Originally published in the February issue of Down East Magazine
Photograph by Douglas Merriam
When Steve Corman first started creating drinks in 2013, his lack of knowledge about mixology was offset by problem-solving skills he’d honed as a math teacher. Unfettered by the formulas that veteran bartenders live by, Corman approached his task analytically: Who says liquor must serve as the foundation for a cocktail? Why not start with something more complex, like bitters, and build from there?
This approach laid the groundwork for Vena’s Fizz House, the craft soda and cocktail lounge that Corman owns with his wife, Johanna. In the beginning, the Cormans focused exclusively on made-to-order mocktails and fizzes. With the acquisition of a liquor license last year, the menu has grown to include equally creative alcoholic concoctions, grouped into two categories — Standards (the Lumber Sexual, for one, is a blend of Ingenium gin, lemon, Alpine Herb Bitters, Steve’s own pine syrup, and spiced tonic) and Apothecary, a selection of digestives, restoratives, and curatives (consider the Milk Thistle Spritz, a “healing” mix of rum, Campari, lemon, and milk thistle).
Vena’s has a relaxing, nostalgic atmosphere, with eclectic fixtures, exposed brick walls, an extensive collection of vintage bar and glassware, and an astonishing display of cocktail enhancers, including more than 170 kinds of bitters. Made with an array of botanicals and spices, bitters are like seasoning for beverages (and, in the case of Vena’s small menu, food as well).
When I stop in, Steve (ever the educator) demonstrates the thinking behind his drinks by encouraging me to taste a glass of seltzer flavored with raspberry puree, first before and then after the addition of aromatic Bolivar bitters. Then I put him to the test, requesting a nonalcoholic remedy for my angst and agitation. He swirls together fiery ginger syrup, Jamaican ginger bitters, smoky habanero bitters, ginger puree, ghost pepper extract, and seltzer. The ginger settles both my stomach and my mind, and I can almost feel the chilies purging my body of toxins.
For good measure, I chase it with a bracing shot: cider vinegar, honey, turmeric, and habanero. Like the ginger drink, it’s as exciting and stimulating as any drink with alcohol. A nice change to imbibe where booze takes a backseat.
345 Fore St., Portland