by Brian Clarey, Eric Ginsburg, Jordan Green, Anthony Harrison and Sayaka Matsuoka

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I don’t drink anymore.

That is to say, I don’t drink alcohol anymore, though my experience in that realm is considerable.

I still spend time in bars, for both business and pleasure — mostly, I admit, pleasure, even though I no longer partake in the hard stuff.

But I’ve noticed in the last year or so that Triad bars, restaurants and coffee shops have been stepping up their soft-drink game, bringing more to the table than what’s available in the soda gun.

Unique coffees and sparkling drinks, fresh and custom ingredients, mocktails, ethnic delicacies and virgin brews proliferate in these parts, meaning, among other things, that I never have to quietly sip on a Diet Coke ever again.

It’s a trend whose time has come — certainly for me, and for anyone else trying to cool off under this oppressive summer sun but isn’t quite ready to start the party.

The list is by no means complete, but it’s a pretty solid survey of offerings in our cities. Feel free to let us know what we missed; we’re always looking for something to sip on.

— BC

Mocktails @ the Marshall Free House (GSO)

Corey McAdams presents a glass of Pineapple con Verdito, a sweet and refreshing drink with a powerful kick — one of three drinks on the Marshall Free House’s mocktail menu.

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The Pineapple con Verdito is the adventurous cousin in the trio of refreshing summer drinks on the Marshall Free House’s mocktail menu.

A green drink served in a chilled glass and topped with an aromatic mint leaf, the first impression of the Pineapple con Verdito is a heady commingling of pineapple, cilantro and basil, followed by a wave of heat from jalapeños. On a hot day, it’s almost enough to trigger perspiration and bug-eyed determination to soldier through the spicy onslaught. In that way, the jalapeño is a good substitute for liquor, and helps pace the drink for maximum appreciation.

And though he’s talking about the British-inspired pub’s ginger ale — made with an extract from raw ginger root and simple syrup — owner Marty Kotis’ remark might just as easily apply to the Pineapple con Verdito.

“If somebody is having a vodka and tonic, you’re pacing yourself with them, and you feel like you’re part of the party,” he says.

The standard version of the Pineapple con Verdito with tequila won the 2014 Bartenders Ball in Greensboro.

Like the other two drinks on the mocktail menu, it was developed by Myles Cunliffe, a consultant with the Mixology Group in the United Kingdom whom Kotis has kept on retainer for about three years. While the Pineapple con Verdito exults in heat, the Ginger Fizz, with lime juice, ginger syrup, mint, blackberries and club soda corners the market for fruitiness, and the Almond Smash brings a nutty flavor profile, with almond water and fig syrup intermixing with lemon juice and club soda.

All the herbs used in the cocktails at Marshall Free House are grown on Haw River Farms, an operation managed by his wife Asheley at their place in Summerfield. That’s an important principle for Marty Kotis, who prides his staff on their ability to customize drinks to his patrons’ individual specifications.

“When you’re making good drinks,” he says, “you’re using fresh juice, fresh herbs. It’s not just something you throw together.”

— JG

Rooibos citrus soda @ Hoots (W-S)

The rooibos citrus soda (right) and the flor de jamaica  soda make by Tim Nolan.

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Hoots is most known for its beer and Tim Nolan for his cocktails, but together the two Winston-Salem institutions are responsible for some killer virgin drinks.

Ever had a hops soda? Then you’ve probably been hanging around Nolan, who came up with the drink using Horizon hops as a way to teach people about beer. But there’s nothing alcoholic about this lemony beverage that could still scratch the itch for someone who is sober. Picture a gentle, light IPA taste steeped in lemon and more parts soda water than anything else.

Hoots orders 40 pounds of ginger root a week, which they mostly use to make some badass ginger ale or ginger beer cocktails. But those fresh ingredients can be put towards all sorts of other drinks. Nolan — who developed the gin recipe for Sutler’s Spirit next door in the West End Mill Works and who has worked behind his share of other bars, including Tate’s — plans to work up a written cocktail menu as well as a list of the house-made syrups to go in all sorts of drinks.

