‘No One Believed’ This Black Founder Was the Owner of a Liquor Brand in 2012. He Launched to Great Acclaim — Then Lost It All. Here’s How He Made a Multi-Million-Dollar Comeback.
Jackie Summers, founder and CEO of Jack From Brooklyn, Inc., and its highly acclaimed Sorel Liqueur ,, knows what it takes for a comeback.
Summers says he was the only licensed Black distiller in the U.S. post-Prohibition in 2012, and when he launched his hibiscus-based liqueur that year, he had to navigate an industry that wasn’t set up for him to succeed.
“I started working the market, and when I went to accounts, no one believed I was the brand owner,” Summers tells Entrepreneur. “To the present day, most places I visit (and I’ve been to thousands of them) have never seen a Black liquor brand owner.” “
In spite of the odds, the brand gained immediate recognition among cocktail enthusiasts.
Then things began to fall apart.
Summers’ distillery in Red Hook was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and insurance wouldn’t cover the damages. Still, he managed to rebuild by 2013, recapturing Sorel’s momentum until soaring demand and Summers’ do-it-all approach brought the brand to a halt once again — this time, for several years. But that wasn’t the end. Summers claims that Sorel began thousands of years ago in Africa. This is where the red drink made from hibiscus flowers — which is the basis of Sorel — was born.
“Fast forward to 500 years ago, and the Transatlantic trade starts,” Summers says. “Now, people are stealing bodies and spices from Africa and transporting them. “
The hibiscus plant grew in the Caribbean with them.
Although the recipe for the red beverage also known as sorrel was not recorded, its devotees kept it alive by oral tradition.
” These are people who had all their possessions taken from them,” Summers explains. They were taken from their homes and their families were destroyed. They were given new names and forced to follow a different religion. All of their identities were destroyed. They managed to preserve this cultural identity. “
Naturally, variations in the beverage arose between nations, based on the spices traded at their ports.
“The difference in spices that were traded on various islands correlated directly to the ethnicities of the indentured servants working there,” Summers explains. Jamaica, for instance, had a high proportion of Chinese indentured slaves, hence ginger, and cardamom. Indentured servants from East India were brought to islands like Trinidad and Tobago, where they brought their spices, such as clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. “
Summers’ own family would carry the tradition of sorrel with them from Barbados to Harlem, New York in 1920. His mother and grandfather were both chefs, and taught him how to make sorrel.
Summers also remembers enjoying the drink at the annual Caribbean Day Parade. Two million people from all over the world celebrated the event on the Eastern Parkway, with costumes, flags, food, and dancing. Summers recalls being this child. “I don’t remember all the other stuff. Just beef patties, roti, curried goat, all that delicious food and then washing it down with this red beverage, non-alcoholic, because I was a child.” “
“What I really want to do is day drink. I want to be with interesting people during the middle part of my week. “
For 20 years, Summers batched his own version of sorrel in his kitchen “like a good Caribbean boy,” making it for parties and barbecues with family and friends.
But a cancer scare in 2010 would change the trajectory of Summers’ life — and his relationship with the red drink that had always been part of it. Summers states that a tumor was found in his spine. It is the size of a golfball. “He said, ‘You have a 95% chance of death and 50% chance of paralysis if you live. It is important to organize your paperwork. You should organize your paperwork. “
Summers was the director of media and production at a fashion magazine at the time, and he asked himself what his true priorities were.
” What I really want to do, Summers states. I want to be with interesting people in the middle and end of my week, and in the middle if my day. I want to have great conversations and great food and drink, and I want it to be monetized. He decided to start a liquor company after he couldn’t figure who would pay him to live that lifestyle.
Summers began with the sorrel product: He had to compensate for the acidity in hibiscus and make the drink shelf-stable. It took 624 tries to get it just right.
“I “Compensated for acidity” by adding the right amount of botanicals to it,” Summers says. My version of this beverage, which is not a definitive one, has cloves to brighten it, cinnamon to warm it, and nutmeg at the end to give it a dry finish. Ginger is added to nearly perfectly mask the alcohol’s heat. You don’t actually taste the alcohol, you just feel the booze. “
And to make the red beverage last?
” The organic matter in the base mixture is removed using complex polysaccharides. Everything that remains is crystal clear and shelf stable,” Summers states. “Again, this is not something I do as a food scientist. It took me a while to figure this out. This is my contribution to the centuries-old tale. “
The decision to drop the extra “r” in Sorel’s name was two-fold.
