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- More from Drinks
So Many Single-Malt Scotches, but Which Dram Do We Drink?
Stuart Maclean Ramsay
Posted: December 1, 1998
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Mr. Gunn, a Highland Scot, was referring to single-malt Scotch whiskies, the individual products of copper pot stills with the ability to arouse passion and acts of pilgrimage from whisky drinkers around the world. * But all revelry aside, it can, nevertheless, be a bamboozling experience these days to enter a reputable whisky shop or well-stocked bar, and encounter the plethora of tongue-twisting Scotch brands created by more than 100 distilleries. My local pub in Portland, Oregon, displays more than 60 single malts along its back bar, each one with a story to tell and a place to discover. At one end of the bar is a handful of gentle Lowland malts: soft, floral whiskies that reflect the rolling hills and fertile farmland of their birth and maturation. Emphatically anchoring the other end is the robust family of Islay whiskies. Uncorked, these island malts release a peat reek, salt spray and perhaps a hint of bagpipes, carrying the drinker back to the windswept speck of Hebridean land. * The rest of Scotland lies between these two extremes: brine and sea loch flavors from island whiskies, smoke and spice from distilleries on the edges of the country. In the center of this spirituous row are the heartland malts--the Speysiders. Kissed by sherry and Bourbon oak casks, nestled by the banks of whisky rivers and bounded by mountain and sea, Speyside malts comprise an aristocratic majority of Scotland's whiskies. The whole culture of whisky permeates the landscape and people of this region, creating complex, round malts of aromatic, fruity sweetness. * Nearly 90 single-malt distilleries are currently producing whisky in Scotland, most of it available as a bottled single malt. (Around 30 additional distilleries are closed, either demolished or "silent"--presently inactive, but often capable of resuming production Their malt whiskies can be found in limited bottlings.) In the past few years, an increasing number of distilleries have introduced a range of bottlings, usually in a variety of ages, and more recently with different alcohol strengths, vintages and wood "finishes." In addition to these distillery bottlings, independent merchant bottlers offer a liquid treasure trove of often rare, limited malt whiskies under their own company labels.
In every bottle of malt whisky rests the spirit of a place. Each one is unique and often has its own band of faithful admirers. Yet, whenever a group of whisky drinkers gather, it seems that certain distilleries dominate the discussion, rising to the top by merit more than by the marketing wiles.
If there are classic single-malt distilleries that consistently produce great whiskies, a sensible place to begin a search may be the blending rooms of the Scotch whisky companies. It has been the international success of blended Scotches--the likes of The Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal--that has kept the diverse family of single malts in existence for more than 100 years.
A blended Scotch can include up to 40 individual single malts and two or three grain whiskies, married together to create a unified, whole spirit. Typically, a blend will include several "core" malts in the recipe, whiskies that marry well with the other whiskies, and add character and sophistication to the blend. Most of these core, or component, malts are outstanding whiskies in their own right, sought after by the blending companies that pay a premium price for their unique character. Top class, first class, top dogs and crack drams are some of the descriptors used for these great producing distilleries. (A dram is a measure of whisky in Scotland, the quantity often determined by the sobriety or generosity of the dram giver.)
When I asked one worthy whisky maker why some distilleries have a heritage of creating great whisky, he replied: "Och, it's all in the genes." There may be a wee bit more to it than genetics, so let's take a brief look at how the cratur is made. A single malt, very simply, is the product of an individual distillery in Scotland. It is made from a sugary liquid extract of 100 percent malted barley that is fermented by yeast and double distilled in small batches in copper pot stills. The new spirit then matures in oak casks before bottling. The characteristics that shape a single-malt whisky are derived from its ingredients (water, malted barley and yeast), production methods and maturation.
Of the many scientific, mystical and genetic factors that are responsible for the character of a single malt, the oak cask is perhaps the most important. It can account for as much as 60 percent of the whisky's flavor and ultimate character. Each oak cask used to mature Scotch whisky imprints its personality on the spirit. Identical new-make spirit--the white spirit that's been distilled but not yet aged--made in the same distilling season at one distillery can have quite different characteristics as a mature spirit, depending on the cask.
