Cocktails come of age at Epcot Food and Wine Festival

Previous coverage: A taste of paradise comes to Epcot Food and Wine Festival
Related: Artists shine amid copious crowds at Disney World’s birthday party

2011 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival: Through Nov. 13 at Disney World, Buena Vista, Fla. Access to the festival marketplace is free with theme park admission; food, seminars, and special events are priced individually. [Official site]

Review by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward

“Please overindulge!” This very succinct advice came from the artist and Tiki/cocktail enthusiast Shag when he signed an event poster for me at the 2010 Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale. Words to live by, to be sure, but not until this year’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival was I able to experience that mantra on such a grand and eclectic scale.

The new Hawaii booth. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The new Hawaii booth. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

For 16 years, the six-week festival has served up tastes from six continents at dozens of themed booths offering tapas-sized portions of delicious regional specialties paired with an impressive selection of wines and beers. Now, finally, cocktails have truly joined the party as the art of mixology gets its due respect. The result: An opportunity to eat and drink your way around the world with a Mai Tai and Singapore Sling to compliment an amazing array of foods.

So overindulge, we did, on the opening weekend of the 2011 festival. After attending the maddeningly crowded Walt Disney World 40th anniversary party on Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Magic Kingdom, my wife and I were looking forward to a leisurely food-and-drink adventure Sunday at Epcot. We were not disappointed. And in honor of Shag, whose commemorative merchandise I picked up the day before, we were on a mission to overindulge (albeit in small portions).

An added bonus: Hawaii and the Caribbean Islands were among the new booths, so authentic tropical cuisine was guaranteed along with the rum cocktails. If you’re a lover of all things retro, you’ll enjoy this year’s theme. “Passport to a World of Flavors” is a homage to travel in the pre-World War I era, with artwork and merchandise sporting vintage luggage tags with a culinary flair and transportation motif.

Crowds were constant but not too dense during the opening weekend of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Crowds were constant but not too dense during the opening weekend of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Indulging around the world

Epcot’s World Showcase – a 1.2-mile promenade around a 40-acre lagoon – is lined with 30 booths selling appetizer-sized portions ranging from $3 to $7 along with a bevy of alcoholic beverages. According to the Yesterland.com site, the festival marketplace (as Disney calls the food and beverage booths) includes 181 items: 54 food items, 17 desserts, 40 wines, 39 beers, 20 cocktails, 5 sparkling wines, and 6 other alcoholic beverages (such as fruit wines and rice wines). If you bought one of everything, it would cost $861.90.

One of everything would be just a bit much for one one-day visit, but we gave it our best effort. In just over 8 hours, we sampled treats from 16 of the 30 kiosks, including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Caribbean Islands, China, France, Germany, Greece, Hawaii, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Scandinavia, Singapore and South Africa. We spent a little more than $100 on 23 purchases: 10 entrées/appetizers, seven alcoholic drinks and three desserts, plus multiple bottles of water. (My wife and I purchased the same desserts but different drinks and other foods.) That’s roughly one-ninth of the entire menu, so consider the following reviews just a sample of what’s available.

For those who may balk at the price tag, consider that we enjoyed the equivalent of three gourmet meals for two (including drinks) over the course of a full day. Not a bad deal when you consider that nearly every menu item was above and beyond our expectations.

The Atomic Grog’s ratings

The Singapore Sling. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Singapore Sling. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

ALCOHOLIC DRINKS

>>> Top picks

* Singapore Sling (Singapore) – $7.25
* Frozen Rock Coconut Mojito (Caribbean Islands) – $7.50
* Parisien Cosmo Slush (Ciroc Vodka, Grand Marnier, Cranberry Juice) (France) – $8.50
* Leffe Pale Ale (Belgium) – $3.25 for 6 ounces

>>> Worth checking out

* Seven Tiki Mai Tai (Hawaii) – $7.25
* Xante Sunshine cocktail made from Xante pear and cognac liquor (Scandinavia) – $7.25
* Altenmünster Octoberfest (Brewer’s Collection) – $3.25 for 6 ounces

While some of the cocktails were a disappointment, the Singapore Sling was a pleasant surprise. It tasted exactly like a classic Sling (gin, grenadine, cherry brandy, etc.) and was very potent. You had to sip it, so it lasted a long time and resulted in a decent value. Had they been made individually and hand-shaken, the ice would probably have diluted properly and resulted in an even better drink. But that’s a small quibble. Click here to see my favorite recipe for a classic Singapore Sling.