He makes a flor de jamaica soda that tastes somewhat like an unobtrusive black-cherry soda. The hibiscus drink comes with a wedge of lemon, but better yet is a rooibos citrus soda.

Rooibos is a South African tea, and Nolan makes the orange-colored drink with a maraschino cherry garnish, at least when a camera is present. Watching my friend Ruth and me trying the creation, Hoots co-owner Eric Swaim reaches over for a sip, too. Not that he hasn’t had it before — Swaim is quite familiar with it, and lets out an “Mmmmmm” before saying, “I love rooibos.”

— EG

Strawberry and mango lassi from Tandoor or Saffron (GSO)

Yum!

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While the mango lassi is standard in most Indian restaurants, including Golden India in Winston-Salem and India Palace in Greensboro, its strawberry counterpart created a place on the list for this Indian classic. The yogurt-based drinks come in both savory and sweet flavors and provide a refreshing break from the spiciness of the Indian meals. While the mango lassi seemed thicker and less sweet than the strawberry one, both could serve as desserts or quick snacks on the go. Tandoor India Restaurant and Saffron Indian Cuisine both serve the two varieties.

— SM

Raspberry lemonade @ Pane e Vino (W-S)

Raspberry  lemonade, light on the sweet.

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It is too hot to sit on the patio at Pane e Vino, in the Reynolda Village shopping center near Wake Forest University, but luckily the restaurant lets in a lot of natural light. The sandwich board outside no longer advertises the venue’s strawberry and raspberry lemonades, but both are still available.

The raspberry variety offers a fresh respite from the heat, with a subtle sweetness that feels more appropriate than an overly sugary alternative. The lemon component is easily detectable but hangs in the background, like the rhythm section keeping the beat, while the raspberry takes center stage.

— EG

Banana split mocha frappuccino @ Beansboro (GSO)

Just in time for the  Fourth of July, this festive banana split mocha is bound to delight both coffee drinkers and sweet tooths alike.

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One of the heavier drinks on the list, this caffeinated twist on America’s classic dessert is perfect for all ages. The sweet blended concoction that boasts a hint of bananas covered in chocolate with a dollop of whipped cream just screams red, white and blue. Just in time for the Fourth of July.

— SM

Blended juices @ Manny’s Universal Café (GSO)

Manny’s Universal Café in Greensboro produces freshly squeezed beet, celery, carrot or apple juice in any combination you’d like to taste. However, it’s not on the menu — you have to ask Margarita for a drink if you wish to enjoy your custom creation.

— AH

The Aisle of Soda @ Bestway (GSO)

Less notorious than the Wall of Beer is the Aisle of Soda.

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Bacon soda. Peanut-butter-and-jelly soda. Buffalo-wing soda. A flavor called “Martian Poop.”

Everybody knows about the Wall of Beer along the refrigerated side of Bestway in Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood. Lesser known is the soda aisle just a few yards away, with an entire side comprised of soft drinks, two-thirds of the territory devoted to sodas, half of that ceded to the slew of companies that have positioned themselves against the giants like Pepsi and Coke.

There’s old-school Boylan, Dr. Brown’s and IBC flavors next to new-fangled concoctions like dandelion and burdock or rose lemonade from Fentiman’s, 10 kinds of ginger ale and ginger beer and a platoon of root beers, birch beers, butterscotch beers and sarsaparilla.

Beermakers Saranac and Abita have root beers on the market. And a special Bavarian nutmeg edition of Virgil’s microbrewed root beer in a commemorative, resealable bottle runs about the same price as a pretty nice beer.

I brought the Virgil’s home in a brown paper bag, chilled it in the freezer for a bit and then shared it with my 12-year-old. The taste is unbelievable, with notes of wintergreen, vanilla, clove, sweet birch, molasses and, at the finish, licorice and anise.

After taking his first sip, the 12-year-old gave me a serious look.

“Where did you even get this?” he said.

— BC

Kava @ Common Grounds (GSO)

Kava is said to have mild intoxicating properties.

