It's Jackie Summers' Time to Shine

The creator of the newly-relaunched Sorel talks about finding a fresh lease on life, communing with his ancestors, and building an unbreakable legacy for Black creators in the beverage industry.

Portrait of Jackie Summers alongside Sorel Negroni cocktail
Photo: Deborah Lopez / Ford Media Lab

Jackie Summers just wanted to spend the rest of his time on earth day-drinking with cool people. This was a seemingly radical departure from the career path the 25-year publishing veteran had taken up to that point, but then again, he hadn't planned to have a golf-ball-sized tumor growing in his spine. In 2010, a week after a successful surgery to remove the growth, Summers found himself back at the fashion magazine where he'd been working, in a four-hour argument with the photo editor over whether the pinks and greens on the cover were sufficiently pink and green.

"All I could hear was death behind me, whispering in my ear, 'Dude, really? This is what you lived for?'" Summers says. It was not. Just before the surgery—which doctors told him had a high chance of leaving him with paralysis—he and nine friends rented a beach house in Cancun where they'd splurged on the best food and alcohol of his life, and whiled away the midday deep in conversation about things that mattered. If he made it through alive, could this be his everyday existence, he wondered, and could he be paid to do that? How hard could it be to start a brand?

Nigh on impossible, he soon found out. But impossible has never been an issue for Jackie Summers. Just days before the relaunch of his much-missed liquor brand Sorel, he spoke with Food & Wine about what it takes to get a product on the market as a Black entrepreneur, why he's so candid about struggles, what this red drink means to the African diaspora, and the legacy he wants to leave for the next generation of dreamers.

Your drink Sorel is a version of Caribbean sorrel. What's the significance of this red drink?

If you go back 500 years, hibiscus is known in West Africa to be a powerful curative. It's got antimicrobials. It's an antifungal, it's an antioxidant. It's got more vitamin C than most citrus fruits and is a natural aphrodisiac. It's just good for everything. The people of West Africa would make a tea of this. It was ceremonial, about health and life and family. Then the transatlantic slave trade starts, and bodies are being stolen from the continent of Africa and shoved into the bottom of boats, and they're stealing spices along the way, too. But the knowledge of what this hibiscus plant can do travels alongside enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and takes root there.

Something interesting happened, in that every island develops slightly different versions of this drink because they're all in different places on the spice route. If you're north on the spice road like Jamaica, you might get cardamom and allspice and lots of ginger. If you were deeper in the spice world, like Trinidad and Tobago, you might get East Indian influences like cinnamon and nutmeg. Every family did a version of this, but nobody ever wrote it down because our traditions were oral. It becomes an alcoholic beverage, too, because putting rum into this tea preserves it. It's this thing that you can give to the kids during the day and at night, a little rum for the adults.

We call it the "red drink" because it reminds us of all the sacrifice, all the blood lost. It reminds us of fire and energy. There's this empathetic memory of the red drink that switches across diaspora, but it really all starts with hibiscus hundreds of years ago.

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How did this drink become your calling?

My grandparents immigrated here exactly 100 years ago. I'm West Indian on both sides. All four of them settled in Harlem, where my parents met. I remember as a child going to the West Indian Parade on Eastern Parkway, with two million Caribbeans out there dancing with floats and amazing costumes and music and all I wanted was the food. That's where I first discovered this sorrel. I was five years old on the streets of Brooklyn, eating curried goat, roti, doubles, and jerk chicken, then drinking non-alcoholic sorrel. All I could think was, "This is who I am."

I've always known sorrel and had a version of it that I made for friends and family. I never thought more of it than that. Then in 2010, I had this cancer scare.

What was the prognosis, and how did you cope?

My doctor found a tumor the size of a golf ball inside my spine and said, "You're probably going to die. We think it's cancer."

I said, "What do you mean 'we think'?" He said, "It's inside your spine. You can't do a biopsy." I said, "If it's inside my spine, you can't do a biopsy. How do you get it out?" He said, "That's easy, we're going to take a bone out of your spine. We're going to take your spinal cord out through the hole we're going to make. Then, we're going to do neurosurgery on your spinal cord. But this golf-ball-sized tumor is tangled up in your spinal cord. You have a 50% chance of paralysis. We won't know till after. But if it's the type of tumor we think it is, it's already in the lymphatic system. You may have six months, you should get your affairs in order."

