You may not think that liquids can tell stories, but when you look at a liquid like Sorel, which has basically travelled from West Africa through the Caribbean, into Harlem, and then across the river to Red Hook, you can bet that there are some stories to tell.
There are stories of commerce both through the slave and spice trades.
There are stories of tradition as displaced peoples kept the original sorrow liquid alive, and there are stories of migration as many went to New York seeking a better life.
Additionally, there are stories of family as recipes got passed down from one generation to the next. There are stories of creation as the non-alcoholic Sorrel is transformed into a liqueur.
And there are stories of determination as the brand starts on its mission to re-establish itself and communicate everything that has come before.
To hear some of these stories, we talk to the self-proclaimed custodian of the brand. Jackie Summers about flavour, identity, and the origin of the red drink.
For more information on Sorel, go to sorelofficial.com
You may not think that liquids can tell stories, but when you look at Laure like Sorel, which has basically traveled from West Africa through the Caribbean, into Harlem, and then across the river to Red Hook, you can bet that there are some stories to tell. There are stories of commerce both through the slave and spice trade. There are stories of tradition as displaced peoples kept the original sorrow liquid alive, and there are stories of migration as many went to New York seeking a better life. Additionally, there are stories of family as recipes got passed down from one generation to the next. There are stories of creation as the non-alcoholic Sorrel is transformed into a liqueur. And there are stories of determination as the brand starts on its mission to re-establish itself and communicate everything that has come before. To hear some of these stories, we talk to self-proclaimed custodian of the brand. Jackie Summers about flavour, identity, and the origin of the red drink.
Thank you for joining us, Jackie
Jackie Summers (01:50):
Tiff. It's an absolute pleasure.
Now, tell us a little bit about the origins of the red drink in West Africa.
Jackie Summers (01:58):
Well, we know that it's far back as 4,000 years ago, the Egyptians were using alcohol and spices and botanicals to make tinctures for medicinal purposes. Africans knew the medicinal value of hibiscus again for thousands of years. It's got more vitamin C than most citrus fruit. It's a natural antioxidant. It's got antimicrobial, it's a traditional antifungal. It is an aphrodisiac, and this was part of their ceremony and their tradition. So it was part of everything that they did.
And how did that liquid change when it went with enslaved people to the Caribbean?
Jackie Summers (02:37):
Well, it's interesting in that around 500 years ago, bodies and spices are stolen from the continent of Africa as part of the trans lengthy trade. And they're transported across the ocean for sale in the ports of the islands of the anitilles. And what's interesting and how the drink changes is while it was a beverage that was brought by enslaved Africans, it was greatly influenced by the indentured servants that were also in those islands. So if you went to a place like Jamaica, which had a high population of Chinese indentured servants, you would get a version of this drink with hibiscus, but with ginger and cardamom and all spice and of course rum because everything is Jamaica's rum. Yeah. If you went to a different island where they had different influences like Trinidad and Tobago, they had high influence of East Indian indentured servants. So you would got additions like cinnamon and clove and nutmeg. Not as much alcohol. The Trinidads aren't as big a drinkers as the Jamaicans. So every island comes up with a different version of this based on the spices that are being traded in their ports. And here's the interesting part is there were no recipes. There were no recipes for centuries because the people who were making this weren't allowed to read or write. So if you didn't see your grandmother or your mother do this, you didn't know how to do it. It was passed on orally
Right now. How would you describe the flavour of that original red drink?
Jackie Summers (04:20):
So hibiscus is incredibly tart. It's got great acidity, and there's this full floral fruit note in it that is really difficult to balance, which is why the other botanicals come into play. Depending on what island you go to that's making this, you will find people that are in their own way trying to balance off the acidity of the hibiscus.
Considering how acidic it is, what was it about that flavour and the liquid that kept it alive in oral tradition, as you said, for more than 200 years?
Jackie Summers (04:59):
I think it has something to do with the colour. When you brew hibiscus flowers, you get this gorgeous coral red colour that really resembles a deep blood red. And I feel it became a cultural identifier to honor all of the lives ever lost in the transatlantic trade.
Now, like many Caribbean families, your grandparents bought that Sorrel recipe to New York. How important was the liquid to them?