“First, I have a speech impediment and have great difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘r,'” Summers says. “However, I did eight years of enunciation lessons at public school. One thing I learned was that words that end with a down sound are not good. “Sorrel” is a sad word. “Sorel” is happy and I can pronounce it. “
Summers also notes he can’t trademark “sorrel,” as it’s generic; he’s currently in the process of trademarking “Sorel. Summers states that there are many ways to enjoy Sorel. People of Caribbean descent usually drink it hot or cold, but it can also be paired with a variety of seasonal cocktails. Sorel’s unique appeal lies in its flavor-first approach.
“Big liquor businesses solve the problem of alcohol tasting bad by adding flavor to it,” Summers explains. So we have habanero-flavored Tequila and blueberry-flavored vodka. I reverse the process. They add flavor to alcohol; I add alcohol for flavor. Flavor is the most important component in what we produce. “
Image credit: Courtesy of Sorel Liqueur
“I figured that the people who kept this beverage alive had to go through more than I did, so I should at least try as hard as they did. “
Summers had Sorel’s recipe down — the same one the brand bottles to this day. He needed investors and a place where he could distill. He says that the way he got both was “actually a really enjoyable story.”
About six months after Summers left corporate America behind, a friend and VP at Hearst magazines asked him to lunch to consider an attractive job offer: mid-six figures, a corner office on the 32nd floor overlooking Central Park. “In my heart, he knew that I was going to say no,” Summers said.
The pair met at a small burger restaurant on the Upper West Side. Summers gave his friend one the bottles he had made in his kitchen, and told him all about his big idea. At that time, he didn’t have a license to distill or a place where he could do it.
A man at the next table overheard their conversation and asked if Summers was looking for investors. Summers gave him his card, along with an extra bottle that he had brought. “Because I live and work in New York City,” he said. )
The man was Alexander Bernstein, the son of Leonard Bernstein, an internationally acclaimed conductor. He was Sorel’s first investor, and made it possible to purchase the brand’s distillery at Red Hook.
Cocktail lovers quickly discovered the versatile and delicious red drink.
Six months after the brand’s strong launch Hurricane Sandy struck.
” Six feet of seawater in basement,” Summers recalls. “Five feet of saltwater on the first floor. All commodities and all equipment were destroyed. The structure suffered severe damage. The insurance company did not pay a dime. FEMA did not pay a dime. The SBA rejected 90% of the applications that came out of Red Hook. But Summers was not deterred.
” I rebuilt it with a lot sweat, and it took all of my money to relaunch the company,” Summers said. “That should have been the end. This should have stopped us. But I realized that those who kept this beverage alive went through much more than me, so I decided to try as hard as they did. “
Sorel relaunched in 2013 and brought its distribution up to 22 states. But Summers and Summer Lee, his vice president, were “literally doing all” and it wasn’t sustainable.
When The New York Times listed Sorel in their holiday gift guide in 2011, calling it “Christmas in the bottle.” The demand was too great to meet.
“You can do everything yourself, but you can’t do everything well,” Summers says. “I was making the product, doing sales calls, opening new markets, doing all the marketing, packaging, merchandising, keeping up all the books. I wasn’t doing a great job at all of this and was neglecting myself. We couldn’t keep up with the amount of product we needed to be a success business. “
In the middle of it all, Summers also struggled to find investors whose values aligned with the brand’s. After a series of close calls, a national deal was reached to purchase Sorel across the nation for millions of dollars. A bidding war among three of the biggest liquor companies in the U.S. Another deal worth millions that made it to final negotiations in 2016. None of them came to fruition.
“My goal is to use the product as a vehicle for storytelling. Because story is important. “
By the second half of 2016, the company had failed, and Summers was living on the street. Summers states that he was homeless for nearly a year. “And I had the experience to realize that my value was not directly related to the success or failures of my company. The company can be successful, but the company can fail. But I’m still me. “
During that time, Summers never stopped having conversations with potential investors who could help him bring the brand back. He believed that Sorel’s struggles were just a “footnote” in the larger story. “
” The people who created this deserve the story to be told. Summers states that if my goal to build it and then turn it around, it won’t happen. “My goal is to use the product as a vehicle for storytelling. Because stories matter. For me, the most important part of finding money was not finding people who share my values and intention. “
In addition to prioritizing investors who share his values, Summers has spent years writing, teaching and coordinating educational curricula to promote diversity and inclusion within the beverage industry. “There was a time when we didn’t talk about sexism and homophobia in our industry, and that was not long ago,” Summers said. “And because I experienced a certain level of discrimination, I wanted to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities.” Summers was a teacher of a seminar called “How to build a longer table” for many years. But in 2019, when nothing had fundamentally changed, he decided to teach a different course: “How to Build Your Own Table. “
“Because it’s easier to construct something that is equitable from the ground up than to convince people who exist in structures that are not equitable that they should change for anyone’s benefit,” Summers explains. Sorel’s Summers is doing exactly that with his team today.
