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Brian Robinson

WS 2009 Blind Tasting Results

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The Wormwood Society’s First Annual Absinthe Tasting Event

A study on the effect of palate experience on the enjoyment of absinthe brands

By Brian Robinson

 

Method

 

All absinthes save three were generously provided free of charge by Drink Up New York, which is based in Brooklyn, NY and which hosts an online retail store with one of the largest selections of absinthe available in the states. Without their support, this event would not have been possible.

 

One absinthe (AO Spare) was provided by Markus Lion. Two others (Supreme and Le Tourment Verte’s new prototype) were taken from my personal collection.

 

Each taster was given 22 individual scoring sheets, a bottle of water (replaced when needed), an 8 oz vial of simple syrup with dropper, a spit cup, and a bottle of Santasti, an innovative palate cleansing beverage. Crackers were also provided.

 

Each absinthe was prepared in a separate room by fountain to a 3:1 ratio without sugar. They were then poured into 1.5 ounce tulip glasses and served to each taster. A separate glass of the same absinthe was brought out and prepared at the table with a second fountain. Breaks of 15 minutes were taken after absinthe numbers 4, 8, 13, and 17. Twenty two brands were tasted in all, with 20 of them qualifying for scoring.

 

Two absinthes, Supreme and Le Tourment Verte’s new prototype, were not included in the final scoring, since neither were willing participants.

 

Notable brands that declined an invitation include the Clandestine line and the Jade line.

 

Tasters were encouraged to spit out their sample in order to avoid the possibility of inebriation affecting their scores in the later rounds.

 

Tasters were also notified that discussion and/or non-verbal cues regarding their opinion of any certain brand was prohibited until after the session concluded and scoring sheets were collected.

 

Scoring sheets used the formal Wormwood Society scoring system, which is based on 5 individual factors: color, louche, aroma, flavor, and finish. An overall score is also given. All 6 scores are then computed using a weighted system to arrive at the final total. Scoring for each area range from 1 (totally inappropriate) to 5 (Outstanding example) with only whole numbers given. For all intents and purposes, anything that fits the popular definition of absinthe should not score below a 2.5 based on the criteria.

 

Order of presentation was determined via lottery system, where each brand was noted on a card and placed in a pile. The cards were then shuffled face-down, and then drawn. The first card drawn got the first tasting spot, second drawn got second, and so on. The tasting order was:

 

1) Grande Absente

2) Marteau

3) La Charlotte

4) Germain Robin

5) Supreme

6) Duplais Verte

7) St. George

8) Kübler

9) Vieux Carre

10) La Fee

11) Leopold

12) Walton Waters

13) Mata Hari

14) AO Spare

15) Obsello

16) Meadow of Love

17) Koruna

18) Pacifique

19) Pernod

20) La Muse Verte

21) Green Fairy

22) LTV Prototype

 

 

Findings

 

I should preface this section by saying that the original tasting was supposed to include 15 or more people. In the end, we only had seven, due to travel restrictions. My thoughts are that scoring would be significantly different had we more people.

 

While the overall scores were in line with what I’d expected, save two or three brands that scored much higher than I had originally hypothesized, what struck me the most was the disparity of the reviews for certain brands. While personal taste obviously plays some role in these scores, it was easily identified that some of the simpler absinthes were scored higher by less experienced reviewers and lower by experienced reviewers. It was also noted that more robust, complex absinthes scored higher by experienced reviewers, and lower by those who were less experienced.

 

I attribute this to a situation I call the ‘Scotch Phenomenon’, in which more basic scotches tend to rank higher by novices, and which heavier, peatier, more complex scotches such as Ardbeg and Lagavulin are in most situations only appreciated by seasoned Scotch whisky drinkers.

 

Two absinthes in particular, which are known to have added sugar, seemed to appeal to inexperienced palates much more than experienced ones. So much so that the average weighted scores were pulled up dramatically. Grande Absente (which has an average formal score of 2.2 in the WS website reviews) scored in the mid fours with inexperienced palates, but only scored in the low 3’s with experienced ones. Absinthe Supreme, from Slovenia (no formal scoring submitted yet on the WS review page) similarly scored in the mid fours amongst the inexperienced palates, while only scoring in the low 2’s by experienced reviewers.

 

Several other absinthes were highly ranked by experienced tasters and rated far worse with novice reviewers including Leopold and Pacifique. Leopold scored as high as 3.8 with seasoned reviewers but as low as 2.4 with less experience, while Pacifique similarly scored 3.7 and 2.0 respectively.

