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Rum's Godfather Luca Gargano Talks Clairins, And The Need To Preserve And Celebrate Haiti's Untamed Spirit

 

Whenever Whisky Live rolls into town, you can bet the week leading up to the mega anticipated event is going to be stacked! Many of the spirits scene's biggest, hottest and up and coming often make an appearance for masterclasses during the event itself, but what happens the days prior are no less exciting, and often incredibly intimate.

This past week I had the fortune of getting up close with the Godfather of rum himself, Luca Gargano, the chief of Italian bottler and distributor Velier. Under Luca's leadership, Velier has become a tour de force in the rum world especially, where he oversaw the promotion of full proof (cask strength) rums, the popularisation of historic and incredibly distinctive rums from Guyana's ancient Demerara rums, to Hampden's funky ester bombs. He also rediscovered and brought to light lost rums from Trinidad's now bygone Caroni, and has made great strides in bringing new players to the foreground under the Habitation Velier brand. 

Much of his work has been guided with the simple ethos of evoking transparency to a previously opaque spirit - that drinkers and fans should know exactly what they are getting, which allows them to appreciate the provenance and heritage of the rums they so enjoy. As such, much effort has been put in place to bring to consumers rums in their purest and most natural form.

 

 

Today's masterclass was held at the Capitol Kempinski Hotel's 15 Stamford Bar. It's always a pleasure to head over - just look at the stunning architecture, located right in the heart of town. And on top of that, the rum-centered bar is helmed by the wonderfully hospitable Edriane Lim (there's an interview with him here).

The masterclass of choice - and with Velier, it could damn near be any major topic in the rum world given their surround-sound-like influence all over - is a spirit close to Luca's heart, Haiti's untamed spirit, Clairin.

I've previously delved into Clairin before over here, but the big takeaway was that Clairin was a cane spirit that defied classification - it's simply moonshine that's widely consumed by locals, and has stayed that way for decades if not centuries.

Many Clairin makers are simply backyard distillers who either harvest their own cane for pressing or purchase cane syrup and then go ahead to distill it according to family recipes in makeshift stills (in a shed behind their houses, I might add) of their own creation, heated and distilled over woodfire. The white spirit produced (Clairin is traditionally consumed unaged), fermented by wild ambient yeast, is then bottled, sold and enjoyed.

 

 

Thus, you couldn't ordinarily consider it traditional rum since it's not made from molasses, but neither could you call it rhum agricole which requires the use of continuous column stills (which most Clairin makers don't use) and also restricts producers to only using sugarcane juice, whereas with Clairin, sometimes syrup is used entirely or mixed in with juice, and even vinasse is added in some instances - it's really whatever the family recipe dictates! Nonetheless, taste profile wise, it leans closest to rhum agricole, but typically funkier and more intense.

As such you couldn't even standardise Clairin as a category of itself! Each of Haiti's over 450 backyard Clairin makers marches to the beat of their own recipe. 

  

 

As the masterclass started, Luca began by recounting how it was that he came to be acquainted with Haiti's Clairins.

Sometime in 2012, after having had to postpone plans to make it down to Haiti numerous times, Luca and Velier's Export Manager, Daniele Biondi (great interview with him here), finally made it down, with the primary purpose of meeting up with a friend from the island's Barbancourt family - most notably the family behind Rhum Barbancourt, up till then the country's only rum producer.

Nonetheless whilst there, Luca had begun to notice cut sugarcane being transported across the streets of Port-au-Prince, and during a meal of local Haitian cuisine, he found himself offered a white spirit that was incredibly high proof and had enquired about it - his first contact with Clairin.

To his surprise he found out that the island had over 450 distillation stills spread all across, and this eventually led to him with others from the Velier team exploring Haiti on jeep, across dirt paths, rocky roads and through dense fields of tropical vegetation.

  

  

Luca talked of how the team and him would often explore based on their gut senses, "there was a small path there, and I had asked what was on the other side, and no one knew, and I thought okay, why not let's try going this way", or simply following the smell of vegetal sugarcane fermentation in the air wafting from backyard boiling stills.

One by one the team came to meet with Mr Michel Sajous and Mr Fritz Vaval, whose Clairins were eventually bottled and are now enjoyed globally. With the last of the initial trio of Clairins that made the first global debut, the team had asked around local Haitians as to who was known for making great Clairins, and thus the team was pointed in the direction of Mr Faubert Casimir, whose father was highly regarded for the making of this cane spirit.

Luca had also remarked that he believed that the spirit reflects the maker, if a maker was humble and down to earth, it would show in the authenticity of the product. And as such a great spirit is one that was true to itself, and did not hide from its rawness, and thus that reflected its very human maker, who would share the same spirit - both brilliance and flaws. It seemed to be that for Luca, the making of a spirit was at its core a humanist endeavour - a bid to reflect the true nature and nuance of the person who made it.

 

 

And with the opening origin story told, it was time to get into the first half of the tasting - we start off with 3 unaged cane spirits: the Clairin Sajous, Clairin Le Rocher, and the Provenance Blanc Dunder & Syrup.

This would be a timely revisit to the three expressions that I had last tasted over a year ago.

