disney cocktail bars
Photo courtesy of Disney. Credit: Scott Watt.

Walt Disney World and its surrounding resorts serve alcoholic beverages. That’s not news, and plenty has been written on the topic. But most articles act as survival guides, issuing tips for making the most of a bad situation. Because you know the beers will be macro, the wines will be sweet, and those Disney cocktails, if you dare, will be frozen and saccharine. So it’s about making the most of a desperate situation, right?

Turns out, no.

Because whether it was in reaction to guests’ discontent or national hospitality trends that have embraced better drinking, Disney has made a serious effort over the past year to win over the cocktail set that’s interested in more than paper umbrellas and souvenir mugs. Since the fall of 2015, three bars with an emphasis on quality cocktails have opened on Disney property: Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar in Disney Springs, AbracadaBar at Disney’s BoardWalk Resort and Nomad Lounge at Animal Kingdom.

Now, you might’ve emitted an audible scoffing noise when seeing the words “Disney” and “quality cocktails” together in the same sentence. And I don’t blame you. I thought much of the same—but I was also curious.

Curious enough to seek out all three bars when I had the chance to visit Disney World at the end of February. Because Disney was making a play for the discerning drinker, I decided that I was going to judge them by the same standards I’d apply to the best bars in Boston, my hometown. I didn’t want to declare that something was “good for Disney”—I instead wanted to find mixed drinks I’d be happy to receive in Boston or any other respectable drinking city.

Nomad Lounge

Tempting Tigress Nomad Lounge

The Tempting Tigress at Nomad Lounge. Credit: Disney.

As the only one of those three bars located on actual park property, I had the most interest—and highest hopes—for Nomad Lounge. The bar is attached to higher-end restaurant Tiffins, and the pair opened together in May 2016.

The Nomad Lounge consists of an inside bar and an outdoor veranda filled with lounge-y chairs and sofas. There’s an explorer’s club vibe going on, and it overlooks an artificial river and a large wall concealing what will soon be a new, Avatar-themed portion of the park.

But as I take a seat on the veranda, I’m more struck by what I don’t see: strollers or children. Instead the veranda is filled with groups of twenty-something women huddled around sofas and empty glasses, and if it weren’t for the occasional mouse ears sighting, the scene wouldn’t look out of place in Austin, Atlanta, or any other place where people drink outside.

In keeping with the attached restaurant’s concept, the drinks menu at Nomad Lounge is inspired by flavors found in Africa, Asia and South America. A neatly-illustrated menu featuring watercolor images of the drinks included such respectable spirits as Batavia arrack and mezcal.

For my first drink, I selected the Tempting Tigress, which our waitress described as a good choice for fans of the Old-Fashioned. It’s made with Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram, tamarind syrup and lime juice, and comes served on ice in a rocks glass with a slice of lemon. And just like that, my first taste of Disney’s new approach to drinking is damn good.

The citrus makes the drink instantly refreshing, but doesn’t drown out the bourbon. The tamarind syrup is not overpowering or cloying like I feared, but supplies a deep, fruit flavor that lingers with allspice after the lime and bourbon run their course. In other words, it’s the ideal bourbon drink for the warm Florida climate.

Next up, I try the Night Monkey, a combination of Bacardi Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron, guava puree, coffee simple syrup and “a hint of cilantro,” served up in a martini glass. The puree is fresh and surprisingly thick, and the coffee syrup and cilantro make for a respectably complex flavor, complete with a slightly savory ending.

My last drink is the Spice Trader, which popped out at me for its use of Hayman’s Old Tom Gin and Dolin Vermouth Blanc. Its other components were lemon juice, strawberries and soda water. While the sight of Dolin at Disney is promising, my expectations sink when the waitress tells me it is “sort of like a pink lemonade.” Pink lemonade or not, it has a lovely presentation on ice in a rocks glass with a lemon twist and some sort of leaf. Ultimately, the drink exceeds my lowered expectations. The citrus and strawberries neuter the gin, but the overall flavor doesn’t prove syrupy or cloying. It’s not the sort of drink I’d typically order for myself, but if I saw it being passed around on a tray I’d happily extend my hand for one.

With prices ranging from $9.50 to $12.75, and considering the quality spirits employed, Disney’s drinks were beginning to feel like a bargain—especially in comparison to what you’ll find in cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco.

Abracadabar

abracadabar coney negroni

The Coney Negroni at AbracadaBar. Credit: Disney.

AbracadaBar opened in July 2016 at Disney’s BoardWalk resort, which Disney has been trying to make into a nightlife hub.

As the name suggests, there’s a magic theme going on. But it’s also meant to fit in with the resort’s heavy Boardwalk Empire vibes. The end result is a surprisingly small space with art deco tile floors, glass cases filled with Houdini-era magic artifacts and posters of fictitious illusionists and magic acts from the early 20th century.

So it’s not too much of a leap when our waitress tells us that the cocktails are “pre-Prohibition themed.” Indeed, many of the drinks are straight classics with new names—an Old-Fashioned made with Four Roses Small Batch is re-christened the Parlor Trick; a Manhattan with Hudson Rye becomes the Magic Hattan; and it goes on. Most interesting to me is the Coney Negroni, which is really a Boulevardier made with Wild Turkey 101 and Carpano Antica.

