The Story of Sorel
Perhaps you’ve seen the striking Sorel bottle on bar shelves in the last couple of years, as the liqueur has grown from its Red Hook, Brooklyn origin to become available in 20 states and Australia. The liqueur is derived from a centuries-old Caribbean recipe, traditionally made with hibiscus, now coming to the masses by way of Jack Summers, a Brooklyn native.
But Summers didn’t intend to launch an artisanal alcohol company until a cancer scare prompted him to reevaluate. “I had something I was making in my kitchen that was a heritage thing, and I had never thought about putting it in a bottle until I almost died,” he says. “Really what I want to do is be around interesting people in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week.”
In pursuit of this change, he set out to bottle his take on a Caribbean tradition.
“They first started to bring hibiscus flowers into the Caribbean from West Africa in the 1600s,” Summers says. “Sailors in the British naval empire mixed rum and the hibiscus tea to make an elixir to keep themselves healthy.” Depending on which island you’re on, the spice profile of sorrel will be different based on the local horticulture. In Jamaica, there’s ginger and allspice with rum; in Trinidad & Tobago, they use ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon, but no alcohol.
Sorel, the flagship product of Summer’s company Jack From Brooklyn, is a new take on the islander favorite, merging the best notes from several varieties. It’s made in small batches using a blend of Brazilian clove, Indonesian cassia, Nigerian ginger, Indonesian nutmeg, Moroccan hibiscus, pure cane sugar, and organic New York grain alcohol. Traditionally, rum is the base spirit, but using grain alcohol allows for shelf stability.
In terms of forging a path for the mainstreaming of a liqueur that was once provincial, “It’s like introducing limoncello,” he says.
Because of its spicy, rich profile, it makes sense that it’s touted as the perfect liqueur for the cooler months. According to Seamstress NY creative director Pamela Wiznitzer, though, it’s an extremely diverse product. “It really pairs well with all spirits — really dark aged spirits, and it doesn’t interfere too much with clear spirits. A lot of time liqueurs overpower clear spirits,” she tells me. “I like using it for original cocktails, but I think it’s also a great vehicle for spicing up the classics.” A daiquiri she makes with it sells extremely well. “Fruity and floral but also spicy — there’s nothing else we have that does all that,” she says of its workability. “It also turns your drink a beautiful color.”
Sorel’s openness mirrors that of its inventor. Bartenders have leapt at the chance to incorporate it into their beverages because of Summers's positive personality. “There are people who have a lot of money and launch something; you see celebrities launch something,” Wiznitzer says of new products. “But you see someone with a lot of heart launch something — and he’s so active in the NYC scene — and we want to support him.”
After Hurricane Sandy ravaged his Red Hook production facility, there were concerns that he wouldn’t bounce back. But Jack From Brooklyn is on a path toward becoming a bar shelf standard with Sorel, and he has products two and three in the works. Summers’ goal is to make “new contributions to the culinary firmament.”
Sorel is a heritage drink brought to the masses, and Summers wants to bring more new flavors to market. “There are lots of other things out there in the world like this, waiting for people to 'discover' them,” he says. “I want to get Sorel in a good place so I can back off and do some traveling, meet interesting people and drink their booze.”