Hurricane Hayward samples the Xante Sunshine cocktail in Scandinavia. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

Hurricane Hayward samples the Xante Sunshine cocktail in Scandinavia. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

Because the drinks (like the food) had to be made in batches and wheeled out to the kiosks, the frozen cocktails tended to be more balanced and – due to the slushy factor – more refreshing in the mid-day heat. The mojito had a perfect blend of mint and coconut flavors plus the right amount of rum. It came in a heaping serving that I had to wrestle away from my wife. Her favorite, though, was the Cosmo Slush. This full-size drink is probably the best bang for your buck and features high-quality ingredients. But don’t let the sweet and fruity flavor fool you, its potency can be deceiving.

The other non-frozen cocktails I sampled (Mai Tai and Xante Sunshine) suffered the opposite problem of the Singapore Sling: They were too sweet and lacked punch. Though they were decent enough under the circumstances, they sure could have been improved if they could have been made by hand, even if it was just a quick shake with ice. The non-traditional Mai Tai, which featured sweet juices and Seven Tiki spiced rum, could have used a little dark Jamaican rum to give it more kick. The Xante had a great exotic flavor and definitely piqued my interest. Perhaps the Xante on the rocks would have been a better choice. I’m also sorry I missed the Xante mixology seminar featuring craft cocktail guru Eric Hay, who came up with some great recipes. Check out reviews and photos from The Disney Food Blog and AllEars.net.

Most beers come in 6-, 12- and 22-ounce sizes. If you’re on a mission to sample many foods and beverages, the small version is a good value. There were many beer booths to choose from, but Belgium brews are typically near the top of the list for most beer fans so this was a must-do. The Leffe was a bit light compared to other Belgium ales but it was very flavorful and perfect for a hot afternoon. The Altenmünster Octoberfest was not quite as good but also a fine brew. A totally different type of beer but perfect if you prefer the German style.

APPETIZERS AND ENTRÉES

Jerk spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa, along with the Frozen Rock Coconut Mojito from the Caribbean Islands. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Jerk spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa, along with the Frozen Rock Coconut Mojito from the Caribbean Islands. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

>>> Top picks

* Jerk spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa (Caribbean Islands) – $3.25
* Beef Empanada (Argentina) – $3.75
* Lobster and Scallop Fisherman’s Pie (Ireland) – $5.75
* Bunny Chow (Vegetable Curry served in a Bread Loaf) (South Africa) – $3.25

The chicken drumstick was my favorite entrée. It seems like a simple dish, but the spices were superb and the thick meaty chicken was cooked perfectly. The empanada was my wife’s favorite dish. It had it all: portion size, fresh and flaky pastry, and a savory beef filling. We both loved the lobster and scallop Fisherman’s Pie, a perennial favorite at the festival. The flavorful mixture of mashed potatoes and seafood was comfort food at its best. My wife loved the Bunny Chow, the oddly named South African vegetable dish served in a bread cup. The veggies were spicy and rich, thanks to the accompanying curry sauce. Highly recommended for vegetarians.

>>> Worth checking out

* Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise (Hawaii) – $3
* Canadian Cheddar Cheese Soup (Canada) – $3.75
* Seared Filet of Beef with Smashed Sweet Potatoes and Braai Sauce (South Africa) – $5
* Shrimp Tacos (Mexico) – $3.75
* Rib Eye Tacos (Mexico) – $5.50

Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise, along with the Seven Tiki Mai Tai from Hawaii. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise, along with the Seven Tiki Mai Tai from Hawaii. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The slider was very tasty and unique, with the sweet and sour chutney balanced by the spicy mayo. I just wish it was bigger. But the $3 price tag was about right. The soup was delicious, but there wasn’t enough of it. Bits of bacon added to the complex flavor but the small cup was just half-full. The filet was one of many dishes cooked perfectly, no easy task. Kudos to the chefs and prep people. Served in soft flour tortillas, the shrimp and rib eye tacos were too small a portion. They both had nice flavor, particularly the shrimp with chipotle lime sauce. Of the two, the shrimp was a slightly better value.

