oily and salty and somewhat rubbery on the first attack, with sweet water backing it up.  Very strong and almost sharp, of course — it was 52.5% after all — but not raw or pestilentially fierce, not seeking only hurt.  Rather, it was thick and warm and almost fatty.  Once the first tastes move on and it opened up (helped with a little water), billowing and very heated tastes of breakfast spices, white sugar, olives, fresh-cut grass, a flirt of vanilla and some more of that kerosene made themselves felt.  Dynamically, assertively, full-throatedly so. You kind of have to breathe deep after each sip when sampling this rhum. The finish was long and not a bit dry, closing the show with some lemon zest and an odd hint of pickles with all the various leaves floating around in it. Trust me, the flavours linger for a hell of a long time on this one, and you almost want it to.

That was some drink.  It was only as I tried it in concert with the other two that its own individuality became more clearly discernible – on its own, or tasted apart, they might all seem quite similar, but they’re not, not really.  Each is as distinct as an adjacent piano key note. Like the Sajous or the Casimir, I would not recommend this unreservedly to the larger population of the rumworld; I would however suggest that if you can, give it a try, very gently, just to see where rum could go if it really felt like it.  Because these gents from Haiti may be the last surviving remnants of microdistillers who make rhum in a totally old fashioned, organic way and you could argue that you’re seeing what rhum was like in its infancy when you try one.

There’s something about clairins that defies easy description.  They’re so pungently, tartly original, so immensely weird, and yet so absurdly tasty, all at the same time. The nose is enough to swat away an angry bear, sure, but that taste…oh man.  There I was at 2am, on a cool, crisp October night on a balcony in Berlin, switching from one clairin to the other, making my notes, enjoying the heat, revelling in the tastes, and I felt something unusual, and you know what?  It might have been happiness.


Other notes:

  • Made from freshly hand-harvested blue cane, utterly organic, utterly unaged. The cane juice is fermented with wild yeast. Fresh off the column still. Nothing added, nothing taken away. No filtration.
  • Mr. Vaval’s operation is called Arawak’s Distilleries – it’s been in operation since 1947, and is located near Cavaillon in Haiti’s southern horn, close by Les Cayes. It’s apparently just a couple of cinder-block rooms and a corrugated zinc roof.  It contains a still, some small fermentation tanks and a small crushing mill, all on the grounds of an old colonial maison surrounded by twenty acres of Madame Meuze cane.
  • I have to share this one with you. Remember how Luca’s own photos embraced the Velier Caroni labels? Well, he took the work of Mr. Simeon Michel (a well-known Haitian artist) for the bright artwork of the Sajous and Casimir labels, but the Vaval bottle design has a different story.  Some years ago, Luca was speaking to an old Genoese taxi driver about rums (he talks to everyone about rums – you gotta wonder about his pillow talk sometimes, honestly), mentioned Haiti and clairins, and the guy turned out to be a long-retired sailor who had been to the half-island and acquired some local artwork, back in the 1960s.  Luca, for the right to scan this painting and use the image on the bottle, paid the man an undisclosed sum…and with six bottles of the first edition of the Vaval.

 

Apr 302015
 

D3S_1657-001

Drinking this rum is knowing what harpooning Moby Dick felt like. A wild-haired full-proof bodybuilder of a rhum, so absolutely unique in taste that it it defied easy description. I sampled it and knew I wanted to write about it immediately.  

So there I was in Paris at La Maison du Whiskey in April 2015, with some fellow rummies. Hundreds of bottles of rhum and rum beckoned from groaning shelves. Samples from years past – decades past! – winked in their little bottles, inviting us to get started. Straight-out rumporn, honestly. Our hands were itching to start the pours, but we were having too much fun just talking with each other to get going.

We were discussing rum classifications – colour, country, age, style – and the organizer of our ramblings (who wanted to remain nameless so I shall simply refer to him as The Sage) suggested that origin was probably best as a primary separator – pot still, single column still, multiple column still, juice versus molasses, etc – before going into further possible gradations of colour and ageing and country and style.