 

A few notable exceptions to the findings, which scored fairly consistently across the board included AO Spare, Duplais and Germain Robin in the top 5, as well as La Fee, Koruna and Green Fairy in the bottom 5. Koruna had the distinction of being the ‘absinthe’* with the narrowest scoring margin, with a high of 1.5 and a low of 1.0. Green Fairy was not far off with a margin of only 0.8 between the highest score of 1.8 and lowest score of 1.0.

 

*Many absintheurs do not consider Koruna to be absinthe, given its production process and flavor profile.

Final Tasting Results (weighted):

1) Duplais Verte 4.2

2) AO Spare 4.1

3) Walton Waters 4.0

4) Germain Robin 3.7

5) La Muse Verte 3.7

6) Meadow of Love 3.6

7) Vieux Carre 3.6

8) Grande Absente 3.6

9) St. George 3.4

10) Kübler 3.4

11) Obsello 3.3

12) Marteau 3.3

13) Leopold 3.2

14) Pacifique 3.1

15) La Charlotte 3.0

16) Pernod Absinthe 2.8

17) Mata Hari 2.4

18) La Fee 2.2

19) Koruna 1.3

20) Green Fairy 1.1

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Kamal and Drink Up New York (www.drinkupny.com) – As stated previously, this event would never have been possible without the help of Kamal and his store. Kamal’s dedication to absinthe is admirable, and we truly appreciate all of his support and his willingness to work with us over the years regarding his absinthe selection.

 

OMG Bill and Matt Bocian – Without the help of these fine gentlemen, the event would never have gone as smoothly as it did. When they arrived, they immediately set upon the samples, dividing them up, louching and distributing them to each taster. Thank you both so much.

 

The Tasters – I put you all through a lot. Being able to sit through almost 4 hours and 22 absinthes is something of a heroic feat. Next year, things will be much easier for you all.

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Very interesting findings, I must say I have wanted to see what a completely unbiased blind taste testing would reveal about a lot of different brands. This is just about exactly what I was looking for!

Edited by Gruene Fee

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I'm surprised to see Leopold's absinthe land where it did. I had some from batch 20 the other night and it was phenominal. Do you know which batch was used at the tasting?

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"Very interesting findings"

 

 

Indeed, and to a larger extent than not, somewhat disturbing ones.

 

But, hey, I didn't participate, so who am I to be a detractor? :rolleyes:

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I was impressed with the tasters. More would have been better but these were tough cookies that stood fast and did it without much flinching. I would have struggled to do what they did. :worshippy:

 

If there would have been 15 tasters and 10 different absinthes, the scores may/would have been different. JMO

 

Thank you Brian for putting it all together. :thumbup:

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Do you know which batch was used at the tasting?

Batch 20. It's also one of my favorites.

 

Leopold suffered with just a couple of scores that pulled it down, as mentioned above. As did Pacifique. As I also mentioned, more scores would have evened out the discrepancies significantly. I sincerely hope next time to have double the number of tasters and half the brands.

 

I'd REALLY like to hold two or three tastings throughout the year, maybe one in New Orleans (if enough WSers come), and one somewhere else (maybe during the NY event, or OC or somewhere in the Seattle area) that will be held with the same brands and same parameters. Then we'd total up all of the scores for one large tasting event. That would give us the potential to have a much larger pool of tasters without having to worry about so many people making one single event.

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Definite thanks to Brian for getting this out at last. It did lead me acquire one new bottle since it was the only one of my top 5 ratings I didn't have.

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Interesting results indeed! Thanks for putting them together, Brian.

 

A methodological question, though: why was the decision made to prepare the blind samples at a 3:1 ratio when the WS recommends reviewing an absinthe at 4:1 or 5:1? Could this be a factor in the difference between the blind scoring of these brands and their official reviews on the website? It seems to me that some of the nuances of a well-made, complex absinthe are going to get lost at that lower ratio.

 

I know that, personally--a few blanches and a verte or two aside--I rarely drink absinthe at 3:1. It's often just too intense for my palate to fully appreciate at that ratio.

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AiO, I'd like to take a swing at that. I think some of those brands tasted may get absolutely lost at 4:1 or more, so the lowest common denominator was probably set with that in mind, and equal across the board for all brands and all tasters. That's just a SWAG though. I'm sure Brian can fill you in on why.

 

As an aside, I rarely go higher than 3 or 3.5:1

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Agreed, Ron--the need for a common denominator is obvious. In a scenario like this, you clearly can't louche some brands to 3:1 and others to 4:1; there has to be consistency across the board. And there are a few brands on the list that have a reputation for "falling apart" if over-watered. There are probably not many people, for example, who would choose to drink Vieux Carre at 4:1. On the other hand, there are likely more than a few people who would not choose to drink some of the brands on the blind review list at 3:1 (I personally wouldn't enjoy Marteau or Walton Waters at that ratio, just to name a couple). It cuts both ways.

