A Moonshine Mystery
First up, we’ve got a question from Sofia M., from Houston, Texas. She writes:
Hi Modern Bar Cart,
Recently listened to your rum episode, and really enjoyed it. I consider myself an amateur rum aficionado, but the other day I came across something kind of strange.
I was at my friend’s housewarming party, and one of her cousins from the DR [I’m guessing that’s the Dominican Republic] pulled out this unlabeled glass bottle and started pouring shots. She said it was “rum moonshine,” but she was already tipsy and my Spanish is a little rusty. It tasted sort of like white rum I’ve had before, but there was also something a little different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Have you ever come across something like this? Is it legit, or do you think I was drinking straight moonshine?
Let me know what you think!
Well, Sofia – I gotta say, that’s an interesting question, and while we here at Modern Bar Cart can’t really officially advocate drinking booze out of unlabeled bottles for safety reasons, I think we can still shine a little light on this question.
One of the things that immediately jumped out at me from your email is that your friend’s cousin was from the Dominican Republic, located in the Caribbean on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the nation of Haiti. And that’s when things started clicking for me.
Even though I didn’t get to taste this “moonshine” like you did, if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it was likely Clairin, which is a traditional, rustic Haitian moonshine made using sugar cane. This effectively makes it a rum, but as you picked up on during your tasting, there are some interesting nuances.
I’ve recently been doing some research on Clairin because it’s one of a few dying breeds of traditional spirits out there — namely, wild-fermented, minimally processed, inherently small-batch spirits. Others like it include Irish Poitin, Mexican Mezcal, and American Moonshine, and all of those have both legal and illegal variants.
Haiti’s Agricultural Distilling Tradition
Now, Haiti is a really interesting country in the historical sweep of the Western Hemisphere. It’s the only Caribbean nation to exist as the result of a successful slave revolution, which reveals both its people’s independent streak and its origins in the sugar trade. As we know, where there’s sugar, there’s rum – so it’s really no surprise that we’re dealing with a sugar cane-based spirit, but Haiti’s circumstances in the greater world stage have played a large role in creating a distilling culture that some would say is almost “frozen in time.”
What do I mean by that?
Well, in most larger countries, we’re pretty content to have our state-regulated liquor systems with three-tiered distribution and government controlled labeling rules and hefty taxes on the alcohol itself. These things keep us safe and let us know what to expect when we pick up a bottle at the liquor store. But in places where bureaucratic structure breaks down, it’s still possible to come across distilling practices that are more traditional and more tied to the land. Affluent hipsters here in the U.S. would call them “more authentic.”
This is the situation in the nation of Haiti, which most of us are familiar with only because of recent natural disasters. Due to the lack of infrastructure, a lot of the people there make their living by farming, and much like the early farmers in the United States, these folks distill their excess crops in order to earn a little extra income. Clairin is fermented out in the fields, distilled using technology much less sophisticated than what you’d find in a modern distillery, and it can often be found for sale on the side of the road in unlabeled jugs.
So, Sofia, that’s why I’m guessing you got the chance to taste some Clairin.
The Future of Clairin
Before we move on to another question, I want to elaborate on a couple other aspects of this traditional spirit.
First: why do wild fermentation and traditional distilling practices matter?
Well, if you remember back to our Intro to Terroir episode, you’ll recall that regional differences in microbiome and human processing can have a major impact on the flavor of a spirit. And if there’s on thing that booze geeks like, it’s nuance — finding spirits with unique production methods and flavor profiles. Clairin is a great category for this because each distiller is going to have a slightly different yeast profile and distilling equipment from the next one, making for a category with almost unlimited complexity at the local level.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because the Mezcal landscape was much the same about 15-20 years ago. Just a bunch of farmers making their hooch and drinking it with friends and family. Then some gringos showed up with a lot of paper, and suddenly a whole slew of new pressures are introduced into the distilling landscape. Currently, Mezcal is in the midst of a true tragedy of the commons, with demand for the spirit completely outstripping the capacity for high-quality agave cultivation and authentic small batch production. This is why I don’t anticipate Mezcal prices going down at any point in the next 30 years.
All of this seems like a bit of a downer, but Clairin has one significant advantage over Mezcal. Whereas many agave strains can take 5-10 years to mature (and some significantly longer), sugar cane can be harvested yearly. Also, as you might imagine, the sugar output for literal sugar cane is a bit higher than what you can get from a roasted agave pina, so the potential alcohol output is greater with much less input.
So here’s the grand finale of my Clairin rant – and I apologize to Sofia, who just wanted to know what she was drinking – but this is actually pretty darn important for spirits and cocktail culture in the next decade.
I believe that Clairin is set to be one of the next big spirits on the international market, which has some serious potential benefits for the impoverished nation of Haiti. Not often do market forces lay a golden egg in your lap like this. Of course, this is likely going to be abused. Big spirits conglomerates are already on the ground scouting out who they’re going to buy out and scale to massive industrial proportions. I think the best we can hope for is that we’ll find some balance between enough regulation to import this stuff to the U.S. and enough respect for tradition to keep it wild fermented and traditionally distilled. But the fact remains, it’s much more sustainable than agave, which has me optimistic for a positive outcome.