Jackie Summers (05:32):
My grandfather would not have a meal if he did not have a heaping portion of rice and peas on his plate. And he would not wash it down with anything else but Sorrel, it was his drink.
Now you obviously grew up drinking that. What made you decide to transform the drink into a liqueur?
Jackie Summers (05:53):
Oh, this is the fun part. I had a cancer scare.
Jackie Summers (05:58):
So I was making
Oh, wow. He,
Jackie Summers (06:21):
He said, you have a 95% chance of death and a 50% of paralysis. If you live, you should organize your paperwork. That's the phrase that they say when they really get your attention, get your papers in order. Short version is, I lived yay. But I call what happened to me a gift because it gave me an opportunity to rethink my priorities in life. I had 25 years invested in corporate America. So it wasn't a question of when that I was gonna live like I was gonna live. But what was I gonna do with myself and not ever had this opportunity? Hmm. And I decided that I'd spent enough time in an office to last a lifetime. And what I really wanted to do is day drink. I just, I just wanna meet interesting people in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week. I wanna have great conversation of a great food and beverage, and I wanted to monetize it. And when I couldn't think who was going to pay me to do those things, I launched a liquor brand with the thought how hard can it be
Jackie Summers (07:41):
Lord. It turns out it's harder than I, than I'd anticipated.
There were a lot of families with Caribbean ancestry in New York and all over the states and all over the uk. Why do you think nobody thought to turn it into a liqueur before?
Jackie Summers (08:03):
There were two? Well, three real reasons why no one has done this before me. The first is, as I mentioned before, balancing the acidity of Hibiscus is a really big deal. Most people just bury it in sugar and then it becomes syrup and clawing in just not fun. So my version uses CLO for brightness, cinnamon for warmth, nutmeg for the dry finish at the end, and ginger to almost perfectly mass alcohol that lets me pull the sugar level way, way back. So Sorel has about a third less sugar as most liquors. The second problem was everyone who made an alcoholic version of this used rum as the alcoholic component. And rum had its own dissolved sugars. It ever bonds at a molecular level with the particulate matter in the base mix. I was the first person to use a neutral grain at medicinal strength, which actually forms complex polysaccharide chains. All of the proteins bond to the alcohol and sugar, and it manifests as pectins. We remove the pectins when everything through a filtration process and everything left is crystal clearing shelf stable.
Now, I believe there were 624 tries
Jackie Summers (09:27):
To get it to a point of being shelf stable. So I'm assuming you actually have a chemistry background.
Jackie Summers (09:36):
I should mention, I am not a food scientist
But it must have been an enormous amount of dedication to go through that many iterations.
Jackie Summers (10:31):
So I, I do not feel like it was a lot. When you compare to the people who had to preserve this recipe who were brought across the ocean in the bottom of boats. I kept them in my mind at all times. It's the beautiful thing about this whole story is none of it's about me. This is a story that has been going on for centuries. It's predates me by hundreds of years. I get to contribute to the story. I get to be, to help curate the story for my generation. But at the end of the day, I am trying to honour the memory of the people who preserve this cultural identifier.
And do you think through education and I suppose interviews like this one, you'll be able to do that?
Jackie Summers (11:21):
I believe so. The beautiful thing about Sorel is it comes with the story. It is 500 years of persistence and joy in every sip. And I believe it was Neil Gaiman that said, stories matter stories remain long after the protagonists are gone. You will forget who did what and when and why. But you never forget how people made you feel. And I believe that's one of the reasons why Sorel performs well in the market. It's not just because of how it tastes or what it costs. It's because we create emotional bonds with the people who have a sip this.
Now you mentioned that this wasn't about you, but in 2012 when this journey started, you were the only black man to have held a liquor license since prohibition. Isn't this just as much your story as it is the liquids?
Jackie Summers (12:16):
The liquid is a much bigger story than me. I think the fact that I got my liquor license in 2012 and was the only black person in America at the time to have a liquor license, that's more of a story about America than me. It's more of a story about the kind of barriers and the obstacles that are in place that have made it difficult for a pfi of African American descent to do these things. So if, if that part of the story is a footnote to the larger narrative in 150, 200 years, I'm fine with that. But it's never gonna be about me. It's always gonna be about this way people identified themselves. That's, it's more important than what I went through.