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Commons Grounds coffee shop prides itself as being the only business in Greensboro to offer pre-made kava tea. Kava allegedly possesses non-narcotic, sedative chemicals in the same vein as benzodiazepines — it’s basically the opposite of coffee. Common Grounds mixes its strained kava with hazelnut and vanilla syrups, as well as some almond milk, to soften the slight bitterness of the root tea, but you can get it straight-up if you’re used to the taste.

— AH

Wall of drinks @ Super G Mart (GSO)

You can get anything and everything from the drink aisle in Super G Mart, including Brian Clarey’s favorite aloe drink to milky beverages to fruit juices. And from the rainbow of drinks, we picked some of the most uncommon.

  • From left to right: Ramune, melon  soda, guyabano drink, sugar cane drink, lychee juice and calpico - all found at the Super GMart wall of drinks

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    Shirakiku’s Ramune
    A go-to summer drink for Japanese kids, Ramune is a sweet yet slightly bitter soft drink prevalent during the summer season and is a hit during festivals. The beverage is as emblematic of summer in Japan as hot dogs are here and the taste is only half the fun. To open the glass bottle, you have to take a “plunger” that comes with the drink and push down a glass ball that drops from the bottle’s spout, clogging the soda so you have to drink it skillfully and slowly.

  • Yeo’s Sugar Cane Drink
    Probably our least favorite of the bunch, my boyfriend claimed that it made him feel like he was “drinking syrup or something.” The Malaysian sugar-cane drink is very mild and tastes slightly of caramel. It’s basically sugary water.
  • Chiao Kuo’s Lychee Drink
    It’s Taiwanese and it tastes like lychee. Enough said.
  • Luzona’s Guyabano juice drink
    This one was a nice surprise. Based on the name and the picture, we didn’t know what to expect from this prickly fruit drink, but the Filipino guyabano juice is very light and fruity, making it an excellent summer drink. Some even say that it cures cancer.
  • Sangaria’s Melon Soda
    This one, like the lychee drink, is exactly what it sounds like. Also Japanese, it’s just an alternative to mainstream sodas.
  • Calpis’ Calpico
    “Oh I like it! I like this a lot,” was my boyfriend’s reaction after taking one sip of this Japanese classic. While it’s coloring may be off-putting to some, this milky “sports drink” tastes sort of like a non-carbonated milky Sprite. It is another summer favorite in Japan.
    — SM

Jamaica @ Villa del Mar (GSO)

Hibiscus tea flaunts honeysuckle flavors against a light, rosy background. Jamaica is a variant of hibiscus tea popular in Mexico and Central America, though it clearly originated in Jamaica. You can find it and other agua frescas at Villa del Mar in Greensboro.

— AH

Watermelon agua fresca @ LaRue (GSO)

A tall drink of  watermelon.

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All Eric Moss did was take an entire watermelon and drain it of its nectar, dilute it 2:1 with water and serve it over ice with Sprite and a garnish.

The color of a pale ruby, ice suspended like diamonds, the glass sweating ever so slightly: Just looking at it is enough to quench your thirst. And even though I have a slight allergy to watermelon, I drank it down without a quibble.

Through head bartender Moss, Greensboro’s downtown French bistro brings a craft-cocktail sensibility to its soft-drink selection, which changes at the discretion of the bartender and the ingredients on hand. A selection of shrub bases — sweetened, vinegar-based syrups and tinctures — provide the bedrock for the most sophisticated soft drinks in Greensboro, and as much care goes into their construction as for even the most exact Manhattan. Fruit, herbs, peppers — all are fair game for the shrub treatment, which goes with soda water and whatever else sounds good that day.

Unlike the watermelon agua fresca, which can be sucked down in a single, giant, delicious slurp through a straw if one isn’t careful, the intricacy of the shrub drinks demand careful sipping so as to savor the layers of flavor.

