RED HOOK — A slice of the Caribbean islands is once again spicing up New York City.
Jack from Brooklyn Distillery's brand new and wildly popular Sorel liquor, which debuted last spring but evaporated from store shelves after production halted following Hurricane Sandy, resumed production Monday for the first time since the superstorm struck Oct. 29.
"It's been an incredibly stressful time, and I didn't know we'd be able to survive, but we did," said Jackie Summers, owner of Jack from Brooklyn.
Spirit Journal's F. Paul Pacult hailed the drink as "gently sweet, fruity, floral and spicy," with a "rush of elegant juiciness" and a "zesty" aroma. He awarded Sorel five stars.
Sorel, which Summers describes as an "alcoholic potpourri," is made from Moroccan hibiscus, Brazilian clove, Indonesian cassia and nutmeg, Nigerian ginger, pure cane sugar and organic New York grain alcohol. Traditionally made in the Caribbean and Latin America, Summers created the blend in his kitchen for years before deciding to turn it into a business.
"Every time someone likes it, it's like I've got a wider circle of friends and family. It's a little bit of me in all the bars and restaurants," Summers said. "When we are distilling, people come from blocks around because they can smell all these wonderful herbs and spices."
Summers, who worked as a model and in magazine publishing before launching Jack from Brooklyn, worked through the summer to build buzz for Sorel. But just as he was beginning to gear up for the holiday season, Sandy struck.
"We had all the momentum built up right before the storm, and then we were completely derailed," Summers said. "We literally took in 4 feet of water."
The damage was staggering: thousands of cardboard boxes and bottle labels, a $25,000 forklift, a refrigerator, oak casks, and drywall were just some of the items instantly rendered useless by the saltwater flood. The losses easily reach into "the six figures," Summers said, including "at least $80,000 in lost revenue."
"Because we're a new company, we didn't have that much money," he described. "I'm utterly dependent on the kindness of others. I'm up to my nose in bills."
Summers launched a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe, and he did what he could to supply his distributors, even driving to Boston to retrieve 10 cases — two each for his best distributors in New York City. But even as the distillery remained incapacitated, national magazines were naming Sorel one of the top drinks to buy for the holidays, driving demand skyward.
"It got to the point where I was fielding calls from people looking for 10 cases, 15 cases, retailers all over the country," said Alec Yankus, 38, the spirit buyer for Brooklyn Wine Exchange.
"The only thing I got demand for on the same scale was Pappy van Winkle, and that's because it's the hardest bourbon to find in the country. I was still fielding more calls in December for Sorel than for Pappy van Winkle."
Among those calling was Harry Belafonte, the man known for popularizing Caribbean calypso music in the U.S., who specifically requested a case for his birthday.
"We thought we had enough to last us through the holiday season," Summers recounted. "Brooklyn Wine Exchange typically sells a case a week. It sold 11 in one week."
Through the holidays and in the weeks that followed, Summers rebuilt his business. With a handful of helpers from Red Hook Volunteers, he cleaned 10,000 bottles that had been dirtied by the storm waters, using an autoclave sterilizer provided by Red Hook Lobster Pound. And as contractors tore out drywall and replaced the distillery's bathroom, Summers sat with his iPad and iPhone, updating Jack from Brooklyn's website and making business calls.
"There have been plenty of days when I didn't want to get out of bed, stay under the covers...drink and snuggle my cat. But I saw no one else is giving in," he said.
"You go onto Pier 41 and you see the Statue of Liberty and you see that millions of people passed that statue with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and they made lives and made their futures. How can I do any less? As an American who is pursuing that dream, it's my patriotic duty to succeed."
With production under way, Jack from Brooklyn can turn out 1,000 liters — or 1,234 bottles — of Sorel a week. His workdays, however, will hardly grow shorter or easier: he's updating the website and sending emails in the morning, working the distillery floor in the afternoon, and attending tasting promotions across New York City almost every evening.
Summers, however, is energized by the challenge.
"At the end of the day, you've got this story: You've got this teeny little guy with all this product, and 'Boom!', he's knocked off track. Can he come back? That's an American story."