Starting off with the Clairin Sajous, this comes from the 2018 vintage, and just as I began nosing it, it's all coming back to me. The aromas of intense creamy but vegetal scents, mixed with alittle bit of gasoline, it's as if you took lightly fermented crushed cane and put it into yogurt - incredibly intense and aromatic. On the palate it's not as high pitched as you'd expect - it's mellower here but just as intensely flavoursome, it has this brightness and brilliance of sweet fresh cane juice. Honestly lip smacking. It grows into more of a leafy, vegetal bitterness, and then back to that deep long lasting sugar cane dense sweetness - it's vegetal but sweet. Such a long warmth, great depth of sweetness, such incredible flavour intensity layered atop all that creaminess. Just as enjoyable (and strong) as I fondly remembered it to be.

And then we get to the Clairin Le Rocher, this was the fourth Clairin to make it's debut under La Maison & Velier (LM&V), and as I recall it was added to the stable a year after the first launch. Here we've got the 2019 vintage, and it's giving lots more earthiness, and quite honestly my first impression here is that of a pepperoni pizza with lots of baked mozarella cheese and black olives. On the nose it's giving all this savouriness of toasted bread, slightly burnt mozarella cheese, savoury black olives, and meat oils, incredibly umami. And the on the palate, largely a continuation of its aromas, still lots of black olives, with the addition of some lighter fluid, and a more backseat note of spent sugarcane. The finish was pure black olives. For the Le Rocher, I find myself appreciating this even more from when I first had it, I really enjoyed this very distinctive and well defined earthiness.

Now finally the Providence Blanc Dunder & Syrup - far more mellow and rounded here than the previous two. Here it's got lots of creamy vanilla on the nose, and then on the palate just as rounded but with an intensified flavour - vanilla, light cane juice, alittle more briny and savoury, with more earthiness of crushed vines. Now the finish was extremely delightful with this deep herbal note of traditional Chinese medicine -like notes of herbal roots. This was altogether much more mellow, cohesive and structured, and also less sharp, but still delivering so much flavour on the palate, which in this case allowed more of the subtle nuances to emerge - of note is that herbal root note that was incredible. That said, it also didn't quite share the same high pitched, sharper Clairin profile - this was more classically white rum.

 

If you gaze real closely, you'll be able to tell which is which. But I'll help you this time round, from left to right: Clairin Sajous, Clairin Le Rocher, Providence Dunder & Syrup.

 

Through the three white cane spirits, Luca talked of how despite his decades of travel all around in search of great rums, he simply found the sugarcane in Haiti to be of the utmost best quality, and continues to believe that its potential is still largely untapped. This led to his coming up with several ideas on how to harness Haiti's sugarcane - one of which was through the establishment of the Distillerie Port-au-Prince, from which the Providence brand calls home. Together in collaboration with his friends from the Barbancourt family and Capovilla, who is best known for his grappas, Luca had assembled the distillery which is now hitting the milestone of producing its own aged rum.

For Luca, it's clear that his desire was to explore the many ways of how Haiti's ancestral sugarcane could be expressed - aged Clairins for example had not previously existed. He expanded this to also his Nomad project that would involve a double retort pot still housed in a shipping container that could in theory be brought to any distillery in the world, which would allow producers who were otherwise focused on the use of their own column stills, to attempt the use of pot stills instead. There are really interesting upcoming things in the works, but those shall remain under wraps for now. 

   

 

Now we get into the second half of the tasting where we'll be going over three aged Haitian cane spirits - Providence 2019 3 Year Old Ex-Caroni Cask, Vieux Sajous 5 Year Old Ex-Caroni Cask, and finally the Vieux Sajous 4 Year Old Ex-Lustau Oloroso Cask.

As mentioned, Luca had sought to extend what ground the Clairins had covered, and given that Clairins were not consumed aged, that was his first port of call. And with several Caroni barrels on hand, that was what he tried to age the Clairins with first. And then later on with the more recent Sherry episode underway, he had set aside some Sherry casks from the famous Lustau bodegas to again attempt aging the Clairins, with the remaining Sherry casks being used for Jamaica's Hampden rum. Luca had capped it off saying that it would ultimately be incredibly fulfilling for him to age the Clairins in their own casks, thereby adding layers and intensifying the "Clairin" profile.

 

Left to right: 3 Year Old Providence, 5 Year Old Vieux Sajous ex-Caroni, 4 Year Old Vieux Sajous ex-Lustau Sherry cask.

 

We start with the 3 Year Old Providence that's been aged in ex-Caroni casks, this was made by Luca's Distillerie Port-au-Prince and was the follow up to the Providence Blanc we just had. Here I got lots of brown sugar, caramel, yellow raisins and a light woodiness on the nose - it's almost Cognac like. On the palate, very much the same yellow raisins, Cognac, honey, brown sugar, tobacco leaves - all these warm, dense sweeter-styled flavours. And then on the finish was more of that herbal quality from before, but here it was less tannic and actually brighter and grassier of herbal jelly or tortoise jelly. Overall a rather Cognac styled profile, but good roundedness and depth - I really enjoyed in particular the herbal jelly notes at the finish, and of course the warm, sweeter flavours made it very approachable. That said, I didn't quite get much of the Caroni notes here.

