A Conversation with Jackie Summers
Talking to the first Black distiller to be licensed in the U.S. since Prohibition about writing, drinking, and equality.
My fiancé is making me a martini as I put together this interview with Jackie Summers, and I think he’d appreciate that. What we have in common is that we are writers and boozehounds. But Jackie is much more than that: He was the first Black distiller to be licensed in the United States since Prohibition, to make his delicious Sorel liqueur, and is a fabulous public speaker on matters of equity in hospitality. I first came across him when I was assigned to write about Sorel, and I’m thrilled that we’ve been in touch ever since. But I’m more thrilled that we got to have this conversation about his work. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Jackie. Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat today.
Jackie: Absolutely. It's a pleasure to talk to you.
How have you been?
Fine, good. A lot of work lately, which is a double-edged sword, as we all know. [Laughs.] Thankfully, people are getting vaccinated, so hopefully things will be different soon, but just kind of missing inspiration a lot.
How have you been doing?
Jackie: Like you, I have been busy doing the pandemic. As you said, it's a mixed blessing in that the way in which you're busy is not always the way in which you anticipated.
Alicia: Right. Yes.
Well, how did you anticipate being busy, and how are you actually busy?
Jackie: I had all of these plans for 2020, which did not happen. And things went entirely different directions, which I'm sure we'll get into in this conversation.
Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Jackie: So I was born in Queens, even though my company is called JackFromBrooklyn. The interesting part about the story is my father was Muslim, and my dad—my father was Muslim and my mom is Christian. So right off the bat, there was no pork in the house whatsoever. My mom and dad had a conversation early in their marriage that they were just going to worship their gods and not ever discuss it. But there was just no pork in the house.
And I remember having this revelation. We were on a road trip; I was five or six years old. And the family stopped at a Bob's Big Boy diner for breakfast. And I smell bacon for the first time. And I said, ‘Mom, what is that?’ And my mom said, ‘Well, that's bacon, son.’ And I said, ‘Mom, can I have some bacon?’ And she kinda looked at my dad, and I could tell that the look—the look, in retrospect, said, ‘We're not at home. Technically, yes.’ And my mom let me have bacon for the first time. You remember that scene in Close Encounters, where he just makes a mountain of mashed potatoes? Six years old with a mountain of bacon. [Laughter.] Was looking at my dad thinking to myself, ‘Why did you keep this from me?’
But really, I'm Caribbean on both sides. On my mother's side, from Barbados. On my father's side, from Saint Kitts [and] Nevis. Well, I didn't know there was a word for this when I was a child. We were largely pescatarian. We ate a lot of seafood, fish, vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh greens, baked goods. My mom was a home mom, so there was always something fresh baked in the house. But the general rule was, you could pick it out of the—off of a tree, pluck it off—out of the ground, or cook from the ocean, because those were the options that my ancestors had.
Alicia: How did you end up getting into food? I know you've written a bit about becoming the cook in your family. How did that happen?
Jackie: So, I mentioned that my mom was a home mom. My relationship with her developed by hanging on her apron strings, literally. So, she would cook. She would bake. She would fix all this food for us. And my job was, I was the family taster. She would pick something and then give me a taste and go, ‘Tell me what this needs.’ And I was like, ‘Mom, I'm a kid. I don't know what things need.’ She’d walk me through spices and herbs and go, ‘Well, this is basil. Here's how it tastes. This is oregano. This is how it tastes. These are the different things that are our tools to cook with. And here's how you use them.’
But what I figured out in retrospect as an adult, was all of the recipes had stories with them. So learning how to bake, there were stories about my mom baking as a kid. Learning how to make hot sauce hearing stories about my grandmother's hot sauce. So what I realized was, as the person who inherited mom's recipes, the responsibility for cooking, I also became the steward of the family stories because all of our stories were tied to food.
Alicia: And I know that you had a different career before you got into working in beverage, writing about food. Can you tell me about that career? [Laughter.]
