Teeling Irish Whiskey co-founder Stephen Teeling on Irish whiskey’s boom: S5E7

Teeling Irish Whiskey co-founder Stephen Teeling

In 2015, Teeling Irish Whiskey opened Dublin’s first new distillery in 125 years.

Brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling have recently achieved another significant milestone with the launch of Teeling Single Pot Still, the company’s interpretation of this classic whiskey style that is unique to Ireland.

In this interview recorded on May 29, 2020, Stephen and I discuss the origins of single pot still.

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He explains the significance this new product has to the Teeling family, which has an association with Irish whiskey dating back to 1782.

Also on the agenda is the company’s launch of a 28-year-old single malt whiskey, following on from the 24-year-old that was named world’s best single malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2019.

Teeling Irish Whiskey co-founder Stephen Teeling
Teeling Irish Whiskey co-founder Stephen Teeling

And we take a look at the evolution of Irish whiskey more broadly, and the reasons behind the Teelings’ decision to sell a minority share of their business to Bacardi Limited in 2017.

But first, you’ll hear from Stephen how Teeling Irish Whiskey has been handling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephen Teeling of Teeling Irish Whiskey: Full transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Stephen Teeling, thanks so much for joining us on the Drinks Adventures podcast. 

STEPHEN TEELING: Thank you for having me, give me an excuse to talk about whiskey before breakfast. So this is, this is a good start to my day. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now it’s hard to start any interview these days without first asking you about COVID-19 and how things are looking over in Ireland. And specifically, for the Teeling Irish Whiskey business at the moment?

STEPHEN TEELING: It’s been a crazy three months. Like everyone around the globe we’re sort of seeing a few green shoots coming out the other side of it. But yeah, it’s been, it’s been mad. I think our country has been locked down since the 12th of March. The distillery is shut as well. So basically, coming into three months of the lockdown today, which you know, is, is a crazy experience. Thankfully the start of last week we managed to get the distillery open again and it was baby steps. We got the café open; we had the distillery shop reopen and we’re kind of going through this phased reopening and, and everyone kind of dusts themselves off after a tough three months. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Pubs are obviously such a great institution in Ireland. And I imagine people haven’t been taking too kindly to them being closed over the last few months. Are people starting to talk about the reopening of pubs and restaurants at this stage?

STEPHEN TEELING: Yes, they are, they are. I think probably more so than, than many countries. We have a lot of, I suppose generational pubs that have been passed down from family to family, and it’s a huge institution in Irish culture. Where problems are solved and problems are caused, and all the weird and the wonderful. But like one of the issues that we have, because these are such iconic pubs is a lot of them wouldn’t be set up for social distancing. And one thing Ireland is not blessed with is consistent good weather, so the idea of these sort of outdoor areas where people can drink and stuff like that, they just don’t exist because all the rain and the wind, and everything like that is good for making whiskey and beer. But probably not good for outdoor beer gardens and pubs. 

STEPHEN TEELING: So I think they’re just trying to work out how, if they open, you can have social distancing and how it can be safe. Because I think look, regardless of business and different things like that, everyone is just focused on reopening. But ensuring first and foremost the staff are safe, but also that people who come to the pub feel comfortable. Because you know, you can open and have nobody come. So if they’re not in a position to open and people feel safe going and, and having drinks. I think it’s going to be a tough one. But we’re working through it. We were one of the first to lock down here in Ireland now we’re seeing a lot of other country’s like Germany and France, and other European countries. And Australia as well. Kind of leading the way as to what that next phase looks like. What is safe, but also what is acceptable to people going to the pubs? 

STEPHEN TEELING: And it’s really changed consumption patterns substantially, so we’re wondering what does the new going out look like? Because I, I’ve seen even from my own peer group and even from my own friends, and even me and my family. Doing things that you know, if you’d said to me two, three months ago we’d all be having these Zoom calls and and having drinks online I would have thought you were crazy. But people adapted quite quickly, maybe there’s going to be this blend of maybe staying in and consuming more in your own home, versus going out. And we’re just trying to work out what that looks like. And we’re working out how, with the distillery reopening, we could get people in and make them feel comfortable about going around and doing tours and tastings. And the one thing that we have is a lot of space, versus I suppose a lot of these pubs that have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. They don’t have a huge amount of space to be able to change things. And some of these are protected structures as well. Like they can’t just go in and lash up a lot of Perspex and knock down walls without you know, I suppose destroying the integrity of the building. 