— BC

Limoncello tea @ Vida Pour Tea (GSO)

The name is deceiving — the drink doesn’t actually have any alcohol in it — but it’s damn good nonetheless. A fine summer drink that can be sweetened to the preference of the customer, this special blend of tea includes lemon peel, vanilla tea and lemongrass, giving it just enough citrus flavor to be perfect for the next couple of months.

— SM

Legendary Sunshine @ various locations (W-S)

Sunshine is the anti-hooch.

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Legendary Sunshine is a beverage defined more by what it’s not than what it is.

Built on a foundation of ginger flavor with notes of blackberry and light carbonation, boosted by Vitamin B-12 and electrolytes, the Winston-Salem-based energy drink is not quite as strong as the ginger ales produced by Seagrams, Canada Dry or the beloved Ale 8-1 of my native Kentucky.

With less caffeine — 50 milligrams — than a small cup of coffee, it’s flirting with soft-drink status.

That’s by design. Keith Vest and Joe Parrish, co-founders of the Variable advertising agency in Winston-Salem, created Legendary Sunshine after identifying an unserved market for people looking for something between an energy drink and a soda.

“We had been doing some work for Coca-Cola Co.,” Vest told me. “As we looked around the beverage category space, we recognized that the beverage we wanted in the world didn’t exist. We all grew up on sodas, which taste delicious, but are loaded with sugar and calories. We wanted to see if we could create a beverage that tasted as good as soda, but didn’t have the same amount of calories or sugar. At the same time people were getting scared of the extreme energy drinks. No one really wants an overdose of caffeine.”

The proprietors of Sunshine are taking a slow growth approach, and so far the drink is only available in Winston-Salem. The drink can be found at Mast General Store, the two Perk & Provision stores, 4 Brothers gas stations and Lowes Foods, which is one of the Variable’s clients. Vest also told me that a number of downtown restaurants and bars carry Sunshine, including Single Brothers, Noble’s Grille and the Porch, although my server at the Porch said it wasn’t in stock and appeared to not be familiar with the product.

I found a can of Sunshine at Downtown Perk & Provision on West Fourth Street, and the drink occasioned a pleasant respite — neither as invigorating as an iced coffee nor as dulling as a cold beer — in the early evening as a gentle parade of people filled the street for Friday night.

Designed more as a nudging pick-me-up than the supercharged fuel for extreme sports that characterizes mainstream competitors like Red Bull and Monster, Legendary Sunshine is positioned as something of a creative everyman. With a storyline built around a fictitious reformed bootlegger named Buck O’Hairen from the 19th Century, the energy drink slogan’s “It’ll clear the clouds!” provides more antithesis. (Underscoring the narrative, the can advertises “since 1875” despite the energy drink’s launch in 2013.)

With the market for sodas in decline and energy drinks losing steam, a hybrid such as Sunshine might find the sweet spot between the two but also risks getting lost. Meanwhile, craft beer is enjoying rapid growth, and Vest said he sees some similarities between his product and craft beer in their attention to ingredients. The proprietors of Sunshine have also encouraged liquor pairings. Right out of the gate in late 2013, the proprietors recruited some of Winston-Salem’s top mixologists to see who could come up with the best cocktail using Sunshine during an informal competition at Single Brothers.

Vest said the company is looking to bring Legendary Sunshine to Greensboro and other parts of the Triad soon. They’ve recently reached a distribution deal with RH Barringer, which holds the franchise rights to distribute Anheuser-Busch products in a 22-county area of North Carolina.

“Distribution is key to getting a beverage brand to grow,” Vest said. “Folks want it, but it needs to be where people are shopping. This gives us a model to build on.”

— JG

Iced drinking chocolate @ Black Mountain Chocolate (W-S)

It’s chocolate, in drinking form.

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The use of chocolate as a panacea is well documented — a handful of M&Ms can often do what a handful of Xanax cannot — but as a general rule, chocolate does not do well in the summer heat. How many of us have had to lick the wrapper of a chocolate bar left to melt in a purse or car?

But the salubrious properties of chocolate can also be harnessed in a drink from Black Mountain Chocolate that comes in three varieties: ginger nutmeg, cinnamon cayenne and straight-up dark.

