Over the past two decades, craft cocktails have become ubiquitous in and around Chicago, with bars serving well-made classics and creative concoctions featuring a litany of interesting spirits, esoteric ingredients and DIY modifiers. You expect to receive such drinks in cocktail joints and your better restaurants, but no one expects a gin-laced mini Rice Krispies box to hit the bartop, especially when you’re drinking at an English-style inn that dates back nearly a century.
The Deer Path Inn opened on Chicago’s North Shore in 1929 and sits on the National Register of Historic Places. The 57 guest rooms and suites are joined by a trio of F&B concepts, including the fine-dining English Room restaurant, the casual White Hart Pub and The Bar. The latter is the innocuously named spot serving fancy cocktails alongside traditional foods like fish and chips and chicken pot pie, plus nigiri and sashimi — that’s a twist you probably didn’t see coming.
The creative mind behind the drinks is Jorge Centeno, a veteran bartender who’s been with Deer Path Inn since late 2015. His goal is to blend the bar’s old-world sensibilities with fun and unexpected elements — hence the menu, which supplements classic cocktails with off-the-wall recipes. But he says each drink is made with intention, not simply for a “wow” factor meant to elicit social media shares.
“Great taste comes first — that’s key to any successful cocktail,” Centeno tells InsideHook. “Then we pair it with whimsy and wonder. Guests are surprised and delighted by the cocktails that are conjured up behind our bar, and the memory stays with them long after they’ve reached the bottom of the glass.”
Modern bartenders are armed with arsenals of spirits, liqueurs, juices, herbs and other ingredients at their disposal. But options don’t beget quality — too often, ambitious barkeeps muddy a drink with too many components. At Deer Path Inn, everything has a purpose, from the base liquor to the serving vessel, and Centeno finds inspiration everywhere he goes, whether that’s to the grocery store or to his garden.
“The way something’s packaged could spark an idea, or the inclusion of an unexpected ingredient could generate a new direction for a seasonal cocktail,” says Centeno. “A lot of my ideas are tied to holidays or special occasions, and I let my imagination run wild.”
The Krispy Kocktail, a combination of rice-infused Japanese gin, creme de menthe, almond milk and almond orgeat, was inspired by a walk through the hotel kitchen. “The colorful room service cereal boxes stopped me in my tracks and transported me back to moments in my childhood,” he says. “I wanted to create that sense of nostalgia for others.”
At first, his attempts involved trying to create a cereal-based cocktail in a glass, but through trial and error, he realized that the box itself was the distinguishing factor, so he made a dessert-like drink and served it in a Rice Krispies box.
The Lumiere is a combination of German gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice, chamomile and Suze. Sure, this would taste great in a Collins glass, but Centeno decided it should be presented in a lightbulb and served with a metal straw. Once you see the show-stopping drink, it’s hard to argue with him.
Then there’s the Sushi Martini, which still feels relevant even after a few decades of overly-done ‘tini menus. It features sake, Japanese vodka, fresh pineapple, Thai basil, honey syrup and tangerine juice, and it’s garnished with a piece of watermelon that’s wrapped in seaweed and dotted with sesame seeds.
Some of the bar’s most creative drinks are on the menu, while others are one-offs that made seasonal appearances. But Centeno says that, unless a key ingredient is out of season or otherwise unavailable, the bar staff can make just about anything you request, even if it’s something you saw on Instagram months ago.
Aside from serving its customers drinks, Deer Path Inn also hosts hands-on workshops. That includes the Ginstitute, in which participants get to learn about and taste gins from around the world and then design their own gin-based cocktails. Centeno says that element of exploration helps guests to channel their imaginations, learn about their own palates and develop an appreciation for spirits and cocktails. Those are all helpful life skills to have in one’s back pocket, especially when you’re presented with a cocktail served in a cereal box or a lightbulb.
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