“You simply cannot mistake a pot still product, fresh off the still,” he argued. “Like Pere Labatt white, or Neisson, HSE, any of the agricole makers who produce a white rum at full proof.”

“Don’t forget Haiti,” I suggested, thinking mostly, it must be said, of Barbancourt. But also of the new stuff Velier was developing, from that half-island.

“Yes, absolutely,” said the Sage, switching directions in a heartbeat.  “There are five hundred small producers in Haiti making clear rum the way they have for ages and ages.  Barbancourt is good but gone mass market.  If you want to see what a really original white pot still product is like, you have to try these small ones that only get sold locally, at any strength. Fully organic, old-school stuff.”

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“Never tried one,” I admitted.

There was a hushed sound of indrawn breaths as the room fell silent.  Serge’s impressive mustache – the one that Tom Selleck weeps himself every night to sleep wishing he had –  twitched.  Cyril dropped his glass, and Daniele choked into his. They all regarded me with pitying stares. The Sage himself looked utterly scandalized at my ignorance: I had evidently dropped a few notches in his esteem. After huffing and puffing his indignation for a moment, he darted behind the counter, rummaged around a bit and came back carefully holding a tasting glass brimming with a white liquid like he feared it might explode.

“Try this. Full proof Clairin Sajous, bottled straight from the still. 53.5%”

The term “clairin” is not a common one: references to it only exist online dating back to 2008. Clairin is, quite simply, clear white creole (often pot, sometimes primitive column) still rhum made in Haiti from cane juice, sometimes with wild yeast and a longer fermentation period, often without any ageing whatsoever.  They can range from a please-don’t-hurt-me 30% or so, to (in more extreme cases) a more feral gun-toting, bring-it-on 60%. It’s the drink of the country, the way cachaca is in Brazil.

The variants of the rhum span the whole gamut of quality as well: some are rough, bathtub-brewed popskull as likely to kill you as enthuse you, bottled in whatever containers are on hand for the benefit of local consumption; others are slightly more upscale and professionally made stuff, from small one-man outfits like Sajous, Vaval and Casimir – these are occasionally sent abroad.  Velier has distributed these three in its latest offerings, for example, and it was the Sajous I was trying.

The rhum looked harmless, defenceless, innocuous…meek and demure.  I regarded it suspiciously as a result. I remembered traumatic incidents with cachaca, as well as unexpected clear taste bombs from Rum Nation and Nine Leaves. “Not aged at all?” I asked.

“No.”

I took a tentative pull with my nose. Even that tiny, delicate, sommelier-sniffing-the-wine sniff was too much. My eyes watered, my vision swam, my nose puckered, and my knees trembled. My God but this stuff was pungent.  Not so much the strength, which was a relatively strong-but-bearable 53.5%, but its sheer intense potency. If I was older, I might have asked for a defibrillator to be on standby.

There was this incredibly large bubble of salt and wax expanding through my head. Brine and gunpowder exploded on the nose, mixed in with kerosene and fuel oil, turpentine and lacquer. It was almost like sniffing a tub of salt beef, yet behind all that, there was the herbal clarity of water in which a whole lot of sugar was dissolved (“swank” we called it in my bush-working days), crushed green mint leaves and just-mown grass on which the sprinkler is irrigating in bright sunlight.

I withdrew my nose after a few tries of this, scribbled my notes down in a shaking hand, and moved on to taste.  I had learnt caution, as you can see. And if you’re trying a full-proof Clairin yourself for the first time after a lifetime of molasses-based rums, I’d recommend it.

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The feel of the Sajous in the palate was hot, thick and heavy, even though the thing was not raw or excruciatingly sharp by any means. It was as intense and flavourful as the nose, if not more so – sap, thick and sweet and oily started things out.  The rhum coated the tongue with the tenacity of a junkie clutching five dollar bill. I don’t often use the word “chewy” but it really works to describe how it felt.  Initially the Sajous presented itself as heated and spicy, and then it smoothened out well, giving over to a buttery, and more agricole-like profile – fresh cut sugar cane, wax, furniture polish, salt beef in malt vinegar (yeah, I know how that sounds), and all shot through with green, unripe fruit, some lemon peel, and that vegetal, green flavour that drives agricole lovers into transports. More kerosene and brine permeated the back end, and the fade, long and deep, lingered for a damned long time – enough to make me put down the glass after a bit, inhale deeply and just try to wait the thing out.  Before starting again.

