Shai Gilboa, June 2010
When it comes to the world of whisky I consider myself a newbie. I was introduced to the water of life few years back when a good friend took me to a smoked whisky introduction night that was held by the Israeli Whisky Society. The friend had some problems (and still does), to get his nose and palate adjusted to the peat, smoke, iodine and sheer power of the Islay whiskies we were introduced to; for me on the other hand, it was love from first dram.
As the years passed by, I found myself collecting and tasting more and more Islay whiskies (and only Islay whiskies), and doing things that had to do with them including registering in the distilleries fan clubs (Friends of Laphroaig, Ardbeg committee…), popping to Islay for a day during a vacation with my wife to Scotland (a day was the allowance I was given, sadly enough) and naming the rescue dog we adopted ‘Islay’. I failed though in getting deeper into the whisky world, to understand nosing, tasting, different casks effects, different stills effects and mainly how big the world of whisky is online (and off). I used to mainly enjoy a good Islay dram and that’s it.
All this was changed when during March this year I received a Friends of Laphroaig email announcing the first Gathering event to be held during the 25th Feis Ile on May. First thing I did was to check what this Feis Ile business is, the second was to try and convince my wife to come along with me and the third was to book plane tickets to Glasgow and a ferry to Islay for me and my father (who was convinced to come as officially Feis Ile is known as festival of music and malt, and he has quite a big Scottish music collection); Then came the hunt for accommodation.
It seems that people book for B&Bs, hotel rooms and even camping park locations almost a year in advance. I was lucky enough to be transferred from one B&B to another to finally get contact details of the lovely Eddie and Mary Morris who have a fully equipped self-catering where my father and I ended up staying during the festival.
Festival Tip – for those of you who want to go to next year’s festival – book accommodation NOW.
CalMac ferry docking at Kennacraig, waiting to be loaded to go to Islay
The spirit of the Festival started on the ferry to Port Ellen. The CalMac vessel was packed of Feis Ile bound visitors and whisky was pouring into glasses on all decks as the ferry left port at 7am that Saturday. The Islay Maniacs, whom we’ve also met every day at every distillery, changed into special t-shirts with listing of past and future festival years on the back, as each of the maniacs has marked the years he visited the festival so all around will know, and they raised drams in honor of the occasion. All around the ferry one could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of the festival comers.
Coffee and whisky early in the morning on the ferry
After arriving on Islay and settling in at the Morris’ place, we were off to begin our festival experience at the Lagavulin open day with a master class to which we were lead by a bagpipe playing Lagavulin employee (she also did the same at Caol Ila).
Festival Tip – pre-book all distillery events you want to attend as the chance of finding an opening during the festival itself is close to zero.
Peter Campbell, the Lagavulin distillery manager, armed with a cask corking hammer and willing to use it on anyone who may insult a whisky, took us on a voyage between six different expressions amongst them the Lagavulin 12, Lagavulin 16, Distillers Edition and Feis Ile bottling. Each expression was accompanied by a complementary ‘mini side-dish’ such as a piece of chocolate, cracker or Scottish tablet, with the idea to see how the taste of the specific expression is changed and varied through the taste and texture of its companion. Thanks to this master class, I in person rediscovered Lagavulin, through the Distillers Edition expression. For the past few years I only had the Lagavulin 16 and did not fancy it too much, however as I was nosing and tasting the Distillers Edition I knew that I found the Lagavulin for me.
Note – I didn’t take any nosing/tasting notes of ANY of the whiskies I tried during the festival. This is much to the fact that I only learnt how to nose properly DURING the festival. I leave all nosing notes to those who are better than me, and recommend checking the Feis Ile WhiskyCast.com chapters for this.
Peter Campbell with his big hammer at the master class
After having also a tour of the distillery, I joined what I later discovered to be a repeating scene at all of the distilleries except Laphroaig – at some worse than at others – the queue for the shop. As each distillery was offering a special Feis Ile bottle for sale, and most of them limiting the purchase to one bottle per person (Kilchoman even stamped the hands of those who bought a bottle), the queues for the distilleries’ shops were between long to extremely long (at Ardbeg and Bowmore, people started queuing a night before the open day, just to get a limited edition bottle). There was an upside to standing in these long queues and that is the chance to meet and converse with whisky lovers from all over the world resulting with new friends from all over.
