It wasn’t quite 6am, the streets of Port-au-Prince still calm, quiet. In the lobby of the Marriott Port-au-Prince, though: excitement. Our ride had just arrived. One of the most stirring adventures I’d ever experienced anywhere was about to start. Our destination: Cap-Haitien.
The Sunrise Airways flight to Northern Haiti’s principal city barely covered 20 minutes. This was a very good thing, as everyone in our small group could hardly contain our excitement.
Cap-Haitien, you see, is the prime jumping off point for some of the most incredible, awe-inspiring historical treasures that Haiti and the broader Caribbean has to offer. Sans-Souci Palace and the mystical mountain top fortress known simply as The Citadelle, are located in the storied town of Milot, just 30 minutes or so from the airport. We were here just for the day, a whirlwind adventure put together by our friends at the Marriott, Sunrise Airways, and Tour Haiti, one of the country’s finest and most reputable tour companies.
I had been to Cap-Haitien before, of course; toured Sans-Souci, scaled the 3,000 feet up Bonnet a L’Eveque Mountain to explore the Citadelle, and eaten heartily at the Lakou Lakay Centre Culturel. Long time UC readers may remember that it was here that I enjoyed my very first taste of Clarin, Haiti’s bombastic bush rum. I was eager to introduce the quintessential Haitian spirit to my fellow journalist traveling partners.
Little did I know that Cyril had other, even bigger rhum plans in store for us…
Yes, it’s true!
His eyes widened, his voice emphatic. Jean Cyril Pressoir, the main man behind Tour Haiti and our guide for the day obviously noted the doubt in my eyes. He had just mentioned something I thought impossible.
In this valley alone, between Cap-Haitien and Milot, there are more than 300 stills making Clairin.
Along both sides of the road, acres and acres of sugarcane flourished for as far as the eye could see. Farmers toting machetes led donkeys impossibly laden with the fresh-cut treasure astride the modern, nicely paved road to a series of humble structures. They looked like smaller versions of River Antoine Estate in Grenada, only more crude, gritty. No one stirred at any of them, though.
Hopefully we can find one smoking on our way back.
Six hours later, we started to make our way back to the airport. The mood: a mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration. The Citadelle, Sans-Souci, Lakou Lakay – we’d done it all. All that was left was a quick stop for Clairin. Luckily, it wasn’t too long before we came across this place…
I don’t know its name, or that of the two gentlemen who greeted us warmly and allowed us to poke around. All I know is that from the minute I got here to the time we left, I felt like I was in rum heaven.
Like Clairin itself (and all other West Indian bush rums for the matter) the distillery was raw, completely natural, and wholly without pretense.
It was dirty. The air was a pungent mix of cane juice, fresh-pressed in the distinctive rhum agricole style of the French West Indies; diesel and exhaust from passing cars; mangoes and bananas ripening all around us; manure from the attendant beasts of burden; and Lord only knows what else.
Left to their own devices, yeasts floating around in the natural surrounds combine with cane juice at rest in large wooden vats exposed to the elements. Before too long, the bubbling starts… Fermentation… The magic chemical reaction that eventually leads to rhum.
Seeing the operation in action here was amazing. Actually getting a taste right from the still, though, put this rum journey over the top for me.
The flavor was hot and funky, as most Clairins I’ve been lucky enough to sample usually are. There was a definite bit of smooth sweetness to this one, though, that made for some nice and easy sipping.
The small taste I enjoyed from the calabash shell instantly had me yearning for more. Once again, Cyril read my expression and made things right.
Leaving the distillery with a plastic bottle filled with the fine elixir I couldn’t have been any happier, the 299, or so Clairin distilleries still remaining for me to discover in Cap-Haitien fueling my desire to get back here soon.
If you’re looking for a safe and easy way to live this or any other off-the-beaten-path adventures in Haiti, definitely get in touch with Cyril/Tour Haiti. From art and food tours, to beach-hopping, and even multi-day hiking excursions through the wilds of Haiti’s mountainous countryside, Tour Haiti can get you up-close to the best of Haiti like few can.
Plus, Cyril reads expressions, so don’t be surprised if he meets your unique travel needs even before you mention them… 😉