Sorel Liqueur Relaunched by Uncle Nearest

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Just one year ago, Jackie Summers was a failed distillery owner. He still had his pride. He had the distinction of being, at one time, the only Black man to hold a license to distill a spirit, and he still had the recipe for a liqueur to his name called Sorel. That Sorel had at one point outsold everything but St-Germain in New York City. In 2012, it was creating significant buzz among the cocktail-drinking crowd. By taking sorrel, the hibiscus rum punch drunk for centuries in Caribbean countries, and creating a shelf-stable version that could be bottled and sold, Summers had, he told Esquire last year, built upon the legacy of his Black ancestors, his Black parents, who’d fought for more but never owned it. “In this country, where a lot of drink culture is owed to Blackness, very little of it is owned by Blackness,” he said. He would’ve known; he no longer owned a distillery.

Summers had lost his distillery in Brooklyn, in part because he believed the liquor conglomerates did not want to pour money into a brand owned by a Black man while keeping that Black man attached to the brand, no matter how successful. But he still knew how to bottle a liqueur to be proud of. A year ago, about half a decade after Summers ran out of money and Sorel disappeared from shelves, he told Esquire, “I intend to bring Sorel back.”

A lot has changed in a year.

Those liquor industry big shots who couldn’t see what Summers saw in himself and in Sorel? Fawn Weaver is not one of them. The Tennessee whiskey distillery she founded in 2016, Uncle Nearest, is the fastest growing in the U.S., and her whiskey is racking up accolades as well as considerable interest for its backstory. When Uncle Nearest opened, the New York Times published an article headlined “When Jack Daniel’s Failed to Honor a Slave, an Author Rewrote History.” Weaver was that author, and her plan was to recenter the contributions of the formerly enslaved man, Nearest Green, who had not owned a distillery but could have claimed ownership of a whiskey-making method that forever changed drinking culture in America, no small potatoes.

Weaver had heard about Sorel; it hadn’t been available to drink in years, but folks in the industry were still talking about it, and Summers was still on the hunt for backers who could help him bring it back in a serious way without cutting him out of the process. Eventually, she met him at an industry panel about diversity. He was wearing what she described as a bandana and street clothes and pure bravado, while everyone else at the event was dressed formally. “I was like, man, who’s this tough dude?” she recalled. Summers seemed to have complete confidence in Sorel, even after losing all his money and his license and his distillery, so it wasn’t until later that she realized he might need help—her help. She invited him to ask her for it. He did. According to Weaver, his business plan was rock solid. “I’m like, why is he having a problem getting funding?” She called him up to ask.

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Fawn Weaver, author, historian, and co-founder of The Nearest Green Foundation, attends an event at the New York Historical Society in 2019.

Rob KimGetty Images

“I sat there and I had to think about it. Why am I having such a hard time with investors?” Summers said. “And I thought, then I cried. And after I cried, I drove to my mom’s house, and I cried at my mom’s house. And then I wrote [Weaver] back and all I could say was, as much as people want to celebrate the fact that I was the first whatever, it is so hard out here, and people still feel a certain way.”

Weaver considered that. “I went back to my first interaction with him, and I remembered my own bias,” she said. “And my immediate thought was, if I as a Black woman have that bias, I can just imagine what it’s like for him to walk into a room of all white people.” Of course she would help him; she would fund him. With Uncle Nearest’s success, Weaver and her team had been able to set up a venture fund of $50 million to pour into minority-owned spirits businesses. She decided Summers would get $2 million to relaunch Sorel. As of October 1, Sorel is back on the market, available to purchase in New York and nationally through ReserveBar.

“As much as people want to celebrate the fact that I was the first whatever, it is so hard out here, and people still feel a certain way.”

Sorel itself is a spiced brew at a sippable ABV that, for all its powerful flavor, accompanies cocktails with ease as a replacement for vermouth or an aperitif, for instance. A glass of Sorel over ice is a delight; Summers suggests drinking it hot, too, which sounds lovely assuming the temperatures do eventually drop. There isn’t anything like Sorel on the market, rich with spices brought to the Caribbean generations ago alongside the trafficking of enslaved Africans. It is fruitier than Jager, more herbal than Fernet, less bitter than Campari, more sippable than Aperol. Speaking of, Summers also advocates for Sorel Spritzes. Beyond flavor profile, Sorel is owned by a Black man—a Black man who isn’t a celebrity—and so again, there isn’t much like it on the market. (For those who enjoyed it a decade ago: the recipe has not changed.)

Uncle Nearest Premium Whisky

Should Sorel catch on a second time with drinkers, inviting a new round of big shot, white-held liquor money to court Summers and attempt to buy him out, well, Weaver’s hoping he won’t sell. “I am setting out a goal to really elevate people of color in this industry,” she said. “If I back people of color who found brands, and then they turn around and they sell it to the big guys, guess what? We’re back at square one.” No, Weaver wants those brands who receive Uncle Nearest funding to hold out—to become their own, not-white-male-run industry conglomerates, like Uncle Nearest seems to be tracking towards. To become owners.

To “build a brand they can’t afford,” as Summers puts it.

Summers does not have a liquor license right now. He can rely on the newfound money and connections—both had remained elusive to him before Uncle Nearest, reflecting the closed doors Black entrepreneurs often crash into—to contract out the nitty gritty of the actual distilling process. (Besides, he said, distilling is a young man’s game.) He can rely on the same money and connections to help him scale Sorel up when it’s time to scale the hell up, instead of burning out and going broke. There is no honor in holding onto a brand just to fail, Weaver believes.

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“Fawn proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that an entirely Black-owned company could be run and be successful. And not just by people of color but by a woman,” Summers said. “The entire idea that you need the old boys network to succeed is now trash.”

What remains is to get people to drink Sorel again, to build the momentum to keep Sorel from failing, and to tell the generation- and hemisphere-spanning story behind Sorel to those who’ll hopefully be listening more intently than they might have been a decade ago. His grandfather used to say, “Good, better, best, NEVER let it rest.” Summers feels he’s been able to put that mantra into action with the help he’s received. The evening before Sorel relaunched, he told Esquire he was all kinds of psyched. That, and very grateful.

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