A distillery that embarks on a high-quality, oak-cask program for its single malts may not be genetically well endowed, but it can end up with great whisky. This is what makes the exploration of single malts such a lifelong pleasure for the whisky drinker, and the decision to exclude certain distilleries from a top-class list so difficult.
A number of the top-class malts reviewed in this article may not be widely available as distillery bottlings. It is thanks to independent merchant bottlers such as Gordon & MacPhail in the Speyside town of Elgin and Cadenhead's of Campbeltown that we can enjoy these rare treats. These two companies have traditionally bought "fillings" of new-make spirit from individual distilleries, supplied their own casks to mature the whisky, and bottled it in a variety of ages in limited quantities. Their retail shops--Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin; Cadenhead's in Edinburgh, London and Campbeltown--are places of pilgrimage for the serious whisky drinker. Of the other independent bottlers that have started up in the past 10 years or so, Adelphi and Signatory have established a reputation of quality.
Not every occasion or mood calls for a complex malt whisky like the ones we'll discuss on our top-class journey. If you seek an everyday, all-purpose whisky, a restorative dram at the end of a hectic day, or prefer a lighter, less complex spirit before dinner, these are that scores of single malts may be better suited to the task.
The culture of whisky approaches perfection in the Speyside region of northeast Scotland. More than half of the country's single-malt distilleries are located here, by the banks of river systems that course down, northwards, from the great massif of the Grampian Hills to their estuaries on the Moray Firth. The principal whisky river is the Spey, the second longest and the fastest flowing in Scotland. With more than 60 of Scotland's single-malt distilleries located in the region, Speyside whiskies cover a broad spectrum of flavor characteristics. Speysides range from light, delicate and flowery to rich, full, fruity and robust. They are the most versatile of all the regions; a Speyside malt can be found to suit all whisky palates.
Macallan (Founded 1824)
The noble Macallan Distillery overlooks a glorious sweep of Strathspey and the village of Craigellachie across the River Spey. The distillery is both innovative and traditional, and has dedicated itself to a sophisticated pursuit of quality in regard to ingredients, production and maturation. The distillery has been using the Golden Promise variety of barley since the 1960s. Macallan believes that the barley, in conjunction with the fermentation and pot stills, gives its whisky a fruity, estery balance and longevity.
The direct, gas-fired stills are among the smallest in Scotland. The distillate that ends up in the casks (the heart of the run) is a remarkably small fraction of the whole distillate compared to other distilleries, about 15 to 17 percent. First- and second-fill Spanish oak casks, seasoned with oloroso sherry, are used exclusively for maturation of the whisky.
Recommended bottlings Macallan 12, 18 and 25 year old, Gran Reserva--18-year-old Macallan matured in first-fill sherry casks, recently available in the United States (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Macallan 12 and 18 year old; 86 proof. The 12 year old has a full and smooth body; rich, honey-sweet and sherry nose; rich, full, sweet and nutty palate; warm, round and lingering. The Macallan 18 has all the qualities of the 12, with more richness, oak, spice and nuts. Regarded by many single-malt connoisseurs as the finest whisky in this, or any, style.
Glenfarclas (Founded 1836)
Situated on the south side of the River Spey, Glenfarclas sits in an exposed patch of farmland in the shadow of the bare, often snow-blanketed Ben Rinnes mountain. Still an independent distillery and run by the Grant family for five generations, Glenfarclas (or "Glenfirstclass" if you work there) produces a delicious range of rich, flavorful drams with a healthy dose of sherry character. The name, translated from Scottish Gaelic, means "glen (valley) of the green grassland." Glenfarclas has the largest stills on Speyside, gas-fired, and uses soft, cold, snow-melted water from a spring that rises in the heart of Ben Rinnes. Her single malts have a large percentage of Spanish oak in them.
Recommended bottlings The complete range of distillery bottlings, from the 10 to the 30 year old. The 17 year old is a personal favorite.
Tasting notes Glenfarclas 12 year old; 86 proof. Medium- to full-bodied; amber colored; rich, full sherry nose; palate is a delightful balance of sherry depth, malty sweetness and subtle peat smoke, with a teasing lick of Highland fire; finish is lingering and sweetly full. Glenfarclas is a classic Speyside and Highland malt, and one of Scotland's most versatile whiskies in her youth.
