If you’ve eaten at Little Village Bistro in Wiscasset more than once, and you like a cocktail before dinner, chances are you’ve met, or at least seen, Marilyn Gorneau. She’s the bartender, and she’s known not only for her tasty, unusual craft cocktails, but also for her ability to multitask. Along with serving the nine or so people sitting at the bar, she mixes cocktails for up to 40 diners, all in record time, without batting an eye, or breaking a glass.
Gorneau has been serving drinks and food at restaurants in the Boothbay area and beyond for over 40 years, beginning with Cole Farms in her hometown of Gray. Now, after working in and managing about 12 other well-known Maine restaurants, including Vallee’s Steak House and Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, and at Rocktide Inn & Restaurant, Fisherman's Wharf for 20 years, Amore Bistro and Boathouse Bistro in Boothbay Harbor, she has established her reputation as a top notch bar meister at the restaurant on Wiscasset’s Gardiner Road.
On March 3, Gorneau was getting her bar ready for the clients who are usually starting to line up outside the business by opening time at 4:30, many hoping to secure a seat at the bar, where a good cocktail and stimulating conversation are a given.
“I’ve met the greatest people at this bar,” she said. “This isn't a bar where people just sit and drink. Some come alone because it's comfortable here, and it's a pleasant, quiet place to relax, and usually to have some good food with their drinks.”
Two of the people Gorneau has met at that bar are Caroline and Jay Canning, from Vermont and Westport Island. They also have a place in Costa Rica, where Caroline rescues dogs and brings them north to find homes. Gorneau said whenever the couple is at the bar, often their first stop in Maine, the word “dog” inevitably comes up. “And before you know it, everyone at the bar is talking dogs. Everyone loves dogs, and they all have a dog story to tell.”
“We always look forward to arriving at LVB to see Marilyn,” Caroline Canning said. “She makes us feel so welcome. It’s like finally getting home after being gone a long time.”
Gorneau mixes interesting and unusual mixed drinks. She fresh-squeezes all of the juices: lemon, lime, orange, pineapple, grapefruit., cranberry, even celery and cucumber. Other fresh ingredients Gorneau has experimented, and concocted her own cocktails with, are blueberries, ginger, cilantro, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, jalapeno, watermelon and strawberries.
“We're in a decade of mixology now,” she said. “We’re digging into the archives and bringing back old drinks, and we’re improving on them — making them modern. People are remembering the days in New York when craft cocktails were the thing. Ladies were having lady slippers and grasshoppers in the afternoon. I’m getting calls for those drinks now.”
Gorneau loves spending time researching cocktails and reading about and testing different, unusual liqueurs to stock her bar with. If you go into a restaurant in Portland or Boston, bartenders are all playing with different flavors, and infusing drinks with their own bitters and local organic ingredients.
On her days off, Gorneau often does her own ‘research and development,’ traveling to different restaurants, mostly in Portland, with her friend Shane Riley. “We both love food and cooking, and it comes naturally for us to think about what flavors would be good in certain cocktails.”
On March 3, Gorneau brought two mason jars to work. One contained a reddish liquid, the other was black. She had been experimenting and “muddling” things like rhubarb and black pepper, and had concocted her own flavored, simple syrups. “I’m running a laboratory here now,” she said. With the rhubarb syrup, she makes a rhubarb martini; the black pepper syrup is used in a drink called the “River Dog,” a New Orleans bar’s concoction that a customer had raved about.
One of the many unusual liqueurs in the LVB bar is Absente, a type of absinthe, an anise-flavored green spirit banned in the U.S. in the early 19oos due to its supposed addictive hallucinogenic properties. It has since been declared no more harmful than other spirits.
Gornea makes a drink called a Sazerac with the absinthe. “I just ‘dirty,’ the ice with it,” she said. “I fill the glass with ice and pour just enough to coat the ice, because it’s so strong, and pour the excess liquid into a small glass, that I serve with the cocktail.” She then pours rye whiskey over the ice, likening the drink to a manhattan, using absinthe in place of sweet vermouth.
Among Gorneau’s other signature LVB drinks are the “Starry Night Martini,” made with vodka, ginger liqueur, cardamon and star anise; the “Lady Slipper Martini,” made with vodka, elder flower liqueur, lemon and cranberry; and a “Ginger Old Fashioned,” made with whiskey, fresh-grated ginger, bing cherries and club soda. And if you’re feeling especially festive as the days get longer and the sun warms the earth, try her “Village Sunrise Punch,” made of rum, fresh pineapple, cranberry, orange and coconut.
Gorneau, 69, loves her job. “I’m constantly learning. I love listening to people talk about cocktails they drank in days past, and I’m always open to new ideas. I know I can’t do this for too many more years. At the end of my career I feel like I’m going out on a high note. Tony (Bickford, LVB owner) recognized my potential, and he has let me bring this bar to the level of what he’s doing in his kitchen.”
“I come here five nights a week at 4 and I’m here until 9:30 or 10. The food is wonderful, people are happy, and I love preparing drinks for them.”