The dark is the thing for me: a velvety elixir that tastes sort of like a high-end Yoo-hoo, only significantly less sweet and exponentially more dense, with dark chocolate notes and a pleasant froth.

The addition of cinnamon and pepper is a more traditional South American take on the fruit of the cocoa tree, and the heat of the drink can actually give some respite from the summer swelter — something to do with sweat, I think.

As summer cools into fall, the ginger nutmeg, served hot, might do the trick on a balmy evening.

And all of them are able to take some of the sting out of life’s little disappointments.

— BC

Thai iced sweet-tea @ Pho Hien Vuong (GSO)

Sweet tea, Thai style.

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Thai iced tea presents a great juxtaposition between creaminess and some of the strongest-steeped Southern tea imaginable. Thai iced tea is Ceylon tea topped off with whole milk and sugar. There’s a soft sweetness alongside the baking-spice strength. You can find it at Pho Hien Vuong.

— AH

Brazilian limeade @ Krankies Coffee (W-S)

Brazilian limeade is one of three drinks on Krankies Coffee’s spring specials menu — along with Jamaican hibiscus tea and lemonade — and as far as I’m concerned it’s welcome to hang around through the duration of this punishing summer.

The barista helpfully offered to answer any questions as a couple of us from a mass meeting about racism and privilege milled around looking confused. Something about lime — its taste slightly more subtle and concise than its fairer cousin — is more appealing than lemon, and when the barista said that it had a hint of coconut I was sold.

Coconut milk provides a creaminess to counterbalance the acidity of lime juice.

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Fresh squeezed and poured over ice in a 16-ounce cup, this refreshing drink strikes all the right notes for a sweltering summer evening. Neither especially tangy nor overly sweet, the drink has a clean finish that beguiles someone like me who subsists on store-bought Arnold Palmers (half-lemonade, half sweet tea) and full-on lemonade in the summer. I can down two or three glasses of those mass-produced drinks and still find myself thirsty. In contrast, the handcrafted Brazilian limeade at Krankies rewards slow sipping and delivers a satisfying conclusion. The secret weapon of this drink is the coconut, which complements the acidity of the lime with a creamy texture, while topping the drink with a light froth.

— JG

Durian bubble tea @ Banh Mi Saigon (GSO)

Bubble tea is on the back end of its meteoric rise, but it’s still pretty delicious.

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If you’re looking to try bubble tea, a milkshake-like beverage made with tapioca pods, look no further than Greensboro’s Banh Mi Saigon Sandwiches and Bakery. They offer 15 flavors, from their best-selling papaya to normal selections such as strawberry and green apple. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the durian bubble tea — while the texture and strong taste of the controversial “king of fruits” may weird some out, complex flavors of custard and cinnamon will sate curious taste buds.

— AH

Sujeonggwa @ Seoul Garden (GSO)

At Seoul Garden, it usually comes at the end of your meal like a little bowl of dessert. Sujeonggwa is basically a cinnamon slushie, very sweet but refreshing after eating spicy or greasy food. Good for quenching thirst and for a sweet tooth, this traditional Korean fruit punch is made of persimmon, cinnamon, ginger and honey or brown sugar is usually served cold as a dessert.

— SM

Elderflower-mint spritzer @ Camino Bakery (W-S)

Floral, with hints of  citrus and bite from the mint, Camino’s quencher is a slow sipper.

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Don’t get me wrong: I love coffee — hot, cold, foamy, dense, whatever. I drink it all day long.

But there comes a point where a human being has had enough coffee for the day; I know I’m there when my sweat starts to smell like espresso. When that moment arrives, Camino’s elderflower spritzer is the perfect thing. It’s light, just a little bit sweet and with floral overtones from elderflower, itself a natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic agent. The bits of muddled mint leaf suspended in the drink pick up on the lime juice in a way that’s completely wonderful. It’s refreshing and different, and doesn’t seem to make my legs jitter even a little bit.

— BC

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