Longmorn (Founded 1894)
For many years, until it was mercifully introduced as one of the Seagram Co.'s Heritage Selection malts, Longmorn had been regarded as one of Scotch whisky's best-kept secrets. Blenders seek out Longmorn to use as a "top dressing" in their finest blends. The wash stills, which are used for the first distillation, are among the widest and lowest of all the whisky distilleries. (The heaviness of Longmorn is shared by Strathisla, its sister distillery and partner in the Heritage Selection. Located in the nearby town of Keith, the picturesque Strathisla is the oldest Highland distillery, founded in 1786.)
Recommended bottlings Longmorn 15 year old (distillery bottling). Gordon & MacPhail Longmorn-Glenlivet 12 year old.
Tasting notes Longmorn 15 year old; 90 proof (distillery bottling). Medium- to full-bodied; floral, full, fragrant aroma with some oil; clean, malty palate, smooth and round, flowery and rich; malty sweet lingering finish, clean with notes of nuts and sherry. A rich, deep, true-to-the-region Speysider.
Linkwood (Founded 1825)
Not far from Longmorn, Linkwood Distillery has shared her neighbor's predilection for secrecy over the years. The distillery is nestled in a tranquil natural setting, next door to sturdy, ancient farm buildings. A well-tended flower garden fronts the still house, and a pair of swans occupy the distillery pond just above. Opening a bottle of Linkwood is like unleashing a spring breeze. The aroma is flowery, clean and delicate. The body is surprisingly full, with malty sweetness and a hint of smoke. A versatile and elegant dram, Linkwood can be sipped for hours.
Recommended bottlings Linkwood 12 year old Flora & Fauna limited bottling series from United Distillers. Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 and 21 year old.
Aberlour (Founded 1879)
The Speyside community of Charlestown of Aberlour (pronounced Abber-lour, as in hour) is one of the prettiest villages in Scotland. Aberlour Distillery, producer of one of those archetypal Speyside fireside and after-dinner whiskies, anchors the west end of the village. The current distillery was founded by James Fleming in 1879, on the site of an older distillery with origins in 1826. The distillery's output demonstrates the judicious marrying of whiskies from Bourbon and sherry casks. In the midst of the distillery grounds is Saint Drostan's (Dunstan's) Well. It's tapped now, but in the seventh century, as legend and public relations would have it, it was used by Dunstan for baptismal ceremonies.
Recommended bottlings Aberlour 10, 15 and 18 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Aberlour 10 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied; amber color; almonds, honey and sweetness in the nose; rich sherry and malty sweet flavors and yet there is a lightness to the palate; round, clean and smooth, with a gentle, sherry-sweet finish.
Mortlach (Founded 1823)
Dufftown (pop. 1,700), is the self-proclaimed whisky "capital" of Scotland. "Rome was built on seven hills; Dufftown stands on seven stills," is how the saying goes. The first legal distillery to be established in the town was Mortlach (pronounced Mort-lach, the "ch" with a guttural sound, as in loch), producer of a heavenly, heavy Speyside dram. The meaty whisky is a great favorite with the blenders--Mortlach is an excellent marrier.
New-make Mortlach is one of the heaviest spirits in Speyside. When mature, the robust whisky displays the classic Speyside attributes of fruit, malt, light smoke and sherry, in a perfect balance of depth, roundness and complexity.
Recommended bottlings Mortlach 16 year old Flora and Fauna limited bottling series from United Distillers. Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 15 and 21 year old.
Glenfiddich (Founded 1887)
The most famous stills in this heady whisky district are the coal-fired ones of Glenfiddich, established by William Grant. The Grant family, in its fifth generation, is still involved with the company, which has established Glenfiddich as the world's best-selling single malt. The Grants began the mass marketing of Glenfiddich in 1963, the first company to do so on such a scale with a single malt. A raising of the whisky glass is due to this pioneering family, filled preferably with the 15- or 18-year bottlings, soft yet complex reflections of the distillery's pedigree.