Now you talked about the liquid changing depending on which island people went to when you were trying to decide how to make this, how did you settle on the botanicals you did?
Jackie Summers (13:16):
I actually talked to a spicing importer. I made it a point to actually try to learn from people who knew things I did not know, which is kind of everyone
So it was in effect their terroir?
Jackie Summers (14:34):
Which is an interesting phrase to use when you talk about spirits and liqueurs.
Jackie Summers (14:41):
There is an argument about terroir and providence both of which are applicable. But Sorel is interesting in that it is not the terroir of any individual place. It is based on a beverage that comes from Africa that took roots in the Caribbean that was perfected by me in Brooklyn using ingredients from all around the world. It's meant to represent the entire Afro-Caribbean diaspora.
That's quite amazing when you think about it, isn't it?
Jackie Summers (15:14):
It's super daunting if you think about it. So I don't think about it.
Jackie Summers (15:23):
Here's a fun thing, is every Caribbean family believes that they make the best version of this. That their grandma makes the best version of this. Right? And I don't want to argue with them. They're all correct, but everyone else is making traditional sorrow. I'm the only one who's making Sorel, which is a shelf stable version of this. You can open it, close it come back in a year and it's still good. Traditional sol is good for maybe a month in your fridge
Right now. You've been quoted as saying that in creating the liquid, you added alcohol to flavour. How important is that distinction from adding flavour to alcohol?
Jackie Summers (16:12):
So one of the things that no one wants to talk about in our industry is the fact that alcohol does not taste good. And that is a hill that I have to stand on. As someone who has been a distiller and been in many distilleries, alcohol, straight off a distill, if you don't even cut it right, the wrong cut will kill you. But humans want to enjoy the effects of alcohol. So we spent thousands of years trying to figure out how do we make this potable? If you ask me what my job is, the joke I tell people is I make tiny amounts of poison potable. So what do we do with this alcohol? Do we put it in the cask for six months? Do we put sugar in it? Do we add herbs and botanicals to it? Big liquor has decided that the way to solve this problem is to take vast amount of alcohol and add flavour to them. So we got cinnamon flavoured whiskey and blueberry flavoured tequila and habanero flavoured vodka. We reverse the logic. They're all taking alcohol as a start and adding flavour. We start with flavour and add alcohol. Flavour is always the most important component. And alcohol is a stabilizing agent
That makes perfect sense that very few people look at it that way.
Jackie Summers (17:38):
Here's another nice thing about starting with flavour as the basis of what you're trying to do. The first thing is because it's a neutral grain, it mixes with literally everything you can use so well with vodka, mezcal, tequila, whiskey, rye, bourbon, scotch, sake. It mixes with everything. It is a, a colour to splash onto your cocktails and bring new life to them. The other really good part about my particular approach from the perspective of a distillery is I pay a lot less taxes at my alcohol percentage.
Of course. Yes. Yes you would. Now speaking of adding the Sorel to recipes, the brand has recently had publicity with actress Lauren Preppin who mentioned she used CLL in her bourbon sour recipes. Now what other cocktails can you recommend that could benefit from a touch of Sorel?
Jackie Summers (18:43):
So I believe CLL might be the most seasonally relevant beverage there is in that it's delicious hot or cold. Oh, so it's cold outside in Brooklyn right now. So if you serve Sorel Hot, all of the beautiful floral notes take a backseat to the baking spices and it's just warm and inviting. So right now we're serving toddies in the springtime we get lots of gin cocktails and lots of agave cocktails. So I've seen the surreal bees knees. I've seen the surreal Paloma. We've seen the surreal margarita, very popular for springtime in the summertime. What we see your spritzes and slush is, and mules, the hibiscus mule is very popular In the fall we see the stirred cocktail. So negronis, old fashions Manhattans anywhere that you might think to use every move, there's a greater depth that sort of fills in the spaces between the flavours that you didn't know weren't there.
Now if somebody's buying a bottle for the first time, how would you recommend they first experience it?
Jackie Summers (19:53):
Call some friends by? The thing about Sorel is it's communal.