STEPHEN TEELING: So, we’re kind of limping back. I definitely think the first couple of weeks of the lockdown shook people. But like that, once people understood there wasn’t much they could do to affect the outcome of the, the crisis they started to focus on what they could control. Which for us in particular, and probably like a lot of other businesses was quickly move everything to digital and try our best to support a lot of our partners internationally with e-commerce and Zoom tastings, and virtual tastings. And we launched a business in the last financial crisis, like we realised that look things are bad, but things do bounce back. So we started to think look, what can we do? And we decided look, we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re going to focus on a, on a launch plan for new products. And we were really, really happy that we managed to get our Dublin Pot Still, our Single Pot Still over to Australia. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now maybe before we go any further it would be helpful for you to explain what a Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is?

STEPHEN TEELING: Yeah, yeah like every whiskey category, Irish whiskey has sub-categories. So there’ll be four specific categories that would be Irish whiskey. So there’s Blended, there’s Single Grain which is you know, we do a Teeling Single Grain which is predominantly corn based that we finish in, or we fully mature in California red wine barrels. We’d have Single Malts, which again single just means one distillery and 100% malt barley. Which is what we do. And then Single Pot Still. And single again means from one distillery and pot still whiskey is basically a classification for using malted and unmalted barley in the mash bill. So back in the day when Irish whiskey was flying. You know, 150 years ago Irish whiskey was 60% of all world whiskey sales. The government at the time, who always finds a way to, to tax the alcohol industry started to tax malted barley. So distillers and brewers are entrepreneurial men. They decided that they were going to differentiate by throwing a bit of unmalted barley into the mash. It started off as I think a way to not pay the man, the tax. But it actually developed a certain style of whiskey. And which is a little bit fuller in terms of the flavour, so a bit more spicy and a bit heavier. It can be an absolutely nightmare to make in distilleries as well because in the mash tun or lauter tun, it’s much thicker. So when you, when you mash in there was all these old stories of distilleries over flowing because it didn’t drain. 

JAMES ATKINSON: The best-known brand of Single Pot Still is Redbreast, which is produced by Irish Distillers, the company behind Jameson Irish Whiskey. But Stephen says Teeling set out to make a different type of Single Pot Still to what was already available. 

Teeling Irish Whiskey Single Pot Still
Teeling Irish Whiskey Single Pot Still

STEPHEN TEELING: We’ve put our own stamp on it. So for probably 50 years in Irish whiskey there was one distillery making all the whiskey. And I suppose a lot of the big brands that people would know around the world would have been made by them. And we were saying look, we’re coming at this from a different angle. We’re a new generation of, of Teeling Irish Whiskey, then Alex Chasko who is our Master Blender. He’s come at it from a different slant. So what we always like to do is I suppose be respectful for the past, but also be confident enough to put our own spin on it. So there’d be kind of this benchmark of the one whiskey that people would know of Single Pot Still around the world. And we said well look, we don’t need to replicate that. Let’s do something different. So with our Dublin distilled Single Pot Still. When we were building the distillery which you know, we built from scratch, from the ground up. We were able to be involved in every aspect of the production. So you know, we knew we wanted to make Pot Still, we knew we were going to do 50/50. 50% malted, 50% unmalted barley in the mash. Which is an old traditional, heavier style of Pot Still. 

STEPHEN TEELING: But then all along the process we could innovate. So we used a proprietary yeast strain in the distillery which is a blend of distiller yeast and white wine yeast. Just to give a fruitier wash. And then all the way up to the process. And I think like that, we had an idea when the, the whiskey was being distilled as to which direction we wanted to go down. When the whiskey came of age, we had seen that some of the barrels that we’d expected to work with it, weren’t doing what we needed them to do. So we’ve actually reformulated from the original perception to a variety of different casts that we’ve used with the maturation. So the backbone of it, we felt, worked really, really well with high quality ex-bourbon barrels. So about 50% of the liquid would be matured in high quality first fill ex-bourbon barrels. And then what we found was some virgin oak, virgin American oak and some sherry. So about one fifth virgin oak and one fifth sherry. And it worked really, really well. 

