Jackie Summers became an instant celebrity in the spirits industry when he launched Red Hook’s Sorel Liqueur in 2012. The drink itself was a hit. More than that, Summers was surprised to find himself to be the only Black person in America with a license to make liquor.
But it wasn’t until he was applauded by a group of peers that Summers really got pissed: Once, when speaking at an industry gathering, he happened to mention that he was the only Black person with a distiller’s license. The statement was met with cheers. Which made him angry, he says, for being misguided.
“I started talking about racism in my industry, writing articles in trade publications and speaking at industry events. I got a lot of pushback because the idea that a person of color who was an owner was a new idea,” Summers says. “The best thing I can do, not just for my business but for my industry as well, and perhaps society at large, is to teach about the nature of marginalization.”
‘I was the only one’
Summers is the man behind the fine spirits brand Jack from Brooklyn, though he’s actually from Queens. Summers has made the Borough of Kings his home since the late 1990s. In 2012, after a cancer scare, Summers ditched a quarter-century career in the corporate world (Wall Street, advertising executive, publishing executive) to run a one-man startup in an unfamiliar industry. It was a move that came with many surprises, including this new opportunity to merge his two disparate passions for social justice advocacy and making liquor.
His boozy crown jewel is Sorel Liqueur, a spicy, herbaceous extraction combined with pure cane sugar and organic grain alcohol that “made him an instant star in the business,” says Arthur Shaprio, former evp of marketing for the Seagram’s corporation.
Distilled and bottled in Red Hook, the ruby-reddish, 30 proof, small-batch, all-natural mouth party is a nod to Summers’ Caribbean heritage, where the flavor of sorrel informs drinks both hard and soft. It also landed him on Drinks International magazine’s “Bar World 100” list of the industry’s most influential figures in 2019 and 2020, as well as making the “Imbibe 75” for 2021.
That’s not to say everything went down in a smooth gulp.
“Every time I walked into a liquor store, a restaurant, or a bar to talk about my product, it was more likely that the people I was speaking to had more experience with lions or tigers or bears than they had with a Black liquor brand owner,” he says of his early days. “I was the only one. That was also the year Trayvon Martin was killed.”
A beacon of fairness
“It didn’t take him long to realize that there was injustice in the business, and women and people of color did not get their fair share or place in the industry,” says Shapiro, the former Seagrams exec. “Most people would just shrug, look away and do their thing. Not Jackie. He committed himself to speaking out and to work with companies and organizations to raise awareness of the problem and find ways to correct it.”
Today, Summers is a co-chair of the Education Committee for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, where he creates content and helps guide a global conversation around diversity, wellness, and personal growth in the hospitality industry. He has delivered commencement speeches, and conducted diversity and inclusion education for corporations. Jack will be doing a virtual panel discussion for the James Beard Foundation this month.
“You can’t teach people, ‘Don’t be racist’ because no one thinks of themselves as racist. You have to teach people to be be activley anti-racist because we exist in a system that is racist,” he says. “So unless you are actively anti-racist, you are passively contributing to a racist system. Once you have that realization, you can ask: What else am I passively contributing to that is some way marginalizing somebody? This opens up the whole world.”
Of course, drinking and talking have gone together since the first grape was fermented. So, while race and booze might seem incongruous on the surface, it works for Summers.
“All the names associated with liquor are dead men: Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Johnny Walker,” Summers says. “Maybe Jack from Brooklyn can become a living avatar of liquor, oriented toward a better world and social justice. And really good liquor!”
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