Lagavulin open day, included live music shows (live on rock n’roll!), local arts and crafts, food stands and like with most other open days, a chance to win a bottle in a good cause charity raffle (I’m still waiting for them to say that there was a mix up and I actually won the bottle). It was next to the raffle stand where I saw this man sitting down with a laptop in lap and a microphone in hand reading out loud some text from the computer screen. As this was quite strange to me and the German gentleman standing near me, we remained put staring and waiting for the man to finish his act in order to find out what this was. The answer was soon to follow as Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast.com (a whisky pro and an extremely nice person) decided he wanted the German and I interviewed for his Lagavulin open day special podcast. It seemed that Mark was on Islay for the complete festival with the goal of having a special podcasts series with a show per distillery, a goal very much accomplished and appreciated by WhiskyCast.com listeners all over the world. I was lucky enough to befriend later on with Mark, hang out with him during the week at the various open days and other events and learn a whole lot from him about whisky, nosing, distilleries and more.
Lagavulin distillery open day
Sunday was the day of the main event that got me on Islay – The Laphroaig Gathering – but before that started there was a whole day to pass at Bruichladdich as it was their open day. And what a day, a carnival day, it was.
As soon as the distillery gates were opened and the masses that gathered outside got in (each paying the 5GBP entry fee), the Feis Ile bottling queue started. While standing in the queue, I had the chance to look around and see the amazing setup that was waiting for me once I’ve completed my purchase (which included a lot more than just the Feis’ Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2004 500ml bottle). Bruichladdich has a big inner square shaped courtyard, on the one side there was a flat-bed truck setup as a stage with chairs organized in front of it, ready for all the great music and dances that accompanied the day. Just next to that there was the bar where many different Bruichladdich drams and Bruichladdich containing cocktails (recipes were given!) could be bought in the Bruichladdich unique shaped glass; almost as a natural continuation to the bar, stood the beer tent where Islay Ales were offering their brewed goodies and on the other side of the yard there were food stalls, including a Lifeboats full lunch “restaurant“ in the distillery filling store. As with Lagavulin, local arts and crafts were sold, including amazing Scottish tablets by Islay’s An Gleann Cottage made with Islay whiskies.
While I was waiting in queue, my father was quite busy going around the distillery, seeing the bottling room in action (I went there later as well), browsing the different arts and crafts, browsing the shop while getting requests from me to get me this shirt and that bottle from one shelf or another, sitting and enjoying live music for quite some time (it was a long queue I was in), and, buying tickets to the Bruichladdich Rum master class that was held later. I must be honest – I knew that all master classes were fully booked except for the rum one which I didn’t want to attend (I mean rum? in a whisky festival? come on…), but my father’s persistence paid off – the participants of the Rum master class were entitled to purchase the very limited 1989, 20yo rum single cask Valinch edition, that was tasted as part of the master class and to which I took likings. The master class itself was a bit “dry” and could have been given in a livelier manner, but the information was interesting enough and the content of the glasses even more so.
The main idea of the master class was to explain how the pasts of rum and whiskies are linked by naval history, Americas slavery history and drinking history, and how these pasts can lead to a linked future by finishing whisky in rum casks, and by maturing Caribbean and Americas distilled rums in Scotland. Bruichladdich, as we all know, like to experiment and thus have now a limited line of rums (under the label Renegade) in addition to whiskies, and also plan to start distillation of gin soon enough in the recently installed fifth still named “Ugly Betty”.
On a placemat before each participant stood six glasses, two whiskies and four rums, listed according to tasting order– Bruichladdich 17yo rum cask, Renegade rum Cuba 1998 11yo Allegrini Amarone cask, Renegade rum Barbados 2000 9yo Chateau Petrus cask, Renegade rum Grenada 1996 12yo Chateau Margaux cask, Renegade rum Trinidad 1991 17yo Chateau Le Pin and Bruichladdich 1989 20yo rum cask. We were given tasting instructions to first try the whisky or rum as they are, then add a touch of water and try again, have a bite of sweet Scottish tablet and sip through that and finally bite on a slice of lime and try the liquid with that. Though I don’t recall the exact notes per glass, I do recall the effects and differences that the water, tablet and lime had on the whiskies and rums, which was very interesting discovery on the palate as lime was a very good contributor to the rums and rum finish whisky. The tablets, being mainly butter and sugar, took the edge off the spirits and sweetened them a bit too much for my taste, but I am planning on trying this kind of tasting soon enough with lime, chocolate, different whiskies and just maybe, a rum or two.
