The Best Cocktail at Chicago’s Duck Inn

The Garden’s Secret is an unexpected blend of unusual tea and flavorful liquors. It also happens to be beautiful.

The Best Cocktail at Chicago’s Duck Inn
Left: James and the Giant Negroni. Right: The Garden's Secret.

The Duck Inn is a fairly new yet celebrated spot on Chicago’s Near South Side. The restaurant features a menu with a heavy local focus, and the backyard patio is an unexpected delight. They also have some of the friendliest and most talented bartenders in the city, including a woman named Monika and the award-winning head bartender, Brandon (who doesn’t play into this story at all but still deserves a mention). On our budget, The Duck Inn is best reserved for special occasions, but we try to spend our money locally, and so end up there perhaps more often than we should.

The first time I ordered The Garden’s Secret, my husband and I were sitting indoors at the bar, celebrating something or other, and I wanted something new. Our bartender warned me it was a little on the bitter side, and I said I was fine with that. As he prepared the drink, he told me a little about it. It’s based on a tea called Söderblandning, which is (from what I’ve read) really popular in Sweden and basically unheard-of Stateside. This cocktail was developed by bartender Monika, who tracked down a source for the Söderblandning and set about creating a drink that reminded her of her grandmother (so the bartender told us).

I was already well under the influence on that evening, but I found the bitter drink, adorned with a tiny flower, absolutely delightful. It’s served in a small glass, which works in its favor. It all but forces slow, thoughtful contemplation as the light plays beautifully through the slippery plum-colored concoction.

And unfortunately, that’s all I remember from the first time I had The Garden’s Secret.

My husband and I found ourselves on The Duck Inn’s patio one recent Sunday evening, celebrating my successful completion of a motorcycle safety and licensing course. (This was a really big deal. I’d been putting it off for a long time.) The Duck Inn rotates its menu frequently, so it’s best not to get too attached to a certain item, but I was pleased to see that The Garden’s Secret was still offered. This time, I paid more attention to this unique drink.

Other ingredients in The Garden’s Secret, besides the Söderblandning, include rum, dry vermouth, amaro, and lingonberry. It’s bitter, yes (this can’t be said enough) but it’s also quite floral. Most of the floral essence clearly comes from the tea, but the lingonberry adds perkiness. (Lingonberry is a fruit that’s common in Sweden and tastes sort of like a cranberry. Next time you’re at IKEA, check out the lingonberry juice in the cafeteria.) Out of professional curiosity, I tried to figure out, roughly, the ratios of rum to vermouth and amaro, but it was a mystery. Which, of course, is fine. I’m happy to head back to The Duck Inn and chat with its friendly staff if I want this lovely cocktail; I don’t need to figure out all their secrets.

If you find yourself in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, The Duck Inn is well worth a stop. Even if The Garden’s Secret isn’t your cup of tea, the menu features some of the most creative drinks (and food) in the city.

Though The Duck Inn went to considerable effort to track down the Söderblandning tea and develop The Garden’s Secret, you don’t need your own Swedish grandmother to get inspired. Tea makes a great mixer for cocktails, and you can even start with those stale teabags in your cabinet and whatever booze you have on hand. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about ways to experiment with tea-based cocktails at home to create your own special drink.

Cherise Threewitt
Cherise Threewitt
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Cherise Threewitt

Freelance writer and editor based in Chicago.

See all posts by Cherise Threewitt