Spirit drinkers often associate rum with particular Caribbean islands and with dark, rich, sweet qualities. But, technically, rum can come from anywhere, contain any flavor, and be aged for any length of time. It’s simply defined as sugarcane distillate. And Haiti’s clairin is one of its purest, most traditional expressions.
In Haiti, enslaved people learned how to distill alcohol from the French before revolting, driving off European colonizers, and establishing an independent nation. Local producers starting making rum from pure sugarcane juice (molasses-and-water makes up industrial rum) and named it clairin, from the French-Haitian Creole for “clear.” Haitians have consumed and used this traditional moonshine in religious Vodou rituals for centuries, and it remains a staple at cultural events across the country.
There are more than 500 small distilleries in Haiti. Known as guildive (a French adaptation of colonial slang for rum: “kill-devil”), these establishments are designed to serve no more than the surrounding villagers. Farmers hand-cut sugarcane with machetes, cart it to the press using livestock, then leave the juice to spontaneously ferment in tanks. After one press, they distill the sugarcane into 100-proof, unaged white rum that sometimes sells for $1.50 a bottle on the streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Because local governments don’t regulate clairin, the quality of raw materials and the resulting spirits can vary greatly between distillers and batches. But rum’s veritable Wild West has connoisseurs rejoicing. It’s a terroir-driven, open-air, wild-fermented, small-batch spirit. To top it off, clairin is often inherently organic. Neither pesticides, nor industrialized farming, are practiced in the remote villages where communities have been drinking the clearest of rum for generations.