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Sorel liquor is back, with a big investor and a goal to help lift up more Black distillers

Jackie Summers, the creator of Sorel liquor, at Clover Club in New York City. (Photos by Clay Williams for The Washington Post)
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Jackie Summers keeps a photo of a bottle of Sorel, the liquor brand he founded in 2012, on his phone. In the image, it sits beside bottles of Averna and Campari, beloved Italian spirits that trace their origins to the 1800s.

He’s been thinking about the future of his product as he prepares to relaunch it this month following a five-year hiatus. Summers sees it living on for centuries, like its Italian forebears, being mixed into cocktails he’s never thought of, in bars he can’t possibly imagine, long after he’s gone. “There is a culinary firmament where Sorel belongs,” he says.

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Like the monks who crafted spirits centuries ago, Summers figures he will be forgotten, a humbling thought. But he’s not modest about Sorel, a version of the hibiscus-steeped “red drink” that accompanied enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean, where his ancestors made it. His concoction wowed craft-cocktail makers before his company, Jack From Brooklyn, folded in 2015.

Summers, who says he was the first Black person in the country to hold a distiller’s license since Prohibition, says one thing sets his product apart from well-established brands: “Mine is even higher rated.”

He can back his century-spanning ambition with numbers: 100,000 bottles will be available online and in 10 states by the end of the month, and his projections show them selling out by year’s end. He plans to launch in an additional 20 markets next year.

The brand got a major boost this spring with a $2 million investment from a fund designed to grow Black-owned spirits companies. It was founded by Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest, a company named after the Black distiller and formerly enslaved Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught Jack Daniels the art of whiskey-making. The infusion of cash also put Summers under the tutelage of Weaver, a former real estate investor who has made Uncle Nearest the fastest-growing whiskey brand in the nation.

She saw Sorel’s potential to be the next Uncle Nearest. But it can be hard for White investors, she says, to imagine a Black-owned liquor company succeeding, partly because there are so few examples of them. “Uncle Nearest can’t be the only one,” she says. “I want to make sure that every single person who passed on him regrets it for the rest of their lives.”

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Sorel is a crimson-hued global tour: the hibiscus is from Morocco, clove from Brazil, cassia (sometimes called Chinese cinnamon) from Indonesia and ginger from Nigeria.

The liquor is based on sorrel, the red hibiscus tea ubiquitous in the Caribbean. Summers notes the exact recipe of the drink varies depending on where it’s made, and that it often comes spiked. “People serve the tea to the kids, and when they go off to bed, the adults add some rum,” he says. He’s careful to say he didn’t invent the drink; he was just the first one to create a shelf-stable version.

The process, Summers says, took exactly 624 tries, each iteration tweaked a little. Hibiscus can be astringent, and many temper its puckery qualities with sugar to a cloying effect. Summers instead uses botanic notes for balance.

I see what he means: The garnet-red liquid is shot through with baking-spice warmth and juicy floral notes, all cut with the zing of ginger, with just a touch of sweetness.

I can appreciate its appeal to bartenders, who prize versatility, all the better to create their own signature concoctions. Like a kid with a gold-star sticker, Sorel plays well with others.

I mix it with good ginger beer and a thick lime wedge for a spritz-like quaff that leaves a pleasant tingle on my lips. I stir it into my favorite cocktail, a Negroni, per a recipe on the company’s website, where it lends depth but politely doesn’t hog the spotlight. That drink’s orange-peel garnish makes me think of clove-studded citrus, and I’m suddenly picturing Sorel in cold-weather drinks, from party punches to hot toddies, where the spices would take on a festive holiday character. Maybe in an Old-Fashioned in place of bitters.

And I try it the way Summers likes it best: with a single ice cube for what I can imagine as a low-key (it’s 15 percent alcohol) after-dinner sip where its flavors shine.

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The drink is nearly as complex as Summers, whose biography reads like a movie pitch: Raised in Queens by a scientist mom and a jazz musician dad whose own parents immigrated to Harlem from Barbados and Nevis, respectively, he initially took to the corporate world, with stints in finance and publishing. In between was an interlude as an underwear model.

A cancer diagnosis in 2010 shook him. After having a tumor removed from his spine and beating long-shot odds of survival, Summers decided to make a career from the things he loved — spending time with people he liked and drinking great drinks.

Despite zero experience in the liquor industry, he envisioned a commercial version of the drink he had long made for friends. After perfecting his recipe on his home stove, he scrounged for funding, got a distillers’ license, and set up shop in his adopted neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Sorel was an immediate hit with bartenders and critics. Liquor writer F. Paul Pacult gave it five stars. Now-folded Lucky Magazine touted it as the 2012 holiday gift to give in multiples.

Hurricane Sandy destroyed his facility in 2012, and although he was able to rebuild without insurance money, a few years later, he ran out of money and steam. Next came what he calls “the pause.” “I basically had a nervous breakdown,” he says.

Summers, who was briefly homeless, recalls waking up one day in 2017 in a pile of garbage to the sensation of snowflakes falling on his cheeks. Later, he secured an apartment and recovered with the help of meditation and prayer (he says he is a practicing Taoist). He started teaching, writing and speaking about cocktails — and making plans to revive his company.

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When the deal with an investment group he was working with fell through this spring, he emailed Weaver, whom he had met on the speaking circuit, to ask for advice.

Send over your “deck,” she told him, referring to the PowerPoint slides start-ups use to pitch to funders. Within days, Weaver was on board.

“She was willing to see me for me and not what I represent,” Summers says. “When you are a large Black man who walks into a room with confidence — me being me intimidated people.”

Weaver agrees. “I truly believe his funding fell through because he has this Brooklyn bravado, and the bandanna, and all that — and people aren’t used to that.”

She sees it as part of her job as a successful Black woman in an industry dominated by White men to help other people of color get a foothold.

Within few weeks, Weaver helped put the relaunch of Sorel into motion, using her relationships with suppliers and distributors to get the product back on shelves.

Production is being handled at Laird & Company, the distillery known for its applejack, a family-owned company Summers felt shared his values and standards. He keeps a control batch whipped up in his kitchen on-site to compare to the large-scale batches. Bottles are coming from China. Distributors have been locked down.

And while his ambitions for Sorel stretch through the generations, Summers has more immediate plans for it, and for himself. He wants to be a role model for other Black people and people of color in the beverage industry — and serve as an ambassador of the spirits world.

“We need these living avatars,” he says. “Food has had James Beard and Julia Child and José Andrés — all who occupied positions because of their passion and their goodwill to men. There are no living avatars in liquor.”

He’s looking into creating an import company for the Moroccan hibiscus he uses, because he says he’s on track to be that country’s biggest buyer of the flowering plant. The government of Barbados has invited him to set up a manufacturing facility there, and he’s drawn to the idea of helping the economy of his grandparents’ homeland become less tourism-dependent.

And he knows he doesn’t want to sell out to a big beverage conglomerate, something that’s important to Weaver, whose goals include creating generational wealth for Black business owners.

“The only thing better than making a company that someone wants to pay $100 million for,” Summers says, “is making a company they can’t afford to buy.”

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