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Peaty Double Feature

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The number of whisk(e)y reviews in the past few weeks may have given you the wrong idea about how much spirits I really drink. In reality, it takes me forever to get through a bottle, even one I really like. As such, it took me a while to realize that I'm something of a peat freak. I get the impression that people who recommend stuff for newbs don't really go overboard with peat, which is probably advisable, but after a slow ramping up, I realized that I really enjoy me some peat and smoke in my scotch. It started with the faint hints in Highland Park 12, caught a bit more peat smoke with Talisker 10, and culminated in Ardbeg 10, at which point I realized that I should just stop worrying and embrace the peat. This past weekend, I cracked two peaty Scotches and compared notes. There's a lot to go over for these two, but stick with me, it'll be fun:

Compass Box The Peat Monster - The Scotch nerd community seems to be mostly about Single Malt Scotches, yet they represent some stupid-low segment of the market (something like 5%, kinda like craft beer). The grand majority of Scotch that is sold in the world are called "Blended Malts", and they don't have the greatest reputation. Johnny Walker certainly makes some well respected, older-aged bottles, though even they get poo-pooed. The likes of J&B and Cutty Sark don't do blends any favors though, and taste a little like gasoline. Here at Kaedrin, we're big tent kinda people, so I thought it might be nice to go after a "good" blend, and in today's market, that seems to be Compass Box. I was in the market for a new peaty bottle, and this sucker has a great reputation. The guy behind Compass Box, John Glaser, is a longtime member of the industry and got his start by blending bottles from his bar to see what kinda weird stuff he could create (this great interview gives more background on this, amongst other topics). He's gotten into some trouble by adding adjuncts to some of his more adventurous blends (coming from the rough and tumble craft beer world, where a recent local brewery just released a beer made with goat brains, the prospect of having some orange or spice added to my whisky doesn't really frighten me - not that Peat Monster has any adjuncts). The blended components seem to be something of a secret, though they do appear to be Islay malts (see below for a little more on Islay). As an added bonus, check out that label. Perhaps not as "classy" as most Scotch labels, but it's really well designed nonetheless:

Compass Box The Peat Monster

I'm always surprised by how light these smokey, peaty monsters can be - this is a clear, very light yellow color. The nose is very nice, with the obvious smokey peat aroma being the most prominent, but also an underlying sweetness that indicates balance. The taste bears that out, with a big malt presence up front, maybe some oak and vanilla, and that intense peaty smoke coming through strong towards the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, a nice oiliness to it that helps coat the mouth, and plenty of booze. Overall, this is a very nice, very balanced peat smoked whisky. Despite the name, this is an approachable dram of peat smoked whisky, and pretty easy drinking too... I'd say more intense than Talisker, but not quite at the Ardbeg levels...

Whisky Nerd Details: 46% ABV bottle (750 ml, just opened recently). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 4/12/14.

Ardbeg Uigeadail - I've already mentioned Ardbeg 10, which is my favorite Islay whisky (which isn't to say that I've had a ton of them, but still). To a newbie the whole Scotch region game can be tough to figure out, but Islay is the easy one - they tend to be intensely smoky and peaty, moreso than any other region. Why is that? As per usual, the historical origin is a tale of necessity, rather than a specific desire for peat smoke. Islay is an island with no trees, so they had no wood to fire their kilns and malt their barley. Thus they relied on what they had: peat. This imbued the malt with a distinctive smokey flavor, which many have grown to love. A tradition born of necessity. This bottle adds to the normal Ardbeg style another component, one not typical in peated Scotches (see Jacob's Venn diagram for an illustration) - it is also partially finished in Sherry casks. It's also a higher-proof offering than the standard Ardbeg 10, and while it has no age statement, I can't imagine this being too young...

Ardbeg Uigeadail

Definitely a darker pour here (than Peat Monster, but also of Ardbeg 10), more on the golden orange side of things. Nose is definitely more complex, hitting with that classic Ardbeg peat smoke, but also something else, presumably that sherry influence. People often talk about smoked malt as having meaty characteristics, which in my experience is actually rare, but this Uigeadail definitely has something like that going on in the nose. The taste hits on that peat smoke and tar, but future sips yield some oak and vanilla, and sometimes an almost fruity malt note (or maybe that sherry again). Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and oily. Definitely a hotter alcohol component here, but still approachable. Overall, this is really spectacular and complex. On the other hand, I think I might prefer straight up Ardbeg 10, though this is a really nice riff on the same style.