I fail to remember if it was before or after the master class, but at some point in time the Isle of Islay and Spirit of Islay pipe bands marched in to the distillery yard and gave a marvelous show. This was the first public appearance for the Spirit of Islay band which is the junior band of the island, and one must say that they did very well. The bands were right at home as Bruichladdich is their official sponsor which is clearly visible on the uniforms and base drums. I was lucky enough to get acquainted with the band’s pipe major, Nigel Morris, as he is the son of Mary and Eddie (with whom we were staying) and to receive a personal dedication from him on the band CD I’ve bought.
Spirit of Islay pipe band drummers having a quick rehearsal before their first show
Isle of Islay and Spirit of Islay pipe bands performing at Bruichladdich’s open day
After a very successful and enjoyable day at Bruichladdich, we got into the car and drove to the main attraction of the day (for me). By the time we got to Laphroaig, Wellies wearing friends of Laphroaig were all over the distillery, each with a big green bag (of the boots), their national flag, miniature bottles and The Gathering nosing glass. We had a nice surprise queuing up to collect our pre-orders custom boots and goodies; all those in front of us were asked for their country of origin and then for their name, however when we were asked for country and answered Israel, the reply was ‘well then… you’re easy as you’re the only Israelis here’; made us proud to know we are the ambassadors of our wee country in such a great event.
We quickly put our Wellies on (quickly is not the exact thing that happened, it’s what we wanted to happen but putting the damn things on is a nightmare and we weren’t the only ones struggling with them), and we trotted out to join the great parade of over three hundred FOLs marching towards the peat plots, each to claim their square foot of Islay. On the plots, everyone were organized into the letters FOL and directed to raise glasses, raise flags, smile, put the flags in the ground and so on as the whole thing was photographed from way up by a Laphroaig photographer in a basket crane (aka cherry picker). The whole thing was accompanied by continues filling of glasses with the Feis Ile 2010 Cairdeas, slantie shouts from all around and good laughter. I think that I myself has at least third of a bottle alone – damn fine whisky! John Campbell the distillery manager, and Simon Brooking the master ambassador welcomed everyone and also fulfilled the last request of a FOL who wanted some of his ashes to be spread over the Laphroaig peat plots (from peat you came and to peat you shall return goes the saying no?), John Reading wanted to attend but passed away few months before the Feis and gathering; may his spirit enjoy the peat forever.
The Gathering Wellies march to the peat plots
Waving the flags on the peat at The Gathering (my father – bottom left corner)
As it was getting foggier and colder we all rushed back to the Laphroaig filling store (where for the better part of the last thirty years Eddie Morris – remember him from earlier? – has been working, as well as at the warehouse – yes I was blessed by staying at a house of a Laphroaig family member), which was where we got our boots earlier and which now transformed to a bar and a Ceilidh hall. The Laphroaig Gathering dance began with John Campbell greeting all the FOLs and then the music started. My father, who as I mentioned earlier is a Scottish music fanatic (traditional folk Scottish music) got himself a good seat, practically on the band, and near John and seemed to be having a great time (mind you, we were almost the last ones to stay as I couldn’t get him to leave – this is at around 23:30 and we were supposed to be at Port Askaig early the following morning as I scheduled a photo session with new made friends. For the last two hours of the gathering, at least until I got him to leave around midnight, the band were playing ONLY his requests, what they knew how to play, and later during the festival said of him that “this man knows ALL the songs!”). While my father was enjoying the music, I with Jill and Rob, new friends I’ve made at Lagavulin (and with whom we met the following morning), walked around the distillery, visited the still room, went to eat something at the restaurant that was catering the event (queues again) and generally had a blast with our glasses filling up with whisky and with more drinks we got at the bar. Next to the band people were dancing Scottish dances and then Laphroaig pampered us with the Laphroaig cheese which was absolutely incredible (do whatever you can to get your hands on that and please invite me to share). The first ever gathering was a sensation and a true treat!