I had the surgery and I lived; it really adjusts your perspective.

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How do you heal from that?

Physically, I think I had one physical therapist visit and I was in my office the week after they had my spine outside my body. Emotionally, I had made peace with death. I totally made peace with the idea that I'd had a good run and my time was over. But the funny thing is, you can't unmake your peace with death; once you're there, you can't go back.

A week after I had this eight-hour surgery, I got into a four-hour argument with the photo director. She felt the pinks on the cover of the magazine were too pink and the grass wasn't green enough.

All I could hear was death behind me whispering in my ear, "Dude, really? This is what you lived for?" The next week I walked in ready to hand in my notice. Before opening up my mouth, they offered me a package, and I signed, and didn't look back. I didn't even read the paperwork. I cleared up my desk and I never looked back.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do next?

The week before I had the surgery, I did the only thing that made sense—go on vacation with nine friends at a beach house in Cancun with the best food and alcohol of my life. I'm sitting back a week after I've left this corporate career thinking to myself, "What do I want to do with my life?" I swear to god, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the entire world was to day-drink. I want to be around cool people in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, talking about stuff that matters over a drink, and I wanted to monetize it. I thought to myself, "I want to start a liquor brand. How hard could it be?"

How hard was that?

It turns out it's nigh impossible. I immediately knew the only liquor I wanted to do was this beverage that I had in my kitchen for 20 years. If it wasn't sorrel, it would be nothing.

I had no money. I have no background as a food scientist. I say that impossible shit is kind of my schtick. There wasn't any reason to believe A: that after 500 years, me with a barely a high school diploma, was going to be the guy who cracked the code on how to make this a shelf-stable beverage or B: that me without a dime in my pocket was going to be the first Black person in this country to get a license to make alcohol. But I am uniquely broken, in that I don't know what I can't do.

So what did that process look like?

I had 623 failures. It was me waking up every morning, brewing the batch and then torturing it to figure out if I could make a version that couldn't be broken. The first 500 tries were disappointing. I got discouraged. There's a joke I tell, "If you have an idea that you think is so good that no one's ever come up with it, it's probably a terrible idea." On batch 624, I figured out how to make this 500-year-old beverage into a shelf-stable liquid that was worthy of being a product.

That's absolutely incredible, but the actual product is only one part of the equation. There are so many other hurdles.

I was in the process of applying for a liquor license and it's designed to be prohibitive. It's a 10-year background check and everywhere you've worked, everywhere you've lived, every dime you've made, federal, state, and city. They expect you to be paying rent on an empty space while you're waiting to see if you can be approved. The process can take up to two years. They want the seal numbers of the equipment that you're going to use and expect you to buy all this equipment—can be hundreds of thousands of dollars—and put it in this space, not making a dime while you wait to see if you're approved. Again, I don't know what I can't do. I did it.

How did you keep going during this? Where did you find the money, the space, and the wherewithal?

The money: six months after I corporate America, I got a call from a buddy of mine at Hearst saying I want my people working on my magazines, come back and work for me, 32nd floor, corner office, six figure salary. In my heart, I knew I was going to tell him no, but I took the meeting because he was a buddy of mine. We're having burgers on the Upper West Side, I reach into my bag, pull out a bottle I've made in my kitchen, pay the corkage fee and I open it. We're drinking and I'm telling them what I plan to do and a man at the next table stands up and goes, "So, you're looking for investors?"

I stand up, shake his hand, give him my business card, and pull out a second bottle because I know to be prepared. I say, "Take this home and drink with the family. If you're interested in investing after you've tasted it, we'll talk later on in the week." I didn't even look at his card and next morning. I'm rifling through my wallet trying to figure out who it was I spoke to. I'm trying to figure out why the name Alexander Bernstein is so familiar. It's Leonard Bernstein's son who owns the Bernstein Foundation. He became the first person who signed papers for me.

The space: someone told me that Red Hook Winery was moving. I went to meet the owner who had a stack of people who had applied, reached out to get the space and take over it. He put them all aside and decided that he was going to let me in.