Whisky Nerd Details: 54.2% ABV bottle (750 ml, nearing the bottom). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 4/12/14. Bottle Code: L11 284 14:57 6ML (basically, it's a late 2011 bottle - see full breakdown of bottle codes here)

Beer Nerd Musings: One of the most surprising beers I've ever had was Yeastie Boys' Rex Attitude, a mostly unassuming recipe... except that it's made with 100% peated malt. This sounds like a ludicrous idea, but it works way more than you might think. If you're a peat freak and you have the opportunity to try this beer, give it a shot, I bet you'd enjoy it (alas, Yeastie Boys is a rather small contract brewing operation in New Zealand, so their beer can be hard to come by...) There's also an imperialized version known as XeRRex that I'm certainly going to keep an eye out for. In terms of barrel aged brews, Islay barrels are a bit of a mixed bag, and to my mind, often overwhelm the base beer with their smoky, boozy intensity. Some are drinkable, but none seem to approach the exalted heights of the top tier bourbon barrels, or even Ola Dubh beers aged in Highland Park casks...

So there you have it. Up next in the peated Scotch realm, if I can find it, will be Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which combines Ardbeg's typical peat smoke with new oak (typically Single Malt Scotch is aged in old Bourbon barrels)... In other news, we're really in the homestretch now, one more non-beer entry on Thursday (for tea), then we return to beer blogging with a vengeance. Looking forward to it!

Balvenie 15

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Coming down the homestretch, only one more week until I start blogging about beer again. I don't know about you, but I feel that these past 5-6 weeks have been a worthwhile (if temporary) interruption in my obsession with beer. Ironically, I've been writing more during this non-beer period than I normally do. This is not unexpected, as one of the points of this exercise was to learn more about other drinks, and seeing as though I've displayed varying levels of experience in the worlds of bourbon, wine, port, tea, and Scotch, I've got a lot of ground to cover. One of the primary reasons I blog is to learn, and surprise, I've got a lot to learn in those other subjects.

But I digress. This week, I'll be covering a few Scotches. Today, we cover what may be my all-time favorite spirit (most definitely my favorite Scotch), The Balvenie 15. As luck would have it, I've already told the story about how I came to acquire this prized bottle and what makes it so special to me. In brief, I won the bottle in a charity auction, didn't want to waste it on an unrefined palate, so I held on to it for a while while I sampled some other Scotches. Eventually, I cracked it open and lo, it was good. As I've continued to explore the world of whisk(e)y, I've consistently come back to this bottle, and been very impressed. One other notable aspect of this particular bottle is that even though it's marketed as a 15 year old Scotch, if you look at the dates on the bottle, you'll see that it's actually 18 years old. It's a single barrel offering, so most are probably closer to that 15 year date, but I guess I got lucky. According to this interview, this is something that still happens from time to time, though I imagine the whole whisky boom we're seeing right now has cut into that a bit.

At this point, it's been about 4 years since I opened it, and it's definitely showing its age (in a bad way), but I've only got a few drams left in the bottle. I was trying to save it, but it seems that oxidation impacts even the high octane spirits. That being said, the notes below incorporate some notes I've taken a few times in the past, so I'm hoping it'll still be a good view:

The Balvenie 15

Balvenie 15 - Pours a gorgeous clear golden color. The nose has a nice sweetness to it, almost fruity, and a nice vanilla and oak component that always revs me up. The taste has a nice honey and oak feel to it, sweet and rich, but also faint hints of spice (maybe even smoke, but you reallly need to look for that and my mind may be playing tricks). Lots of complexity, and the finish lasts for quite a bit. The mouthfeel is smooth, oily, almost creamy. It coats your mouth and doesn't let go. It's obviously boozy, but it goes down very easy, little to no alcohol burn, though you can get a nice warming sensation in your belly. Overall, this is a spectacular whisky, though I suppose the caveat is that I'm probably a bit biased. Still, it remains among my favorite whiskys ever, and well worth seeking out.