Next up we have the Vieux Sajous 5 Year Old Ex-Caroni Cask. Luca had mentioned that Sajous had probably the most consistent production of Clairin and thus that gave him more leeway to play around with them. This had an intense aroma of deep honey, cane syrup, manuka honey, spiced honey - it's got this incredible depth of sweetness and spices of anise and cardamom. Over time it got more grassy and herbal of tortoise jelly and also of herbal roots. On the palate, there was of that spiced honey and herbal jelly, and lifted up to give more grassiness a la rhum agricole. On the finish was loads of herbal grassy jelly. I found this very enjoyable - I would characterise it as rhum agricole but edgy and far more intense.

And now finally we've got the last Haitian spirit of the night, the Vieux Sajous 4 Year Old Ex-Lustau Oloroso Cask. This is the most recent development with regards to LM&V's aged Clairins, and ties in with Luca having gotten hold of several high quality Sherry casks from notable Spanish bodegas, this one comes from Lustau, the renown Sherry maker. Here was a bright amber spirit, almost tinged orange, with lots of spiced honey aromas with anise, clove and herbal grass jelly on the nose. On the palate was an incredibly rich and deep herbal grass jelly, spiced honey, alittle more tannic here with notes of black grape skins. Into the finish was more of those deep spiced honey and herbal jelly flavours piled on. This was for me simply incredible and delectable - I truly enjoyed how big and bold these flavours are, and yet at the same time really rounded and velvety or almost syrupy. It's herbal jelly but decked with spiced honey. Incredibly intense and flavoursome, this was such a stunner. A thoroughly great combo of flavours here, with great texture and progression, really great cohesion as well.

  

 

As the masterclass went on, dram by dram, Luca opened up about how the process of bringing the Clairins to the global stage was by no means a guaranteed success. 

Despite the team's initial excitement over having had their eyes opened to Haiti's local cane spirit - in particular, Luca was terribly excited about how the spirit had been preserved as it were from decades and centuries prior and was thus untouched by any sense of modern influence - there was a fear that the cane spirit was too pungent and would not be well-received. Yet he remarked that he had also wondered how other pungent foods like blue cheese could nonetheless be prized, and so why not this raw and natural cane spirit from Haiti?

After some deliberation, also having had other concerns such as the logistics of consistently getting the Clairins procured, bottled and shipped out despite the lack of transport infrastructure in the country, Luca had decided that it was his responsibility to showcase Haiti's heritage to the world.

Luca also shared future plans to use Haiti's sugarcane, which he believes are the best in the world for what might possibly new category of rum - so trust me, there's some really interesting things in the works.

     

  

"Y'know when I did the Caroni's [from Trinidad] they said to me, this is 60-something proof, it is so strong, who would drink this? But I believed in my heart and my gut that this was correct. And I felt the same thing with the Clairins - it is a genuine product,... it is part of the local culture, Haitians have been drinking it the same way for hundreds of years, it is even used in many local ceremonies like initiation... I felt that it was an authentic product and it speaks to people because of that."

 

As the night came to a close, Luca also shared how he was very happy that since Clairin had achieved global awareness, and was now appreciated around the world, through Velier he had been able to contribute back to the local Haitian community and ensure that these earnest Clairin producers were able to earn multiples more than they could have if their cane spirits were only to be sold locally.

When asked about the possibility of adding more Clairin producer to the fold, the answer was a bittersweet one. While it has been clear that having made Clairins more accessible for the enjoyment of fans all around the world has raised Haiti's profile and thus there is today a real demand for the product, and in the process creating real benefits and recognition for local Haitians, the reality was also that Haiti as of late had become an atmosphere that was of relatively heightened instability, and as such had made it incredibly difficult to access for the team.

Ultimately Luca really made clear how much he loved Haiti and wants to see the country's culture be appreciated worldwide and also to help contribute more back to the local community, and to give them the recognition he believes they deserve. For him, Haiti is a time capsule that's lost to the sands of time, and yet holds so much promise. He emphasised that it was his hope that Clairin would continue to grow in appreciation and that more can come from the country.

   

  

Finally we closed off with what Luca called a "Jamaican Breakfast" which was a 1/2 glass Hampden 8 Year Old and 1/2 glass Fevertree Tonic.

I hadn't tried Hampden like this before, but Luca said this was something he drinks on the daily, so trust the man to know what he's talking about.

And boy was it absolutely a banger - all that intense Hampden funky tropical fruity flavours but brightened up and made lighter with the tonic water. Incredibly tasty stuff - highly recommend.

With the masterclass done, Luca stayed around for quite a while more answering questions and sharing stories with the folks round the table of his many adventures, many of which were befittingly larger than life, just as the man himself is. Those too shall stay off public records simply because I felt it truly added to the fun and allure of sitting with a rum legend and made the session ridiculously lively and fun - can't spoil the fun for folks out there.

Definitely join in if Luca's ever in town, is all I can say.

An incredibly fantastic session I was able to join in on! Till next time!

 

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot