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updated: 6/19/2013 6:23 AM

Fruits, herbs, booze infuse summertime's iconic iced tea

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  • Tea-flavored vodka mixes with lemonade and other juices for summery cocktail sipping.

    Tea-flavored vodka mixes with lemonade and other juices for summery cocktail sipping.
    Courtesy of Firefly Distillery

  • Thinkstock

By Deborah Pankey
Daily Herald Food Editor

Growing up, I remember the clear jug filled with tea bags sitting on the picnic table in the back yard. Sun-brewed iced tea defined summer, and I so wanted to like it. Yet no amount of sugar and lemon made it palatable to me.

Back then, it seemed like there was only one brand of tea at the supermarket so everyone had Lipton black tea bags in their cupboards. Fast forward a few decades, and the tea aisle at the supermarket is stocked with all shades of tea -- from white to black to red -- and an infinite variety of flavors, including ginger and chocolate chai. And that certainly has made iced tea a lot more interesting.

Restaurants are riding the tea wave as well.

According to a 2012 report by industry watcher Technomic, specialty tea offerings at restaurants have grown by 53 percent since 2011, as reported in Nation's Restaurant News. Southern-style sweet tea has shown up at McDonald's, Arby's rolled out a passion-fruit iced tea in 2012 and Smashburger now offers a few fruit-infused teas as an option to its fountain sodas. Raspberry-flavored tea leads the pack as the most popular flavor on restaurant menus, NRN reported.

Tea's reputation as a healthful drink -- especially compared to high-fructose laden sodas and sports drinks -- could be one reason fueling the uptick. Tea has less caffeine than coffee, has antioxidant benefits and, when prepared without sweeteners or milk, can be calorie free.

While a tall glass of traditional iced tea garnished with a slice of lemon might be all you need to quench your thirst on a humid summer afternoon, I've pulled together a collection of otherwise flavored teas to tease your palate. I invite you to brew up a pitcher of cherry juice-infused tea, or shake a minty tea cocktail, then sit on the porch and watch the fireflies.

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