Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bringing together culture and alcohol! Interview with Jackie Summers founder of Jack from Brooklyn

Short Bio: Jackie Summers the “Liquortarian” is an entrepreneur, writer and former male-model. His written credentials extend from his own blog F*cking in Brooklyn, to working as the former Editorial Director for the Good Men Project and Editor for the Elephant Journal. Now, an entrepreneur, Jackie Summers has been revolutionizing the cocktail industry with his interpretation of a Caribbean Classic through his company: Jack From Spirits.

What sorrel is: Sorrel is a traditional Caribbean drink made with a base of sorrel flowers (hibiscus), water, sugar, and if it's alcoholic: rum! Many versions of this drink also use a combination of the following ingredients: cinnamon, ginger, orange, clove, nutmeg, allspice, and lime juice for taste.

1) Could you give us some background about how Sorel started?

As the descendant of Caribbean immigrants, I knew of the tradition of sorrel from childhood. Brewed hibiscus flowers, accented with spices, spiked with rum, is a party favorite. I made a version of this in my kitchen for friends and family for almost two decades. Then five years ago, I had a cancer scare. My doctors found a golfball-sized tumor inside my spine, and predicted the worst. Fortunately, the powers that be were not ready to send me on to the next life just yet. Facing your own mortality, is liberating. When I found out I was going to live, I decided to devote the rest of my life to my love of day-drinking. Sorel is the vehicle by which I am afforded the privilege of meeting interesting new people every day, drinking with them, and writing it off.

Sorrel Flowers. Source: Wikipedia

2) Many bartenders believe that in every drink they serve, there’s a story waiting to be told?  For example, Amaretto is a liqueur full of the sweetness of gratitude towards a loved one, and yet the legend behind it has the bleak sadness of a widow. What kind of story do you want to tell people when they drink Sorel?

Hibiscus was first imported from West Africa to the Caribbean in the 1600s. They would boil the petals and use it as an elixir. Over the course of centuries, different spices were added, to neutralize the acidity of the hibiscus. Sorrel came to be the standard special occasion drink in the Caribbean; no party would be complete without it. I very much see Sorel continuing this tradition, in that it helps people to connect. It’s very aromatic, with strong hints of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. People inhale these scents, and it reminds them of home.

3) How important do you think Brooklyn is to your company?

Our company motto is the same as the Brooklyn motto: eendracht maakt macht. Translated from old Dutch, it means: unity makes strength. I think this is in the marrow of everything we do at JFB, from being a contributing member of the local business community, to being an active member of the USBG, and the burgeoning fraternity of craft distillers. We are infinitely more powerful together than any one of us could be alone.

4) You seem to have coined the word “Liquortarian." Where did that come from?

The Liquortarian is actually my mother’s word–she doesn’t like calling her kids alcoholics. When she found out that I’d trademarked the word, her first question was: “So, am I getting a cut?”

5) In a previous interview you stated that making a shelf-stable version of the Caribbean classic, Sorel, had never been done before you. Do you think that there are limitations with turning cultural drinks into commercial liqueurs? Or do you think that with enough perseverance people can recreate their favorite drinks and bring them to the masses?

I think many cultures suffer from a particular kind of xenophobia. The importance of preserving culture takes precedence over sharing with people of a different background. Traditional sorrel has rum added to it for the alcoholic component, because EVERYTHING in the Caribbean has rum in it. This is problematic, because rum has too much of it’s own personality to ever really let the flavors in sorrel stand out. Also, because it has its own insoluble materials, it never reacts on a molecular level with the insoluble materials in the base mix. Because of this, traditional sorrel isn’t shelf stable, oxidizes, and is generally opaque. As a Native New Yorker, I wanted to acknowledge my ancestry, but still honor where I am from, which allowed me to step beyond the cultural attachment to rum, and use neutral wheat grain alcohol as the base in my mix. It’s a perfectly clean canvas upon which to paint with botanicals, and it forms the necessary polysaccharide reaction when added to the base mix to create shelf stability. So yes, I believe people can honor the past and still live in the present, even with their traditional foods and beverages.

6) Your writing is a little bit controversial and hits straight to the point for a lot of social dilemmas—especially ones involving love.  However, it seems to have slowed down since 2012.  Are you more invested in growing your spirits business? Or is there perhaps a book being written that no one knows about?

The joke I tell people is that liquor is my side gig; I’m actually an unemployed writer. Launching this company has left no time or mental energy for anything else. When things calm down, I will return to writing, and will I have stories to tell!

7) How much has being such a prolific writer affected your company?

Writing well is akin to making great cocktails. You learn to appreciate the beauty of simplicity.

8) Which Sorel based Cocktail is your favorite?

Hands down, I love Sorel and whisky. My absolute favorite whisky to pair Sorel with is Brenne Whisky, a single malt out of Cognac, France. That cocktail has been loving names: The Last Call.

9) Finally, do you have a favorite non-alcoholic traditional Sorel recipe you could share with us?

What is "non-alcoholic” you speak of?

Story of Amaretto:

One of the best of Leonardo Da Vinci’s students was a painter by the name of Bernardino Luini.  In 1525, a church of the town of Saronno commissioned Luini to paint a fresco of the Madonna of the Miracle.

He looked everywhere, and found his muse in a young innkeeper who had just been widowed. Using her as a model, Luini immortalized her in Saronno.

To thank him for this kind gesture, the widow was at a loss.  He was a famous painter, one of the most important men of his generation and she had little money.  So she steeped apricot pits in brandy and presented the drink to Luini.

Although the flavor in Amaretto tastes of an almond sweeter than any almond, there is a trace of bitterness that reflects the sadness of the widow.

Further Reading:
Jack From Brooklyn Company Website
Goodmen Project, a website focused on sharing defining moments in a male's life, where Jackie Summers was Editorial Director of: Goodmen Project
Jackie Summers blog: F*cking in Brooklyn 

next week's interview is with Derek Brown, founder of Drink Company and owner of five bars in Washington D.C.!