By Randy Billings
Portland Press Herald, Maine.
The owners of Vena’s Fizz House in Portland want to do something that could make the business’s namesake roll over in her grave: They want to begin serving alcohol.
The business at 345 Fore St., which currently sells only nonalcoholic fizz drinks and so-called mocktails in the heart of the Old Port bar scene — was named after co-owner Johanna Corman’s great-grandmother, Vena Johnson, who was active in the Maine Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1920s.
The group wanted to preserve former Portland Mayor Neil Dow’s efforts that made Maine the first place in the country to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, except for medicinal, mechanical and manufacturing purposes. It also supported national prohibition efforts.
“I figured she has mellowed wherever she is now,” Corman said when asked how her great-grandmother would feel about their new business plan. “I’m sure she’s laughing.”
Corman and her husband, Steve, opened the fizz house on July 10, 2013. In addition to handcrafted nonalcoholic beverages, the store features all sorts of cocktail ingredients, including more than 100 different types of bitters, and vintage barware.
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The idea emerged after Steve Corman was laid off from his job as a teacher in the Portland public school system. Johanna Corman was fond of adding ingredients to seltzer and suggested they open a craft soda shop. “It just came to me,” she said.
The couple uses fresh ingredients to make between 20 and 30 different types of nonalcoholic drinks. Fizz drinks consist of seltzer, flavored syrup, spices and bitters, whereas mocktails are nonalcoholic versions of mixed drinks, Johanna Corman said.
“The Old Port has so many craft cocktail bars, we wanted to start something totally different than any other bar,” Steve Corman said. “It was crazy. We did take a chance. We’re risk-takers.”
Corman said business has been good in the last 18 months and Vena’s Fizz House recently received a social media boost when celebrity chef Alton Brown placed it on his “Top Stores and Snacks from AB Road East 2014.” Brown visited the fizz house in November, Steve Corman said.
“I’ve never seen anything like Vena’s before,” Brown writes on his website. “When you walk in you’re greeted with countless bitters, some I’ve never heard of. After you’re done browsing the shop, head up the stairs to a bar serving some of the best mocktails around. I suggest ordering a Lumberjack Love if you’re in the area.”
Even locals are just beginning to discover the store after it was featured on WCSH’s “207” show, Steve Corman said.
The decision to add alcohol to the menu is designed to meet consumer demand, Corman said. Ever since the store opened, people have expressed an interest in adding alcohol to their offerings right there on the spot, he said.
“From the first week that we were open through today, after a taste it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I have never had anything like this.
Why don’t we make it into an alcoholic bar with the same basis?’ Which is exactly what we’re doing,” Corman said.
Last summer, the couple wanted to expand to New York or Massachusetts, or even open up a new bar in Portland, but Corman said they couldn’t find a space, so they decided to add alcoholic beverages at their current location.
The Cormans plan to keep their offerings nonalcoholic throughout the day, and serve alcoholic drinks only between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., according to their liquor license application.
The Portland City Council will take up the request Monday.