STEPHEN TEELING: And I think it was only going through the process of making the other whiskies, like our Single Malt which is a vatting of different casks. And you know our small batch, which is finished in rum casks, gave us a real understanding of what you can do to improve or accentuate certain flavour profiles. And it’s, you know, it’s a very, very different distillate you know. Single Pot Stills, they’re more spicy. So you know, people are used to maybe milder styles from Ireland. We were saying no, Dublin Pot Still was renowned for being a little bit heavier, spicier. When we’ve launched this it’s actually lent more towards your rye drinker. Somebody who is looking for a bit more on the palate, but still, its DNA is Irish. And you know, there’s a job to be done to explain to people what Single Pot Still is. But we didn’t just want to go down the route of what had been done before and we called it Dublin Reborn. And you know, the colouring. You probably have the bottle there in front of you. Is sky blue, which is the colour of the city of Dublin. Which again, hadn’t been put on a label for many, many years. 

STEPHEN TEELING: And we said well look, for this which is I suppose a significant milestone for the family to bring back a style of whiskey that we would of made generations ago. Let’s go with the blue and we did a small limited run of bottles for the first couple of runs. So we’re only really getting it out into market in 2020. And we launched the first cask, did a special auction for it back in 2018. And now this is more something we feel is sustainable going forward as a style and as a flavour. And it’s, it’s 92 proof or 46%. It’s non-chill filtered, no caramel added. It’s very, very different to what’s been made before within, within Irish whiskey. Which would have been you know, predominantly 40% or 80 proof and predominantly there’s caramel added for colour and different things like that. So a big departure. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Those processes you just mentioned, they’re still the norm today for those existing Pot Still whiskies.

STEPHEN TEELING: Obviously the bigger companies definitely haven’t rested on their laurels since you know, I suppose we, we started to annoy them! They’ve innovated and moved very quickly in fairness because you know, they understand that the market is moving. So they’ve done some high strength versions. But anything that would be their standard release would, would have you know, if it’s bottled at 40% would have to be chill filtered and there’d be caramel added. But again, they wouldn’t be letting me into their labs. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Why do you think that this original style of Dublin Pot Still whiskey, with a 50/50 mix of malted and unmalted barley was lost?

STEPHEN TEELING: Pot Still as a category probably evolved away from some of those heavier styles, the spice-forward, when I suppose it was a very different mantra that people were going for with this Irish whiskey. You know, smooth, smooth, smooth was the marketing mantra that I suppose has made Irish whiskey a global success with one or two big brands, you know. I think by probably reducing down the amount of unmalted barley in the mash, some of the bigger brands would probably have lightened… They wouldn’t be as heavy Pot Still as we’ve gone. Which again, we’re looking at, we’re saying why would we do the same style of product that’s already available? The people who drink that, like that. Let’s do something different. So I think our main difference is we’ve gone with our traditional mash bill, which tends to lead to more of a cereal, thicker, thicker mash. Which just means that the distillate is a little bit spicier. Which again, for us you know, we like that. We’re looking for people to taste our whiskey and by layering in some of that complexity with the different barrel ageings, it’s very different. You know, the main single Pot Stills out there would be very, very sherried and that would have the norm for 40-50 years. We said that we’d twist that on its head and present something different. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now Teeling has also won some pretty remarkable accolades for your single malt whiskies of late. The 24-year-old won World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2019. And you’ve just launched a new 28-year-old, in recent weeks I believe?

STEPHEN TEELING: Yeah, I suppose to give you a bit of background on, on the 28 and the 24-year-old. It’s a 1991 distilled single malt and as I said to you, we were lucky enough as a family to have some of these family casks and you know. When, when we were setting up we had a stock of product that we were really, really excited with but weren’t 100% sure how far gone [it would be]. Sometimes you can leave it in the barrel too long and it can get over-oaked. But we found these 1991 single malt barrels had phenomenal fruit characteristics. And in a previous life with our father’s distillery, a guy called Bill Lumsden had been over from Glenmorangie. He’d always said he thought Irish whiskey, just with the style of it would work very well with Sauternes casks. And it planted a seed, particularly for my brother Jack. That if we were ever able to get some Sauternes casks, we should have a look and see what would go well with it. 