 

To me, this isn't the point, though. A single ratio is not going to be ideal for every brand (or every taste). The point is that the official recommendation of the WS is that absinthes be tasted at a ratio or 4:1 or 5:1 for the purposes of reviewing. I'm just curious as to why this protocol wasn't followed at the blind review conducted in OC.

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Oooops! It looks like I was a bit late with my post. ;)

 

 

I wanna play. The 3:1 ratio was just a starting point. There was water, simple syrup and other things to bring the samples to a ratio that the tasters prefered. They could add water and sugar. There was no real time limit.

 

Sometimes the tasters felt rushed.....JMO. They were all equipped with whatever they needed to make their sample suitable for them.

 

As a side note, I've never thrown so much absinthe in the sink as I did that day. I only sipped about three samples that day. I had a good time serving the samples. I'd be thrilled to do it again.

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Were the bottles allowed some time to "breathe" before the tasting? I'm guessing we've all had a bottle of absinthe taste very different a week after opening (maybe more often than not)...

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A single ratio is not going to be ideal for every brand (or every taste). The point is that the official recommendation of the WS is that absinthes be tasted at a ratio or 4:1 or 5:1 for the purposes of reviewing. I'm just curious as to why this protocol wasn't followed at the blind review conducted in OC.

 

Good question, and I'd like to hear the answer, as well. A suggestion of mine would be to louche them all to the same final abv. Abv does, afterall, have the most significant effect on one major palate impression, and that is body, or palate weight.

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The 3:1 ratio was just a starting point. There was water, simple syrup and other things to bring the samples to a ratio that the tasters prefered. They could add water and sugar.

 

Ahh, OK. Thanks for the clarification, Bill. So the 3:1 ratio was just a baseline that the taster could then modify to suit himself/herself?

 

Just to play devil's advocate for a moment (running with the metaphor), does this introduce a potentially unhelpful variable into the process? With this approach, an absinthe tasting becomes that much more unlike a wine tasting or a beer tasting because everyone's tasting something slightly different (3:1 vs. 4:1, sugared vs. unsugared). Don't we want a little more consistency? After all, the point isn't really to alter the sample to your personal taste, is it, but rather to rate it as it's presented to you?

 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not questioning the validity of the blind review, just asking what I find to be a very interesting question regarding how absinthe should reviewed in situations like this given the unique method of its preparation.

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I'm surprised to see Leopold's absinthe land where it did. I had some from batch 20 the other night and it was phenominal. Do you know which batch was used at the tasting?

 

Hey now, being sandwiched between Pacifique and Marteau suits me just fine. If that's the worst we do, that's fine by me. There's some fine spirits north of our score.

 

These things are really, really difficult to pull off. From the looks of Brian's description, all involved did a heck of a job putting a professional polish on an event that was just for fun. Beverage evaluation isn't easy, and people are often surprised by blind results. Ask anyone who has ever entered the GABF or the San Fran Spirits Competition.

 

The funny thing is, our Absinthe generally fares well with those who are brand new to absinthe. I would have guessed that it would be the other way around...that the more experienced tasters would've preferred other, more traditionally distilled absinthes over ours.

 

Pretty interesting results, don't you think? It was nice to see St. George and Germain-Robin fare well. I've quite a bit of respect for those outfits.

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In response to AiO's post.

Good point. I thought the same thing more than once. BUT it still seemed like the best way to begin. The tasters were well equipped to adjust their samples. The tasters only had an ounce and a half I believe so it wouldn't take much "adjusting". Personally, I like to swallow my drink to be fair. There were too many samples to be able to do that.

I'm bad about underwatering my drink........water makes a terrific difference....as does sugar.

 

As for Leopold's post. You do good work my friend and I'm looking forward to seeing you again. It was a grand time for Precious and myself.

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Thank you Brian for putting it all together. :thumbup:

:cheers: And to all who helped and supplied everything!

 

I'd REALLY like to hold two or three tastings throughout the year, maybe one in New Orleans (if enough WSers come), and one somewhere else (maybe during the NY event...)

:thumbup:

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If there would have been 15 tasters and 10 different absinthes, the scores may/would have been different. JMO

There is no doubt in my mind, the results would have been totally different.

 

I wanna play. The 3:1 ratio was just a starting point. There was water, simple syrup and other things to bring the samples to a ratio that the tasters prefered. They could add water and sugar. There was no real time limit.

True. But...