Balvenie (Founded 1892)
The Grants also own Balvenie Distillery next door, named after nearby Balvenie (pronounced Bal-VEN-ee) Castle, a substantial thirteenth-century ruin. Balvenie's single malts are a delicious counterpart to Glenfiddich, with rich, sherry characteristics and after-dinner qualities.
Balvenie Distillery, which is independently operated, retains its traditional floor maltings and has its own farmlands, where part of the barley used in the maltings is grown. An on-site cooperage repairs the casks and a coppersmith tends the stills. Its nine stills are taller than those at Glenfiddich, producing a heavier, fuller spirit.
Recommended bottlings Balvenie Founder's Reserve 10 year old, Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old, Balvenie PortWood 21 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium- to full-bodied, rich, clean whisky; amber color; malty and sherry sweet in the soft nose; smooth, sweet and mellow palate with nuts, fruit and spices; lingering finish, warming with chocolate and some smoke. The DoubleWood spends most of its life in traditional Bourbon casks and is then transferred to finish the maturation in sherry casks.
Glenrothes (Founded 1879)
The hardworking whisky town of Rothes (pop. 1,400) is home to five distilleries, including Glenrothes, Glen Grant and Speyburn. Glenrothes (pronounced Glen-ROTH-ess) is another malt that is difficult to find but well worth the discovery. There's a cooperage for repairing casks on site, and about half the malt used comes from the Saladin maltings at Tamdhu, Glenrothes's sister distillery in Speyside. Glenrothes is prized for its marrying qualities and is closely associated with the Cutty Sark blend. The stills produce a new-make spirit packed with fruit and feints--the final fraction of the second distillation, which has a heavier, oilier character--ideal for blending and aging. The rare distillery bottlings from Glenrothes are the result of selected casks from a particular vintage or year of distillation. Glenrothes vintages tend to have lots of fruit, a hint of smoke and sherry, sweetness, and full, round flavors.
Recommended bottlings Glenrothes 1979 Vintage, Glenrothes 1982 Vintage.
Cragganmore (Founded 1869)
Hidden at the confluence of the rivers Spey and Avon is the distillery of Cragganmore. The distillery stands on the grounds of Ballindalloch Castle Estate, residence of the Macpherson-Grant family since 1546 and home to the oldest herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle in the world. Cragganmore is one of Speyside's smaller distilleries and has two of Scotland's most unusual stills: each spirit still has an L-shaped flat-topped head. Thus, some of the heavier, oily compounds in the vapors that rise from the pot condense at the head and fall back to be recondensed. The result is a cleaner, lighter spirit.
Recommended bottlings Cragganmore 12 year old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Cragganmore 12; 80 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied, smooth and firm; rich, dryish and complex nose, fragrant and flowery with background notes of grass and smoke; a clean, round, malty and well-balanced palate; and a lingering malt and soft smoke afterglow. A serious and cerebral whisky from a much respected distillery.
Glendronach (Founded 1826)
Glendronach, which means "valley of the brambles (blackberries)" in Scottish Gaelic, is tucked away in gentle northeast Scotland terrain. Her spirit reflects the earthy traditions of Aberdeenshire more so than the Highland glens of Moray and Strathspey. Glendronach (pronounced Glen-DRON-ach) is one of Scotland's bonniest, most traditional distilleries, offering the visitor a chance to see a rare floor maltings (a process in which presoaked barley is spread on a floor, where it begins its conversion from starch to sugar) and kiln, in addition to traditional coal-fired distillation when Glendronach is producing. The distillery is currently silent. The gleaming pot stills are coal-fired, a method used by just a handful of distilleries today. The new-make spirit is poured into Spanish oak casks that have previously been host to oloroso sherry.
Recommended bottlings Glendronach 15 year old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Glendronach 15 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). The malt has a deep and rich sherry character that, combined with oak and Highland depth, places it emphatically in the after-dinner category.
