Over the past two decades, Brooklyn has become the epicenter of a Slow Food-inspired food and drink revolution. Brooklyn distillers, restaurateurs, bartenders, and cocktail aficionados are changing the way we drink by bringing back old techniques and recipes, and creating new ones that focus on small-batch distilling and fresh, local ingredients. In 2002, craft distilling was made legal in New York State for the first time since Prohibition. It wasn’t until eight years later in 2010 that Brooklyn had its first legal distillery in 80 years with Kings County Distillery. Since then, state legislators have continued to work with distillers around the state to create a distillery friendly startup environment.
In the case of Jack from Brooklyn (Sorel), it’s not your typical model of reviving an old family distillery name from four generations ago but simply a family recipe from not so long ago. Jacks tale, is one of several you can find in the farm-to-table book, Brooklyn Spirits: Craft Distilling and Cocktails from the World’s Hippest Borough.
This artisanal spirits tale is a story about a former underwear model leaving a career in marketing after a serious cancer scare to pursue his dream of bringing to market a product that nobody had ever heard of and somehow convincing people to buy and use it. Sound impossible? Perhaps. But Jack Summers thrives on the impossible.
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In 2012, Jack Summers formed the company Jack From Brooklyn to produce and distribute a new liqueur called Sorel, which was based on a traditional beverage that Jack had been making in his home for more than 15 years.
I turned my back on 25 years in corporate America to put my heritage in a bottle.
~Jack Summers, Founder Jack from Brooklyn
In the creation of Sorel, Jack reached deep into the tradition his grandparents brought with them from Barbados, and the flavors that surrounded him in New York as a child of West Indian ancestry, to devise the ultimate homage to his ancestors: the flavor of the Caribbean in a bottle. As Jack deftly describes it, “If mom’s apple pie and dad’s liquor cabinet got together and got busy and you put it in a bottle, you get Sorel.”
“My grandparents emigrated from Barbados [to New York City] in the 1920s, and like other immigrants, they prepared ethnic foods to remind themselves of home.” Through his grandparents, Jack grew up with versions of a Bajan hibiscus tea called “sorrel” (two Rs), in his home. Sorrel tea is an herbal drink from the West Indies, made from dried hibiscus petals and blended with spices and roots like cinnamon and ginger, and sometimes (for special occasions) spiked with rum. This traditional homebrew has been a staple all over the West Indies for centuries. No two recipes are identical, and families pride themselves on their individual expressions of the summer cooler.
Jack had been making homemade sorrel tea in his kitchen for more than a decade when he was diagnosed with what he was told was fatal cancer, in 2010. It turned out that the tumor was benign, and Jack made a full recovery. Moreover, after his brush with death, he vowed to utilize his new lease on life to the fullest. Encouraged by the appreciation he had received from his friends for his homemade sorrel tea, Jack put the corporate world behind him and began a new career structured around something personal and meaningful. Jack said, “I turned my back on 25 years in corporate America to put my heritage in a bottle.” He tinkered with the recipe and developed a commercial process, eventually debuting his personal brand of island-spiked hibiscus tea, which he dubbed Sorel.
Sorel is bursting with spices, which are shipped to his factory in Red Hook and blended there to make a unique, tannic, satisfying liqueur that’s both potable and educational. It’s a huge risk to sell something that most people have never seen before. But in Brooklyn, with its very large West Indian population and omnipresent craft-cocktail culture, it seems that Jack is giving the community something they’ve been waiting for—even if they don’t know it yet.
Sorel was an almost immediate hit among local tipplers and aficionados alike. Wine Enthusiast awarded Sorel 91 points in the autumn of 2012, calling the liqueur “addictively sippable.” Just a couple of months later, the Spirit Journal, published by F. Paul Pacult, gave Sorel five stars, its highest honor. The review called it “Perfectly rendered in terms of spice, floral aspect, acid freshness, and fruitiness. All the flavors are pulling the wagon in unison. Love it. Unlimited cocktail potential.”
Sorel is now distributed in more than 20 states from Maine to Oregon, and from Minnesota to Louisiana. It can also be found in Canada, Australia, and one place where it should feel right at home— Trinidad and Tobago.
What’s next for Jack? Right now he’s focusing on building brand awareness domestically and abroad. But he does have his eyes on some new products in the not so distant future. He told us, “Here’s the theory behind Jack From Brooklyn: Sorel was a regional, niche beverage you only knew about or had access to if you had Caribbean ancestry. I believe there are many other beverages out there, waiting to be ‘discovered.’ Find these beverages, solve their logistical obstacles, and market them in a way that makes them accessible.”
In making Sorel, Jack starts with high quality spices like Moroccan hibiscus, Nigerian ginger, Indonesian cassia and nutmeg, and Brazilian clove. He extracts their flavors in water in what he calls “a giant tea kettle.” This is similar to the sorrel tea found throughout the Caribbean. Once the essential oils of the spices are released into the water, Jack makes an adult beverage out of the mix by blending in 100% organic kosher neutral wheat grain alcohol. Lastly, he uses pure cane sugar to add some sweetness and neutralize the acidity of the hibiscus.
You can learn more about Jack’s story and many others in this new book, Brooklyn Spirits: Craft Distilling and Cocktails from the World’s Hippest Borough. You can order your own copy of this book here.