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.
Soon we are racing with his new friends through the cane toward a primitive-looking device: Two bulls, attached to a pole, walk in a circle, turning logs that act like rolling pins to extract a cloudy brown juice from freshly harvested sugarcane. Two young men prod the cattle with the blunt side of their machetes.
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.”
When Gargano first tried clairin, an insight struck him: “Clairin and mezcal are among the only spirits in the world still made in a completely natural way,” he says. “Clairin tastes not just of Haiti but of the particular village and plot and cane it’s made from. It’s an extraordinary thing.” Gargano should know. Until he came to Haiti a few years ago, clairin was rarely even bottled. It was sold at small stores out of big plastic barrels for the equivalent of a couple of dollars a gallon, or at roadside stands, where it was often mixed with allegedly aphrodisiacal herbs and offered in small plastic cups for just a few cents. He has since started working with distillers to sell their clairin in 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.
What we usually think of as rum in the United States is made from molasses, the runoff from sugar production. But in Haiti, 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.
After our stop in the cane fields, I drive with Gargano a few miles north to Distillery Chelo, run by Michel Sajous, a third-generation clairin producer. “I worked selling Haitian mangoes to the American market,” Sajous tells me. “It was a good job. I lived in 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.”
After Sajous presses the juice from the cane, it’s poured into large wooden vats; then the natural yeasts present in the environment and in the juice itself create a chemical reaction that converts sugar to alcohol. We can see and hear this happening in the open vats bubbling, hissing, and sizzling in the throes of fermentation, which typically takes five or six days. In the distillation process that follows, water and impurities evaporate and the alcohol becomes concentrated, resulting in a strong, clear distillate that we sample right out of the vat. For me, the nose of Sajous’s rum is closest to the smell of small-production cachaça from Brazil, redolent of fresh-cut cane.
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.”
Between the distilleries we visit and the beautiful beaches we see, the poverty and struggle of the Haitian people are present almost everywhere. We stop in a market where vendors hawk a local version of the French treat boudin noir, made of inner organs and blood, alongside a much more tragic offering: tiny cookies literally made out of dirt that the poorest people here eat to quell their hunger.
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.
Finally, I hear about a vodou event taking place in the hills above Port-au-Prince. As I ascend, the air gets cooler and fresher. I pass through the richest neighborhoods of Haiti, places U.N. employees have now almost completely colonized. Above these wealthy precincts, I get to a place where the car can’t go, a much poorer, informal neighborhood that hangs off the mountainside. I hear music, and I wind through an alleyway between fenced-off metal houses with pigs and chickens running around inside. I follow a short Haitian man into a large room packed with people listening intently to a priest who intones in Creole, accompanied by the background beats of a cast of sweaty, serious drummers. As the drumbeat takes over and the priest stops talking, the man who entered with me screams out, violently collides with those around him, and then writhes on the ground. People hold him gently so he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else and eventually lead him outside as he comes to.
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.