After the Flood
Looking at it today, it’s hard to imagine that just one year ago, Jack Summers’s Red Hook workshop, Jack From Brooklyn, where he creates Sorel Liqueur, was under five feet of water as a result of flooding from Hurricane Sandy - a devastating blow that could have easily ended the promising future of a brand new business and the realization of a lifelong dream. The “Superstorm” which washed away homes and destroyed entire towns, left the waterside Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook inundated and facing a seemingly impossible recovery. But one year later, Jack’s Sorel stands out as a testament to post-storm possibility across the region.
After spending two decades working at desk jobs, a cancer scare allowed Jack to reexamine his life, and come to the decision that going forward he wanted to “do things that mattered.” So he reached deep into his past and found an answer that clearly fit. He created a brand of liqueur called Sorel, made from hibiscus flowers and island spices, which was inspired by his Barbadian roots - an homage to his family. Jack said, “I turned my back on twenty-five years in corporate America to put my heritage in a bottle.”
According to Jack, “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 r’s), 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 homemade drink could be
found all over the West Indies for centuries, but it was Jack who first thought of bottling it and rebranding it “Sorel.”
The burgeoning craft distilling scene of Brooklyn is full of rich stories of artisans who are reaching into their pasts to find intimate expressions of their own spirits. Eastern Europeans are making vodka, Kentuckians are making whiskey, and so forth. While Sorel may have been an unknown quantity to many New Yorkers before Jack put it in a bottle, the quality and uniqueness of his spirit made it stand out right away. Since then it has earned very high scores and honors from many high profile spirit industry sources.
Starting a small business, especially one with a new product, is always fraught with unforeseen difficulties, but nothing could have prepared Jack for Hurricane Sandy. Well-fortified with superlatives from industry experts, and just five
months after Sorel first hit the shelves, Jack lost it all: “Everything was destroyed: commodities, product, electrical equipment, and the 150-year-old building that houses the distillery sustained major infrastructure damage.”
Disbelief at the total destruction quickly was replaced by a resolve to rebuild. Volunteers helped clean and rehabilitate the workshop, while grants from ReStore Red Hook and moneys from a GoFundMe page helped replenish his goods and buy new equipment. (Editor's note: Despite the odds, Jack's resolve and dedication was such that when inventory was gone from NYC sources by the end of the year, in order to fulfill special requests, he had to buy back inventory from other states, take long journeys to fetch it himself, and then personally deliver the goods. One such instance insured enough bottles for a private party for singer Harry Belafonte.)
By January 2013, Sorel reemerged, a feat Jack credited to both his own personal fortitude and to a life-affirming community spirit. His business was back on track and Sorel was back on shelves. What was once the specter of a complete loss, is now just another bump in the road for a path of a man doing something that matters.
Click here for recipe for Slow Roasted Pork Belly With Sorel.