Jackie Summers felt he had hit his peak as a marketing executive and began to crave more meaningful work–something that would let him explore his Barbados upbringing. That’s when he began making Sorel, his own sweet and flavorful hibiscus liqueur. With deep roots in the Caribbean and made from ingredients sourced from international spice markets, his new venture turned out to be delicious.
While Jackie is a native New Yorker, his family hit U.S. shores from Barbados back in the 1920s. His journey may inspire you to quit your job, call your mom, make a drink or all of the above. This brilliant ruby red colored sip brought Jackie back to Barbados and like us, you may be surprised to find out his Sorel story wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Maureen Petrosky Lifestyle [MPL]: How did you get the Sorel business started?
Well, one day I found out golf-ball sized tumor in my spine. The doctor drilled a hole in my spine, took a bone out, pulled out nerve sheath and expose my spinal cord. I had a 50% chance of partial paralysis.
At the time I was a publishing executive at a fashion magazine and I just realized my life had to be about something more than that. The truth of the matter is that there’s nothing I enjoy more than being with interesting people during the day and eating good meals and drinking.
Now, it’s my job to drink with people.
MPL: Where does the idea for the Sorel hibiscus liqueur come from?
[In Barbados], if you were to wander off the beaten path, you might see kids picking hibiscus flowers. They make ice tea with them so they have something to drink after school. Parents add rum after the kids go to bed.
First, to bottle this specific beverage, we use actual botanicals.*
*Hibiscus from West Africa, clove from Barbados, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
We didn’t drink for enjoyment, we drank for medicinal purposes. Water made you sick, so you drank tea or alcohol to kill bacteria. In the 1600s, Sorel in the Caribbean was an elixir—a digestif and a medicine.
MPL: Where do you get your ingredients from?
I work with a spice importer called Golembek. The place is this five-story warehouse right near where I was living. The guy who’s running it right now knows everything about spices, but he can’t smell!
MPL: How do you pick the best quality spices?
It’s just like a grape, it’s all about the quality of the soil. The Caribbean is moist, has a tropical climate so the hibiscus flower there is delicate.
That’s why he imports the hibiscus from West Africa, which has a sturdier soil that creates more powerful liqueur.
MPL: Where did your knack for flavors come from?
I learned about flavor in my mother’s kitchen. From as early as I can remember she would say “Son, tell me what this needs.” She would show me what each spice was and I learned how to balance spices and make them play together.
MPL: How are you using this background to make your very own liqueur?
Hibiscus is notoriously difficult to work with—it’s very citric. So my goal was to create a balanced version of this drink. The clove gives brightness, the ginger masks the heat of the alcohol, and the nutmeg adds a woody note at the backend.
Instead of all these spices competing, they work together.
MPL: How can I use Sorel in drinks?
You can take any of those flavors and pop them out. You could add cinnamon or nutmeg when it’s cold out. I tried making it with Pellegrino and I noticed that adding lime makes it citrus-y while the blood orange kind brings out nutmeg flavors.
It’s really a beverage that is completely malleable to the person that is pouring.
It can go in whatever direction you’re willing to take. It will mix with everything else. Sorel is that one thing that will create something completely different every time.
MPL: What has Sorel done for you?
This entire venture is an excuse for me to be more me. I spent 25 years in corporate America trying to fit into something that I didn’t. I started to reach into the deepest parts of myself, asking “Can I be smarter, can I make this more interesting?”
You will succeed if you become more of who you already are. I always go out there and want to show my gratitude to folks. I drink professionally, I don’t need to drink at home.
MPL: Who are your biggest fans?
Our most loyal fans are people who place the same culinary value on their choice in beverages as their choice in cuisine. And it’s always interesting to see the Caribbean peoples’ reactions to Sorel. I get the same response every time: “Is that Sorel? My grandmother makes the best Sorel!” Then they try it and go “not bad”—which is the best complement you could ever get from a Caribbean person.
We do six events a week in Red Hook. It’s very guerrilla–my goal is to put the product into people’s mouths. If people taste it, they buy it.
MPL: What’s been a source of strength for your throughout the process?
We launched in May 2012…in October of 2012, hurricane sandy destroyed the headquarters. Everything was destroyed. It was an unmitigated disaster…so that was a major setback.
I cried- A Lot, but the neighborhood refused to quit, and since no one else quit, I figured neither could I. Everyone helped everyone else. I took the fact that I survived as a direct result of my community.
– Interview by Jack Meyers
– Photos courtesy of Jackie Summers