Jackie: I had a few different careers, actually. I spent 5 years on Wall Street. I spent 10 years in advertising marketing. I spent 10 years as a publishing executive. Somewhere mixed in that I was an underwear model, and somewhere in that—true story—mixed in that, I was a music producer. So I did a bunch of different things before I found myself in the spirits industry, specifically, in hospitality, in general.
Alicia: And so, how did you end up in food? I know you wrote for Esquire about starting Sorel, your liquor brand. And your main motivation you said was in wanting to day drink and enjoy life. And for me, too, I think, choosing to go the independent route means a lot of work and a lot of stress and a lot of insecurity and uncertainty. But at the same time, it also means actually getting to enjoy every day of your life, if you're able. And so, how has that dream that you had when you launched Sorel come true?
Jackie: Well, it's funny. I was a director of production in digital for a fashion magazine a decade ago, and I had a cancer scare. And they told me pretty much I had a 95% chance of death. And the thing that made most sense to me to do right before my surgery was go on vacation. So I consented to this surgery that I didn't expect to survive, and then nine friends went and rented a beach house in Cancun. And just the best vacation in my whole life, and just great food and great conversation and good booze.
And when I woke up from the surgery that I didn't expect to survive, I thought to myself like, ‘I can't go back to my old life now.’ I have this very specific memory of my first week back at my day job, getting into a four-hour argument with the director of photography because she felt the pinks on the cover of the magazine we just printed were too pink and the grass wasn't green enough. And I thought to myself, ‘This is my life? I can't do this anymore.’ And again, having just come off that vacation, what I really want to do is I wanted to be on vacation again.
So yes, in a sense, the idea of being around cool people all day long and talking about things that mattered over good food and good drinks is born of this moment in time where I'm surrounded by just great friends and having the best time of my life. The reality is, there's responsibility tied to this. There is business that needs to be conducted every single day, which affects people's lives that allow me to do this thing. There are difficult conversations around racism and sexism and ableism and homophobia, and all of these issues of our day that I'm engaged in daily.
The idea of eating and drinking for a living sounds great. And I'm not going to say it's not great. It is. I love what we do. I've seen the world. I've traveled. I've had just fantastic meals. I've met amazing people, but it is not frivolous. There is a seriousness tinged to everything that we do.
Alicia: Did you want to address that seriousness? Was that a part of what you wanted by entering this world, or was that just kind of a necessity?
Jackie: A little column A, little column B.
Jackie: I don't think it was what I initially intended, but the year that I launched my business was the year Trayvon Martin was killed. And I couldn't not speak up. And I noticed that talking about this in a public way was considered divisive. It still is considered divisive in many circles, but I had to reconcile the idea that a lot of the people that I was doing business with were, if not outright, downlow racist. You have this choice you have to make. ‘I'm a new business person. What do I really want to do? Do I want to keep my mouth shut and just try to make as much money as I can? Do I need to speak up?’ And I had to speak up. I had to address these things.
I didn't mention this. But when I got my liquor license in 2012, I was the only Black person in America at the time with a license to make liquor. So being that guy, and having those conversations, in 2012 was difficult. It was difficult.
But the interesting thing about having that conversation is it leads you down the path of the entire spectrum of privilege and oppression. I am a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied male. I've got so much privilege, despite the fact that I live in a country that has been racist from its inception. Do I have oppression? Absolutely. Is there anyway that I can address my own oppression and not intrinsically fight for everyone else who's oppressed? No. Addressing racism, by definition, means I've got to speak on sexism. And I've got to speak on ableism. And I've got to speak on homophobia. I've got to speak on all of those things. They all matter. It all connects. It all intersects. You cannot fight for your own rights at the expense of anybody else's.
Alicia: Why do you think that the food and beverage industry has put these conversations off? And do you think that the conversation has gotten better and louder in the last few years since you began your business and started doing public speaking and writing on these issues?
