Clairin Casimir rhum is facing a voluntary recall. One of a select number of clairins—an eaux-de-vie similar to white agricole rhums—produced in Haiti and distributed in the United States, the Casimir brand is being recalled due to the presence of lead. The distributor, MHW, based in Manhasset, New York, initiated the recall on Wednesday.
The lead discovery came in response to a consumer complaint placed with the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) this summer. “The TTB receives consumer complaints on a regular basis,” says Tom Hogue, director of Congressional and Public Affairs for the TTB, all of which they investigate. Some of those complaints lead nowhere, suggests Hogue, while others end up in a recall. During this investigation, the TTB obtained a bottle of Clairin Casimir Rum from Vanderbilt Wine Merchants in Brooklyn, New York, on August 8, and analyzed it for the presence of prohibited materials. Upon determining that the Casimir had elevated lead levels of 138 parts per billion, they consulted with the FDA to determine whether lead at those levels, present within an alcoholic beverage, met the standard of being a health hazard.
On October 9, the TTB sent MHW a letter requesting their participation in a voluntary recall, which MHW initiated on October 10.
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Assessing the Risk of Lead Levels
While the value of 138 ppb sounds excessive, whether it meets the standard of high risk has—to some extent—to do with the delivery mechanism. Lead levels in apple juice, for example, which is commonly consumed by children face a lower threshold than lead levels in beverages whose consumption is limited to adults, according to the TTB. In 1993, the FDA established that lead levels should not exceed 80 ppb in juice packed in lead-soldered cans. Since then, Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standards organization that establishes safe levels for the protection of consumers, further established a maximum level of 50 ppb for lead in ready-to-drink fruit juices.
In response to the TTB’s request for analysis, the FDA affirmed that the lead levels in Clairins Casimir posed a health risk, particularly for women of childbearing age and for any developing fetus that might be exposed. The TTB’s October 9 letter explains that, according to the FDA, the blood lead level (BLL) in pregnant women should be no higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter to limit lead exposure to a developing fetus, and that 12.5 micrograms of lead per day would achieve this 5 BLL. Per the FDA’s calculations, the 138 ppb of lead would result in an intake of 17 micrograms per day. It also stated that lead and alcohol—which can cause toxicity to the brain of a developing child—could also be more hazardous in combination than as separate parts.
According to Herbert Linge, president of Berling S.A., the bottler of the Casimir, the company has also tested the rum and found lead levels to be lower than those reported by the FDA and TTB, and within acceptable limits. They are currently awaiting additional testing results from California, where the rum is also in distribution. La Maison & Velier, the importer who first brought clairin to the U.S. and Italy, had the Casimir tested in Italy and also found lower lead levels. Those reports have been sent to the TTB.
“The bottles are also completely within the parameters of European safety, so this is a U.S. recall only,” says Kate Perry, U.S. market manager for La Maison & Velier. Allowable lead levels in Europe are 150ppb, therefore, the recall is limited to the U.S.
Narrowing In on the Source of Contamination
As for how lead ended up in the Casimir, that is something Berling and Velier are investigating. Given that clairin is produced according to some strict requirements established in conjunction with Slow Food and Velier to safeguard the ancestral heritage of clairin production, the chance that the contamination comes from water is virtually impossible.
“It’s one of the few spirits that I know of in the world,” says Perry, “that has never had a drop of water added to it.”
For a Haitian clairin to qualify as a world heritage spirit it must be made from indigenous sugarcane, which typically grows in and around the village where the clairin is produced. In making the spirit, the sugarcane juice cannot be diluted with water to reduce the brix. No chemicals can be used, and the clairin must be fermented with native yeast for at least 120 hours. Clairin must be bottled undiluted, and at still proof.
The source of the lead, then, may be in the stills themselves, which is where Velier and Berling are focusing their investigation now. Clairin must be distilled in a pot still or small batch still with small column—maximum 5 plates—on top.
Velier and Berling are also investigating the stills. “In most rural places you use what you have. So they use solder, which is common everywhere,” says Perry. “We think the problem is the solder is they’ve used on the stills.”
Another master distiller, Ian Thomas, of Virginia Distillery Company, weighed in on the hypothesis, pointing out that while many modern stills are made of stainless steel or copper, using solder to repair a still could impart lead.
“If the still itself was a custom welded job, and someone who constructed the still—or even repaired it—used something similar to solder rather than 316-stainless or actual copper as the welding agent,” says Thomas. “Well, anything with a solder would have contained a small amount of lead.”
Recalls in the beverage industry do happen occasionally, although recalls due to contamination are rare to unheard of. In 2008 Sam Adams recalled roughly 25 percent of its inventory when faulty glass resulted in shards being found in some bottles. In Canada, in 2017, some bottles of Bombay Sapphire were recalled for having a 77% ABV versus the standard 40%.
For now, bartenders and retailers should remove any Clairin Casimir from inventory. MHW is encouraging consumers who have bottles to call 516-869-9170 ext. 306 for instructions on returns and reimbursement.
When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.