I place my order and wait expectantly. I’m pretty pumped to have discovered a Boulevardier at Disney. A glance at the bar raises my hopes further: the staff is stirring drinks within beautiful mixing glasses, and the back bar boasts solid selections from the likes of WhistlePig and Lagavulin.

My drink arrives, served up in a cocktail glass with a slice of orange. I take a sip and… think about how much a little more stirring could have improved it. It’s not bad, and it really couldn’t be: it’s made with great ingredients. But the technique that went into making it was not on the same level as those ingredients, or the fancy bar equipment. I still enjoy it, the same way I’d enjoy a serviceable but uninspiring Manhattan from a suburban steakhouse.

Sure, it beats a frozen margarita made with sweet-and-sour mix. But in a way, this imperfect Boulevardier is more frustrating. They were so close to getting it right, but fumbled just before the goal post.

In keeping with the vintage theme, AbracadaBar offers a traditional absinthe service, and it seems to be popular. All night I’ve been watching staff prepare absinthe the old-world French way: by pouring the spirit into a small glass, placing an absinthe spoon containing a single sugar cube across the rim of the glass, and pouring chilled water over the resting cube before mixing it all together with the spoon. They call this The Elixir, and make it with Lucid Absinthe. My Elixir suffers from the same shortcoming as the Coney Negroni: it’s just not chilled enough, which is a greater problem in a short cocktail that’s mostly water.

Despite the disappointments, there’s a lot to like about AbracadaBar. The Houdini-era theme is wonderful, and the crowd—which is mostly drinking absinthe, not Bud Light—seems to be having a great time. This place is trying to serve classic cocktails on Disney property, and I respect that. Plus, at $12, the price of each drink is reasonable.

But I don’t want to praise these new cocktail haunts for being “good for Disney,” and that’s just what AbracadaBar is. However, it shouldn’t require any magic to help it reach its potential: just an extra pinch of more meticulous bartending.

Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar

jock lindsey's hangar bar

The swashbuckling interior of Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar. Credit: Disney.

My last stop on this trek is also the longest-operating, having opened in September 2015. Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar can be found at Disney Springs, a new retail and dining area Disney erected over the razed remnants of Downtown Disney (good riddance).

Jock Lindsey is Indiana Jones’s pilot, which is something I too had completely forgotten. The bar, which is supposed to resemble a 1930s airplane hangar, is filled to the rafters with faux-Indiana Jones props. Giant maps of the world, antique diving suits, mysterious idols—you get the picture. It’s a lot of fun, and an oil portrait of Lindsey himself is a nice touch.

Like Nomad Lounge, the menu has great production value. Each drink is connected to the Indy mythos somehow, with imagined origin stories and faded, vintage-looking images. What catches my eye immediately is one of two seasonal specials: the Smoking Bulleit. It’s made with Bulleit Rye, Monin Hickory Smoke Syrup, lime juice, bitters and egg white. It’s served on ice in a funky, slanted rocks glass and comes garnished with a lime wheel.

Now this… this is fantastic. The citrus makes it refreshing, the rye adds spice, egg whites contribute a frothy texture, and the syrup allows it all to finish on a strong, long-lasting note that is smoky and savory. And at $8.25, it feels like a downright steal.

The rest of the menu sounds hit or miss: takes on a Pisco Sour or a Singapore Sling made with Plymouth Gin sound promising, while choices like a “Reggie’s Revenge” made with orange vodka, Midori and white cranberry juice seem best avoided.

I ultimately choose the Scottish Professor, a mixture of Monkey Shoulder whisky, Hendrick’s Gin, pear nectar, simple syrup and lemon juice that references Sean Connery’s turn as Henry Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

This is disappointing. I looked forward to seeing what flavors the rare combination of gin and brown liquor could produce, but all of that is washed out by the citrus, syrup and pear nectar. Surely, a Nazi-fighting professor obsessed with finding the Holy Grail would prefer something a little less sweet. At least its $10.25 price tag was rather reasonable for something using Monkey Shoulder and Hendrick’s.

Bonus Bar: Geyser Point

During my trip, I stayed at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, which had opened a new outdoor bar and lounge called Geyser Point just a week before my check-in. As a small, non-destination bar tucked into one of the resorts, I didn’t include it in my overview. But it still deserves kudos.

In keeping with the resort’s theme, Geyser Point stocked spirits produced in the Pacific Northwest. This included a host of good stuff like Aviation Gin, WhipperSnapper Whiskey and even Westland Distillery Single Malt. Seeing such a craft spirit selection at a bar in a Disney hotel was a great surprise, and it’s a trend that I hope continues.

So if you didn’t know that there was a bar in Florida where you can drink Washington whiskey and watch a fake geyser blow its top, well, now you do.

So, Drinking at Disney…

After all that quaffing, the question remained: had Disney succeeded in establishing watering holes where cocktail enthusiasts could find drinks they would actually enjoy?

The answer is: mostly. I give the highest grade to Nomad Lounge, whose Tempting Tigress would make me happy if served at any of my regular spots in Boston. They earn further points for drinks like The Night Monkey, which managed to be refreshing and play with some interesting flavors I hadn’t previously explored in a cocktail.

I also have warm feelings for Jock Lindsey’s, which may inspire me to order hickory syrup to reproduce their Smoking Bulleit at home. And while I’d certainly return, the missed opportunity of the Scottish Professor makes me hesitant to call it a total success.

AbracadaBar proved to be the weakest link, but they still got the word “Negroni” to be printed on a menu at Disney. And that counts for a lot.

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