>>> Don’t bother

* Greek Salad with Pita Bread (Greece) – $3

The only true dud of the entire day, this salad consisted of a tiny bit of greens with a pinch of crumbled feta under a small, flavorless pita triangle. My wife reports that the salad did have a nice taste, but it was gone in a bite or two. Not a good value.

DESSERTS

>>> Top picks

* Caramel-Ginger Ice Cream (China) – $3.25
* Cannolo Al Cioccolato (Chocolate Covered Cannoli Shell Filled with Sweet Ricotta Cheese, Chocolate, and Candied Fruit) (Italy) – $3.50

My wife and I were unanimous in our dessert reviews. China was our last stop, almost as an afterthought, but we’re glad we did. The ice cream came in huge portions and was loaded with pieces of real ginger. It managed to be both sweet and spicy and was a great value at $3.25. Earlier in the day, we had high expectations and were not disappointed in Italy. The cannoli was decadence at its best, with a rich ricotta spilling out of crunchy pastry shell covered with sweet chocolate. Even though it was small, it satisfied our sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) nicely.

>>> Worth checking out

* Apfel Strudel featuring Werther’s Original Karamell Sauce and Vanilla Sauce (Germany) – $3.25

The portion was small and pastry somewhat disappointing, but the apples were sweet and tart. Not the best dessert but not bad for the price and totally authentic.

The new Caribbean Islands booth. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The new Caribbean Islands booth. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

BEST PAIRING

* Jerk spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa along with the Frozen Rock Coconut Mojito at the Caribbean Islands booth. Though we didn’t have time to do many pairings, this one stood out as a perfect combination of flavors and spices. The sweet and cool mojito was the perfect accompaniment to the spicy heat of the chicken and salsa.

BEST VALUES

* Bunny Chow (South Africa) – $3.25
* Caramel-Ginger Ice Cream (China) – $3.25
* Cannolo Al Cioccolato (Italy) – $3.50
* Beef Empanada (Argentina) – $3.75
* Lobster and Scallop Fisherman’s Pie (Ireland) – $5.75

Overall impressions

The cocktails offered a few pleasant surprises, the beers were top-notch and the food was bursting with flavor. I’m just sorry we couldn’t squeeze in a few of the many dozen wines being poured throughout the marketplace.

Helpful hints

* The best advice is to plan ahead. Check the menus online and narrow down your hit list so you don’t waste time standing and staring at kiosk menus. Also try to form a strategy on how to approach the festival marketplace so you aren’t spending hours walking to far-flung booths. Take advantage of the ferries that run from World Showcase Plaza, near the main entrance to the food kiosks, to several spots along the lagoon (Morocco and Germany).

The wine shop at the Festival Welcome Center. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

The wine shop at the Festival Welcome Center. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

* Before hitting the marketplace, check out the Festival Welcome Center and pick up a guidemap and “passport,” which you can have stamped at all the booths that you patronize. It also serves as a handy guide to all the menus and helps you keep track of what you’ve eaten. The Welcome Center is also home to beverage and merchandise areas, plus cooking, wine and mixology seminars. Beware that many of the events sell out well in advance so make reservations as soon as possible.

* If you don’t feel like whipping out cash or a credit card with every purchase, you can buy a mini gift card to use along your journey. It comes with a bracelet that you can attach to your wrist. Just be careful, the cards have been known to fall off.

* If you’d like to dine in one of the many table-service restaurants spread throughout Epcot’s 11 different countries, you may need to make reservations (up to 180 days in advance), even for lunch. Check online or call (407) WDW-DINE (939-3463).

