PORTLAND – Johanna Corman is a mad scientist of sorts. She spends time in the basement (laboratory) of Vena’s Fizz House, inventing wildly improbable drink mixes in hopes of slaking the thirst – while tickling the fancy – of customers who wander inside her non-alcoholic drink emporium.
How else to explain coming up with the “Meadow Mocktail,” a combination of lavender bitters, grapefruit juice, basil and seltzer? Or the “Figgy Poppy,” a blend of fig syrup, balsamic vinegar, honey and seltzer?
“A lot of it is trial and error,” says Corman, who opened Vena’s Fizz House in July with her husband Steve. “That’s the fun of it, coming up with these concoctions.”
Vena’s Fizz House sits on Fore Street, in the shadow of the Regency Hotel, surrounded by what seems – at the beginning of a busy Saturday night – like a hundred different bars and restaurants. Vena’s, however, is the only bar in the Old Port that serves only soft drinks. To families, non-drinking couples, or those who want to start their evening off without a buzz, Vena’s is an oasis of sorts, an old-fashioned soda parlor, complete with counter and stools.
Corman named the soda shop after her great-grandmother, who was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1920s. While she has nothing against drinking or drinkers, she thinks she’s hit upon an idea whose time has come. She came up with the notion for the shop last April when her husband found out he was being laid off from his teaching position in Portland. They knew the seasonal grocery store and cafe? they run on Cliff Island would not provide enough income for their family. Corman, who has worked in restaurants and bars, realized that craft cocktails had become quite the trend, but she also knew that if she opened a bar that served cocktails, she’d be competing with every other bar in Portland.
“I saw a need,” she says. “I wondered why is there no place where you can have a non-alcoholic drink?”
Vena’s, though, is much more than just a place for a soft drink. To get to the bar, which is up a short flight of stairs, you pass by a room full of supplies for people who want to mix their own craft cocktails. This section caters to total novices, who want the basic ingredients, tools and recipe books to help them learn the tricks of the trade, and to the experts, who might be looking for a certain kind of bitters or a special, $125 shaker.
Corman says the store provides more revenue than the soda shop at this point. But the latter is more fun. A big part of it, she says, is educating people to the possibilities for making tasty, interesting potions. While she doesn’t fancy herself an expert, she talks expertly about how different herbs can flavor a drink, and how adding different kinds of bitters can enhance flavors, just like spices do in cooking. Corman says that she and her husband squeeze the fruits for their juices and cook the figs, peppers, apples, ginger, and other ingredients that form their syrups.
“It’s 100 times better than crappy soda,” Corman says. “It tastes so good and I’m not putting any junk into it.”
This past fall, a concoction called Maine Fire seemed to be the most popular drink at the bar. It’s a combination of Maine maple syrup, infused with ghost pepper extract (the hottest pepper, according to Steve Corman), apple cider syrup, maple bitters, and seltzer. The drink starts off cool and sweet, and the spice of the pepper slowly announces itself as the warmth spreads.
For a real kick, customers go for the Ginger Julep, made with muddled ginger, fresh mint, ginger syrup, a dollop of ginger puree, finished with Maine Root Co.’s ginger brew.
Steve and Johanna Corman behind the bar of Vena’s Fizz House, on Fore Street in Portland, where all drinks are non-alcoholic. She named the soda shop after her great-grandmother, who was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1920s.