The wherewithal: I will tell you that my grandparents arrived here without a dime to their name. My parents grew up at the heart of Jim Crow during the Depression. My dad was a jazz musician, played for Armstrong, Ellington, Billie Holiday, all of them. My mom was a research scientist in the '50s, doing some of the first studies on the effects of cigarette smoke in animals. She was teaching doctors how to do autopsies on mice for a janitor's salary. I live with the awareness that I'm the first person in my family's history who has this level of opportunity. It only exists because I stand on the sacrifices of everybody who came before me. I don't get the opportunity to not have the wherewithal. My ancestors would laugh at the problems I have to face.

My great-great-grandfather was born a slave in the Caribbean and freed in his early adulthood. My grandfather came here and he was a skilled tradesman and couldn't get work. When you're born in a colonized country, no work there either. When people talk about wherewithal, I don't have a choice. I don't have a right to not give everything because everything was given to me.

I've talked with a lot of people about the toll that expectation and pressure can take. How do you take care of yourself?

For the first few years, I didn't. I launched Sorel in 2012 at the now defunct Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Robert Simonson called it the new drink of 2012. I know nothing. I have no context. I've never bartended. I'm literally walking from restaurant to restaurant going, "Hey, I'm your neighbor. I make the stuff. You want to try some?" In September of 2012, Lucky magazine put it into a gift guide. Now I'm getting calls from around the country. Then Hurricane Sandy destroyed my distillery.

Five feet of seawater in the basement and five feet of seawater on the first floor, all the equipment destroyed. The building is 180 years old, just structural damage. It didn't pay a dime, insurance didn't pay a dime. I spent three months digging out garbage and going out of my head to put this thing back together from nothing. We relaunched in 2013. Again, the brand did super well. The New York Times calls it Christmas in a bottle, Star magazine puts it on the celebrity page. I didn't have a press agent. We've been getting all this press organically because people just love the product. In 2015, I'm recruited by a large company who wants to take it national. We negotiate a deal. We sign papers. They reneged on the deal.

But the brand is hot. We got into a three-way bidding war with three of the biggest liquor companies on the planet. Got a very aggressive bid from a strong company. They renege.

The short version is that in 2016, I had a nervous breakdown, five years of 100-hour weeks, five years of literally just having enough money to pay rent and food, but not one dime more, five years of doing literally everything, myself, making the product, delivering the product, doing the tastings, doing the paperwork, doing the admin, everything. I had a nervous breakdown. I became homeless.

In December of 2017, I remember waking up to the very distinct sensation of snowflakes, melting on my face. That sounds idyllic until you realize, "I'm in New York City. I'm waking up outside in the snow." I woke up in a pile of garbage and my first thought was not, "I need to get somewhere warm." My first thought was, "I need to charge my phone because I have an essay due. If I don't meet my deadline, I'm not going to have money to get an apartment." That essay, I wrote it on my phone while I was homeless.

And that's the essay that won you an Association of Food Journalists award. This must have taken so much out of you.

It's not what it took out of me, it's what it gave to me, truthfully. Because everything fell apart, I got the opportunity to choose how I was going to put it back together. The very first thing that I did when I got an apartment in January of 2018 was put in an altar and start talking to my ancestors.

What did they say to you? How did you commune?

You can talk all you like, and they might not talk back. But I established a relationship with them on the idea that energy can't be created or destroyed, which means some version of them still exists in the universe. There is a combination of energy that has passed through this world, but it has a vested interest in my success, helps grow me in ways that I didn't have before I started this and truthfully, I was unmoored. I've been a practicing Daoist for 20 years, but I hadn't put up an altar, talked to my ancestors and felt like I was in communion with forces greater than myself. It was super grounding.

I spent the five years before this launch really as a writer and an educator and an advocate for marginalized people. I earned a reputation in the liquor industry without a liquor brand behind me. Most of the people who know me from the past five years have never tasted Sorel. They have heard rumors. They know I used to make a product. I'm in this position again, where the industry has given me so much. Now I get to give back.

And you don't have to go it alone this time.

The entire time that Sorel has been off the market, I have been in conversations with the biggest names in the industry. Pretty much everyone said the same thing to me, "This is a fantastic product with a proven track history. Good luck with that." Then in 2020, a police officer murdered George Floyd. Suddenly the world decided that racism was real and that Black lives matter.

A good friend of mine, Jeff Gordinier, reaches out to me and he said, "Hey, Jack, do people know that you're the first Black person in the history of this country to have a license to make liquor?"

