Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Spirits Educator Jackie Summers on Addressing the Hospitality Industry’s Diversity Problem

And why having a seat at the table isn’t nearly enough.

Jackie Summers

Clay Williams

If you talk with Jackie Summers, you’re bound to learn something important. As a writer, lecturer and spirits educator with ties to organizations including Tales of the Cocktail, he has used his platform to deepen people’s understanding of the hospitality industry’s history and intricacies. This includes observations he has made since he launched his acclaimed herbal liqueur, Sorel, in 2011, at which time he was the only Black person in the U.S. with a spirits-distilling license. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and groundswell of Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, both of which highlighted the racial inequalities and systemic racism in the hospitality industry and elsewhere, brought the need for this perspective to a head. Here, he offers his insights about the path forward. 

What projects are you currently working on?

Sorel is currently going through a complete reboot, with a fantastic new management team, headed by Dave Perry of BevInvest. Also, the prime minister of Barbados has reached out and asked that Sorel be brought back to its ancestral home. We’re looking to build a distillery in Barbados so Sorel can be made with local ingredients by local hands, with Barbados becoming the distribution hub for the Caribbean. I have several other brands in various stages of development, and my first book is currently being shopped by my literary agent, Pande Literary

As an industry professional, how anxious are you to get to the other side of this pandemic?

We’d love to get back to restaurants and bars and conventions, but it’s not worth dying over. Dead people don’t buy things. 

How does the hospitality industry look for BIPOC today compared to pre-pandemic times?

As with all things societal, BIPOC suffer disproportionately. While losses have been staggering for all, they are even higher in communities of color and among marginalized people. We’ve had more illness, more death, greater economic hardship and slower recovery. It is tough out there right now; surviving is requiring all our resilience.

How has the pandemic affected progress, equality and opportunity for BIPOC?

The pandemic, in tandem with the international BLM movement, has brought conversations about racial equity to the forefront. Changes in policy, however, lag behind. 

Has the hospitality industry’s response to the BLM movement laid any groundwork toward greater opportunity for BIPOC?

In many ways, the pandemic and BLM movement are inextricably intertwined. Shelter-in-place orders made the death of George Floyd impossible to ignore. Many companies and individuals made a performative display of solidarity, then fell back into complacency. It’s less groundwork and more a trail of breadcrumbs at the moment. A path forward exists; our industry simply needs to step forward into it.

Where would the support for Du Nord Craft Spirits [a Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis whose building was set ablaze following the death of George Floyd] fit into this path?

I can’t presume to speak for [Du Nord owner] Chris Montana. I’m certain he was grateful for assistance received. It’s important, however, to see problems of racial discrimination as systemic. Montana is a pioneer doing important (and tasty) work and deserves all the support the community can give. Racism, however, is institutional and can only be resolved by demolishing the structures that hold it aloft.

Do you think the hospitality industry lacks the diligence needed to ensure a desire to do what’s right actually makes a difference and doesn’t merely check a box?

Yes. Corporations do not change because it’s “the right thing to do.” Corporations only change when it impacts them financially. Cultures can shift overnight. Industries, not so much. 

How does this look from your perspective?

I get called in by companies who are looking to explore diversity, equity and inclusion. While I don’t question motives, I’m aware that my visibility in the community is sufficient to add gravitas to what might otherwise be seen as performative motions, except I am not here to be anyone’s token. I refuse to allow my presence to be leveraged without actual change. In other words, I am what is referred to in police circles as “an unruly Negro.” I am not pacified by merely having a seat at the table. Unless you have the authority to invite others to have a seat as well, that is a table that needs to be overturned. I am beyond accepting apologies, platitudes or affectations. I am here to serve as a fulcrum that tips the balance in favor of the marginalized.

Do you think the hospitality industry will be slow to pursue post-pandemic changes that could positively impact BIPOC?

I think change moves at the speed of molasses in winter, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The primary function of systems is to ensure its own continuance; the surety of the status quo is not easily abandoned. The interesting part is that systems are maintained by people, and should they be so inclined, people could decide to dismantle systems designed to discriminate and replace them with inclusivity. Again, should they be so inclined.

How are you using your position as co-chair of Tales of the Cocktail’s Education Committee to further the change that’s needed in the industry?

I use my platform to elevate the voices of the unheard and [then] get out of their way. This is my third and final year as co-chair with the amazing Lynn House of Heaven Hill. We’re both ecstatic to welcome six new members; Holly Graham, Chelsea Gregoire, Andrew Ho, Chanta Hunter, Hannah Lanfear and Nana Sechere will be joining Laura Louise Green and Stephanie Simbo on the Beyond the Bar track. We’re more international, more diverse and less heteronormative than ever. We have shared values and disparate backgrounds, as well as a steely resolve to put a thumb on the scale for the disenfranchised. 

Do you see a greater interest in the hospitality industry learning more about the history of a particular spirit, brand, bar or cocktail in recent years? 

What I see is history being examined through critical eyes in a way that is necessary for continued growth. [Uncle Nearest CEO] Fawn Weaver spearheaded unravelling the narrative of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the enslaved African who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Conversations about colonization and the rum industry are being led by intrepid journalists. And Dave Wondrich has already definitively tied the birth of both cocktail and dive bar culture to Black bartenders. There’s a lot of unlearning and then relearning to do. 

How does this interest compare to the interest of the public?

If anything, the industry has to catch up to the public.

How do you further the conversation about the contributions of BIPOC to the world of spirits beyond the account of Nearest Green? 

It’s important to continually unveil the truths in our history that have been deliberately obscured. George Washington may have owned a distillery, but he himself was not the distiller; the Africans he enslaved ran his stills. This is a truth that is going to run just below the surface of everywhere we’re willing to dig. Both the distilling and cocktail culture in this country were built on stolen land with stolen labor and stolen skills. We can’t change the past, only acknowledge it and build a better future.

How can the importance of Nearest Green’s story be kept from waning as it becomes more widespread?

Waning is not something Weaver does. She and her beautiful whiskey will continue to flourish while she opens doors and uses her platform to create opportunities for others like herself. The sun does not allocate sunshine; there’s plenty of light for all of us. It’s my job to help make a brighter day for all who come after.