In 2012, Jackie Summers launched a liquor brand called Sorel Liqueur, and became the only licensed Black distiller in the US post-Prohibition at the time.
“I started working the market, and when I went to accounts, no one believed I was the brand owner. To this day, most places I go (and I’ve been to thousands) have never met a Black liquor brand owner before,” Summers told the Entrepreneur.
He got the recipe for his hibiscus-based liqueur from his family who came from the Caribbean to America. It was passed down to him by its devotees who kept it alive through oral tradition.
“These are people who had everything stolen from them. They were taken from their home; families were destroyed,” he noted. “They were given new names, forced to practice a different religion. They had every part of their identities destroyed. But somehow they preserved this cultural identifier.”
His family reportedly carried the tradition of Sorel Liqueur from Barbados to Harlem in 1920. His grandfather was a chef who passed down the tradition to his mother, who in turn taught him how to make sorrel.
Growing up, he recalled enjoying the drink during the annual Caribbean Day Parade. “I remember being this child,” Summers said, adding, “and I didn’t care about all of the other stuff — just beef patties and roti and curried goat, all this delicious food, and washing it down with this red drink, non-alcoholic because I was a kid.”
Summers did not venture into the liquor industry until he was diagnosed with cancer while working as the director of media and production at a fashion magazine. While figuring out what to do next, he decided to launch a liquor brand; and that is how Sorel Liqueur was born.
He left corporate America to focus on his liquor brand and also attract investors. However, six months after the brand’s strong launch, Hurricane Sandy hit. The Hurricane collapsed his business with damages that would not be covered by insurance companies – millions of investments went down the drain.
“Six feet of seawater in the basement,” Summers recalls. “Five feet of seawater on the first floor. All of the commodities, all of the equipment, destroyed. The building took major structural damage. Insurance did not pay a dime. FEMA did not pay a dime. The SBA rejected 90% of the applications that came out of Red Hook.”
Despite the setback, Summers was determined not to quit. He decided to rebuild again and used his last dime to relaunch his collapsed business. In 2013, he re-launched and brought its distribution up to 22 states. The New York Times even listed Sorel in its holiday gift guide that year, while Times described the drink as “Christmas in a bottle.” In no time, the demand for the drink escalated.
However, by the end of 2016, the drink collapsed again over his inability to get investors. After a hiatus, he returned to the liquor industry with an aggressive search for funding. He wrote to Fawn Weaver, founder, and CEO of Grant Sidney, Inc., and Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey for assistance.
Uncle Nearest, through its investment wing, Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, committed $2 million to Sorel. In 2021, Sorel returned to shelves, and by 2022, it entered international spirits competitions and placed gold or better 37 times.
What is more, within a year, the liquor expanded to 20 states, and can now be found in Disney resorts, Hyatt hotels, Spec’s in Texas, as well as BevMo and Total Wine locations across the country.
The government of Barbados reached out to Summers to partner with him to build a distillery on the island. Summers is currently working on building another U.S. distillery as Sorel is currently made in New Jersey at Laird & Company.