All photos by Ted Axelrod
Since it opened last July, a different kind of cocktail bar has been quietly making its mark in Portland’s Old Port. Vena’s Fizz House is a shop for all things cocktail-related — except the booze — and up a few steps, a cozy spot to sip a Cherry Lime Rickey, Chocolate Phosphate or a mocktail with a cheeky name like the “Dim & Stormy.”
Owned and operated by Johanna and Steve Corman, longtime Portlanders who also own the seasonal Pearl Seaside Market & Cafe on Cliff Island, Vena’s is named for Johanna’s great-grandmother, a staunch proponent of Maine’s temperance movement in the 1900s. She would approve of the drinks mixed and served at her namesake shop: housemade sodas, shrubs, mocktails and slushes — all made from high quality ingredients and without a drop of demon rum (or gin, whiskey or vodka).
The couple, whose previous careers were in education, admit they opened Vena’s on somewhat of a whim. “I had never made a soda in my life,” said Johanna. A few people have walked up to the bar only to turn around and walk right out again: “What, no alcohol?” but Steve’s knowledge of mixology, engaging manner and well-prepared drinks have won over most doubters. The most popular soda is the Maine Fire, a heady mix of Maine maple syrup and Vena’s Maine apple cider syrup, ghost pepper, maple bitters and selzer. Among the creative mocktails is the Bangladesh Express, created for a recent benefit hosted at Vena’s — a flavorful blend of coconut, blood orange, cardamom and ghost pepper.
And while there is no booze served at Vena’s, the Cormans are dedicated to helping their customers concoct better cocktails at home. After Steve took us through a tasting of several tonic syrups with different flavor profiles, we bought a bottle of Liber spiced tonic syrup, which we are now mixing with selzer for a vast improvement in gin and tonics and Mount Gay and tonics — our go-to drinks. This is not just a twee gimmick. Not only is the mixed-to-order tonic minus the corn syrup and god knows what else that’s in the commercially made stuff, the syrup keeps for a long time in the fridge — no more tossing half-used bottles of tonic water.
The shop, too, is devoted to cocktail culture. Johanna, an inveterate collector, has stocked it with vintage glassware, shakers and cocktail accessories, as well as new barware, tools and mixology books. Vena’s stocks an impressive selection of bitters, syrups, garnishes, as well as Johanna’s own line of rimming salts and sugars. She also makes infusions — dried herbs, fruit and other natural flavors in glass jars to which liquor can be added.
On the few warmish Saturdays we’ve had this winter, the Cormans say they’ve had a taste of how busy things will be in the coming summer season. They’re thinking, a little, about expansion or the possibility of franchising the concept in college towns. But for now, they’re focusing on attracting more customers with events like the bitters workshop they will host on Saturday, March 22 at 6:30 p.m. The cost is $15 “per stool” and stools are limited; attendees are also entitled to 15 percent of anything in the shop except for vintage glassware. To reserve a spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org or message them on Facebook.