STEPHEN TEELING: Sauternes casks are kind of like hens’ teeth, they’re very difficult to get. We managed to get our hands and they’re expensive, but we found this 1991 distilled single malt had huge, huge fruit flavours. But maybe lacked a small element of a long finish. So we actually took the whiskey out of ex-bourbon barrels and finished them in Sauternes casks for 12 months. And that was our first ever super premium product, which was a 21-year-old and we launched that, and it went to Australia. It went really, really well and it became like I suppose an iconic whiskey for a lot of very, very opinionated single malt drinkers. Particularly here in Europe. It won the best ever score in this thing called the Beverage Tasting Institute, 99 out of 100. No other Irish whiskey had ever done it, so we ended up thankfully leaving some of that 1991 distilled single malt in the Sauternes casks for an extra four years and that was the 24-year-old. So that 1991 distillate was bottled in 2016 and that one is the one that won world’s best. And I think it’s still, some bottles are still available through Dan Murphy’s. It sold out everywhere, I didn’t keep enough myself stupidly. Because it’s delicious. 

STEPHEN TEELING: And we said look as a, to book end the anniversary of it winning world’s best, we were going to launch our 28-year-old which is the exact same distillate. It’s the 1991, just for a further eight years in those Sauternes casks. We were going to do it at the World Whiskies awards this year, but obviously the rug got pulled from everyone’s plans. So we held off and launched it on World Whisky Day. And it’s just basically that same liquid, eight years on in the Sauternes casks. That we bottled at 46% non-chill filtered. It’s slowly but surely getting smaller and smaller. We only have 4,000 bottles of this one. And again, it’s the exact same distillate of the 1991, the 21, the 24. And it’s this lovely journey of seeing what these Sauternes casks are doing to that fruit-forward distillate. There’s a small hint of peat in there, which again is complemented by the Sauternes casks. And really, really, really unusual and absolutely delicious. And that gave us some ideas about our own single malts coming out of Dublin. So we’re going to have a new single malt release, which is actually peated, called the Teeling Teeling Irish Whiskey Blackpitts Single Malt, coming out from September onwards. Where Blackpitts is an area by the distillery and we just thought it was a really good ode to the past. But we’ve actually utilised Sauternes casks for that younger style of peated malt, which will be coming out, which will be really, really cool.

JAMES ATKINSON: Irish whiskey has not been as well-known and appreciated overall as the likes of Scotch whisky. Do you think that’s beginning to change with some of the accolades that Teeling Irish Whiskey has won in recent years? And also some of the innovation that’s now happening in the category?

STEPHEN TEELING: Yeah I think that comes down to lack of choice, you know. It was so narrow for 40-50 years and there was a monopoly in how Irish whiskey was produced. You know, I can see why there was potentially you know, you know a lack of energy. Because like anything, monopolies in particular the ones who have a dominant position in the home market, really just rest on their laurels. So again, the lack of innovation and you know, the, the fact that Scottish single malts innovated and really led the way for 20-30 years. You know, captured the imagination of a whole new generation of single malt consumers. So you know, we’ve been swimming up a waterfall against you know, 20-30 years of hard graft by Scottish producers.

STEPHEN TEELING: And it’s only in the last, I’d say 5-10 years I’ve really seen an acceptance from the new generation drinking brown spirits for world whiskies. So you know Japanese, Taiwanese, Australian, American single malts. It’s more a conversation piece around quality and who’s behind it, and different, different aspects. It’s not necessarily ‘I only drink this’, you know, which was always a barrier. I remember I did my first ever whiskey live tasting in Glasgow. I think my dad must have sent me off to get savaged by a tough crowd. But they all showed up to this master class wearing their kilts and Scottish rugby jerseys. Scared the life out of me. I’m there to try and talk to people who’ve had you know, many, many years of drinking a certain style of whiskey. You know, fast forward to you know, 2020. It’s a different world. And I think you know, it’s a wider pool of people who are drinking premium spirits in general. 