Monday began early (yes we got there on time) at Port Askaig with Jill and I going around photographing, almost slipping from the Lifeboats dock and freezing, and Rob and my father sitting in the Port Askaig hotel sipping coffee. We then had to split as Jill and Rob had a tour scheduled at Bunnahabhain and my father and I drove to the Caol Ila open day where we had a scheduled tour; but alas, no parking allowed at the distillery, either at Port Askaig or at another further village at the opposite direction. So to Port Askaig we returned only to wait endlessly for the shuttle which didn’t come and in order not to miss the tour we started walking the few kilometers starting with a several hundred meters of ~40% sloped road to climb to Caol Ila. Thank god, midway, and after the damn climb already ended, we met those who sent us to park away and they got the shuttle for us; we’ve made it to the tour in the nick of time.
Caol Ila distillery
Caol Ila was a shock for me and somewhat of a disappointment. You see, while I was drinking Caol Ila 18 few years back, and even Caol Ila 12, and as I missed Caol Ila the last time I was on Islay, I fantasized on small-medium warm feeling distillery where every drop has a velvet touch. Well, the naked truth is that Caol Ila is HUGE with a very industrial cold feel to it and of its millions of liters a year, around 95%(!) go to Diageo’s blends. Everything about Caol Ila screams mass production and modernization, which I had, and still have, troubles to digest. For example – In the wash back and mash tun hall there is a very large computerized control station with touch-screen monitors. There was not much on the Caol Ila open day for me or my father to do, so after I finished a photo session of an abandoned shed and house on the shore beyond Caol Ila, we went to Bunnahabhian based on recommendations from Jill and Rob who by then finished their tour there and came to the next door neighbor’s open day. Rob also gave me a taste of the Bunnahabhain Feis bottle that he got as the distillery started selling it five days before their open day (which resulted with only 50 bottles remaining for sale on open day), and that was one delightful dram.
Well, guess what? Bunnahabhain is even bigger than Caol Ila but with a very distinct difference. The place feels like it was taken from the Victorian era and placed in the 21st century by mistake. The distillery’s warehouses and other buildings are organized as a long street just on the shoreline (appropriately named Shore Road), and as they are quite large you feel like you’re walking a side narrow street in Glasgow city center (only much prettier). The distillery’s main building courtyard entrance is facing an amazing view of a pier looking at The Paps of Jura, a beautiful blue-green water colored bay and all in all an extremely pastoral view. A funny sight was at the entry to the street where casks were being cooled down by a water sprinkler on the beautiful sunny day that is was. This was a regular work day at Bunnahabhain, so while walking down the street we chanced to see the filling store in action and were permitted to go in and photograph from close up the very physical task of filling casks and preparing them for storage.
Cooling casks at Bunnahabhain with the Paps of Jura in the background
Filling casks at Bunnahabhain
Apart of doing not a small purchase at the distillery’s shop (I renewed my polo and t-shirts wardrobe during the festival), we also had a very nice tour of the distillery, the only tour that we had that was lead by a heavily accented distillery veteran employee and not by an attractive young hostess. In the still room I was intrigued by the fact that the enormous stills were colored red and when asking the still man on watch I was explained that due to their size, shinning of these beasts, as the other distilleries do with their stills, is quite an expensive thing, so Bunnahabhain decided some dozens of years ago not to shine them resulting with the copper turning deep washed-out red tone. I don’t know if that is the real reason or not, but the fact is that the stills color fits right in with the Victorian feel of the place.
Later that night the Whisky Nosing contest was held at Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen. In the hall every distillery had a table with nine blue numbered nosing glasses and two regular ones. Each of the blue glasses had a whisky from one of the distilleries and the other two had new spirits. On a form that was given to all participants were listed the names of the distilleries where one was supposed to write the number of the glass that was to contain the respective distillery whisky, and there were also two empty rubrics, where one was to write down (guess more like it) the name of the distillery from which each of the new spirits came from.