Whisky Nerd Details: 47.8% ABV bottle (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass. Bottling Date: 14.5.08. In Cask Date: 17.5.90. Cask Number: 8300. Bottle Number: 150.

Beer Nerd Musings: My experience with Scotch barrel aged beers is somewhat mixed, but I suspect that Balvenie barrels would be damn near ideal for this task. Alas, I've not heard of much in the way of beer aged in Balvenie barrels. My staff's exhaustive research (i.e. 5 minutes of googling) has uncovered this Iowa beer from Court Avenue, a stout aged on Balvenie Double Wood wood. Double Wood, by the way, is probably the easiest Balvenie to come by, and it's definitely a fine dram (I've only tried it once, but it was nice). Anyway, the way that beer phrased their description makes me think the barrel was dismantled or something. Also, the beer is a stout, but it's only 4.6% ABV, which is not usually conducive to great barrel aged beers. Also, it only has one review, so it was probably a one off. Anywho, I do think the idea of Balvenie barrel aged beer could be fruitful, if any enterprising brewer would take that on...

Balvenie will always hold a special place in my heart, and probably in my liquor cabinet as well.

I've finally completed the cycle. Ola Dubh is a series of beers aged in different vintage Highland Park Scotch casks. I've already had four of the five available vintages, and they've ranged from the sublime to the merely great. Strangely, the "youngest" vintage was also the hardest to find (probably because it's the "cheapest", though it's still obscenely priced), but it also happens to be aged in the casks of one of my favorite "everyday" scotches, so I figured I should just go ahead and try both during the same session.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 and Highland Park 12
(Click for bigger image)

Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special Reserve 12 - Pours a very dark brown with the slightest tinge of amber and a half finger of head. Big aromas of caramel, chocolate, and whisky, with some oak and vanilla and maybe even honey. The taste hits with a surprisingly peaty, smokey flavor right off the bat before settling into more typical caramel malt flavors. But that smoke is kinda ever-present, even in the finish and aftertaste. This is a little surprising given that I don't think of Highland Park as being a smokey peat bomb. On the other hand, while smokey, it's nowhere near as awkwardly balanced as beer aged in Islay Scotch casks, so there is that. But even this amount of smoke makes it harder for some of the more traditional chocolate and caramel flavors to assert themselves. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, a little thinner than expected, though there's obviously plenty here to chew on. Well balanced carbonation and it actually goes down pretty easy. Overall, this isn't a disaster or anything, but it is a bit of a letdown when compared to the others in the series, which are just much more balanced and complex. I'm still glad I tried some and it was enjoyable enough to warrant a weak B, but I'm again curious as to what a fresher bottle would taste like.

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (11.2 oz) Drank out of a snifter on 11/9/12. Bottle Number: 07449. Bottled in February 2010.

Highland Park 12 - Holy shit, I don't think I ever reviewed Scotch before. What do I do? I'll just pretend it's beer. Pours a golden light brown color with absolutely no head (uh, not that there's supposed to be, but come on, work with me here). Smells, um, like whisky. No, seriously, it's got a very light peat and smoke profile going on (though nothing that I'd think would lead to the smokiness in the aforementioned beer), along with some light caramel and honey, with that high octane, nose-singed alcohol note. Taste actually follows the nose, though some other notes emerge too. Light smoke and peat (again, not so much that I'd expect beer aged in these casks to be overwhelmed by it), some caramel, maybe a little graininess, some spicy character, and you know, booze. Mouthfeel is relatively smooth, with some of that spicy alcohol adding a little harshness. Overall, it's one of my go-to Scotches, it's got lots of complex flavors going on, but it's the complete package. Good stuff. I'll use my Scotch ratings scale. 4942 points.

Whisky Nerd Details: 43% ABV bottled (750 ml, 1 dram pour). Drank out of a Glencairn nosing glass on 11/9/12.