JAMES ATKINSON: There’s been a lot of money flowing into Irish whiskey in recent years. We’ve even seen the likes of UFC fighter Conor McGregor getting involved. But Stephen says that for the most part, the recent investment in the category has been a good thing. 

STEPHEN TEELING: For many, many years we had under-investment in Irish whiskey. We had you know, one distillery making everything and you know the, the ability to get out and actually you know, speak to people about Irish whiskey was very limited. I think now we have five or six of the world’s biggest drinks companies now invested in the category, doing things to recruit people. I think the challenge always is people look at the success story of one market leader and they say, ‘oh, I’m going to have some of that’. Which in reality is totally flawed, because there’s a reason they’re successful. They’re fulfilling a need for the consumer that you know, no, nobody wants to you know, to necessarily swap away from what’s working for them. Whereas if you take the approach of what’s missing and what do you think would be interesting for people to discover that isn’t already there. I think that’s a better approach. 

Teeling Irish Whiskey founders Jack Teeling and Stephen Teeling
Teeling Irish Whiskey founders Jack Teeling and Stephen Teeling

STEPHEN TEELING: Look you know, you’ve probably seen it in Australia. We’ve seen it in America. Look there’s huge amounts of enthusiasm, but when people get into this industry who aren’t from the category or from the industry. They quickly realise that it’s tough. There’s a reason that the global market is dominated by five or six players. It is a tough, tough business. It’s marketing intensive. To get your product onto shelf it’s really, really difficult and unfortunately because of the size of our country, the local market here. We’re just not as big as the US. So craft or local, we can’t support with our own domestic market, the breadth and the width of a lot of these new distilleries. So I think there will be winners and losers out of it, like every industry. And you know, I was at Whiskey Live in Dublin on November of last year and it was just phenomenal to see the amount of energy behind Irish whiskey. So many good people involved, so many people doing a lot of different things. But again, I think when they scratch beneath the surface and they look at I suppose macro figures, they’re not necessarily understanding the why of, why consumers would actually buy your product. 

STEPHEN TEELING: And you’re not just up against Irish whiskey. There’s a huge, huge range of world whiskey’s now. And people are much more knowledgeable. They’re not just going to buy an Irish whiskey that has a nice label or a name on it. They’re going to do their research. And in particular for whiskey drinkers, and I mean you know, people who, who you know, search out quality whiskeys, you know, they’re not going to repurchase a second bottle if the liquid doesn’t stand up. And I think quality will be the main way in which a lot of these new distilleries will survive. But you know, all in all I think it’s a good thing. You know, I was sick of being the only Irish whiskey at a lot of these whiskey shows for the vast majority of my life. It was ourselves and I remember Penderyn, which is a Welsh whisky distillery. Amrut, which was an Indian whisky distillery. And I think a couple of the Taiwanese and a few others. And I remember we were always kind of grouped together as the misfits back in the day. Whereas now I think there’s a much bigger opportunity to talk to a wider breadth of people and it’s not just that one older demographic. There’s a much bigger generation of people who are looking to discover brown spirits and we’re growing very, very quickly as an industry. We’re growing very, very quickly as a premium segment of Irish whiskey. So I think the category needs more and not just two to three facings, or you know a whole bay of one product. I think the category needs more to get people excited. So you know, all the buzz and all of the different products coming out should hopefully help. But there will be winners and losers.

JAMES ATKINSON: I noticed you baulked at the opportunity to comment on the Notorious’s whiskey, Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey?

STEPHEN TEELING: No, yeah it’s not that I’m reluctant to do it. It’s just that I don’t know that much about it. I know, I know in particular it was a very US-centric approach. You know, he has a huge following. I think he knows the group that follow him. So you know, in the absence of understanding who drinks his whiskey, I don’t know too much about how successful its been in, in Australia. But I know in and around the UFC fights and different things like that he’s done well. I suppose the one thing you will say is he has a global platform to talk to a new generation of people who mightn’t have ever even heard of Irish whiskey. So again, if he’s recruiting in a new generation of people to even you know, think about Irish whiskey, he probably has the ability to talk to you know, a huge amount of people, hopefully in the right way to get, to get them interested. But I do think it’s two very different conversations. 

