Raising the bar

Original Sin Hard Cider at Closed for Business

Crisp, fruity, herbal, with or without alcohol, the summer's most refreshing drinks tickle the nose as well as the tastebuds.

A quest to find liquids that slay thirst and revive flagging spirits led to some seriously fun bar-hopping recently. But these aren't the "bars" of yesteryear. For starters, nary a wisp of smoke hangs in the air. The atmosphere is lighter, literally, and bartenders have followed suit in creating cocktails with fresh inspiration and flavors.

Also, bars aren't just places for booze these days. Organic juices and exotic teas have their own spaces for lounging and rehydrating. And you can walk out with the container to boot.

Call it "farm-to-bar" at O-Ku restaurant. Mixologist Kane Sanders came up with a Ginger Basil Lemonade made with Hangar One vodka, a housemade ginger syrup and garden-fresh basil leaves. It's the most popular drink on the menu at the moment.

Sanders loves to come up with new drinks, or "craft cocktails" as he calls them. "It's fun to play with different ingredients," says the San Francisco transplant.

He won this year's Bacardi Mojito Challenge held at the S.C. Aquarium and created the luxurious "Port City Cocktail" for the 2009 BB&T Charleston Food + Wine Festival. The drink featured cinnamon-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon with Madeira and port-soaked cherries.

Down King Street at Closed for Business, Original Sin Hard Cider has been on tap for about a month.

Bartender Aaron Lucas says the New York State brew is "a wonderful midsummer beer that is alcoholic enough if you want a little bit of buzz."

Original Sin, at 6 percent

alcohol, doesn't fall far from the tree. It's made from domestic Granny Smith apples and possesses the same crisp, sweetly tart nature. It's light-bodied, almost like a white wine, and is drier than some of its counterparts.

On the other side of King, Fish Restaurant is stirring up a good kind of trouble with its Fighting Fish. It's the latest cocktail from mixologist Evan Powell, who zeroes in on French and Asian flavors.

The Fighting Fish combines acai berry vodka, cucumber and lime and is garnished with edible preserved hibiscus flowers, whose redness and spiky petals give the drink an aquariumlike look. It's been a huge hit since coming on the menu about three weeks ago.

One of Powell's favorite summer cocktails is a Caipiroska, a cousin to the Mojito made with vodka, limes, sugar and ice. "How can I reinvent the Cairpiroska and made it better?" he wondered, and the Fighting Fish resulted.

If the drinking goes overboard, head farther down King to Teavana for "The Hangover Cure." The seven-part blend was invented by the local franchise owner and is exclusive to the Charleston store. It can be made hot, iced or as a slushy.

Peppermint and orange are the dominant flavors, although the peppermint isn't strong -- more of an undertone. It does carry a good shot of caffeine, says sales manager Tyler Martin, although the store offers many other caffeine-free drinks and products.

The drink may be ordered with "bubbles," Gummi bear-like spheres that supposedly absorb the flavor of the tea. The "bubbles" are easily sucked up, perhaps too easily, through the straw and are edible. Our advice? Skip them. They just take up drink space and cost extra, too.

Who says healthy isn't playful and exciting? Check out the Green Monkey at The Sprout Organic Cafe and Juice Bar in Mount Pleasant. The icy blend is a hybrid between a Smoothie and juice, but goes down like a milkshake, minus the guilt.

Popeye's grandchildren don't even realize they're getting two handfuls of spinach in every Green Monkey, which also contains lemon and celery and gets its natural sweetness from pineapple, banana and apple. Besides the color, the spinach presence is undetectable except to the most finely tuned palates. Which is a good thing for some of the moms who bring their children to the fitness center next door.

Mickey and Caroline Brennan own The Sprout, which is all organic/vegan and uses many biodegradable products, such as a plastic cup made from corn. Their drink menu is extensive with a dozen juice drinks as well as specialty, protein and fruit Smoothies and other products.

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at food@postandcourier.com.

Makes 1 cocktail

Ingredients

4 to 5 basil leaves

1 1/2 ounces Hangar One Vodka

1 ounce ginger syrup

1 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice

Club soda

Lemon slices and basil leaf for garnish

Directions

Lightly muddle basil leaves in bottom of glass. Fill glass with ice; add vodka, ginger syrup and lemon juice and top with club soda. Stir together, garnish with two lemon slices and a basil leaf.

Makes 1 cocktail

Ingredients

2 preserved hibiscus flowers (see note)

2 slices cucumber

2 lime wedges

1.5 ounces Absolut Berri-Acai Vodka

1 ounce hibiscus nectar (see note)

Club soda

Directions

Note: Preserved hibiscus flowers and hibiscus nectar may be available at gourmet specialty stops; otherwise try online sources such as amazon.com.

In a highball glass, muddle one hibiscus flower, cucumber and lime. Add ice, vodka, hibiscus nectar and fill with club soda. Stir to combine. Garnish with second hibiscus flower.