Okay. There were two big differences in Sorel then most liquors the first is there's no added glycerin. So that thickening agent, which makes liquors not drinkable, we don't do that. You can open up sore and drink it the way that you would drink a bottle of wine. Nice. We recommend people try it room temperature at first. Mm-Hmm.
How do you like to drink it?
Jackie Summers (21:26):
Traditionally, I drink this meat, but my favourite thing in the summertime is surreal and ginger beer, ginger beer, lime. I'm good to go.
So meal. Nice.
Jackie Summers (21:35):
Now what is the reaction to the la been from bartenders and from consumers?
Jackie Summers (21:45):
So bartenders are, consumers are both embracing it, but in a very different way. One of the most fun parts about having Sorel and walking into a bar is not telling a bartender what to do with it. I love seeing them taste it and then watching the wheels turn in their head because they all have different ideas. Okay. So I don't, I don't have kids, so I don't know what it's like to be a parent, but my feeling is it's not my job to tell people what this thing is. It's just my job to guide it while it becomes what if it's going to be
Jackie Summers (22:27):
So I've seen incredibly creative cocktails with Sorel things I would've never imagined. It's my job to get out of the way of the incredibly talented bar community who's doing just great cocktails with cll. Consumers approach it differently. Consumers will pop up on a bottle of Sorel, like they'd open a bottle of wine and parcel often in a few hours, which is not the worst thing.
Have there been any drinks that bartenders have made that have really surprised you?
Jackie Summers (22:59):
Oh my goodness. I was in Atlanta last fall and we were at dive bar. And Sorel has performed terrific at the high end cocktail bars and I've been trying to track into the dive bar market for a decade. Unsuccessfully. The proprietor turned out that he liked but didn't see a space for it on his menu because his menu was all shooters. And then he had a stroke of genius. He called for his bottle of screwable peanut butter whiskey. Okay. And t I was terrified cuz I did not think it was going. I've seen so well paired with all sorts of things. I thought this was going to be a disaster. Mm. Turns out it's a perfect p bj shot. It surprised the hell out of me. Really, it's, yes. The, the nut meg and the ginger go right to the front with the peanut butter and everything's left is fruit and jam. It's, it was amazing. How
Jackie Summers (24:03):
So it surprised me. Yeah.
Now I believe that this is Sorel 2.0 Yes. That we're seeing at the moment. Yes. And to get that off the ground, you actually were in touch with Fawn Weaver, from Uncle Nearest. Tell me a little bit about about how that came about.
Jackie Summers (24:27):
I signed a multimillion dollar deal in 2015 to take Sorel national. They reneged. I got a second deal in 2016 to take a national for million of dollars. They reneged as well. I I ended up homeless for a year and a half.
Jackie Summers (24:45):
And the entire time I was homeless, I was speaking to some of the type people in the industry about investing in Sorel. And I got pretty much the same response. Listen, it's a great brand, great reviews, great sales record, great packaging, good luck with that kid. And then in 2020, George Floyd was murdered and for five minutes we had Black Lives Matter and there was a sudden renewed interest in the brand. Mostly because people hadn't realized before then that I was the first legal licensed American black distiller or maybe they knew where nobody cared. So I was in sort of the final bits of negotiations with an investment group about bringing soil back to market. Yeah. And they tried to change some of the legalese in our contract. And so I knew f from the speaking circuit. Mm-Hmm. I did the thing that I'm not good at and that I'm really working to be better at. And I asked for help. I reached out the Juan Weaver and I said Foreign, I hit a stumbling weapon in my investment group. Can you offer any guidance?
Jackie Summers (25:55):
The next day we had a guarantee of funding.
Oh wow. Yeah.
Jackie Summers (25:59):
Yeah. Foreign does not play
She seems a pretty formidable woman, I must say
Jackie Summers (26:06):
To say the least.
Yeah. Now I believe there is some talk about possibly taking Sorel back to the Caribbean and setting up a distillery in Barbados.
Jackie Summers (26:21):
Absolutely. So the wonderful thing about the circle that's happening is my, my grandparents left Barbados, although they were educated because it lacked opportunity and they came to this country with the idea that there'd be chances for them and their children and their progeny. When the government or Barbados heard that the child of one of their immigrants took this national beverage and made it into a product, they love this. So I've met with the Ministry of Finance. At some point they would love for me to build a distillery in Barbados so we can bring surveil home and it can be made with local hands and local ingredients. So that is at some point in the works. And then they would be the distribution hub for the Caribbean, south America in Africa.