JAMES ATKINSON: One of the other major developments that’s happened for Teeling Irish Whiskey since you and I last spoke is that in 2017 you received a minority investment from Bacardi Limited. Had you reached a bit of a crossroads where that kind of investment was necessary to move forward?

STEPHEN TEELING: Well it really was a crossroads. We launched into the US, which is the biggest Irish whiskey market in, around the globe. It’s nearly 50% of all global sales of Irish whiskey in the US. And predominantly dominated by a few key states. And we’ve been you know, working hard in the US from probably 2014. And myself and my brother had you know, done a lot of grassroots. We’d done a lot of you know, I suppose graft, which is basically what you have to do. We were at that stage where it was starting to potentially taper off, some of the good work that we had done was starting to fall by the wayside. And all of our projections, and all of our forecasts were based around us being successful in the biggest market for Irish whiskey in the world, the US. 

STEPHEN TEELING: And we were starting to see things were, were becoming more challenging. And I think some of the earlier wins that we had gotten, when we were the first to do a lot of these premium and innovative products, were slowly being chipped away at. And so the bigger multinationals were taken by surprise by us. And because I think we moved quite quickly, and we did something they weren’t expecting. But you know, owing to the nature of how they operate you know, they started to innovate and do their own products. And we were getting left out of a lot of conversations, in particular with key retailers and in key markets like New York and California. So we knew Bacardi for a very long time and they’re a family company as well. My father’s distillery had always had good dialogue with the guys and it was always, you know, very open. I think with them they had been at it for hundreds and hundreds of years themselves. They understand the challenges. 

STEPHEN TEELING: So I think they were at a crossroads themselves of slowly looking at their whisky portfolio, and also they had some smaller brands under their umbrella. They’d just started to do a push with a lot of their single malts. So they came to us with a concept of coming together as kind of this incubation portfolio and it was just for the US, where we could potentially go in as a portfolio strategy with some of their complementary brands and really try and put a bit of fire under all the good work that we had done. So it was a tough decision as I said, we don’t take these things lightly. But unfortunately for us, if that market didn’t work, you know, we’ve laid down 2.2 million litres of alcohol in, in Dublin. We’ve put blood, sweat and a lot of tears into building that distillery. If we couldn’t get a seat at the table, we felt that we were doing ourselves a disservice. And they came with a option for us to, to work with them. Very amicable relationship, even prior to that, and shared a bit of a vision about what we could do together. 

JAMES ATKINSON: And there was no sort of contractual provision for them to acquire the remainder of the Teeling Irish Whiskey company at a later date?

STEPHEN TEELING: No, I don’t think there’s any form of compulsory agreement in there. You know, a lot of even the, I would say second tier spirits producers now are trying their best to say what is the best distribution model? Some of them are doing it themselves. Sazerac are going around buying up I think domestic distributors, you know. Campari, other you know, you would say not the big goliaths are going out and saying look, if you don’t have a strong route to market, you could have the world’s best product but not be able to get it onto shelf. And not being able to be discovered by consumers is going to be a huge challenge for a lot of smaller Irish brands.

STEPHEN TEELING:It’s just you know, we’ve skinned it every which way. We looked at setting up our own distribution, we’ve looked at strategic alliances, we looked at you know, the US is you know, our main focus to try and have the best partner to hopefully be a success. And as I said, we have a decent relationship with Bacardi. They’re very honourable people. I think that they understand family business a lot better than maybe the more corporate listed entities. So yeah, it’s a decent relationship and hopefully we’re being a solution for them in the US to try and complement their whisky portfolio as well, with the likes of Aberfeldy and Craigellachie and some of these other really, really solid whiskies that they would have.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well Stephen, thanks so much for taking the time to have a chat with us on the Drinks Adventures podcast. And best of luck for Teeling Irish Whiskey in navigating the next few months as we hopefully move out of this pandemic. 

STEPHEN TEELING: No problem. Absolutely love talking to you and as I said, don’t need an excuse to talk whiskey before breakfast. It’s an exciting time for Irish whiskey. We’re obviously in a really, really unusual situation with the pandemic and the crisis, but that’s, fingers crossed for everyone. Hope that sort of the short term pain was worth it and we can all get back to some semblance of normality.

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