Caribbean Sunshine in a Brooklyn Bottle

Jackie Summers is taking his ancestral liqueur to the mainstream American market.

 

At first glance, you might put Jackie Summers’s booze biz in the New Brooklyn Hipster category. After all, he left corporate life to live his dream distilling small-batch artisan alcohol in Red Hook.

But while Sorel, the clove-scented, vibrantly garnet-hued spirit he rolled out this fall, may be wowing mixologists and dazzling drinkers, the beverage is hardly new to Brooklyn—nor is its owner. Summers—whose business is named Jack from Brooklyn—is just one of a million New Yorkers of Caribbean heritage whose families have been making the traditional drink for generations. Now Summers is taking sorel mainstream, introducing it to a new audience, and receiving rave response from people tasting it for the first time—and people who grew up on the stuff.

Sorel (so-REL), a spiced liqueur made with hibiscus flowers, is a home-brewed island specialty, especially popular at Christmas. Each Caribbean island has its own variation, steeping rum and cane sugar with local flowers, herbs and spices—but it’s made at home and seldom seen at tourist resorts.

“Sorel was available only in your grandmother’s kitchen or select ethnic restaurants,” Summers says. His own grandparents moved here from Barbados and, like so many other West Indies expats, kept brewing batches of the slightly sour hibiscus elixir for a taste of home. “Immigrants from the Caribbean,” he says, “hid this beverage deep within their cultural heritage as they emigrated to the United States.”

Although Summers’s career path took him up the corporate ladder in magazine publishing, he always dreamed of swapping the office to build a sorel startup and bottle the drink on a commercial scale. He tinkered with the formula until it was perfect—“it took me 10 years to get the recipe to where I thought it was right,” he says—but it took a cancer scare in 2010 to spur him into going pro. After a golf-ball-size tumor was removed from his spine (and found to be benign), Summers immediately resigned from his job in publishing and set to work bringing his ancestral spirit to the U.S. market. He brought on wine and spirits expert Tim Kealey as vice-president of operations, who advised on how to create a shelf-stable version of the traditional home brew—switching the base spirit from traditional rum to a more shelf-stable neutral grain spirit. They soon set up shop within the red brick building that formerly housed the Red Hook Winery.

Based on a Trinidad-style recipe (bucking Summers’s Barbados heritage), hibiscus flowers provide the signature purply-red hue and acidic tang; a full pound of spices per gallon create the rich mulled-wine aromatics that all but explode out of the bottle.

And what of that bottle? The unique shape, squared at the bottom but rounded at the shoulders, is based on a 300-year-old cologne bottle that Summers found on eBay. He even custom designed a label, applied in several pieces, after his original designer insisted it would be impossible to find a label to fit the oddball bottle shape.

Jack from Brooklyn was officially incorporated in April 2011; the first bottles hit shelves a year later. And last May, Sorel-spiked cocktails won raves at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic.

All in a day’s work for Summers, who espouses neo-entrepreneurial philosophies like “Bite off more than you can chew—and then grow fangs,” and “Find one insurmountable task a day—and then surmount the hell out of it.” (Kealey, a calm counterpoint to Summers’s perpetual-motion machine, interjects quietly, “Yes, we’re big on picking one impossible task a day.”)

Even Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the distillery building, provided only a temporary setback.

“We’ve been knocked to our knees, but we’re not flat on our back,” Summers said optimistically in early November, as generators hummed in the background, pumping six feet of seawater from the building’s basement. With the assistance of other Brooklyn-area distillers—borrowing space from one, equipment from another—Summers was unstoppable. “We’ll be back in production for the holiday rush,” he said.

Sorel is now widely available in New York shops like Dry Dock Spirits and Brooklyn Wine Exchange and bars ranging from Huckleberry Bar to Harlem’s Red Rooster. Although Sorel can be sipped straight up like a mulled wine (its alcohol level is a relatively gentle 15 percent, about the same as a zinfandel), it also lends itself to sours and goes down easy lightened with ginger ale or sparkling wine. Huckleberry Bar deploys its color and flavor in their God Save the Queen cocktail: (gin, Sorel, lemon juice and Cocchi Americano, strained into a coupe glass.

Summers’s Sorel is racking up accolades, clearly filling a void in the marketplace, but with a gleam in his eye he says the validation he enjoys most is from Caribbean denizens, many of whom still home-brew their own.

“Every person from the Caribbean says”—and here, Summers affects a musical Caribbean lilt—“‘I make the best sorel.’ And then they try my version, and they say”—the accent reappears, now with a grudging tone—“‘It’s all right.’ Meaning, they just want to kill themselves.”

Photo credit: Alice Gao

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