Glenlivet (Founded 1824)
The glen of the River Livet is the most notorious whisky district in Scotland. Flanked by the Cromdale Hills and the Ladder Hills, with access to passes over the Cairngorms to the south, this remote high country was perfect for distilling illicit whisky. In the early 1800s, 200 illicit stills were said to be operating in the glen. The Glenlivet Distillery, the "father of all Scotch," is anchored on a limestone shelf in the austere heart of it all. Its founder, a doughty Highlander named George Smith, was the first distiller in the area to apply for a legal distillery license, in 1824.
Recommended bottlings Glenlivet 12 and 18 year old (distillery bottlings). The distillery has also recently introduced a series of vintage Glenlivet bottlings that includes five single malts distilled in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1972. Limited to a few thousand bottles from each year, the collection is interesting not only for the extended ages of the whiskies (between 26 and 31 years), but also for the opportunity to compare subtle differences--flavors such as fruit, nuts and spice are more or less evident in each bottling--that can be tasted in the spirits from year to year.
Tasting notes Glenlivet 18 year old; 104 to 112 proof (distillery bottling). The flavors in the older Glenlivet have developed more depth and richness than the standard 12-year-old bottling. The body is firm and smooth, the nose has sherry sweetness and floral aromas; the palate is sweet, with nuts and peaches; the finish is lingering and sweet. The 18 blossoms with Speyside character and depth.
Other recommendations Speyside distilleries with widespread distribution--Cardhu, Singleton of Auchroisk, Knockando, Speyburn, Glen Grant (older bottlings), Tomintoul, Tamnavulin, Tamdhu. Speyside distilleries with limited bottlings and distribution-- Aultmore, Glen Elgin, Glendullan, Ardmore, Balmenach, Glenburgie, Ben Rinnes.
With a population of about 4,000 and eight distilleries, Islay is Scotland's preeminent whisky island and the most southerly of the Hebrides, measuring 20 miles east to west and 25 miles north to south. Most of Islay's malts are noted for their peat-reek, heavy, full and robust qualities. Islay's pungent, complex whiskies have long been popular with the blenders for these characteristics.
The peat reek--a Scottish word for smell--is a defining, important characteristic in certain, usually island, malt whiskies. The character is created during the malting of the barley. Peat is acidic, decayed vegetation made up of bog plants such as sphagnum moss, heather, sedges and grasses. In the malt kiln, the "green" malt is spread on a perforated floor above the furnace and exposed to burning peat smoke in varying degrees for up to 20 hours.
The amount of peating is measured by the concentration of acidic organic compounds called phenols that are found in the peat smoke. Most Speyside malts, for example, will have one to five parts per million phenols in them. Laphroaig, near the other end of the reek spectrum, has a formidable 35 ppm phenols.The higher the concentration of phenols, the smokier the spirit.
Lagavulin (Founded 1816)
Lagavulin Distillery is nestled into a small, rocky bay on the more sheltered southeast coast of Islay. The name Lagavulin (pronounced Lag-a-VOO-lin), is derived from the Scottish Gaelic, laggan mhouillin, which means "mill in the little dell." By the 1740s, the site was better known for the stills in the dell, with about 10 smuggler's bothies (huts) puffing away, making it one of Scotland's oldest whisky production locations. Lagavulin's malted barley, kilned in nearby Port Ellen, has 35 to 40 ppm phenols.
Recommended bottling Lagavulin 16 years old (distillery bottling).
Tasting notes Lagavulin 16 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Full-bodied and rich; the nose is pungent with peat smoke, salt and some sweetness in the background. The sea and the sweetness make their appearances in the smooth taste, too, but the robust, dry flavor of peat dominates this sophisticated whisky; a gentle bite introduces the smoky finish, an afterglow of peat warms the soul.
Bowmore (Founded 1779)
The harbor village of Bowmore (pronounced BOH-more), population 1,000, was built in the 1760s and is the island's commercial and social center. Few distilleries are as architecturally integrated with a community as the whitewashed buildings of Bowmore, Islay's first legal distillery. The distillery tour is especially worthwhile; visitors can watch traditional floor malting, which accounts for about 40 percent of the malted barley in the whisky. The kilning at Bowmore results in a medium-peated malt of around 20 ppm.
Recommended bottling Bowmore 17, 21 and 25 year old (distillery bottlings). My favorite is the 17 year old.
