Photo by Brian Finke
Photo by Brian Finke
A man chops sugar cane in Haiti.
The island is unlike anyplace else in the Caribbean. You can feel it in the air—and taste it in its rum.
I’m driving through the remote region of Saint-Michel de l’Attalaye in the north central valley of Haiti, where the road is lined on both sides by steep walls of sugarcane. I’m with one of the world’s most knowledgeable rum experts, Luca Gargano. As soon as I sniff burning sugar in the morning air, we slam to a stop. Gargano jumps out of the vehicle and exclaims, “Smell that!” From the tall stalks that run to the edge of the road, a group of Haitians emerge and greet us. Gargano slaps the men on the back and kisses the women on both cheeks. He is so exuberantly friendly that they all respond in kind, even though they don’t know him.
Next to the ancient press is a small area, shaded by palm fronds and framed with wooden poles, that holds vats of bubbling, fermenting juice and a metal-clad copper still powered by an open fire. There’s an extended family tending the still—a no-nonsense matriarch, her middle-aged son, and a couple of grandchildren in their early 20s. The son pours some of the distillate into a bowl for us to taste. Gargano takes a sip, holds it in his mouth, then passes the bowl my way. The taste is grassy, fresh—and completely different from anything I’ve ever drunk before. After he swallows, Gargano says, “Clairin is one of the greatest spirits on the planet. But no one outside Haiti knows about it.”
Europe and the United States.
What Gargano has discovered in the clairin culture of Haiti speaks to the country’s larger appeal to a certain kind of traveler. Nowadays Haiti is often seen as little more than a locus of tragedies, man-made and natural. Outside nations always seem to be sending food or troops or convening meeting after meeting of NGOs and U.N. organizations to try to “fix” Haiti’s problems. It would be naïve to pretend that the country doesn’t face serious challenges. But, having visited Haiti several times over the years for humanitarian projects, I, like Gargano, have fallen in love with the country.A former French colony, Haiti is the only nation in the world founded by slaves who fought for and won their freedom. (Haiti’s seminal independence event, a covert meeting of slaves intending to revolt, took place at a vodou ceremony in 1791.) The very existence of clairin speaks to Haiti’s painful history: The device used to juice cane, called a trapiche—an invention that dates back to the Middle Ages—was first powered by slaves as well as oxen. Even with its inhumane origins, the spirit has remained at the heart of Haiti’s culture.
Guadeloupe, and Martinique, the spirit called rhum agricole is made instead from fresh sugarcane juice or sugarcane syrup and not aged, so it has none of the toasted caramel notes of the rum we’re familiar with. Instead, it’s pure cane: drier and packed with aromas of grass, fruit, leather. And it’s intensely, unapologetically alcoholic. Clairin is the name given to the small-batch versions of rhum agricole made in rural villages. Freshly cut sugarcane and its juice, unlike molasses, soon spoil if they are not made into alcohol or boiled into syrup. Most clairin producers farm the land right around their stills, chop down the ripe sugarcane with machetes, and then load it onto donkeys to be hauled, fermented, and distilled nearby.
New York City. Then my father, who ran this family distillery, passed away, and I decided to come back.” Sajous’s distillery is a bit more organized than the operation we found earlier: He uses a sugarcane press that runs on gasoline rather than bovine power. His fermentation tanks are indoors. But the essence is the same.“We make our clairin from a kind of sugarcane called Cristalline,” Sajous says, “which is very rare.” Almost every stalk of sugarcane now cultivated in the world is a hybrid form engineered for endurance and high yields; Cristalline is a nonhybrid indigenous form of cane.
“Just look at the butterflies,” Gargano says, pointing at the swarm of yellow-and-black wings hovering above the felled sugarcane. “I traveled all over the Caribbean to places where they make rum. But I never saw a butterfly in a sugarcane field before Haiti. It’s because everything here is natural.”
Gargano and I continue to crisscross the country in search of more small-batch clairin, on backroads so steep and bone-shaking that 100 miles takes seven hours to drive. Gargano made his reputation as a spirits genius by buying up a large quantity of Guadelupean rum that everyone else thought was made incorrectly. He waited for it to age, and the result was met with acclaim. Now he has turned his eye to clairin. As we explore Haiti, his refrain is the same: Clairin is beautiful precisely because it is imperfect. “If you create something perfectly pure, like most vodka, it doesn’t reflect the life of the thing it came from,” he says. “Clairin does. In it, you can taste the earth. It’s how rum should be.”
After we’ve visited many distilleries and bars and drunk our fair share of the country’s clairin supply, I strike out on my own, making my way to Port-au-Prince in search of a vodou ceremony. Vodou is at the heart of Haiti, and clairin is at the heart of vodou. But my first couple of attempts lead to celebrations that are clearly being done only for my dollars. Nevertheless, I witness copious quantities of clairin used in various ways. It is sprinkled liberally on the symbols drawn on the ground that represent vodou spirits during ceremonies. The head priest imbibes clairin in big gulps, then spits it into the air, creating a fine mist that envelops nearby worshippers.
I learn later that night, when talking to Richard Morse—the Haitian American proprietor of the famous Hotel Oloffson, leader of one of the country’s best bands (RAM), and a vodou priest himself—that clairin is the preferred drink of Haiti’s most celebrated vodou figures. “Baron loves clairin,” Morse tells me. He’s referring to Baron Samedi, thought of as vodou’s king, who is usually depicted with a skeleton-like face, a black top hat, and dark sunglasses. Haiti’s longtime dictator, François Duvalier, was said to have modeled himself on this spirit of the dead. As we talk more, I start to hear music in the distance. “It’s a rara band,” Morse says. “You should chase it!”
I speed out in search of the sounds I’ve just heard. And then I see a massive group of people dancing as they parade through the streets, surrounding the band. It’s so dark that I can barely see anything, but I can smell the clairin. There are no fancy vessels, not even plastic cups, just big unlabeled bottles of the stuff that participants swig from and pass along. It makes me realize that Gargano’s observation about the rum also applies to the life of a place. Where everything is clean, sterile, and perfect, there is beauty, luxury, and safety. But life is messy. Life smells. Life has character and complexity. Just like the clairin Gargano prizes.
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