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Ancestral Spirit - Haitian Clairin

Wild Sugarcane

Wild sugarcane.

Sugarcane’s sweetness makes it ideal for fermenting into alcohol; an alchemical process that most famously results in rum. Made from fermented sugarcane liquid; either pure sugarcane juice or the more processed molasses, early versions of rum were common in the French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies.

While this fermented drink was alcoholic, distillation, possibly brought to the Caribbean by Irish indentured servants or indeed other European immigrants, created a more potent drink.1

Slaves in the Portuguese controlled Brazil created a version of cachaça, and a similar type of ‘crudely’ distilled sugarcane juice was made there from the late 16th century onwards.2 Most rum drank around the world however, is made from molasses. During the process of refining sugarcane into crystallized sugar, a dark, syrupy molasses is produced. Molasses or industrial rum was made in the British colonies from the 1650s onwards, an obvious use for the byproduct of refined sugar. It became a key part of the ‘triangular trade’ of European ships across the Atlantic3 - ships that brought slaves to the Caribbean sugar plantations then took sugar, molasses and rum to New England and Europe before returning to West Africa with the remaining rum.

The production of molasses based industrial rum tends to result in a standardised product, the consistency of which is amenable to selling to mass markets. Rum made from sugar cane juice by contrast is a more unmediated, raw and variable spirit. In the French Caribbean islands, such cane juice rum style drinks are collectively known as rhum agricole. When Europeans started to make their own sugar from beet in the early 1800s, the demand for Caribbean sugar decreased. Plantation owners began to make rum from the excess sugar cane whereby rhum agricole became firmly established in Haiti, Martinique, and the Guadeloupe islands.4

In Haiti, a variant of rhum agricole, Clairin, has been produced since the island started farming sugarcane. The word means ‘clear’ in French Haitian creole. A high-proof white rum, I first came across it at the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Turin last year, the biannual ‘international gastronomy exhibition’ of food producers and artisans from around the world organised by Slow Food international. Slow Food have designated Clairin as a Presidium as a way to protect and promote its unique heritage. Italian drinks company Velier are also heavily involved in researching Clairin’s heritage and production methods in order to protect the traditional, artisanal way it is made, as well as working with local Haitian producers to bring the spirit to global attention.

Clairin has recently been getting a lot of attention within the global speciality drinks world for reasons of taste and the unique way it is made. Luca Gargano, President of Velier suggests ”Traditional Haitian Clairin is, in my opinion, the purest expression of rum in the world, and is the result of pre-chemical agriculture in a place where the farmer and the distiller are the same person”.  Dean MacGregor, rum expert at UK spirits importer Speciality Brands who work with Velier, tells me that Clairin is what they call an ancestral spirit, meaning it actually predates rhum agricole and other spirits in the rum family. It is sold everywhere on the streets and roadsides of Haiti in jugs and milk cartons. Spiritually in a different sense, Clairin is also used in Vodou religious rituals.  Clairin producer Michel Sajous says that in Haiti “Clairin is the most popular drink, and it is consumed at all cultural events across the country”.5

Sugarcane Transport

Transporting sugar cane

Within the turbulent history of the West Indies, both Haiti and Clairin tell a unique story about development, sustainability and biodiversity. Haiti was under Spanish control before being ruled by the French from 1625-1804, who used the land and slaves to grow sugar as a commodity crop. The number of slaves greatly outnumbered the slave owners, with the island being in many respects a ‘slave society’.6 With slaves outnumbering owners so largely the Haitian Revolution which began in 1791 was somewhat inevitable. Successfully ending in 1801, Haiti was the first country to be founded by former slaves. 

Throughout much of Haiti’s history the country was politically insecure and economically disadvantaged and therefore many methods used to farm and process foodstuffs are still of a manual and non-intensive tradition.  The process of making Clairin reflects that small-scale production and industry that thrives in Haiti, the techniques have changed little over the past 200 years. For example, a lot of the agricultural work is done with oxen or bulls rather than tractors and no pesticides or herbicides are used. Of relevance to organic and natural methods of farming, the sugar cane that is grown is a non-hybridised native variety. It is intercropped with corn, manioc, banana and mango giving huge benefits to biodiversity on the island. Harvesting of the crop is done by hand, and the milling process is uncomplicated and direct.  