I finally stopped my sampling, caught my breath, and looked over at Cyril from DuRhum, who was grinning at me with a glass of his own in his hand. “What did you think of it?” I asked him.  He and I both liked the Nine Leaves Clear and had good things to say about Rum Nation’s 57% White Pot Still.  Perhaps the closest rum to this profile I’d ever tried was the SMWS Longpond 9 81.3%). Those were similar to this, but nowhere near as uncultured, as elemental. They had been babied a little, smoothened a mite in the cuts, while this hadn’t even progressed to training wheels. It reminded me of three explosive cachacas I had tried (twice) from a small booth at the 2014 Berlin RumFest – they exhibited that same off-the-scale craziness and untamed wild freedom.

Cyril’s understatement was massively un-Gallic: “It’s different, isn’t it?” He, Daniele and The Sage were vastly amused at my reaction.  I guess that was understandable – I don’t have a poker face worth a damn, and had never tried a white rhum with quite this level of profile intensity before. Just the aroma was enough to make you rethink any preconceptions of what a rum or rhum could be.

“All right then,” I said to The Sage, stealing another sip and shuddering a little less. “What can you tell me about the Sajous?”

He told me what he knew (much of which was on the label): it was made from pure sugar harvested from Java cane originating from India, grown in a small 30-hectare estate owned by Michel Sajous, in Saint Michel de l’Attalaye just north of Port-au-Prince. It was all organic and un-messed with from start to finish.  Fermentation was done over seven to ten days using wild yeast, double distilled on a pot still at the Chelo distillery on the property – and then run straight into the bottles after coming off the still.  No ageing, no additives, no dilution, no nothing.

“Real traditional agricole rhum before it gets tampered with, purest example of the type,” he said, and it was clear he wasn’t kidding. If there was ever an “original” rhum, the Sajous wasn’t far away from it – the only issue I had with it was perhaps a bit too much.  I liked it…more or less.  And the more intoxicated I got, the better it was, which may have been the point.

Cyril, Serge, Daniele, The Sage and I moved on to other things, sampled a load of old rums, went to dinner, talked about rum, drank some more, talked about rum, and had a wonderful time. They were all courteous enough to speak English to me, as my French is execrable – I got my own back by carrying on in Russian with The Sage’s beautiful better half.  You’d think we would run out of things to say about rum after a while, but no – the subject was as inexhaustible as the varieties. Alas, I had to excuse myself after several hours of it, since my wife was waiting for me and probably getting grumpy.

As I walked back to my hotel, I tried to summarize my feelings about the Clairin Sajous. Without dissing the thing, I can say that this is not everyone’s rum, or a must-have unicorn you share like pictures of your first-born. In fact, Spanish and English style molasses-based rum lovers would likely never approach it again after trying it once.  Even agricole enthusiasts might back off a bit.  I’m scoring it reasonably high because of good production value, great heft, an enormously intriguing profile, and an original character that stands supremely alone on the prow of its self-proclaimed awesomeness, saying “Call me Sajous”. It would make a tiki drink or a complex cocktail that would blow your hair back, no problem, yet it is probably too different from the mainstream to appeal to most – in that lies both its attraction and its downfall.

Because, you see, some taming of this beast is likely to be required, before it finds real favour and acceptance in the bars of the broader rum world. I liked it for that precise reason, and will get it (and its brothers) again but must be honest enough to say I’d only buy one at a time, far apart…and always have a defibrillator handy.

(#212. 82/100)


Other notes

  • Made by Sajous at Chelo, but distributed and promoted by Velier.
  • For the guys I met and who took the time to talk rum, a big Merci. It really was a wonderful get-together.
  • The artwork on both this and the Casimir was done by Simeon Michel, a well known Haitian artist.  There’s a better story behind the Vaval design, if you’re interested, at the bottom of the review.