So there you have it. Not quite the face melting night I was hoping for, but enjoyable enough anyway. This more or less completes the cycle of Ola Dubh for me, unless Harviestoun starts sourcing more obscure Highland Park casks or something. Despite my thoughts on the 12 above, the rest of the series has been excellent enough that I'd love to try other vintages/specialty Scotch aged beers from Harviestoun. Speaking of the rest of the series, I think the final ranking of beers based on the vintage of the casks they were aged in comes down to: 40, 18, 30, 16, 12. Unfortunately, these things are obscenely expensive, especially when you hit the older vintages.

After some post-holiday procrastination, I finally settled down to make myself a small batch of a Simcoe single-hopped IPA. Hops are one of the 4 key ingredients in beer, and there exists an amazing variety of hops. Most of the bitterness in beer comes from hops, but they also provide flavor and aroma characteristics. Some hop varieties are good for bittering, but not for flavor or aroma. Some are great for flavor or aroma, but not really for bittering. And then there are the utility players - hops that do everything. Simcoe is one such hop. Simcoe is actually a relatively new variety of hop, often referred to as Cascade on steroids (Cascade hops were the most revolutionary of American hops - most notably featured in Sierra Nevada's classic Pale Ale). They're a high alpha acid hop (around 12-13%), which makes them great for bittering, but they also impart a huge, distinctive citrus and pine flavor/aroma.

I patterned my recipe on Weyerbacher's Double Simcoe IPA, though I have no idea how accurate the recipe I used matches that beer (I do know that my recipe wouldn't be as strong as 9% ABV though). The guy at the homebrew shop mentioned that my grains, at least, were similar to Bell's Two Hearted (which is another fantastic IPA), but that beer uses Centennial hops instead of Simcoe. Anywho, this is what I settled on (note: this is a small, 2.5 gallon batch, so there's much less malt than you might expect):

Beer #7: Simcoe Single-Hopped IPA
February 4, 2012

.25 lb. Crystal 20 (specialty grain)
.5 lb. CaraPils (specialty grain)
.5 lb. Vienna Malt (specialty grain)
3.3 lb. Briess Pilsen Light LME
1 lb. Golden DME
0.5 lb. Turbinado Sugar
1 oz. Simcoe (bittering @12.2 AA)
1 oz. Simcoe (flavor, 2 additions)
1 oz. Simcoe (aroma)
1 oz. Simcoe (dry hop)
1 tsp. Irish Moss
Wyeast 1056 - American Ale Yeast

Nothing too fancy here (although damn, Simcoe hops are expensive!) I suppose the Turbinado sugar isn't a typical ingredient, but simple sugars like that help dry out the beer (which would otherwise have been pretty heavy). Steeped the specialty grains in 2-2.5 gallons of 150° F - 160° F water for around 20 minutes, drained, sparged with another half gallon of water, threw in the can of Light LME, and put the lid on to bring the wort to a boil. During the wait, I scooped out a small sample of wort and made myself a Hot Scotchie. It's a strange beast, this hot scotchie. I've heard many homebrewers talk about it, but details on exactly how to make one are a bit scarce. Near as I can tell, you take a sample of unhopped wort before it reaches boiling, then add a shot of Scotch to it. Jeff Alworth has a decent description:

Brewers would draw off a small amount of the mash as it issued from the grain bed, fresh and warm. To this they added a dollop of Scotch. What happens is nothing short of mystical. Mash runnings are very sweet and flabby--there's no definition to the flavors. The addition of Scotch somehow reverses all this. Like an electric current, the Scotch animates the grains so that you can taste them in HD. The Scotch is likewise a very clear note, but not sharp or aggressive. It has all the flavor of a straight shot, but it's floating amid Mom's comforting malted. Insanely beguiling.
So I took a sample of wort, and threw a shot of Ardmore (it's a cheap Scotch, but it's got a nice, distinctive peat smoke character to it that's not overpowering) in there.

A Hot Scotchie

It was an interesting experience. My experience with the hot scotchie wasn't quite as revelatory as it seems to be for everyone else though. It was good, to be sure, but I'm not sure it's something I'd always do. Also, because this is a small batch, I probably shouldn't have taken that much malt out of the wort - I ended up with a lower OG than I'd like...

