When life hands you lemons, make white-pine-infused lemond soda with a dash of bitters. At Vena’s Fizz House, Steve and Johanna Corman are re-thinking craft drinks while crafting a brand new life.
In 2013, Steve Corman was let go from his position as a middle school math teacher. He had been a teacher for 19 years—he was just one year away from being able to qualify for retirement—so the news came as a shock. But instead of letting him wallow, his wife, Johanna, urged him to hurry to the bank. “I knew it would be easier for him to get a loan if he was still employed, and technically, he was still employed,” she explains.
“It was five days from pink slip to signing a lease,” Steve says from behind the bar at his popular beverage spot. Vena’s Fizz House opened in July 2013 and although Johanna had been musing on the idea of a nonalcoholic drinks destination for years, the couple was entirely unprepared for the reality of owning a shop. “I knew that this was either a really great idea or it was going to be the biggest bomb,” says Johanna, remembering their first few days in business. With the condensed timeline, they were still dreaming up recipes just days before opening. “We didn’t have a solid plan,” says Johanna of their play-it-by-ear tactics. “But we opened the bar and prayed that it would somehow work out.”
Somehow, it did. More than two years later, the Old Port business, “born out of desperation,” in Steve’s words, is thriving. While the original concept was to serve sophisticated nonalcoholic beverages from behind a storefront, the Cormans have decided to expand their offerings. In March 2015 they started serving spirits, a move that would have sent Vena Johnson, the restaurant’s namesake, “rolling over in her grave,” says Steve. Vena’s is named after Johanna’s great-grandmother, who was a prohibitionist in the 1920s. “Originally, we were honoring her…then we went over to the dark side,” Steve says with a slight smile.
Although their business model has changed slightly, the Cormans haven’t abandoned their original vision. The focus at Vena’s has always been on the flavors—not on the alcohol or its inebriating effects. “Most of the great bartenders we know have been taught by other bartenders and come up through the ranks,” Steve says. “Because we had no prior restaurant experience, we were forced to come up with all our own recipes by tasting. In the end, it worked out to our advantage, because we were able to make drinks that are truly unique.” Every drink at Vena’s is based on a simple concept: make a mocktail, perfect the recipe, add alcohol, and finish with bitters. “It is so important to us that our drinks can stand on their own,” says Johanna. “These aren’t kids’ drinks.”
Not that a child would dislike the non-alcoholic version of the Lumberjack Love, a drink that Steve describes as “drinking lemonade in a fragrant pine forest.” Made with pine syrup, lemon juice, and tonic water, and possibly doctored with a dash of wormwood bitters, the beverage is deceptively simple. “Some people ask whether it tastes like Pine-Sol,” Steve says as he hands me the mocktail. It doesn’t. The drink is fizzy and slightly sweet, with the pine flavor and wormwood mingling together to form a subtle botanical background. The flavors are complex but familiar.
Another thing that sets Vena’s Fizz House apart is the owners’ interest in education. “None of our recipes are secret,” Steve says. “We want you to be able to replicate every single one of our drinks at home.” To help you recreate Vena’s staples—like the Maine Fire, made with maple syrup, cider syrup, and ghost pepper, or the Wilbur, made with smoked tart cherry puree, blood orange, and ginger—they sell all the necessary ingredients as well as tools such as cocktail shakers, strainers, and jiggers in Vena’s vintage-style storefront. First-time visitors to Vena’s might mistake it for a mixology shop, for the only way to get to the bar is by walking through the well-stocked store.
The shelves carry everything from syrups to tonics, but the stars of the show—both in the drinks and in the store—are the bitters. This is Steve’s doing. In the past several years, Steve has become an expert on bitters. He enjoys passing this information on—teaching, it seems, is still a vital part of his life. “People often ask why we need so many different bitters. I have 40 different orange-based bitters alone that can all be used in bourbon. But if I line them up on the bar, mixing just those two ingredients, you’ll still taste 40 distinct drinks.” According to Steve, bitters shouldn’t be something added at the end for “pizzazz,” but rather an integral part of the drink. Made with concentrated botanicals, these potent liquids are used to draw out certain flavors, enhancing the sharpness of pine or the acidity of citrus.
“If a customer is in doubt about bitters, I’ll do a little experiment,” Steve says. “I’ll make a drink at the bar, give it to them without bitters. Often, they’ll tell me it’s the best damn drink they have ever had. And I tell them to just wait.”
According to the couple, bitter flavors are making a much-needed comeback. “Many people aren’t used to tasting bitter things,” says Steve. “But bitter stimulates your saliva glands, making flavors pop out more clearly.” It also stimulates the digestive system, which may feel necessary after inhaling a plate of deviled eggs with crispy SPAM or an order of mini beef wellingtons—two of the retro-style staples on the Vena’s menu.
Although the menu is fairly small, it feels incredibly cohesive and approachable. “We don’t want any of our customers to feel intimidated, or like we’re trying to be cool. We want Vena’s to be fun.” Johanna loves the idea of vintage cocktail culture as well as kitsch (“It makes everything feel a little more light-hearted and accessible”), so the end result is a menu that reads a little like a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with meatloaf and Waldorf salad, but updated for today with fresh ingredients and modern flavors.
Unlike most restaurants, where the drinks serve to complement the food, the focus at Vena’s will always be on the drinks. “Our food enhances our drinks, not the other way around,” Johanna explains. “We want people to come for the drinks, but stay for the fun, funky menu.” While the dishes have familiar names, they are punched up with unexpected ingredients and spices, like maple, chipotle, and, of course, bitters. “Let’s be honest,” Steve says, “everything is just better with bitters.”