Princeton’s Barrel Society is more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and then some.
Any day at the saloon, visitors can watch classic comedy or horror films (sound off) on the widescreen TV as vinyl (mostly metal and punk) blares from the turntable. Meantime, the walls rivet your attention via a visual whirl of paintings and screen-prints (floating kegs, meandering skulls and other colorful psychedelia), suggesting an otherworldly feel. And if you’re hungry, there’s a good chance a catered food event or Chicago food truck might be serving up delicacies that day.
Oh yeah – you can also get something to drink.
The beverage offerings include 350 whiskies, 110 craft beers and about 20 specialty cocktails. If that’s not enough, the staff is whipping up new cocktail recipes all the time.
“What we do is different than 99.9 percent of businesses within a 50-mile radius,” said owner Nick Gorogianis, 37. “It’s just fun. I don’t want people to sit here and be on their phones. It’s about music and movies and atmosphere as much as the booze.”
The sensorial swirl percolates amid the generations-old but oft-lively storefronts of Princeton, the 7,800-resident seat of ag-centric Bureau County. Amid a commercial district popping with boutiques and shops, Barrel Society flashes an inviting smile that carries both small-town friendliness and big-city polish.
“We get people from Chicago. We get people from all over,” Gorogianis said. “We hear from people that there’s nothing elsewhere like this atmosphere.”
Like many of his customers, Gorogianis comes from out of town. He grew up in the DuPage County village of Bloomingdale before heading downstate to attend Monmouth College. Friends there took him to their hometown of Princeton, and he fell in love.
“It has genuine people,” he said. “And the town is beautiful.”
After graduating college in 2007, Gorogianis worked in public relations and construction. But he kept finding himself thinking of Princeton. In 2018, he made his move.
On Main Street, he bought a brick building – ruggedly weathered, with plenty of height and space – constructed in 1896 as a pencil factory. It later spent seven decades as a men’s clothing store before becoming a woman’s boutique. Gorogianis had another vision.
“I had to do a ton of remodeling and renovation,” he said.
The intense labor included adding an entire bar and back bar, plus redoing the ductwork and plumbing. Later, he added the high-end Bottle Shop liquor store in a rear room, along with a patio out back.
As he stocked the joint with hard-to-find beers and top-notch whiskeys, he came up with the name Barrel Society, which carries a distinct meaning.
“I wanted a way to incorporate beer and whiskey,” he said. “And I wanted to touch on the importance of family and community.”
In the middle of farm country, the place gleams with urban sophistication. But there is a homespun amiability, thanks to a friendly and helpful staff headed by barkeeps Jesse Deskeere and Dale Hale. Also in the convivial mix are Gorogianis and girlfriend Gwendolen Baxter, who live above the pub.
During business hours, Gorogianis repeatedly rushes to drop a needle on metal and punk records – and just records. That’s not because Gorogianis is a music purist, just a pragmatist.
“We play only vinyl because I have a 5,000-record collection and I want to use them,” he said, grinning.
He also is responsible for the ubiquitous artwork. A doodler as a kid, he has become a collector. But he did help create the logo of the place: a shimmering handprint inside a triangle. As for its meaning, Gorogianis smiled sheepishly.
“It’s supposed to be kind of creepy and a little spooky,” he said. “We might watch some spooky movies and listen to some metal music, but we’re the nicest people on Earth.”
The grinning, gregarious Gorogianis draws a steady and growing stream of visitors into the bar – and elsewhere in Princeton. Mayor Joel Quiram lauds Gorogianis as a whiz with social media, where his good nature and bold humor have been evident in photos and videos spotlighting him in lederhosen, suspenders and fanciful garb.
“Nick is an outstanding marketer of his business,” Quiram said. “He not only markets his business, but other businesses too, like Blue Jay Way Records … and Myrtle’s Pies across the street. He brings a lot of people to town. He means a lot to Princeton.
“It’s really such a fabulous success story, and in such a short time.”
Gorogianis looks forward to continued success in his adopted hometown. For now, his main goal involves simply conducting another day of camaraderie at Barrel Society.
“I love it,” he said.
Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine
and content contributor to public television station WTVP.