* While the Festival Welcome Center and Epcot’s Future World open at 9 a.m., World Showcase and the food/beverage booths don’t open until 11. Take advantage of the early hours to explore before gorging on food. And be sure to take breaks between meals to see the many park attractions and 11 World Showcase pavilions. If you’re staying in a Disney World resort, check to see if Epcot is offering Extra Magic Hours. On these special mornings or nights, guests can stay in the parks and enjoy most of the attractions, food and drinks for one hour before opening or three hours after the normal closing time (typically 9 or 9:30 p.m. for Epcot).

* Disney has a special wireless site – epcotfw11.com – for this year’s festival, offering menus, concert schedules and the ability to bookmark your favorite foods and share comments via social networks. Just don’t depend on a wi-fi hotspot since they’re hard to find in Disney World, especially in the parks.

Beyond the booths

If you have the time, there’s much more to the festival than the food and drinks. The Festival Center includes an extensive schedule of free and paid events in what used to be the Wonders of Life pavilion. The 2011 festival is introducing new events sponsored by HGTV, with celebrity designers offering free seminars.

A view of the World Showcase Lagoon and the iconic Spaceship Earth from the Japan pavilion. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

A view of the World Showcase Lagoon and the iconic Spaceship Earth from the Japan pavilion. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Also new for 2011 are mixology seminars, strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in cocktails. They join a wide selection of culinary demonstrations and beverage tastings. These require reservations but are reasonably priced. The center can be found in Future World East and is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

If you have extra bucks, there are premium events such as special dinners where you can meet winemakers, see guest chefs and hear celebrity speakers. These include food and wine pairing meals, tequila tastings and lunches, signature dining events, and more. Call (407) WDW-FEST (939-3378) for information and to make reservations.

More than 270 chefs are attending the festival, including Jamie Deen, Rock Harper, Jeff Henderson, Cat Cora, Alan Wong, Gale Gand, Suvir Saran, Celina Tio, Robert Irvine, Andrew Zimmern, Buddy Valastro, Warren Brown, Art Smith, Bryan Voltaggio, Chris Cosentino, and Keegan Gerhard.

Free concerts are held nightly at the outdoor America Gardens Theater in the center of World Showcase. Upcoming artists include Howard Jones, Gin Blossoms, Sister Hazel, Night Ranger, Richard Marx, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

Park admission may not be cheap, but the entertainment options are limitless and festival booth prices are fair considering the quality of the food and beverages. You’ll experience the most dizzying variety of bold and creative flavors you’re likely to find in any one location. If you’re a Disney World annual or season passholder, come back as often as you’d like. No doubt an invitation to overindulge.

Official sites
International Food and Wine Festival | Facebook page | Epcot | Walt Disney World

Unofficial guides
Disney Food Blog | WDWInfo.com | WDWMagic.com | JanNorris.com

More reviews
Yesterland.com | InsideTheMagic.net | AllEars.net | Walt Disney World For Grown Ups
Party Through the Parks | Yelp

Related sites
Facebook fan page | Orlando Sentinel photo gallery

**************************

BONUS RECIPE
Singapore Sling

(Adapted from The Essential Bartender’s Guide by Robert Hess, 2008)

Singapore Sling by The Atomic Grog (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

Singapore Sling by The Atomic Grog (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, October 2011)

* 1 1/2 ounces dry gin
* 1/2 ounce Cherry Heering
* 1/4 ounce Cointreau
* 1/4 ounce Benedictine
* 4 ounces pineapple juice
* 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
* 1/3 ounce grenadine
* 1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well and strain into a collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with mint and cherry.

This is the official recipe used at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, where the drink was invented in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon. It’s not the original, which is believed lost, but it’s my favorite among many that have been published over the years.

The Singapore Sling is considered the prototypical tropical drink and a precursor to the Tiki explosion that would later follow.

A waitress serves authentic Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel in November 2008. (Photos by Al and Barbara Hayward)

A waitress serves authentic Singapore Slings at the Raffles Hotel in November 2008. (Photos by Al and Barbara Hayward)

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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