One Mentor Changed it All for this Microdistiller
Jackie Summer on the importance of a good mentorJackie Summers
November 03, 2021
Our newest program, the Legacy Network, founded in partnership with Woodford Reserve, trains emerging leaders across the culinary industry and connects them with future generations of excellence. By developing and cultivating talent among these influential professionals and their peers, Legacy advances the equitable, culturally relevant leadership required to strengthen the industry. Each protégé, under the guidance of Legacy advisors, becomes part of a powerful network that centers the professional growth of talent from historically under-resourced communities.
Jackie Summers of Sorel Liquor is one of our first cohort of Legacy Network advisors. Below, Jackie discusses how his mentor’s guidance paved the way for a career in the beverage industry.
Several thousand years ago, Lao Tzu or Buddha (no one really knows who) said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The veracity of this axiom is as debatable as its origin, as no one could have been less prepared than myself the day I met author and former CMO of Seagrams, Arthur Shapiro: the man who would become my mentor. Something I can only describe as kismet directed a friend of a friend to introduce Shapiro to me. This meeting changed my life in ways I could not have predicted. In my decade in hospitality, no one person’s influence has impacted me as deeply.
It was the spring of 2012, two months after I’d first received my distilled spirits permit, and two months before I’d officially release Sorel Liqueur to the world. I was 18 months out of a 25-year stint in corporate life. I had the audacity to believe I could market a beverage no one outside of the Caribbean was familiar with, and the temerity to surmount the nigh-impossible task of launching a micro-distillery. Chutzpah I had in spades. What I did not have was one single clue.
I had zero experience in the liquor industry. I didn’t have a background as a food scientist. I knew no one, had no connections, and had never worked in a bar, restaurant, or distillery. Apparently, this was the kind of foolhardiness that, on some level, amused Shapiro.
The afternoon sunshine illuminated the open gates of 177 Dwight Street, the original home of Sorel Liqueur. Scents of hibiscus, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger wafted through the backstreets of Red Hook as Shapiro wandered in. Silver-haired, bespectacled, and unusually spry for a man in his early 60s, Shapiro displayed the kind of old-school charm of someone raised in the unforgiving streets of Brooklyn: amicable yet unwaveringly tough. We sat on wine barrels, him asking hard questions, me giving straightforward (if utterly naive) answers, the two of us sharing anecdotes over freshly brewed Sorel.
Not long after that, an essay about my fledgling company and grandiose ideas appeared in his well-read blog, Booze Business.
For reasons known only to him, Shapiro deemed me worthy of apprenticeship. He helped me understand the nuances of pricing, the nature of distributor relationships, the difference between marketing and sales, and the power of a good story. He took a personal interest in my well-being, becoming a valued friend and confidant.
From the first day we met, he began introducing me to his vast and weighty connections—and there remains no one in the industry who is too important to take a call from him. Within months of launching, I was meeting with titans of industry, whom he’d somehow convinced I was the heir apparent. Over the course of the past decade, Shapiro has become the first person I turn to when seeking advice, career or otherwise. He’s hilarious, unflinching in his integrity, and maybe most importantly, never tolerates a single moment of my (sometimes not insignificant) BS.
While I was never the best student, I was always a voracious learner, provided a teacher could circumnavigate my ego. As a result of Shapiro’s tutelage, every good decision and every narrowly avoided catastrophe in my brief time as a brand owner bears the stamp of his guidance. In time, as with all mentor/mentee relationships, the intrinsic value became less one-sided, evolving into a harmonious exchange of thoughts and ideas. All great mentors stay relevant by learning from their students.
Although semi-retired, Shapiro’s gravitas remains undiminished. A sublime storyteller, he’s published a book about his years at Seagram’s, Inside the Bottle: People Brands, and Stories. He has a consultancy with another industry legend, Rob Warren, appropriately named Wisdom & Booze. They serve as advisors to my company, Jack From Brooklyn Inc. And in an era where sales are driven by technology, Shapiro has made himself into the industry’s leading expert on direct-to-consumer sales.
In the age of COVID-19 and drinking at home, this insight has been crucial.
To speak in Brooklyn parlance, Shapiro is what is colloquially known as a “mensch.” The myriad times I’ve sought his counsel is rivaled only by the multitude of times he’s made a phone call, opened a door, or made an introduction on my behalf. His sanction has allowed me access to “the room where it happens” on more occasions than I can count and advanced my career incalculably.
More than all of that combined, he’s become one of my dearest friends.
I’ve learned more from Arthur Shapiro over pastrami sandwiches and potato knishes than any book or course could have taught me. What’s in it for him? Nothing. Shapiro is, in his words is “looking for grey matter.”
As a beneficiary of mentorship, it is incumbent on me to extend to others that which I was given. In an age where we are actively trying to right the wrongs of inherently unjust systems, I recognize my responsibility to level the playing field whenever possible, to put my thumb on the scale in favor of those with volition and ability, who have been otherwise hindered by marginalization. As someone who’s gone from an outsider to a gatekeeper, it’s both an honor and a privilege to dismantle the barriers to entry faced by members of underserved communities. It isn’t “a seat at the table” if you can’t pull out a chair and extend that seat to others. The James Beard Legacy Network creates an ideal platform for individuals like myself to give back, while learning from a new generation.
“It all comes down to recognizing talent,” Shapiro says. “You have to be able to look past the obvious, to peer beyond gender or race, and see drive, creativity, and potential. You have to see the inner being. Nothing else matters.”
Spoken like a true sage.
Jackie Summers is the founder of JackFromBrooklyn Inc., creator of Sorel Liqueur, a food/travel writer based in Brooklyn, and a public speaker on all things anti-oppression.
Learn more about the Legacy Network here.