Jackie: I think that food and beverage, like all other industries that are mired in white supremacy, didn't have to have these conversations. Nobody was making them talk about this. And because no one was making them talk about this, folks were willing to just continue business as usual, with the idea that if you talked about these things, you are going to be shunned and wouldn't be able to conduct business.
And I always feel like that's—you have to be able to pick and choose the fights that are worth fighting for. And that moment in time, when Trayvon Martin was killed, I think we will mark in 50 years as the beginning of the new Civil Rights movement. I do not see how that doesn't become the—from the death of Trayvon Martin to the death of George Floyd, that period, this decade that we just lived through, starts off this whole—we're going to have this conversation, and you don't have to like it, but you're going to—Can I curse?
Alicia: Of course.
Jackie: You are going to fucking deal with this. You're going to fucking deal with this. There was a time in this country when you could kill enough of us to keep us quiet, and that time has passed. You cannot kill enough of us to shut all of us up anymore. We are done. We're done.
So the conversations in food and beverage, I don't think, are in and of themselves essentially different from the conversations of any other industry that is mired in white supremacy. But I do think we are uniquely positioned to have these discussions, because so much of what we do is born from people of color. We can't talk about rum without having a conversation about colonization. You can't talk about whiskey now without addressing the fact that Jack Daniels was taught how to make whiskey by a slave. Thank you, Fawn Weaver with Uncle Nearest, for making everyone know the story. We can't talk about dive bars or cocktail bars without David Wondrich doing the history and acknowledging that Black people started all of that in this country. All of it.
And for the detriment to all of us, most of that history was erased. And we're fighting. We're fighting, not only to make sure that all these stories get told, but that they're being—that the history that's happening right now is told as well. All of this matters. And this is something that I've become very passionate about. You have to really make it a—you have to consciously elevate these stories. The people who write history decide. And what you don't elevate, you’ve consigned to the midst of history.
Alicia: And I mean, that's why it's so important that you write I think. Because in that Esquire piece that I mentioned earlier, you wrote, ‘And in this country, where a lot of drink culture is owed to Blackness, very little of it is owned by Blackness.’ And I know that you went through a situation recently—it might be ongoing, I don't know, if they issued a correction—the New York Times named a different distillery the first Black-owned distillery in the country, though you have proof that it is you.
And I think about that, and the significance of narrative and the significance of who tells these stories and what gets erased and what does not. So as a writer, you own your own narrative, but at the same time, you're still always having to work against the miswritings of this history.
So, how is being a writer significant to this, in your experience of being a distiller?
Jackie: So this was fun, and it is ongoing.
New York Times did put out a story recently, where they named somebody who was not me, the first Black distiller post-Prohibition. And I wrote them a letter that said, ‘Oh, love the article. By the way, you made a mistake. I actually had my license a year before that guy.’ And the first response I got was, ‘Yeah, we're not going to bother with that. It's just not important.’
So I did the thing that I do, ’cause I have a platform. And I took it to social media. Always on social media, then they called me. And they said, ‘Oh, well, we discussed it with our experts. And our experts said, ‘You don't have a distillery.’ And I said, ‘Your experts are wrong.’ And I kind of feel like it's necessary at certain points in history, to say to whoever people think the experts are, ‘You're wrong.’ At a certain point, the Supreme Court said, ‘Women can’t vote,’ and someone had to say, ‘You're wrong.’ At a certain point in history, someone said, ‘Marriage is man and a woman,’ and someone had to say, ‘You're wrong.’
I got into this argument with the New York Times and sent them a copy of my liquor license, which has the words distiller and distillery on it, with a date. And they didn't print the correction. What they said was, ‘It is now unknowable, what the first distillery is post-Prohibition.’ And I said, ‘That's not true. You made the statement before. And you had no problem making it before. I don't know what your research was before. I don't know who fact-checked it before now. But now you're saying, you're unwilling to do the research.’
