Jackie Summers on a Caribbean Spirit's Centuries-Old Story
Finding validation less in sales and success, and more in the authenticity of sincere communal experience.
Jackie Summers is the founder of Sorel Liqueur, a spirit based on the Caribbean drink called sorrel—often home-brewed with hibiscus in Caribbean kitchens. After a nearly mortal brush with cancer, Summers gave up his business career to develop a shelf-stable version of sorrel to distill and bottle under his company Jack from Brooklyn. Sorel took off in New York in 2012. But the next few years of success didn’t make it any easier to overcome the spirits industry’s institutional prejudices, and multiple partnership deals fell through. Sorel ran out of cash in 2015, and the distillery shut down. Lean years followed for Summers, including spending time homeless. But Summers and Sorel got a second shot by connecting with the venture fund created by Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest whiskey. Sorel has returned more popular than ever, racking up big sales and awards nationwide.
Tell me about the relaunch of Sorel.
It’s one year since the relaunch, and it has been interesting. We launched in 22 states in the last 12 months.
Besides the obvious in terms of scale and partnership, how are things different for you this time around—both operationally and personally?
In order for things to move forward, I needed to let go. When I was a micro-distillery, I was doing everything myself. I was making batches, I was bottling, I was labeling, I was filtering. I was traveling around, I was conducting trainings, I was delivering cases. I was doing the marketing, I was doing the event planning.
Now the only way it works is if I find incredibly talented people who already have the same ethics and energy and enthusiasm, give them the parameters of the job, and then get out of the way. I make sure people have the resources, and I make sure they’re well paid. But the only way it works is if I let go. And I’ll tell you right now that letting go has been a theme for happiness for my whole life. The only time I’ve ever been happy is when I could let go—and yet everything I’ve ever let go of had claw marks on it.
How do you manage that change in perspective, that letting go? Do you think you could have handled it in the past?
I think there is a narrative arc that everyone has to go through if you’re going to live the life that you choose. You start off on this journey, and it’s fun and it’s exciting and you’re doing all these things. And then inevitably something goes horribly, terribly wrong, and you are required to become a person that you didn’t know you needed to be. Then you can return to whatever it is you were doing, but changed. Your approach now is different, although you may be doing something similar.
I went through this hero’s journey where I started off on this adventure, and it was interesting and fun, and then it all fell apart. And the only way for me to actually resume this amazing journey of being a distiller and having a brand in this space saw me become someone I didn’t know I needed to be. That has been interesting, and challenging, and incredibly rewarding.
Has Sorel itself changed as well?
The recipe hasn’t changed, but the process has changed. In January of this year, I hired a food scientist, Dr. Hoby Wedler. He’s a PhD chemist and master sommelier who was born blind. So his other senses are incredibly attuned. The joke I tell is that he’s Daredevil for alcohol. The joke he tells is that he can see flavor.
How did you connect with him to work on Sorel?
I was asked by Heaven Hill to do some diversity training. Part of the conversation around diversity consistently neglects disability. I have tried to speak about things like racism and sexism and homophobia, but ageism and disability are often left out of these conversations. Dr. Wedler is an amazing public speaker. I asked him to work with me addressing ageism in a diversity space for Heaven Hill. He and I became friends, so when it came time to hire a scientist, he was immediately the guy.
The difference between myself and Dr. Wedler is that I am a talented amateur, and he’s a professional. He looks at what happens when we make Sorel on a molecular basis, saying, “what the hell is this,” and improving our process by understanding what’s going on. The nerdy part of me loves it.
The beverage which became Sorel has never, in its centuries of existence, gotten a scientific examination. It’s never had this approach. So we are learning more and more about hibiscus every single day. I think Dr. Wedler might have made himself into the country’s foremost hibiscus expert in the last year.
How did he react when you proposed working together?
He jumped right into it. It couldn’t have gone better because although he is both a somm and a chemist, he hasn’t had the opportunity to use both of those skills simultaneously in this field because of bias. Frequently when I introduce the idea of Dr. Wedler, there is a reticence about a blind chemist in a lab. “Oh, would we need to walk him around, how much help will he need,” et cetera. But he is so incredibly affable and so incredibly self-sufficient that everybody just loves him.
Even from my own limited experience, the spirits industry demonstrates and practices all kinds of bias. It’s a very, very white and male industry and has been for generations, not to mention how those prejudices extend into the corporate world of investment and partnership. Now that you’ve found common cause with Fawn Weaver at Uncle Nearest among others, how do you address that bias? It must be gratifying and vindicating to go out there with Sorel’s recent round of recognition and success.
We’ve won tons of awards, and Sorel is getting great sales and critical acclaim. But I’m not sure if that is either vindicating or gratifying. The level of bias out there hasn’t changed. I have been on the road for 115 days this year, and 99% of the time—whether I’m going to a bar, a restaurant, or a retail outlet—most of these people have never met a Black liquor brand owner. It’s a unique experience for them, unless they have met Fawn Weaver. No one actually knows how to deal with me. And there are preconceptions and all sorts of barriers that people manifest, not even consciously. So the fight is very much still there.
