Johanna and Steve Corman never thought they’d be serving alcohol. When their charming soda bar and retail shop opened in July of 2013 in the Old Port, they had every intention of sticking with their original business plan – to serve natural, craft sodas and mocktails for kids and adults alike, and sell mixology-related retail products in the front portion of the shop.
It wasn’t until a warm night this past September when the couple, both former teachers, started to consider the benefits of providing alcohol. By December, their liquor license application was submitted and they were approved in early January.
A month after the launch of their cocktail offerings, bar snacks (required if selling alcohol) and some decorative renovations, Steve says the shop is selling more in retail, and at the bar, than ever before.
“I’m changing the menu every week, and little by little, word is getting out,” he says. “I spend two or three hours a week just producing new drinks.”
One of Steve’s original mocktail creations, The Lumberjack Love — pine syrup, lemon juice, alpine herb bitters and wormwood extract bitters, caught the attention of celebrity chef Alton Brown when he was visiting Portland last year. Steve has also been recognized by local bartenders and mixologists, like Henry Yost at Timber, for his natural talent and passion for experimenting with bitters.
Johanna’s great grandmother is the eponymous inspiration for Vena’s, as she was instrumental in the Maine temperance movement of the 1900s, but it was Johanna who believed in Steve’s ability to become a master of mixology.
“She just had this feeling I’d be good at it,” says Steve, who taught gifted science and math for 14 years and is a self-proclaimed IPA beer drinker. “People always ask me if I was a chemistry teacher.”
Steven’s latest thrill is spruce pine syrup made by Dram Apothecary in Colorado. The pine trees are grown in a specific area of the state and Steve says the flavor is a welcome substitute for sweet vermouth and simple syrup. He uses the syrup in several drinks, such as the Lumber Sexual (the Lumberjack Love mocktail with the addition of Ingenium Gin from New England Distilling in Portland).
Recently, Steve used a mere dash of wild mountain sage bitters (also from Dram Apothecary) in an Old-Fashioned.
“The customer said he’d been drinking Old-Fashioneds for 12 years but that this was the best [darn] one he’d ever had,” Steve says with genuine delight.
The drinks at Vena’s Fizz House, whether alcoholic or not, are nothing short of exceptional. Steve’s excitement behind the bar, and the overall warmth of Vena’s staff truly makes this a one-of-a-kind place. This won’t be an overly boisterous crowd, but Thursday and Friday nights have been packed. Steve says he was slammed from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. just a few weeks ago. And because they will continue to serve mocktails, expect the crowd to be a little younger than usual.
Another welcome change, because of Maine’s liquor licensing, is Vena’s new food menu. Mostly snacks ranging in price from $4 to $8, you can expect things like spiced nuts, pickles, hummus, paninis, and even mac ‘n cheese.
345 Fore St., Portland | 207-747-4901 | venasfizzhouse.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
AMENITIES: Retail shop in front, one TV, bar snacks for sale
PARKING: On street
BOTTOM LINE: Vena’s Fizz House is the cutest soda bar in existence, and it just got a lot cuter with its recent addition of alcoholic beverages. Owners Johanna and Steve are incredibly welcoming, creative and seem to genuinely love what they do. The cocktails and mocktails are nothing you’ve ever tasted before and are served in vintage glassware found by Johanna. Vena’s is a must-visit.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: No