PORTLAND, Maine — Too much holiday cheer?
Laying off the sauce in the new year doesn’t have to mean staying home holed up hermitlike.
Steps from the hottest cocktail bars in town, a Portland couple mixes craft mocktails at Vena’s Fizz House by muddling basil leaves, measuring jigs of bitters and topping it off, not with top-shelf rum, but seltzer water at their swank soda bar.
Since opening last summer, they have become the go-to spot for those thirsting for a social experience without the social lubricant.
Future plans include coming up with their own line of bitters, syrups and cross-pollinating with holistic elixir makers.
“It’s a modern version of an old-fashioned soda fountain,” said Johanna Corman, who invented the concept of a booze-free bar and beverage boutique last spring.
One-part gift shop, one part hydration lounge, Vena’s is shaking up the connotations of “let’s meet for a drink.”
Inside this multilevel space on the corner — happy hour, drink specials and concoctions like Maine fire — ghost pepper-infused maple syrup, apple cider syrup, seltzer, maple bitters and fire and damnation bitters — are artistically executed. So much so that you don’t miss the hard stuff.
“It makes you feel like you are having a cocktail even though you are not,” said Johanna, who runs the fizz house with her husband Steve Corman. “You get the whole sensory experience.”
Johanna experimented with simple syrups and soda making at home and realized that Portland was ready for a bar that treated non-alcoholic drinks with the same respect as their spiked counterparts.
In an elevated room with a copper bar, flat-screen TV and bowls of cocktail snacks, rimmed martini glasses are filled with enticing drinks like the meadow mocktail.
The puckery, clean beverage is Vena’s signature sip. Steve calls it “springtime in a glass.”
He muddles fresh basil leaves with lemon juice, a half a jig of lavender simple syrup with lavender bitters. Adding freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and a shot of seltzer, the results poured into a martini glass are a dead ringer for an upscale margarita.
“Reformed alcoholics tell me it’s as close as they can get to the feel of drinking a real drink that’s nonalcoholic,” said Steve.
Johanna, who is the brains behind the operation, is often downstairs testing a new syrup or cocktail rimming sugar to debut at the bar. As the daughter of orchardists, who grew up in Cornish, her most successful creation is cider syrup.
“It’s the greatest sweetener,” she said, serving a sample shot of the viscous liquid. “Nothing is added to it, just Maine apple cider boiled down until it’s thick.”
Using freeze-dried raspberries mashed up to a powder with sugar and stirring honey, water and cherries in a pot, she contemplates her next inventions.
“We charge $5 a drink. If you are going to get a drink without alcohol for $5 you want it to be worth that. You are educating people what a soda is,” she said.
Besides mocktails, the couple also whips up old-school soda that your grandmother may remember, such as cherry and chocolate phosphates. What is a phosphate?
“Not so much a flavor as a feeling,” said Steve.
Raspberry lime rickeys may sound ho-hum, but here they get a modern twist. Arriving in a Mason jar, it’s a fruit-forward drink with a clean astringency.
“It’s all freshly made from squeezed fruit with less than one-third the amount of sugar in regular soda,” said Steve from behind the bar.
Stopping in for a drink last Saturday night, a tourist couple delighted in the scene. Downing a Maine fire and sampling a collection of bitters, for sale in their shop below, Nadina Perera of Boston was impressed with her spicy soda.
“In all my travels I’ve never come across something like this,” said the sales rep for Oracle Corp., asking whether the Cormans would consider franchising the business.
The couple says they have invented a new market for bitters, which traditionally are used to give cocktails a kick. They carry Aztec chocolate bitters, bitters to boost your immune system and gourmet bitters flavored with sriracha and black mission fig. All are for sale and sampled freely.
Whatever your poison Vena’s Fizz House will send you out into the cobblestoned streets fortified and ready to drive home in fine fettle.
Vena’s Fizz House is located at 345 Fore St. in Portland, Maine. For information, call 747-4901.