These days, it’s harder than ever to find a genuinely new spirit. Yet the recent arrival of clairin—an eaux-de-vie similar to white agricole rhums—in the U.S. market signifies just such a discovery. When Luca Gargano and Daniele Biondi of Velier, a rum importer based in Genoa, Italy, first arrived in Haiti in 2012, they found a distilling landscape largely unchanged since the Haitian Revolution of 1802. While other Caribbean countries had modernized their distilling over time to include multicolumn stills and large corporations with million-dollar ad budgets, Haiti has remained full of tiny, individual, distinctive distilleries. “When we went out from the capital on the first day,” Biondi says, “we realized that for a rum lover, it was paradise.”
Haiti has one large distillery (Barbancourt)—and more than 500 tiny shacks and small distilleries dotting the countryside. Each makes its clairin from wild sugarcane that grows nearby, which is often pressed using animal power, then fermented with indigenous yeasts. From the standpoint of its raw material, clairin is most similar to the rhum agricole of Martinique and Guadeloupe or the cachaça of Brazil.
Yet in terms of both flavor diversity and ethos, it’s closer to mezcal than any cane spirit. “If you travel all over the world discovering local spirits, as I’m lucky to do,” says Biondi, “you find wild spirits everywhere, from many different raw materials and many cultures.” Indigenous yeast ferments and pot-still distillation are the common thread for what he considers “wild spirits”—namely, liquors that are regionally distinctive and not a product of commercial, large-scale distillation.
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François Morrison, the head bartender at the upscale Augustine restaurant in New York City, has been an early adopter. “I personally drink clairin neat,” he says, “but at the bar I offer it in very simple and classic cocktails; it does make a beautiful Daiquiri.”
The spirits educator and consultant Shannon Mustipher, who is based in New York, became a fan of clairin after visiting Haiti last year. She added it to the cocktail program at Glady’s, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant in Brooklyn. “I present it as a handcrafted, artisanal, small-batch spirit that embodies the local terroir and communities that produce it,” she says. “Depending on the producer, it can range from soft and floral to intense, full bodied, and aggressive.”
To bring clairin to the U.S. market, Velier partnered with the French retailer La Maison du Whisky to form La Maison & Velier. The company imported 2,000 bottles each of three expressions of clairin into the American market for distribution, starting in New York and then branching into other markets. Currently, the clairins are available for a suggested retail price of $40 at select retail shops in New York, such as Astor Wine & Spirits in New York City, while other retailers and restaurants can order directly from Velier.
The three clairins are named after their respective distillers: Clairin Casimir is made by Faubert Casimir in the town of Barradères, and it’s strikingly different from Clairin Vaval, made by Fritz Vaval in Cavaillon, 15 miles away. The Casimir is dense, vegetal, and full of fruit flavors, while the Vaval is brinier and leaner. Both are quite distinct from Clairin Sajous, which hails from the mountains in the north of Haiti and is defined by clean, grassy notes.
While buying Velier’s clairin products does help support the Haitian distillers the company partners with, Biondi point out that this project isn’t a charitable initiative—it’s about the discovery of something both new and old. Clairin is a spirit that’s never been sold in the U.S. before. It’s also a celebration of the way rhum has been made in Haiti for centuries.
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Zach Geballe is the sommelier at Seattle’s iconic Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Tom Douglas Restaurants. He is also the wine educator for the Tom Douglas group, a freelance wine and spirits writer, and the host of the wine-focused podcast Disgorged.