Suspending judgement only until it’s necessary

 IT WAS ONE of those late summer afternoons, the kind that makes it hard to go to work. But work was where I was, so I needed to make the best of it.

I decided to update my order sheets and applied a thin layer of lemon oil to one pane of the bar’s mahogany. But, fortunately, in the world of drink someone is always thirsty, whether it’s 6:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m., and that someone had just bellied up to the bar.

Clean white shirt, well-groomed hair, a neatly knotted tie and a pale shadow where recently some sort of beard had resided. In fact, he had all the signs of a job applicant. Given the application in his hand, it rendered all the other observations moot.

“I’ll have a shot of Fernet,” he said.

My many years of experience as a drink maker have taught me that Fernet is a type of amaro or “bitter” often served as a digestif. Usually made with a proprietary recipe, the various brands often include everything from myrrh to aloe to saffron. The commonality is a strangely medicinal black licorice taste. There are dozens of brands, however, I suspected that he probably meant the brand Fernet Branca — partly because San Francisco accounts for 25 percent of its worldwide sales and partly because its the only one I have ever seen served.

“Put it in a water glass. I don’t want anyone to know I’m drinking.”

OK, I thought, suspending judgment.

I set down the drink in its inconspicuous glass. Unfortunately, because of Fernet’s unusual color (thanks to saffron and added caramel coloring) and the overall drink’s rather small size (a shot), this presentation only made it more conspicuous. Not really my concern because I don’t judge.

After taking a sip of his deceptive liquid artifice he removed the questionnaire section that most restaurants include in their application packets.

“Dude? What’s an aperitif?”

I pointed at his drink.

“Fernet Branca markets its product as an aperitif,” I replied. “However, aperitifs are usually low alcohol bitters that are used to stimulate the appetite, like vermouths or Campari. Fernet is fairly high alcohol, around 90 proof, and so deadens the taste buds because alcohol is an analgesic and an antiseptic, neither of which is particularly good when it comes to tasting.”

“Oh,” he said, scribbling down the answer on the quiz.

“Dude?” he asked a few minutes later. “What’s a digestif?”

Again I pointed at his drink.

“Digestifs are usually high alcohol bitters or amaros served at the end of meal. Rumored to aid in digestion, bitters (usually Angostura) are often served by bartenders to stop hiccups (served on a lime) or mixed with soda to settle an unruly stomach.”

“Oh,” he said.

Several more questions were asked and answered until finally he downed his beverage and got up to leave.

“Can you give this to the bar manager?” he asked, handing me the packet. “I don’t know why they give out those tests. Any idiot can cheat on them.”

Watching him head out the door squirting breathspray into his mouth, I placed his application in the bar manager’s garbage can — my garbage can — behind the bar.

Sure any idiot can cheat, but it takes a special kind of idiot to get caught, which led to these a few thoughts:

• I don’t judge people, at least until I have to.

• Fernets don’t contain drugs (other than alcohol) of any kind. Because of the stringent laws governing alcohol these days, it would be impossible to include any type of illicit substance in them, and highly illegal. Any rumors to the contrary are pure urban myth.

• Fernet Branca’s original marketing strategy was directed at women, in particular to ease the discomfort associated with menstruation.

• Oddly, considering Fernet’s popularity among restaurant people, it doesn’t feature into many cocktails, even in the cocktail mecca of San Francisco where every bar has at least one bottle.

• “Man gives dignity to the job — the job does not lend dignity to the man,” according to an email I recently received from a reader. I couldn’t agree more.