I’ll tell you what is very gratifying and very validating. The West Indian Day parade happens in New York City every Labor Day weekend, and two million Caribbeans show up with all of their pride and their costumes, and there’s dancing and music and food. I did not go to the parade this year, but I went to a friend’s house who was adjacent to the parade. His house was full of people of Caribbean descent from all islands—Trinidad, St. Barts, St. Thomas, the Bahamas, and more. And all of them tried Sorel for the first time. All of them had previous knowledge of sorrel, in that it was something that was made in their house. And all of them felt like Sorel was something that their grandmother could have made. There is nothing more validating than that—knowing that the people who are familiar with this drink feel it is true and authentic to itself.
“There is nothing more validating than that—knowing that the people who are familiar with this drink feel it is true and authentic to itself.”
Last year I interviewed Marc Ferrell of Ten to One rum, and he said something along the lines that even getting his rum on shelf space was a victory of sorts—that people in the community could see it there at a bar or a store and recognize it as something from their own traditions.
It is challenging. Rum is an especially tough category because despite the fact that rum originated with people of color, there are few Black or brown actual owners of brands.
Right, as opposed to the pirate with his boot on the treasure chest. Sorel must require an even more nuanced approach in the space because not only is it Black-owned, but it’s a drink that few people are familiar with outside of the community of its origins. So when you’re talking to somebody who’s new to Sorel, in addition to overcoming whatever bias they may have, how do you introduce them to it? How do you sell them on giving it a try?
It’s fucking delicious. That, truthfully, is where I start off. It’s fucking delicious! Everything after that just builds on the narrative. If the juice wasn’t good, the best story in the world would not make a difference. But the juice, combined with this story that spans centuries, is a very compelling combination.
Given everything you had to overcome personally and professionally to reach this point, has your perspective changed on what you want to achieve?
I’m getting to think in a much bigger sphere. There are inequities in our industry, and both from a personal and a brand standpoint, I have the unique privilege of addressing some of these things. I’m at less of a micro scale than I was before. As the brand grows, the platform grows. And as the platform grows, the opportunity to demonstrate what real equity looks like becomes a more of a reality.
I love the fact that my team looks like what I talked about on the education circuit for years. We have people of every background and every shape and color. We have people who are older and younger. We have people with various states of physical ability. So what feels good is having talked about what it looks like to build your own table, and then actually building this table that we predicted would work—and it works really well.
The most useful thing to me, and the reason why I think diversity is so fiscally responsible, is you will get perspectives and opinions and skillsets that wouldn’t come together any other way when your talent pool is open. When everyone’s the same, you’re not going to get that much of a difference of opinion. I actually make it a point to surround myself with people who may or may not share my perspective, and who will not hold back in telling me when they have a difference of opinion. Those things make for an interesting palette upon which decisions can be made.
As someone who’s focused on personal and philosophical growth, what do you hope to achieve on a human level, for yourself?
I would like to address my grief and my trauma. One of the things that no one talks about with founders and entrepreneurs is just how much trauma you endure as you try to birth a business. Sleepless nights, hungry nights, not knowing how things are going to go. The never-ending job of having to not just raise capital, but oversee how funding is used. On a personal level, being homeless for a year and a half. And losing my mom this year. At a certain point, I would like to just sit in a corner for like six weeks and cry.
“One of the things that no one talks about with founders and entrepreneurs is just how much trauma you endure as you try to birth a business.”
What are your plans going forward for Sorel, and yourself?
There are several things that need to happen in the next couple of years. We are in roughly half of the country right now. We’d like to make Sorel available to the other half. I would like to continue to tell this story, which isn’t about me, but is about how this beverage somehow survived for centuries, and the people who kept it alive. That story needs to become ubiquitous.
I tell my team all the time—and this is part of our core philosophy—we don’t sell. We create experiences. Sales are a byproduct. If you’re trying to sell somebody something, they will block out everything you’re saying. But if you make them feel a particular way—if they feel connected to your story—they may forget everything you said, but they won’t forget the way they feel.
From a Sorel brand perspective, there are at least two distilleries that need to be built. Sorel needs a new home in Brooklyn. At some point there will be a physical space in Brooklyn where Sorel is bottled, labeled, and sold. It will be our offices and our visitor center.
The government of Barbados has also reached out to me, and I’ve met with the ministry of finance. Barbados is the ancestral home of sorrel. They want to bring it home. They’ve offered to help finance a distillery if I build it there, so that they can become a hub of distribution for Sorel in the Caribbean.
The idea that became Sorel sat around for centuries before I put it in the bottle. My belief is that there are many other items out there like this right now, which have centuries of cultural experience, but are only really known to the communities that make them in their kitchens. I will not be doing gin, or vodka, or rum, or mezcal, or tequila. God bless the people who are doing those and doing them well. My job will be to find these amazing cultural gems, figure out how to make them shelf-stable, find somebody from that culture who I can vest in the brand, and have them tell the story.