Anywho, once the boil begins, I add in 1 ounce of Simcoe hops and start the timer. 30 minutes into the boil, I add the Golden DME and Turbinado sugar. When I do this, the temperature of the pot seems to drop (makes sense because I'm adding room temp ingredients), so I pot the lid back on the pot and bring it back to a boil (I'm not counting these 5 minutes time as part of the boil). Once it's back boiling, I add a half ounce of hops (the first flavor hop addition). 10 minutes after that, I add another half ounce of Simcoe (second flavor hop addition) and the teaspoon of irish moss. Finally, with 5 minutes left to go, I add the aroma hops (actually sprinkling some throughout the last 5 minutes).

Moved the pot to the ice bath to cool it off, brought it down to about 80° F, strained the wort (removing the hops) into the fermenter, and topped off with about 1/4 to 1/2 gallon of cold water, bringing the final temperature down below 70°.

Original Gravity: 1.068. Definitely lower than I was shooting for (my target was in the 1.070s), but assuming a 75% attenuation, this should work out to around 6.7% ABV, which will be a solid IPA. Add in that citrusy, piney goodness from the Simcoe, and I'll be a happy camper.

I did notice a lot of sediment in the wort, even after I strained it into the fermenter, which has me a bit worried, but what else can I do? I guess we'll find out in a few weeks.

I'm going to try something new with this batch - dry hopping! I talked to the guy at the homebrew shop and he said I could do it in primary, so I figure I'll wait a week or so (i.e. until fermentation ends), chuck in the last ounce of hops, give it another week, then rack to the bottling bucket and bottle the suckers. Exciting!

Not sure what my next batch will be. I've been toying with the idea of a Earl Grey beer - start with a british beer base (perhaps an ESB), then use some sort of bergamot oil for extra flavor. I have no idea if it will work, but I want to see how it turns out. It'll probably be another small batch, so even if it's bad, it won't be a big deal. After that, I've been thinking about a Belgian dubbel for a while now, and I think it'll be time...

session_logo.jpgOn the first Friday of every month, there's a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This month, Mario wants to know what we drink when we're not drinking beer:

So as we are all incredibly interesting people, and almost always drink beer, let's talk about what we drink when not drinking beer. Maybe your passion for coffee rivals that of craft beer, or it could be another alcoholic beverage such as Scotch. My daughter being a root beer fan would appreciate her dad reviewing a few fizzy sodas. Maybe you have a drink that takes the edge off the beer, be it hair of the dog or a palate cleanser during the evening.
Well, leaving aside the beer blog roundup of posts that aren't about beer, I didn't have much trouble picking my poison. A few years ago, and I would have said Coca-Cola. But then my doctor told me I drank too much Coke. And I won a basket of Scotch and Cigars. Warning: What follows is a long and arduous tale of how I came to enjoy Scotch, followed by a beer review (said beer having been aged in Scotch casks). Feel free to skip ahead if my blabbering is putting you to sleep.

Every year at work, we have a number of charity events, and for one of them, various teams put together a basket of goodies. People buy tickets and enter to win each basket. In the 7 or so years I've participated, I've won three times (the secret is to put your tickets in the bags with the least amount of tickets). There are always baskets of booze and beer, and they're usually among the most entered baskets, but the Scotch and Cigar basket only had one bottle of scotch, so I'm guessing folks went for quantity over quality, and so I won and thus began my interest in scotch (and to a lesser extent, bourbon).

The Scotch I won was called The Balvenie. It's a single malt Scotch, but unlike most single malt Scotches, The Balvenie comes from a single cask (I'm no expert, but usually multiple casks are filled with the whisky from a single malt, then blended together). It's the 15 year old version, but it's got a nice fancy label with all the relevant dates and whatnot, and as luck would have it, my particular bottle sat in the cask for 18 years (it was casked in 1990 and bottled in 2008).

The Balvenie 15

At the time, I was a little intimidated by the world of fine Scotch whisky. I didn't want to waste this gorgeous and unique bottle of Scotch on an unrefined palate. Truth be told, it was right around this time that my beer geekery went into overdrive. I was learning a lot about beer, so I knew how different things could feel after you refined your palate a bit. So instead of cracking the Balvenie, I went out and bought some cheap Scotch. I started with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. A scotch whisky blend, and relatively cheap stuff with which to acquire a taste for scotch.