There was an intense time limit even if it was self-imposed. We knew we had a shit load of samples to plow through and they came with a mechanical efficiency. As soon as the scores were recorded, another sample was coming our way. For me personally, I would say my first ten samples were worthless. It took that long for me to find my pace and tasting style: Sip. Spit. Add more water. Sip. Spit. Add simple syrup. Sip. Spit. Record scores.

Prior to that, I was like a pinball bouncing all over the place. It is a shame because I expected more from myself and I'm certain I did several brands a disservice.

 

More to the point, I think the tasting flies in the face of what we expect from a glass of absinthe: Slow, savoring of the herbs as they play on the taste buds during a lazy evening. I could do a much better job the next time but this isn't what I enjoy about absinthe and it isn't what absinthe is about. I think the WS Reviews totally blow away blind tastings for judging absinthe. JMHO

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Were the bottles allowed some time to "breathe" before the tasting?

Yes. But to be frank, all bottles would've been on the same page even if they hadn't had time to breath. But yes. I received the bottles about a week before the event. Each bottle had two ounces decanted, then were recorked.

 

does this introduce a potentially unhelpful variable into the process? With this approach, an absinthe tasting becomes that much more unlike a wine tasting or a beer tasting because everyone's tasting something slightly different (3:1 vs. 4:1, sugared vs. unsugared). Don't we want a little more consistency? After all, the point isn't really to alter the sample to your personal taste, is it, but rather to rate it as it's presented to you?

Good points. Here are my thoughts, and my thoughts only.

Yes, it introduces a variable. But with an absinthe tasting, there will always be variables. No other spirit, wine or beer varies as much as absinthe does. Each brand recommends a different amount of water to be used. Each brand has its own abv. Some brands recommend sugar, some done. Some even go to the lengths of recommending a specific type of sugar.

 

As has been mentioned a multitude of times, each absinthe has its own sweet spot. The best thing we can do in a tasting (again, IMO) is to give the taster the opportunity to find each brand's sweet spot.

 

If we would have presented them to the taster at 4 or 5:1, then brands like Kübler and Obsello would have practically been anise flavored water at that point.

 

In the future, it was actually an idea of ours to prepare it exactly how the producer would like it prepared in regards to ratio. I think that would make the event much more fair. For example, a brand like Marteau, with the orris, can seem VERY heavy handed at a 3:1 ratio. It's more enjoyable at 4 or 5:1.

 

There was an intense time limit even if it was self-imposed.
No, it wasn't self imposed. There were most definitely time problems. With that amount of absinthe, we literally could have been there for 6 hours. That's why I'd really prefer 8-10 brands next time. Maybe even over the same period of time. That would give each round a lot of room to play around with the sample. This time was really a cross between a sprint and a marathon. I won't do that to you all again. :)

 

I think the WS Reviews totally blow away blind tastings for judging absinthe. JMHO

I totally agree with the above. However, it will only do good things for the WS to continue to put on blind tastings. There are so many blind tasting competitions out there, but very few involve people who are actually experienced in absinthe. It lends credibility to have something we can say is unbiased AND educated.

 

But this was really just a trial run. I think that, for the first major blind tasting event, it went off pretty well, even though it did have its hitches.

 

I expect them to do nothing but improve over the next few years. I even expect next years to blow it away, especially if we can do the multi-regional compilation thingy.

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However, it will only do good things for the WS to continue to put on blind tastings. There are so many blind tasting competitions out there, but very few involve people who are actually experienced in absinthe. It lends credibility to have something we can say is unbiased AND educated.

You are absolutely correct.

The overwhelming majority of my frustration is because of my own shortcomings. I recognize that. There is nothing to do about it except drink more absinthe. Damn the luck.

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Thanks for the response, Brian; I appreciate your thoughts.

 

Just a few more random thoughts of my own provoked by your post:

 

But with an absinthe tasting, there will always be variables. No other spirit, wine or beer varies as much as absinthe does. Each brand recommends a different amount of water to be used. Each brand has its own abv. Some brands recommend sugar, some done. Some even go to the lengths of recommending a specific type of sugar.

 

Yes--herein lies the challenge. Possible solutions?

 

1. Water each absinthe to the same ratio and allow participants to alter samples to taste, either by adding more water or by adding sugar. Drawback:

 

Lack of consistency among samples; the same absinthe tastes different ways to different participants depending on how they prepare it. And this doesn't even take into account the inherent subjectivity of individual taste (see #3).

 

2. Water each absinthe to the same ratio and do NOT allow tasters to alter samples, either by adding more water or by adding sugar. Drawback:

 

If we would have presented them to the taster at 4 or 5:1, then brands like Kübler and Obsello would have practically been anise flavored water at that point.