Dr Natalie Zacek of the University of Manchester is a historian of the Caribbean and the Americas gives some background on why Haitian agriculture may have established itself in this vein, “Haitian agriculture didn't advance technologically for a long time after the revolution of the late eighteenth century. The white planters were killed or fled, and nobody was willing to invest in independent Haiti, which to the US and Europe was a pariah state. It remained extremely underdeveloped and impoverished, and had to pay an immense indemnity to France as repayment for the loss of territory and property”.


Fermenting sugar cane juice.

The production of Clairin is an expression of Haiti’s history. There are only 50 distilleries still active in the rest of the Caribbean due to intensification of methods of production and merging of distilleries, but there are over 500 small artisanal distilleries operating in Haiti. The small- scale production results in the spirit having a huge variation in flavour and aroma. Experts speak of terroir with Clairin, in the same way they do with wine. Compared to industrial rum, each producer’s spirit has a different flavour, depending on the characteristics of the environment where it was grown. It’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s a high alcohol spirit with potent vegetal flavours and has been compared to smoky mezcal.  Dean McGregor says in Haiti it’s mainly drunk straight, or with fresh sugar cane juice. On the global speciality drinks circuit, it’s also often sold for straight consumption, but Dean says it makes a great Ti Punch, a daquiri like rum drink.

Velier’s Luca Gargano spent much time in Haiti meeting producers and farmers and developed an appellation for Triple A Clairin to recognise producers that maintain specified artisanal methods of production. Velier now work with twelve Haitian producers to package and distribute traditional artisanal Clairin to a global market. The Tripe A label exists to ensure the integrity of the spirit and producers must maintain the same standards of working with un-hybridised natural sugarcane, non-chemical agriculture and non-industrial ‘wild’ fermentation and distillation.  Slow Food are also working to protect this spirit, and recently made Haitian Clairin a Slow Food Presidium. Presidia are actions that sustain quality production at risk of extinction, protect unique regions and ecosystems, recover traditional processing methods, and safeguard biodiversity. Protected items become part of the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Irish raw milk cheese has its own Presidium, as does raw milk Stichelton in the UK.

Michel Sajous

Clairin producer Michel Sajous.

Working with producers, Slow Food has established the Clairin protection project aiming to safeguard the unique heritage of traditional Clairin.  Andrea Amato, Director of Latin America for Slow Food explains that Presidia are alliances of Slow Food at an international level and local level alongside with producers and local institutions. The Presidium encourages all to work together to protect a local variety of food or a gastronomic product. Andrea explains Slow Food’s reasons for supporting Clairin, “often Caribbean islands have been used by other countries, deforested and used for cash crops. Sugar cane has been used in an industrial way, varieties were standardised. Due to its isolation Haiti was separate from this kind of industrial activity, and they have kept their local, natural varieties of sugar cane. Clairin is produced in a traditional, biological way. By developing a product made with this local sugarcane variety, we are not just helping the economy of Clairin producers, not just safeguarding a product that is really important for Haitian culture, we are also preserving the traditional way of cultivating sugar cane in Haiti”.

The endeavours of Slow Food and Velier alongside Haitian producers intend to preserve and celebrate a unique spirit whose origins reveal much about sugarcane and agriculture, the colonial and post-revolutionary history of Haiti and the Europe-West Indies relationship, a well as being a deeply rooted part of the everyday culture of the island that might be lost as Haiti continues to develop in line with industrial capitalism.  By protecting the production of Clairin and fostering a global market for the drink these efforts are by extension protecting the unique agricultural landscape and traditions of Haiti ensuing local farmers can support themselves, their families and their environment through the production of Clairin for years to come.

All images courtesy of Luca Gargano

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Martin Cate, Rebecca Cate. Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. Ten Speed Press, 2016, p.152.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Darra Goldstein, ed., The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015, p.582.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Gad Heuman, Trevor Burnard, eds. The Routledge History of Slavery. London: Routledge 2010, p.81.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Jeremy D. Popkin. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. London: Wiley 2015, p.14.

Caitriona Devery

Caitriona is an associate editor of FEAST. She currently works as a research coordinator at University College Dublin and is the Food and Drink editor for District Magazine's Guide to Dublin.