Jack Summers was perfectly happy making his homemade spirit to share with friends and families at parties and barbecues until he experienced a cancer scare two years ago. As he poured his now commercial brew, called Sorel, for tasters at Winebow's annual "Ode to Spring" trade tasting this past Wednesday, he explained, “I figured I should do something that matters to me, while I had a chance."
That “something” also matters to a growing list of happy customers, who Summers now calls friends. “I was doing this because friends and family loved it,” he says. “So nowadays, every time someone discovers it and decides they love it … my circle of friends and family is a little bigger."
Thank God the doctors were wrong about the golf-ball sized tumor they found in Summers’ spine, which they said would most likely kill him, or at best leave him paralyzed. It was benign.
Today, Summers, who markets under his company “Jack from Brooklyn,” spends his time marketing and distilling Sorel. "It's heritage for me," he explained. With grandparents from Barbados, his inspiration is a “party drink” made there from sorrel flowers, which is the same plant as hibiscus.
But the problem with hibiscus, he told enthusiastic tasters, is that it’s high in acid, and so people tend to “overcut it with sugar and then it’s syrupy and cloying and not fun and refreshing.” Summers decided he could improve on the drink by applying the best aspects of the traditional style with his own elements to make a drink that's dry and refreshing.
His process involves using water to extract a complex mix of flavors from a number of spices. These, he says, include "cloves on top for brightness, cinnamon in the middle for warmth,” and “ginger to mask the heat of the alcohol.” Then he adds body and aromatic qualities from the hibiscus, and the "woody note on the bottom is the nutmeg, just to round it out."
Summers brings these components together using a huge steam kettle to make a “150-gallon pot of tea,” which he then infuses 190-proof grain alcohol. This mix he eventually cuts to 30 proof, bottles and labels at a distilling facility in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The result is an amazing blend of sweet spice and alcohol that Summers says works both hot and cold. On a warm day, sip it straight up chilled or blended with some Prosecco, while cold winter nights call for heating in the microwave or using it to make an extra exciting hot toddy. Browse the many recipes on the Jack from Brooklyn website.
It’s currently on the list of drinks at Hotel Sofitel in Lafayette Square, according to Summers’s company website. Keep an eye out for it in D.C. retail outlets as Jack from Brooklyn continues to penetrate the D.C. market.
For more on the Winebow event, see this article by the Alexandria Wine Pairing Examiner, Chris Prawdzik.