And this is the funny thing about erasure is, it can be intentional or it can be just laziness. There’s that which is unknown, and there’s that which is unknowable. The size of the universe is unknowable. Finding out who had the—who was the first licensed distiller post-Prohibition, that—There are records for this stuff! You could know this if you wanted to. So to choose not to do the research is willful erasure. And erasure is violence. Erasure is violence.
So, I happen to be someone who got—who has feet in both worlds, as you mentioned. I am a distiller and I'm a writer, which means I have a platform to speak my own voice. And I'm at the moment of pitching a story, which hopefully will be published in a publication that has as much gravitas as the New York Times, about the nature of erasure. Who gets to tell history?
We only have Black History Month, because so much effort went into erasing Black people from history for centuries. We only have Women's History Month, for the same reason. Women were systematically erased from history. Women are women all year long. I'm Black all year long. Your history isn't limited to one month, and neither is mine. But until we get to the point where we get to tell our own stories in our own voices, and they're elevated to the same height as the people who have, up until this point, controlled the narrative, we have to fight for this.
So, having my own platform is one thing. But I still need access to the people who control the narrative to go, ‘Here's the real story.’
Alicia: Why do you think that they did not offer a correction? Do you think it really was just laziness? I think the New York Times got rid of all their copy editors and fact-checkers, which would explain a lot. But yeah, why do you think that they have no interest in changing what they publish?
Jackie: I don't believe it was laziness. I believe this was intent. Again, the opportunity, having made a definitive statement, the opportunity to make a secondary definitive statement was presented to them, and they declined. There's a lot of what I'd like to call performative wokeness that happens at the Times because their newsrooms, like most media newsrooms are predominantly white. And so, they literally get to decide whose story gets told them and who doesn't.
And the interesting part to me was in the middle of this fight with the New York Times about erasure, their editors put out this page-long article about how they know, how they're aware that they have racial problems in their newsroom.
So, if you're going to ask me why? Polite white supremacy. Just to be clear on what I mean when I say that, there are lots of people who think that storming the Capitol with Confederate flags is white supremacy. And they’re right. White supremacy is also going, ‘Yes, I'm aware that you have the license that says you're the first Black person to ever have a distillery after Prohibition. But no, I'm not gonna bother to make it a point to say that. Thanks anyway, though.’ Both are violence. Just because one is polite, doesn't make it any less violent than the other.
Alicia: And to kind of go backwards, can you tell us about Sorel and what it is, how you make it? Obviously, no proprietary secrets. And the kind of process that you figured out to create the shelf-stable liqueur.
Jackie: So, you've got to go back 600 years for this story. This is tied, like most things to do with colonial capitalism, to the slave trade.
They begin to import hibiscus flowers from West Africa around the same time they start to import human beings. And they make a tea out of the flowers, ’cause it’s got all of these great medicinal values. It's an antioxidant, and it's an antimicrobial. It has more vitamin C than most citrus fruits. It's a natural aphrodisiac. Hibiscus is great for you.
British naval officers all had a stipend of rum as part of their pay. So, they would put rum in the tea as a preservative. And so this beverage, which came to be known as sorel, S-O-R-E-L, gets distributed throughout the Caribbean.
And depending on where you fell in the slave route, in the spice trade, it would have different other spices mixed in. For example, if you were in Jamaica, you would get hibiscus with rum, with almond and allspice. If you were deep in the spice round like Trinidad and Tobago, you would get Indonesian spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
This goes on, again, for centuries. My grandparents emigrated to this country exactly 100 years ago. And so I got this culture from my parents, who got it from my grandparents. So this is a beverage I was raised with. I've always known it. I've been making a version in my kitchen for 20 years, more than 20 years. God, I’m old. And like all Caribbean families, I believed my version was the best version.
But when I decided to launch a liquor brand, I thought to myself, ‘Of course, I'm going to try to bring my heritage to the world.’ At which point you ask yourself, ‘Why has nobody done this before?’ And the joke I tell at this point is if you think you have an idea so good, and no one's ever thought of it before, it's probably a terrible idea. [Laughter.] There’s probably a reason why no one has done this before.
