Drinks Innovators of the Year: Jackie Summers
"All I could hear was death behind me, whispering, 'Dude, really? This is what you lived for?'" Jackie Summers recalls. It was 2010. He'd just had successful surgery for a potentially life-threatening tumor on his spine and was back at work as a publishing executive, where he found himself in the midst of a four-hour argument with an art director about whether the pinks on the cover of the magazine they worked for were too pink. What he did want to live for, Summers decided — after resigning from the job that day and never looking back — was starting a liquor brand. And the only liquor he wanted to make, he'd realized, "was this beverage I'd had in my kitchen for 20 years. If it wasn't sorrel, it would be nothing." The hibiscus-based Jamaican drink had been part of his identity since childhood (he enjoyed the nonalcoholic version while the adults bolstered theirs with rum), and he had to do it justice.
To say that the path hasn't been easy is an understatement. "I had 623 failures," Summers says. "Finally, on batch 624, I figured out how to make this 500-year-old beverage into a shelf-stable liquid that was worthy of being in a bottle." But even as he garnered acclaim for Sorel's first version, disaster struck: Hurricane Sandy destroyed his distillery, drowning it in five feet of seawater. Undaunted, he relaunched in 2013, but negotiations about the brand with a series of unreliable liquor companies — plus five years of 100-hour weeks and almost no income — pushed Summers into a breakdown. He experienced homelessness for a time. Finally, an essay about his experiences won him an Association of Food Journalists award, which led him into five years of work as a writer, educator, and advocate for marginalized people in the liquor industry, which in turn led to him meeting Fawn Weaver (also a 2022 Drinks Innovator of the Year) of the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, which then led to $2 million in funding. And Sorel — as of October 2021 — was reborn.
Put aside for a moment the fact that the stuff is delicious in a cocktail (try it in a Negroni or sour, or check out the recipes at sorelofficial.com); instead, take a sip and consider that what you're holding is a glass full of deeply hard-won dreams. Summers, for his part, knows there are others out there like him. He says: "My job now is to look down and see who else needs a hand. How do we take people who have been systemically cut off from the actual benefits of their labor and their intelligence and their creativity and give them the resources to succeed? If we're talking about my long-term goal, then that's it."
What to Try
Sorel Liqueur ($40)
Spicy with cassia and clove notes, floral and tangy from hibiscus, this scarlet liqueur is unlike anything else on the market. It's also unusually delicious, whether served over ice or as an ingredient in a cocktail.