My initial strategy consisted of pouring a little bit of scotch in a glass, then filling most of the rest with water. Yeah, if a whisky nerd ever reads this, their head might explode, but this is why I got the Johnnie Walker. I would have one of these every day, but each day, I would decrease the amount of water. After a couple of weeks, I was drinking it straight up (like a real, fire-breathing man!) and enjoying myself quite a bit. I finally cracked open The Balvenie and basked in its glory.

During this period, my friend Padraic took pity on my scotch newbie soul and gave me the rundown (Padraic is a big beer nerd too, and he also maintains a blog about tea - quite the renaissance man!) He gave me a nice list of Scotches to try, and pointed me to a blog written by his friend Jacob called Water of Life (Padraic also contributes some reviews there). Thus armed with recommendations, I began exploring the world of Scotch a bit more.

It's been slow going and I won't pretend to be an expert. Beer is my poison of choice and I've probably only had 7 or 8 different scotches in my life. I only recently figured out that Islay is pronounced "eye-wah". Speaking of which, I don't know much about the various scotch regions either (though Islay seems to be home to the peaty, smoky monsters of Scotch). But I tell you now, every time I pour myself a dram of The Balvenie 15, I find my appreciation grows immensely. It is a really spectacular spirit, and I'm glad I still have some of it left. Oh sure, I could buy myself another bottle, but as it says on the label "Each bottle is unique and unrepeatable."

But this is a beer blog, so to bring the subject back to beer, we'll naturally have to talk about Scotch barrel aged beer! I've covered a few of these, ranging from the sublime to the merely brilliant to the awkwardly balanced to the outright disastrous. Today, I review one of Brewdog's now defunct Paradox series. An intriguing idea - they brewed up some imperial stout, then aged it in varying brands of Scotch barrels. This one was aged in Smokehead barrels. It's an Islay scotch, and apparently quite heavily peated, with lots of smoke. In my above referenced examples, Islay seems to overpower the flavors in beer, even in an imperial stout. But two examples isn't exactly a big sample size, so here's a third.

This one's been sitting around for at least a year, so perhaps the flavors have had enough time to come together and harmonize or something. The bottle says this should be served "at room temperature, unless you live in an igloo." In which case, I presume our Eskimo friends would have to find a way to warm up the beer. Fortunately, I don't live in an igloo:

Brewdog Paradox Smokehead

BrewDog Paradox Smokehead - Pours an extremely dark brown, almost black color with a couple fingers of light brown head. The aroma is dominated by peat smoke (as expected), with just a little musty yeast and roasted malt character shining through. That peaty smoke appears prominently in the taste as well, along with the corresponding scotch flavors, but you also get more of that roasted malt. Coffee and even chocolate make a welcome appearance towards the middle to finish, with a lingering aftertaste that actually works well. Mouthfeel is weird to judge. Feels very heavy and chewy, but that is perhaps due to the temperature (I don't normally drink beer at room temperature). Overall, this is actually a damn good beer. I never really had a fresh bottle of this, but I suspect that the extra time on my shelf has done this beer a favor, and that it would get even better with additional aging. The flavors have actually married together well, though it is not quite the perfection of Ola Dubh 40 or Devine Rebel. That being said, I'm impressed and a little saddened that Brewdog doesn't make these anymore. Perhaps I'll still be able to find a bottle somewhere... B+

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 1/6/11. Bottle label says this is Batch 15, best drank before 19-8-16 (and unlike Storm, this one didn't have a little sticker over the date!)

Well, there you have it. I wish I had a bottle of Smokehead to chase this with, but what are you going to do. I have about 5 bottles of scotch in my little liquor cabinet with varying degrees of glory left in the bottle. Since this is a strong beer, I may have to forego the Balvenie tonight and hit up the newly acquired Ardbeg 10, whose Islay smokeyness knows no bounds. Someday, perhaps, I will do more considered Scotch reviews (they would definitely make great candidates for a double feature) here, but for now, this post will have to do.

Update: The Roundup has been posted. As it turns out, I'm very unoriginal, as lots of beer folks apparently go for the occasional dram of scotch as well. Go figure.

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

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