I said, "No." I had known this, but no one cared before now. In 2020, I suddenly get a bunch of folks who are now interested in bringing back Sorel. I'm in negotiation with an investment group. We had a contractual agreement. I had very specific clauses written in to keep from being taken advantage of because I've been to the table more than once. We got to the very end and they basically decided that those clauses didn't matter. I reached out to my liquor attorney and I literally said, "Do words have meaning?" He said to me, "You're not imagining this, they're trying to change the nature of your agreements."

I did the thing I don't normally do because I am, like many of us, managing the trauma of self-reliance. I asked for help. I sent Fawn Weaver, who I know from the speaking circuit, a quick note saying, "Fawn, I've run into a stumbling block with my investors. Can you offer any guidance?" That is what started the process of completely rebooting Sorel.

How long ago did this happen?

March of this year. Literally, in the past six months, we've done a year and a half of the work. Officially, it's back up October 1. We put pallets on trucks last week. I will tell you that Fawn's impression of me initially was that I was an angry Black guy and I will tell you that Fawn wasn't wrong. I was angry. I happened to be a Black guy. But Fawn also realized that the product was good and people still wanted it. I had a good reputation. The fact that people perceive me as an angry Black guy was the only thing standing in the way of my funding. She didn't let that get in the way.

And how are you going to take better care of yourself this time?

By the time I was having these conversations, I wasn't angry anymore. I'm someone who's struggled with clinical depression most of my adult life. I woke up on my birthday in 2019 to the sound of my own laughter. I knew that it was over and all this meditation and study and prayer to my ancestors had gotten into me. I wasn't unhappy anymore. Truthfully, I probably wouldn't have gotten a deal if I wasn't happy. If I got the deal, I wouldn't have been able to appreciate it because I wasn't happy. I had to fix the depression first. Then I could actually put all the other stuff in place that would allow me to enjoy this life.

I made it a point every single day to pray, exercise, and meditate. But here's the thing no one tells you: You can do those things forever. You might not change, but you have to commit to doing them anyway, you have to commit to the process and not the result. I committed to the process without the expectation that it would ever change. One day I woke up and it changed.

I'm hyper-aware of having suffered from clinical depression almost all my life. I still sometimes feel it creeping back in. Then I need to reorganize my boundaries, protect my energy, and regroup. The hard part now is just making sure that I always know when I need to step back, when I need to just have quiet time in my house with my cat in my lap and no notifications.

And what's your hope for Sorel this time around?

Whatever you've heard about Fawn Weaver, she's even a better person than that. I wrote Fawn an email and I said, "I'd like some guidance. What can you suggest?" The next day we had a guarantee of two million in funding. She said, "Don't worry about the money, it's covered." The next day. Then I sent her the deck. She hadn't seen my deck. She did research on me and she said, "I'm going to give this guy a chance."

But here's what Fawn did very differently: I've been at the table with a bunch of these companies and they have all structured deals that would have made them a lot of money and basically cut me out and made a minority in my own business. Fawn, from the very beginning, asked me, "Jack, do you want to build a company to sell or build a company to hold?"

I looked at her and said, "The only thing better than building a company that they all feel is worth 100 million is building a company that they can't afford. I've seen that's what you're doing. If you're saying, 'Do I wanna build a legacy?' The answer is yes, I am here for legacy."

She is absolutely trying to, as she would say, make something so strong in this generation, the next generation can't break it. It isn't just the fact that we've got investment. Fawn is personally investing her time in me to help me really understand the nuances of the business. Help me really build a team that will actually be able to articulate all that needs to be done, to make sure that we've got the resources—mental, physical, not just financial. It is a holistic and encompassing program that says, "What do we need to do to make this successful."

To see a 100 years into the future? 500?

Yes. Fawn is trying to establish legacy. She's trying to find people who are trying to do the same. In that sense, our goals are perfectly aligned. Not only do I get to maintain my autonomy as a brand, but I am fully of the mind that as we raise, we pull. My job now is to look down and see who else needs a hand. In the same way that Fawn is raising brands up, I fully intend to do the same thing. I have no desire to be acquired. My whole bit is how do we take people who have been systemically cut off from actually benefiting from their labor and their intelligence and their creativity and give them the resources to succeed. If we're talking about the long term goal, that's my long term goal. Maybe putting out a book or two.

Sorel is officially back in stores and available online via on October 1.

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