Tasting notes Bowmore 17 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Heavier and more robust than the younger Bowmores, which have a citrus note to them, the 17 displays Bowmore's peaty character emphatically and harmoniously throughout, yet it does not overwhelm the whisky's underlying sweetness. There's vanilla and chocolate in the nose and a warming, smoky glow from start to finish.
Laphroaig (founded circa 1820s)
The name Laphroaig (pronounced La-FROYG) is taken from the bay around which the distillery was built. Whitewashed buildings skirt the shoreline, the sea lapping a warehouse wall at high tide. Laphroaig Distillery presents an opportunity to explore unchanged whisky buildings, to view traditional floor malting, and to smell the peat reek firsthand, which is formidable. Thirty percent of the malted barley in Laphroaig is made at the distillery, resulting in a pungent dram of around 35 ppm phenols.
Recommended bottling Laphroaig 10 and 15 year old, Laphroaig Cask Strength (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Laphroaig 10 year old; 80 to 86 proof (distillery bottling). Straight 10-year-old Laphroaig is an outdoor malt, to be sipped from a flask as an antidote to hellish, or just Scottish, weather. A splash of spring water mellows the whisky. It has a long and balanced aroma of seaweed, phenols, peat, heather smoke and vanilla notes; the palate is a complex melody of peat, salt, iodine, oil and oak; the finish is round, dry, warming and lingering. The 15-year-old Laphroaig is a quintessential, complete Islay whisky.
Ardbeg (Founded 1815)
Whisky drinkers can rejoice now that Ardbeg, one of Scotland's truly great drams, is producing once more. The distillery was bought by Glenmorangie in early 1997 and the stills were singing their pungent sea chanteys by the summer of that year. The bottlings from the new owners should reach the United States in early 1999. Bottlings of Ardbeg from the previous owner and independent bottlers can still be found and they are worth tracking down.
Ardbeg is perhaps the island's most magical distillery site: an ancient, stone-slab pier reaches into a bay dotted with craggy rocks; swans, otters and seals swim by; and the sea's aroma is everywhere. When Ardbeg's maltings were operating, the whisky had a formidable 53 ppms phenols from the local peat. Yet it does not overwhelm the heaviness and depth of the whisky. When Ardbeg is sipped from a good bottling, brine and smoke envelop you like a damp sea fog.
Other Recommendations Islay distillery with widespread distribution-- Bunnahabhain (Boon-a-HA-ven). Islay distilleries with limited bottlings and distribution--Caol Ila (Cull-eela); Port Ellen (closed).
The Highland region comprises single-malt distilleries to the north of the Highland Fault, or Line, a geological boundary that stretches from Greenock, a town northwest of Glasgow, to the city of Dundee on Scotland's east coast. Highland includes the spirituous Speyside region, as well as various subregions that contain an additional 30 or so Highland malts. These distilleries are scattered in diverse locations and landscapes, from the moorlands of the Monadhliaths to the Perthshire glens and along the eastern coastlines and firths. The characteristics of the whiskies are just as diverse, and it is difficult to pinpoint a shared regional style for such a widespread area. Most have a firm, malty body.
Highland Park (Founded 1798)
About 70 islands and islets make up the fertile, timeless Orkney Islands, 17 of them inhabited. The island capital, Kirkwall, is the biggest Orkney town, and the Highland Park distillery is located on its southern outskirts. Highland Park is a gem of a traditional distillery and an object lesson in how to integrate whisky making into a local culture. Scotland's northernmost distillery, her old, clustered stone buildings and slate roofs seem permanently and organically rooted in the townscape. Highland Park malts 20 percent of its own barley on five traditional malting floors, using Orkney peat for the purpose. The phenol content for this malted barley is 8 ppm, and it is supplemented with unpeated malt from mainland Scotland.
Recommended bottling Highland Park 12, 18 and 25 year old (all distillery bottlings).
Tasting notes Highland Park 12 year old; 86 proof (distillery bottling). Medium-bodied; peat smoke and heather honey in the nose; malty sweet, fresh, smoky and round in the palate with plenty of depth; honey finish. One of the most versatile single malts.
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