As the contest was just next to our accommodation, we stopped to get some groceries on the way from Bunnahabhian which caused me to get in the hall about twenty minutes before the contest forms were due. Standing at the Laphroaig table I kept going between glasses and trying to figure out was in each, while attempting at the same time to get hints from Simon Brooking who was at the table (nothing…). One of the glasses suddenly triggered a faint memory – this was a Laphroaig. From there onwards numbers started to show on my form, and under pressure of time I guessed the rest and ran to submit the form (earlier in the day I didn’t even want to participate after hearing about the experts who won the previous years). While the distillery representatives were checking all the forms, music was playing, whisky was flowing and a happy atmosphere was in the air. After a short while the results were in and Peter Campbell of Lagavulin got on stage to read the names of the winners (six people got five right – 3rd place, one got six – 2nd place, and one got eight – 1st place). As Peter started to read the names of the winners, Mark Gillespie (WhislyCast.com) who was recording the whole thing, pointed at me and kept saying without sound ’you won’. Being a skeptic, and as I was standing few good meters away in a crowded area I kept looking behind to see who he is pointing at and even asked Duncan McGillivray, Bruchladdich distillery manager who stood by me, who Mark is pointing at; he also insisted that it was me. To my disbelief, the next name read out to the hall was mine (though Peter did have some issues understanding my handwritten surname) and I am proud to be the only Israeli that ever won the Whisky Nosing contest, and moreover, probably the first person who knew nothing about nosing before the Feis that managed to win (by the way, the whole thing can be heard on the Laphroaig chapter of WhiskyCast.com Feis Ila series). Out of the options presented to me I chose to take home (and get Duncan to sign it) the Bruichladdich 16yo Bourbon Cask aged expression, and became a bit of a celebrity as people came to congratulate me on the win. At a later stage I asked Mark how he knew that I won and apparently they showed him the names and asked for assistance with the pronunciation of mine.
Proudly holding the bottle I won with Duncan McGillivray
After a very good night sleep, we were back on Tuesday morning at my beloved Laphroaig for the open day. Eddie who was put in charge of organizing the parking, managed to find us a very close to the gates parking place which was a good thing as I found myself later going back to the car several times for various reasons (and being a bit tipsy, I appreciated the short walk to it). Laphroaig’s day was the best organized of all days – from parking, through short queue at the shop as it was actually broken to two and sometimes three, full lunch serving restaurant and up to the open bar at the Laphroaig ‘museum’ where one could taste freely Laphroaig 10, Laphroaig 18, Quarter Cask, 2nd Batch Cask Strength and the Feis Ile 2010 Cairdeas. Outside of the visitor centre live and original folk music by Brigid Kaelin and Butch Ross was played and inside, friends of Laphroaig queued up to claim their dram rent and certificate of visit. All around the distillery, in various locations, master classes and special tastings were done including a Whisky Kitchen cooking class in one of the malting floors and a special boat ride to island of Texa with onboard tastings instructed by Simon Brooking (Master Ambassador).
Unfortunately by the time I booked for events from home, there were places left only for the distillery and the Sensory tours events, and though I tried hard on the open day as well, there were no vacancies in any additional event. So, we enjoyed the regular distillery tour and then went on to the Sensory tour which was a different thing from what I thought it was to be. In the sensory tour, Laphroaig aimed to open up the senses of each participant, i.e. sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, with the idea that details are important. In order to do so, the casks filling store and cooperage halls were divided to five rooms, each had to do with one sense. The first room had a presentation showing Laphroaig related images at extreme close up and we needed to guess what it was we were looking at. In the second room we needed to guess the origin of the sounds played for us and in the third there were five white boxes with items such as peat, malt and seaweed which we needed to touch without looking and identify. The fourth room was about smell and that was accomplished by having several groups of glasses, each with cotton buds soaked in some sort of scent like lime, iodine and also with nothing (a decoy). The final room was about taste, or more exactly Laphroaig taste. For each of us there was a placemat with Laphroiag containing nosing glasses, each accompanied with complementary “dish” – Laphroaig 10yo and Stilton(?) cheese, Quarter Cask with a Scottish tablet, and Laphroaig 18yo that came with dark chocolate. We were instructed to taste the whiskies without nosing them (hard to do), try to identify flavors and so the same with a bit of water and with the relevant food companion. Though not what I expected, I did learn a bit from the sensory tour, especially from the final room and identifying flavors.