 

[. . .]

 

[On the other hand], a brand like Marteau, with the orris, can seem VERY heavy handed at a 3:1 ratio. It's more enjoyable at 4 or 5:1.

 

3. Prepare each absinthe according to its "sweet spot":

 

As has been mentioned a multitude of times, each absinthe has its own sweet spot. The best thing we can do in a tasting (again, IMO) is to give the taster the opportunity to find each brand's sweet spot.

 

The problem here is that each brand's "sweet spot" is in different places for different people at different times. Taste is subjective. My sweet spot for VC is 3.5:1 without sugar, whereas yours is 2.5:1 with sugar. And so on. Moreover, taste changes over time. Sometimes my sweet spot for Jade Eddy is 4.5:1 without sugar; other times it's 4:1 with sugar. Depends on my palate that day.

 

So who gets to decide an absinthe's "official" sweet spot? The producer?

 

In the future, it was actually an idea of ours to prepare it exactly how the producer would like it prepared in regards to ratio. I think that would make the event much more fair.

 

Possibly, but despite how specific some producers get with recommendations for drinking their absinthe, I think many (maybe most) would be reluctant to prescribe such a protocol for tastings--precisely because they recognize that taste (including their own) is subjective. For example, I gather from what I've read from Gwydion that he prefers Marteau AdlBE at around 5:1 with sugar. But is that really THE sweet spot for this absinthe? Should reviewers defer to his taste in this matter even if he is the producer? In the study of literature, this argument would be rejected as an "intentional fallacy"--the fallacy that the author's interpretation of his/her own work is by default the correct one.

 

Perhaps a more democratic approach would be to poll participants (or the WS as a whole) for their preferred ratios, etc. for each absinthe and use the averages or majority opinion to determine how it is prepared.

 

4. I think FPB's suggestion of louching each absinthe to the same ABV is also an interesting and worthwhile one, though I'm not sure how to carry this out in practice. No doubt, however, he has a formula ready that you could follow. ;)

 

Oh, and I'm absolutely in agreement with the idea of doing fewer brands over the same period of time and with the idea of doing a multi-regional compilation.

 

Sorry for the long post! These are interesting questions, though, that I think have ramifications not just for the blind tastings but for the formal reviews done on the website. Absinthe isn't beer or wine, but even so, I don't think we should give up on the goal of having some consistency among the samples being reviewed.

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  More to the point, I think the tasting flies in the face of what we expect from a glass of absinthe: Slow, savoring of the herbs as they play on the taste buds during a lazy evening. I could do a much better job the next time but this isn't what I enjoy about absinthe and it isn't what absinthe is about. I think the WS Reviews totally blow away blind tastings for judging absinthe. JMHO

 

 

 

 

this is something I ran across back before I was in regular contact with "you people"; I would have friends over(in retrospect, all were cooks with some sort of palate already developed) and hand them a blind sample for review. We had a great time and I got some sort of clue what they liked, but damn if we couldn't get more than 3 or 4 brands under our belt in a 6 or 7 hour session. Also, since I knew what the samples were, I was unable to get my own opinion, just that of a few intoxicated cooks. The solution? 

 

 

  There is nothing to do about it except drink more absinthe. Damn the luck.

 

Every bottle is a storybook. Or a textbook for some folks! 

 

 

Here's to literacy! :cheers:

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So who gets to decide an absinthe's "official" sweet spot? The producer?

 

I think the consumer should decide. The producer is perhaps making a suggestion based on his preference. My days and moods are different each time I have a drink....as are most folks.

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Great findings young man! I have not had a couple of your top-rated Absinthe's. I have a fondness for the wormwood flavor in brands like Marteau. Kamal is a great man.

 

I think a lot of absinthe's add artificial dye and added sugar and in my opinion they are not absinthe. Maybe its unfair of me to say so, but I believe spirits should be pure and infused/colored with organic ingredients/herbs.

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You'll find that many people here at the WS agree with that philosophy in principle. I think most absintheurs look at artificially colored brands as a lower quality offering. Brands with sugar added shouldn't be considered absinthe, as absinthe is historically a dry spirit.

 

There are several threads around here discussing that specific point along with historical precedence and its relation to any possible legal definition of absinthe in the US.

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I think a lot of absinthe's add artificial dye and added sugar and in my opinion they are not absinthe. Maybe its unfair of me to say so, but I believe spirits should be pure and infused/colored with organic ingredients/herbs.

 

Thus spoke yet another producer of an uncolored absinthe which may get good press/critiques because

there was no coloring step.

Make a good/stable 'verte' and then start your lecture...

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