And to be clear, Alicia, I had, I have zero background as a food chemist. None. I am not a food scientist. I had no background in liquor. I knew no one in hospitality. But I am stubborn. The first 600 attempts were discouraging. [Laughter.] On attempt 623, I came up with a version that can't be broken. You can open it, close it, come back in six months, boil it, nuke it, freeze it, leave it sitting out in the sun, leave it in the back of the car. Both through stubbornness and research and luck, I developed the version of the spirit with which you can't break.
And the thought behind my general company is, if sorrel sat in the Caribbean for hundreds of years, waiting for somebody to discover how to make it stable, how many other beverages like this exist with centuries of culture, with distinctiveness that only the culture that consumed it really knows about, that are waiting for somebody to bring it to light?
So, I really believe that my mission somehow has become twofold. The first is to find these things, these hidden gems that have been laying up there for centuries, figure out how to make them not just shelf-stable and commercially saleable, but legitimately authentic. If a Caribbean person tastes sorrel, they know. If it was in any way not true to itself, you would never hear the end of it from Caribbean people. These things have got to be authentic.
At the same time, we have to have the conversations about the cultures that make these things and why, again, they've been erased for centuries. Because what we don't elevate, we erase.
Alicia: And how was it getting it to market?
Jackie: It was interesting in that no one had ever seen a Black liquor brand owner before. So most of what I got when I walked around New York City was, ‘Oh, deliveries are in the back.’ No one believed I owned the brand or created the brand from scratch.
But it was so critically received that people tended to get over that. It performed incredibly well in bars. It performed incredibly well in stores. And I'm looking forward to having to get back on shelves by summertime.
Alicia: And can you tell us about how that's going to happen, because this is exciting news?
Jackie: Not really. But stay tuned.
Alicia: Ok. [Laughs.]
Yeah, no, I'm very excited that it's going to be back. I think people are going to be more ready for it, maybe. Do you think so?
Jackie: I think the world changed in necessary ways. And it had to. It had to. I cannot take credit for the fact that the world changed.
But I can say, I've been running my mouth about these things for a fucking decade now. And now, you can’t enter spaces in hospitality and not have conversations about how we can keep women safe, and how we can kill sexism, and the fact that we should have equal pay, and the fact that we need to normalize Black bartenders. Now, these things are part of our everyday discussion, as they should be.
And again, I don't take credit for this. I am glad to be part of a movement where a lot of people have decided to get on board, not just the people who are part of oppressed groups but people who have seen a need to use their privilege to make things more equitable for everybody. I am glad and proud to be part of this conversation, but the world changed because we're changing it.
And as hospitality comes back to life after the pandemic, what are you hopeful for?
Jackie: So, one of the things that everyone said, as soon as all of the restaurants shut down was, ‘How are we going to get back to normal?’ And my intrinsic response to that was, ‘Why would I help you get back to a normal where I was never welcome?’ So my feeling is, there has never been a better time than right now for people who have been marginalized, whatever that marginalization is, to figure out how to build your own table.
I spent years teaching this seminar course across the hospitality circuit, ‘Build a longer table.’ It's a great slogan, build a longer table. I mean, it sounds good, right? It was, ‘Be inclusive, and I have some, and I'm going to extend to other people who don't.’ Alicia, no one did a damn thing. Sound and fury and anecdotes and statistics signifying nothing. I stopped teaching that altogether.
I'm hoping that in a post-pandemic world, whenever that happens, people will be more motivated to figure out how to do their own thing, and establish structures from the ground up that aren't based in white supremacy. And for the structures that continue to exist, post-pandemic that were there before, it is a worthy question to ask any individual or organization, ‘What are you doing to undo your complicity with white supremacy?’ It is one thing to say that the problems are systemic, but systems are maintained by people. And people can change things if they are so inclined.
Alicia: And how do you feel your personal writing fits into your larger work as a distiller as a speaker on these issues?