Laphroaig distillery open day
From Laphroaig we went to see the beautiful Mull of Oa, a peninsula opposite to Port Ellen, and planned to go afterwards to what was published on the web as a pipe bands show that was to take place at Islay House in Bridgend where we were to say goodbye to Jill and Rob who were leaving the following morning. However, when we got to Bridgend we only found many others going in circles around the very impressive Islay House, trying to find the damn show as well. When I knocked on the door, a Diageo overall wearing guy came out and said he knew nothing of such a show. We later found out that every year during the festival there is a pipe bands show, but for some unknown reason it wasn’t set for this year and someone forgot to remove the publication from the web. “Nu Shoin” as they say in Yiddish (“Oh well” for those of you who need to brush up), instead of the show, we got something to eat and had and early night (Festival Tip – resting between drams and open days, is important).
It was just as well that we went to sleep early, as we had an early Wednesday morning at Bowmore.
Even though we arrived at Bowmore distillery quite early the place was packed. Apparently, we arrived just as the queue for the limited 25yo 100 Feis bottles ended (325GBP per signed bottle), in which people were waiting since the previous night. We had a booking for inner core tour event, and when I came to the shop’s desk to get the tickets I was recognized by name by the young woman who I didn’t recall ever meeting. To my puzzled face, Julia told me that she remembered me from winning the nosing contest (I later saw in my pictures that I actually did meet her at the contest for the short time of taking a dram and a picture of the Bowmore table).
Essentially the inner core tour was the same as a regular distillery tour with two differences. The first difference was that we had a chance to meet and speak to distillery personnel during the tour and were given a sheet with all their names, description of their role and favorite Bowmore. The second was that at the start of the tour we got special Bowmore Feis Ile 2010 glasses that we used to taste different Bowmore expressions during the tour, starting with a 76%ABV new spirit on the malting floor (this was at ~9:40am!), through Bowmore 12 at the still room and to Bowmore 18 (I think, not remember clearly) in warehouse#1, where we also met and spoke to the legendary Ginger Willie. The tour ended at the visitor centre’s shop and bar where I had a chance to try Bowmore 16yo 1992 Wine Matured and later the Bowmore 25. As I wrote above, I didn’t take any notes of any tasting, but I must say that the 16yo was so good that I do believe that it was the best Bowmore I ever tried (and no, I didn’t try too many of them).
Bowmore’s mash tun
Once we’ve completed the tour and I tried my luck at the nosing competition they had at Bowmore (need to identify all kind of scents like cloves, eucalyptus and what I thought to be bad smelly socks…), we drove to the not too far Islay House at Bridgend for the Islay Ales open day where we had a tour by the owner and Master Brewer Paul Hathaway. Islay Ales is the only brewery on Islay, and though at first was regarded a weird venue between all the whisky distilleries, it has been very successful and became very popular over the past few years. During the festival week I tried the darker ales and also two of the light ones and quite enjoyed them. The Islay Ales open day had also live music but we did not stay for that as we had a scheduled Queen of the Moorlands whiskies tasting at Bowmore and we also wanted to manage and visit Finlaggan archeological site before that. Busy day it turned out to be.
I will skip Finlaggan, and just mention that it is a place worth visiting even if you’re not into archeology as its location and views are amazing.
Finlaggan, Lord of The Isles
Following instructions that were given by email, we’ve reached the Islay Whisky Shop to pay for our tickets to the Queen of the Moorlands whiskies tasting and get directions to where it was actually held, which was the garden of a house just behind the shop. Since 2004, David Wood of the Wine Shop at Leek, England, has been bottling rare single casks from various distilleries under the brand Queen of the Moorlands. David does not age his casks but rather, what I call, ‘cherry-picks’ matured casks out of samples he gets from the distilleries and then bottles them, all being single cask limited editions, and my oh my what a great variety has he got. We tasted his 1997 Rare Cask Bunnahabhain Peated Edition which is an amazing whisky and a rare evidence that when they want, Bunnahabhain can compete in the peat category with no issues. We actually started with the 12yo Speyside Single Malt and also tried the Laphroaig and Bowmore bottling. The final whisky was a treat – a 1982 Port Ellen, though not by David. It was as a pleasure meeting David and his whiskies as it was refreshing. I was lucky enough to try some of these on the Bunnahabhian open day as well, where David was staying at the cottages and was kind to offer tastings on the green.
We finished that day just up the road from the tastings, back at Bowmore distillery where the Isle of Islay and Spirit of Islay pipe bands gave another marvelous show which closed the distillery’s open day events.
To be continued….
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