Founder of Sorel Liqueur Jackie Summers On Looking Back to Move Forward

By Gabrielle Pharms | December 1, 2021

Everyone has their definition of luxury. For some, it’s indulging in an evening of self-care with a glass of wine, or it’s splurging on yet another pair of shoes. As for Jackie Summers, luxury is a red-hued, subtle sweet liqueur called Sorel. Summers is the founder of Jack From Brooklyn Inc., the first-known Black-owned distillery in America post-Prohibition, and the creator of the award-winning Sorel Liqueur. “Sorel tastes luxurious. When you taste Sorel, you will feel that there's actual soul in this,” says Summers. Sorel is based on sorrel, a crimson-pigmented hibiscus tea abundant in the Caribbean – with a boozy twist. “You will taste nutmeg. You will taste cinnamon. You will taste ginger. You will taste hibiscus and how they all play and dance together. It’s a kind of luxury that you can treat yourself to on a regular basis and not be like you're breaking the bank.”

In addition to starting his successful spirit brand, Summers has long advocated for representation in the spirits industry. This mutual passion point brought Summers and Fawn Weaver, the founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, together. Summers came into acquaintance with Weaver from speaking on panels about diversity and inclusion in the hospitality industry. In June 2021, Weaver launched the $50 million Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, which supports minority-owned spirits brands, with Sorel Liqueur receiving a $2 million investment. Summers adds, “It is not a seat at the table if you cannot bring other people. So, my thing is people only really call me in if they're ready to change things. If I get invited to a table where I can invite people, it’s my job to overturn the table.”

Here, we talk to Summers about the inspiration behind Sorel Liqueur and what keeps him motivated to uplift the next generation of drink producers.

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Let's go back to when Sorel initially launched. What do you feel like you've had to overcome to get to where you're at today?

The interesting thing about launching Sorel, two very specific things – number one is when I launched Sorel; no one outside of the Caribbean had ever heard of this thing. So, it really was introducing a brand-new idea to the liquor world – and the liquor world is not big on new ideas. People want gins and rums and vodkas and tequilas because that's what they're familiar with. So, introducing a brand-new product, people thought I was out of my mind because there's an insane amount of education that needs to go along with teaching the consumers a brand-new flavor.

The other thing was getting a liquor license. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I got my license, I was the only Black person in the country with a license to make liquor. Come to find out later that as far as we can tell, I'm the first Black person post-Prohibition to get that license. We don't know about licenses since before Prohibition because everything was deliberately obscured. I'm mixed on this because I really feel like, yes, the obstacles were real. And yes, I overcame them, but it's nothing compared to what my parents or my grandparents or anybody who came before me had to overcome. My ancestors would laugh at my problems.

I'm aware that I get to do something that no one in the history of my family has had the opportunity to do. I only get that opportunity because I'm standing on their sacrifices. So, are the obstacles real? Yes. Are they next to impossible? Yes. Listen, I'm glad that I get to do this. I feel it's incumbent on me to make sure whoever comes behind me that they get to stand on my sacrifice now. I need to contribute to this mountain. I need to help make the mountain higher.

Excellent and well-said. So, what was the inspiration behind Sorel? I know there's some heritage behind it, but why Sorel and not something else?

Why not? Sorel is my heritage. My mother's parents came from Barbados. My father's parents came from St. Kitts. I'm fully Caribbean. I have these distinct memories of being a child in Brooklyn on Labor Day for the West Indian Day Parade; two million Caribbeans out and every island got their flag out. There's dancing, there’s music, floats, and there's food – jerk chicken, and I'm eating curry goat. I'm eating doubles, and I'm washing it down with sorrel. My knowledge of myself really is born in the knowledge of this food. So, when it came time to launch a liquor brand, I could never understand why this thing I'd known all my life, nobody had ever tried to bottle it. So, I told myself, I was going to be the first. Mind you, I don't have a degree in chemistry, and I don't have any background in food science. I'm uniquely broken in that I don't know what I can't do. So, because I didn't know I couldn't do it, I did it.

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I love that. So, what was it that attracted you to the spirits industry?

I had a cancer scare. Eleven years ago, my doctor found a tumor the size of a golf ball inside my spine. He said you have a 95 percent chance of death and a 50 percent chance of paralysis if you live. The short version is I live, but it will adjust your perspective. I had 25 years invested in corporate America. I figured it was time for whatever I was doing with my life to start doing something that meant something. I got out of my surgery two weeks after I had this tumor taken out of my spine, walked into my job ready to quit, and they offered me a package, and I never looked back. Two weeks after that, I was thinking about how I was I was going to make Sorel into the first-ever shelf-stable version of itself. So, what got me into it was the desire to connect on a daily basis with the things that make me “me.” Every single day I know that I do this thing that connects me to everybody who came before me.

That’s heavy and so inspiring.

One of the great things that's going on with Sorel is it’s one of the early recipients of the Uncle Nearest Fund started by Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest. She is an absolute powerhouse, but she sees the spectacular rise of Uncle Nearest, not just as a measure of her success but as a statement against the industry. Her team is all-women-led, and it's Black-founded. She feels like the fact that she was able to do this speaks more about what's wrong with the industry than what is obviously what she has done right – and she's actively trying to correct that. I feel very much the same way. My belief to my core is when we do well, I do well. So, it's not enough for me to have a brand that succeeds. I believe there are different ways of measuring success. Really, what other companies have you helped to raise up so they can do their own thing? I used to believe generational wealth meant creating the kind of wealth in your lifetime that usually takes generations. My belief has changed. Now, I sincerely believe generational wealth means making sure your whole generation is wealthy right now, not the kids or their grandkids or their great-grandkids here. And now. We can do this today while we're living and enjoy this.

Building off the generational wealth comment you made, how do you hope to inspire those in the marginalized groups to elevate?

The important thing to remember is you can do this. All barriers or obstacles are meant to be overcome. I sincerely believe the trip to success is figuring out what the insurmountable task of the day is and surmounting the hell out of it. We stand on the sacrifices of people who went through things we will never really understand. I'll never really understand everything it took for my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to put me in this position. I can't do less. It would be disrespectful for me to do less than everything that's already been done for me. We have opportunities that didn't exist before. Take advantage of the now. Make the day brighter for those to come.

Photography by: Clay Williams