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Sep 24, 2017

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The Virtues of Vices
by Scott Stavrou
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 2.2
Theologians of all ideological bents debate whether or not man is born with original sin (or nihilists may debate whether man is born at all). There is no debate, however, that "sinning" is chic again. Witness: doctors recommending a daily glass of wine, martini bars, cigar parties, single malt scotches and bourbons, rye, grappa, new interest in classic cocktails, microbreweries reproducing like rabbits. Walk into almost any restaurant or bar and you can palpably feel the collective thump on the bandwagon as people eagerly hop aboard the slow-moving train that harks back to the time-honored tradition of appreciating life and soaking up more of its pleasures, in many interesting forms.

People today are acquiring a newfound respect for the very things that were deemed inappropriate throughout the course of civilization. Many of these time-heralded vices have become popular with some new twists (pun intended). Fashion, after all, is cyclical and drinking tastes are making a revolution as complete and pure as an olive lapping a well-constructed designer martini.

Man's taste for alcohol is well chronicled throughout the ages. In fact, people were consuming alcoholic beverages long before the time of Christ. The Greeks are said to have invented universities and toga parties (not necessarily in that order) sometime around 600-500 BC. There are actually anthropologists and sociologists that postulate the theory that it may have been mankind's desire for alcohol that prompted early civilizations to give up hunting and gathering in favor of agriculture. This was, of course, a giant leap for mankind.

Hunting and gathering was a good gig in its day. The hours were much shorter than toiling in the fields and the responsibility less burdensome -- sort of the ancient civilization version of a temp job. But after a grueling day of chasing wildebeest or picking berries, there were those who wanted to quaff something soothing. A little libation to sort of punctuate the moment. Fortunately, the accidental "discovery" of fermentation and brewing provided them with an outlet for this desire, and a new favorite pastime was thrown into the well-shaken cocktail of history.

Through the centuries, as man continued to enjoy a wider array of these fermented and brewed beverages, the earth's population steadily rose. These factors may or may not have been related. At any rate, mankind stumbled around the globe and began staking out separate territories. As areas grew into nation-states, most cultures developed their own attitudes about drinking and for many nations, the "national" drink was not only very much a part of everyday life, but a part of the national identity. I could offer a list but it would be incomplete at best -- to be too familiar with each alcoholic beverage in the world would have an indirect correlation on the ability to remember them. However, many readily come to mind: the French and wine, brandy, cognacs, and anisette liqueurs, Italians and wine, grappa, and Campari, Spanish and Sangria, Portuguese and Port, English and their countless beers, ales, lagers, ciders, bitters, and of course gin, the Irish and their religious reverence for their dark stouts, the Germans and the Czechs who lead the world in per capita beer consumption, the Greeks and their ouzo and retsina, the Polish, Scandinavians, and Russians and vodka. The point being is that there is a lot of thirst in the world and a lot of different ways to quench it. What this eclectic array of drinks and drinking preferences has in common is that they all offer ways to enhance the enjoyment of daily life, to offer respite from the daily grind, whether you are a hunter and gatherer or a nine-to-fiver.

If you have an itch, scratch it. If you have a thirst, quench it.

But living today can be turgid with stress and deadlines and, the opportunity to celebrate just being alive may not present itself often enough. As life grows ever more intense and we're smothered by modern technology in all its forms, we must zealously seek out ways to savor the most precious commodity of any on earth: our time. Enjoying life, infusing our time on earth with simple pleasures, may well be our most important job. And, at the very least, it is one that deserves every bit as much attention as any other job. Savoring life's daily routine may be the finest way to celebrate the interval between birth and death.

A drink shared with good friends gives you the excuse to meet and to savor the company of those precious people you enjoy. A certain cocktail or wine or beer may inspire a solitudinal stroll down memory lane and give you a chance to appreciate fine moments from your past -- as close to time-traveling as man can come. The crux of the matter is: celebrate life, hoist a glass in toast to the gods of fortune for allowing you to be a participant in this grand drama.

The Germans have a toast, which loosely translates to: "Drink and you die. Don't drink and you die also. So drink what you want." Learn to stop and smell the roses, or perhaps the bouquet of a fine Cabernet. And please remember, no matter what you choose, drinks were not invented with stringent classification systems and quality criteria. The discovery of fermentation itself was nothing more than a fortuitous accident. Don't worry about what wine is the proper one to order with what food, or whether you need wait for a special occasion to enjoy a certain libation. Life itself is an occasion and we are all the arbiters of what we choose to deem special.

I'm reminded of a lazy summer some years back when I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the slow-moving lifestyle in the Greek islands, where life was reduced to its barest essentials: sun, sea, friends, food, and good drink. A typical day was eventful only for its uneventfulness. Lunch generally meant a stroll up the beach to Panos' seaside taverna. One particular afternoon, having finished a small carafe of chilled island wine and an ouzo, I found myself the only customer left. It had become late, and so it was time to move on. Until Panos appeared at my table with a cherished bottle of five-star Metaxa Greek brandy and two glasses. "This," he said, "is my finest bottle. Only for special occasions." "What are we celebrating?" I asked. "Ah, you Americans. Always you need a reason to celebrate. In Greece we celebrate because it is today, and we are alive." And he was right. It was a special occasion.

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