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.
Watermelon agua fresca @ LaRue (GSO)
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.
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.
Legendary Sunshine @ various locations (W-S)
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.”