Sorel became the most awarded Laure last year. What do you think it is about the liquid that really is making it so special?
Jackie Summers (27:26):
There are a couple of reasons why I believe Sorel did so well in international competition. The first thing is it really does balance out five very aggressive botanicals. Ginger nut makes cinnamon, clove, hibiscus, all of them really want to be in charge. But in Sorel, instead of competing, they compliment, they play, they dance. So when you taste Sorel instead of OneNote, you get a procession of flavour, you will get the fruity notes of the hibiscus, which is then brightened by clove. Mm. There's that pungent sweetness of the nut make on the back and that slight burn of cinnamon on the sides. And then the gingers almost perfectly masking the alcohol. So it does well and for one reason because it's just really well balanced.
Now, if people do buy a bottle of sorel, what do you want them to take away from the experience with it?
Jackie Summers (28:32):
When people taste sore, I want them to taste the joy and the temerity and, and the perseverance of the people who kept this recipe alive just under the worst possible conditions. I want people to taste the flavour of the Afro-Caribbean community. I want people to feel an emotional connection. There's all of these medicinal elements in Sorel that are made stable by the alcohol. So we want people to come together and have it not just be an occasional thing, but something that's communal. We want people to have a drink in the conversation with friends.
Now, I believe you have just formed a partnership with speakeasy.
Jackie Summers (29:19):
Well the beautiful thing about speakeasy is it lets us reach all of the markets that we are not available in yet through direct to consumer. And it really has been interesting because their data led us to very, very targeted advertising. And right now the biggest problem in with marketing always is how do you quantify the roi? Right now we can quantify every dollar we spend with speakeasy and the ROI is coming in at just under 8%. So yeah, I'm very happy with how that's turning out.
Other than through your website. Where is the liquor available?
Jackie Summers (30:01):
We're in 21 states right now. We are looking to open another 14 markets this year. So we'll be in 35 states before the year's out and we're looking to expand to the Caribbean.
Jackie Summers (30:15):
So you are doing a little bit of export even though it's very close.
Jackie Summers (30:20):
We will be doing export to the Caribbean this year. Very excited about that. So cruise lines, hotels, hill Hill bars across the Caribbean will be carrying duty free shops the whole bit.
Actually, I imagine it would do very well on the cruise lines.
Jackie Summers (30:34):
You can't make money, but you could move cases
Now, other than expanding those markets, what does the next year hold for Sorel?
Jackie Summers (30:46):
So Sorel is built on a very simple concept in that it is a beverage that's set around for centuries with tremendous cultural significance to a small group of people that the world in a general sense did not know about. And part of what we are trying to do is build an education campaign around this terrific flavour. But my feeling is surreal is not the only one. There are so many other beverages out there like this, which are known to individual communities. It's made by grandmas, it's been made this particular way for centuries. It's got great culture significance to a small group. My role over the next 25 years, I believe will be to find these beverages, figure out how to make them shelf stable, figure out how to market them, and then find people from that culture that I can actually vest in the brand and put out in front of it so that we are not appropriating in anyone's culture. Cause it, it's important to me to always give back to community. So we've got the next look, got the next four or five lined up, we're ready to go.
Are you able to give any hints or is it too early to do that?
Jackie Summers (32:06):
It's true to give away the hints, but we've got the next four or five brands ready to go. As far as the r and d is done as far as the branding's done, it's just making sure I can give Sorel the attention it needs to be stable on its own. And then we're going to create a whole family of beverages like Sorel - relatively low proof, great culture significance, terrific flavour and easy to produce with low waste.
So we are about to see more amazing things from you
Jackie Summers (32:40):
I take my role as storyteller seriously. And there are many, many stories to tell and people are much more open to hearing story if it comes with a libation.
Indeed. Now, if people want more information on Sorel, they can of course go to your website, which is sorelofficial.com or connect with the brands via your socials.
Jackie Summers (33:05):
The social is also CLL official and we are on Instagram and Facebook.
Excellent. All right Jackie. Well look, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Jackie Summers (33:15):
An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much Tiff.