” There are people in my organization that look like [the people at] that table that I want to eat at,” Summers states. “My vice president is a woman of mixed race. My chief scientist is blind because he was born blind. My operations person is Latino. We are the people we want at the table — all different disadvantaged by society but all with so many skills and so much to offer. It has been a blessing that all these perspectives have come together and are greater than the sum of their parts. “
Image credit: Courtesy of Sorel Liqueur
“The only thing better than building a company that they offer you $100 million for is building a company they can’t afford. “
So how did Summers get back on track and build the team he wanted to see? Summers asked for help after another negotiation with an investor group went sideways in the final stage.
Summers wrote to Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO of Grant Sidney, Inc. and Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, to see if she could offer him any guidance.
Unbeknownst to Summers, just one day before, Weaver had been discussing the many Black-owned brands the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund supports in an interview when the interviewer asked if she was helping Summers. Weaver knew Summers because they had met on the speaking circuit. She didn’t believe he needed any help. The interviewer said, “Talk to Jackie.”
Summers received his email the next day. Weaver asked Summers during their initial conversion what he wanted to do about the brand.
“And I sat back and I said to her, the only thing better than building a company that they offer you $100 million for is building a company they can’t afford,” Summers says. “And I see that’s exactly what you are doing. If you’re asking me if I’ve got a chance to create legacy, the answer is yes. The Uncle Nearest Venture Fund invested $2 Million in Sorel.
Sorel returned to shelves in October 2021 and “had an especially auspicious first year back,” Summers says. In 2022, Sorel entered international spirits competitions and placed gold or better 37 times. We cleaned up,” Summers states. “And I tell all my team that most brands end their lives with a gold medal. They’re proud of it. We won literally dozens. Although entering competitions does not guarantee success, it [builds] confidence in both the distributor and consumer. People love to support the winner. That’s exactly what happened. Sorel expanded to 20 states within one year. It can be found today at Disney resorts, Hyatt hotels and Spec’s in Texas. Requests have been made by some of the most prominent Las Vegas casinos.
Summers states that Sorel will grow in the next five years but that the brand’s primary focus is on its current markets. He says, “We want to dive into the story and education.” It’s necessary to let people know about this and why they should care. And yes, it’s delicious. But there’s more. “
Summers wants to “get granular” to determine what Sorel needs to help other companies succeed. “I sincerely believe you have to tie your success to other people’s success,” Summers says. “I want to learn what makes them win every time I go into a restaurant, bar, or retail store so that I can help them win,” Summers says. We plan to help other businesses succeed and, by creating that experience, our brand. “
When it comes to Sorel’s long-term future, Summers cites several exciting developments in the works. The government of Barbados reached to Summers. They love the brand and Summers has met with the Ministry of Finance several times about building a distillery in the island.
” We’ll all pay for it so that this beverage, which is Barbados-sourced, can be brought back home,” Summers states. “Made with local ingredients, with local hands. They would then support it as a country, and ensure it is available in every hotel bar, restaurant and duty-free shop in the Caribbean. “
There is also a plan to open another U.S. distillery. Currently, Sorel can be found in New Jersey at Laird & Company. This is the oldest distillery in America. The goal is to bring Sorel to Brooklyn within the next year.
Summers is looking outwards to expand Jack From Brooklyn’s product line to include other products that have waited to be bottled for centuries. Summers asks, “How many other products are there right now that have historic [and] great cultural importance to a small number of people?” He says, “But no one has tried to make it shelf-stable or market it yet.” “
Summers isn’t interested in making another rum or tequila, though he respects those who do — he’s on a mission to “introduce categories of one. “
Summers’ perseverance helped lay the foundation for Sorel’s triumphant return, and for those entrepreneurs hoping to make a comeback of their own? Summers offers a second piece of advice: “cocoon.” “
“Our culture says you must keep going at 100 miles an hour at all times,” Summers says. Summers says that if you don’t have the chance to reflect, you won’t be able to see your strengths and weaknesses and plan how to compensate. It’s important to cocoon on a regular basis — whether [that’s] 20 minutes of meditation a day or being able to get away once every few weeks and spend some time in nature and quiet your mind. Once you have clarity, all sorts of things can move forward. “
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.