Jackie: I feel like there is a depth of understanding which I need to reassess on a daily basis. The things I perceived yesterday, or a week ago, or a decade ago, those things have changed today and they'll be different tomorrow. And I feel the need to continually ask myself whether or not I am full of shit.
There's a James Baldwin quote that stays stuck in my heart like a knife. ‘Your slogan hides your truth.’ You have to have the courage to despise your slogan. It's easy to string pretty words together, and be pithy and quotable. But am I hiding behind something that sounded good as a quote, instead of actually digging deeper and going, ‘Well, here's the truth behind that statement. And it's painful to admit this, but here's what really needs to be said. And it might not be as pithy but it's honest.’
So, I feel like with my writing, I'm trying to be more honest about my understanding of the world and my understanding of my role in it.
Alicia: Are you planning to write a book?
Jackie: I've got a publisher of works, just shopping—I've got my agent, who I love. I'm signed to Pande Literary. It’s fantastic. And they're shopping a book of mine right now, but it's not what you’d think. An illustrated fairy tale for adults about how to deal with social justice fatigue.
Alicia: Wow, that sounds great.
Jackie: And it is called The Garden of Infinite Fucks.
licia: I think that'll be really success—People will love that name. I think that'll go well.
Jackie: The idea is, everyone makes a joke about how they're all out of fucks. And they have been out of fucks. You have run out of fucks. Fucks mean you care. So if you find that you are out of fucks, you're not allocating correctly. That's a distribution issue.
And so hopefully, the book, when it gets published, will show in a fun way how people can effectively manage the firehose, systemic abuse that we're dealing with today. It’s always something. But if you let yourself get upset about all of it, nothing gets done. So hopefully, this book gets out. And it will give people a fun manageable guide to how to not run out—how to have infinite fucks, and how to not burn yourself out.
Alicia: Right, which is so important. That's all we talk about now, is burnout. [Laughs.]
And for you, is cooking a political act?
Jackie: So I think not only is cooking a political act, I think grocery shopping is a political act. I mean, you can't really do your own cooking unless you're doing your own grocery shopping. It is important to know the food supply chain, and I think that’s gotten extremely brought to fore during the pandemic.
Where is your food coming from? Who's pulling your roots out of the ground? Who's slaughtering your animals, if you’re eating animals? How is this getting to your door?I have been on a long path for the last few years away from eating meat for highly personal reasons. To be clear, I'm one of these people—I think meat is delicious, person. But I have privilege. And privilege means I've got responsibility, and responsibility means, ‘Am I acknowledging my role in the fact that meat production in this country is a horrific thing that's destroying us?’ I can't change the industry, but I can change my own behavior.
And this is one of the things that I learned from your writing. You're one of my favorite writers. This is true, I’m psyched about this. One of the things I learned from you was that veganism, it's not a pure course towards clean hands of the food processing industry. There is industrialism with processed foods. Someone's picking your food out of the ground. How is that person being compensated? We live in a country that happens to be incredibly focused against immigrants right now, but at the same time, unwilling to pick or grow their own food. How the fuck does that work?
So I feel like not just cooking, but grocery shopping is an incredibly political thing that one has—you have to be aware of these days. ‘Where's my food coming from? And to the extent that I can make the difference in my life, what's my footprint like?’
One of the biggest differences that I made over the pandemic is, there's a guy who ran—there’s a guy in Astoria, Queens, who was running his parents’ Chinese restaurant. And they hit hard times when the pandemic started, and he decided to convert his restaurant into groceries and get the groceries into delivery.
And whereas I was initially getting my grocery delivery from Whole Foods, now I get all of my groceries delivered from asian-veggies.com. I know who's doing it. I know where it's being sourced. It's a local business. It's all good food. And I don't have this weight of, ‘I'm supporting this organization that may or may not be caring for workers in a particular way’ weighing on my shoulders.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much again for taking the time out today. This was great.
Jackie: It is always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time today.