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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... The Jack Daniel's Distillery

The Tennessean home to a whiskey icon, the oldest registered whiskey distillery in the US, and a story of family and friendship.

white stone statue of Jack Daniels in frock coat and hat in front of wooden display cases in the brand's visitor centre

One Sunday in July 2022, we arrived in Lynchburg, Tennessee, about 65 miles south of Nashville, at the start of a road trip, which felt more akin to a whiskey pilgrimage. We became one of the 300,000 people a year that make the trek out to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, to see where every drop of the world famous Jack Daniel’s spirit comes from.

a path leads up to the jack daniels distillery buildings, through a grass covered garden. The building is a one storey wooden structure nestled in front of trees behind.

The Jack Daniel's distillery tour has been on my to-do list for over a decade. I have reported on the experience as it has grown over the years and on the myriad of brand activations they have created to engage with their customers. Finally, I got to experience it firsthand.


Tennessee is a beautiful state. It has cold winters and hot summers, water that runs through limestone hills and caves, and fields of corn, surrounded by stately sugar maple trees. It is the perfect combination for whiskey making. The art of filtering water through charcoal, made from burning all that sugar maple bark, sets Tennessee whiskey apart from bourbon. By state law, Tennessee whiskey must be filtered through charcoal. In rural Moore County, you have it all.

leather effect passport for Tennessee whiskey trail

Neighbour state, Kentucky, our next stop, has always been a land of bourbon makers and its Bourbon Trail has put the distilleries operating there on the tourist map. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail is a tad smaller and a little less well travelled than its more famous neighbour, but we urge you to try it out. 39 destinations await you, from the global giants to the smaller, craft distillers and we only scratched the surface, visiting Jack Daniels and Corsair in Nashville. We will definitely return to this state of mountains, music, and moonshine.


The brand history

Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel was born in the small town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, in around 1847, though no one knows the exact date. The youngest of ten children, tragedy struck when he was just 4 months old when his mother, Lucinda died and his father remarried and went on to have more children. Jack and his stepmother did not get on and he ran away from home, aged just 6.

black and white picture of Jack Daniel in a suit and jacket

Jack found refuge with a Lutheran preacher and farmer called Dan Call. It wasn't just the Holy Spirit Call was interested in, he had a sideline in another spirit, turning his surplus grain into whiskey.

the white painted front facade of the call farmhouse in Lynchburg Tennessee
The Call House in Lynchburg - DistilleryTrail.com

Jack was put to work with Nathan "Nearest" Green, one of Call’s slaves, who operated Call’s still. At that time enslaved men made up the bulk of the distilling labour force in the South, and had skilled roles in the whiskey making process. Recently credited as the first known African-American master distiller, Nearest taught Jack all he knew. Jack and Nearest became great friends and business was booming. At 16 Jack buys the still from Call for $25 and it becomes the first registered still in the US.


A year after slavery was abolished in the US, in 1866, Nearest became a free man. Jack made Nearest his master distiller and established the Jack Daniel's brand.

Jack Daniel's newspaper advertisement (Lawrence Democrat - Feb. 8, 1895)

When Jack chose to build a bigger distillery at Cave Hollow (where it is today) in Lynchburg, Nearest decided it was time to retire. Nearest's sons, Eli and George, and their descendants, have maintained their working connection with the company, right up until the present day. There has never been Jack Daniel’s made without a Green on the property.


The whiskey was good too, known for its impeccable smoothness, and the distillery grew rapidly, By the 1880s, it was one of the largest distilleries in Tennessee. Competition was fierce, as by the end of the 1800s, roughly 700 distilleries were operating in the state.


Jack was a colourful character. He stood at anything from 4 ft 9 inches to 5 feet 2 inches tall (no one knows for sure), a confirmed bachelor, who never had children. He loved his fashion, music and parties, and had numerous lady friends vying for his affections at any one time. A true salesman, he was an innovator in marketing and packaging design. In 1904, Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 whiskey was awarded the gold medal at the St. Louis World's Fair. This recognition further bolstered the brand's reputation and contributed to its growing popularity.

Jack Daniel's newspaper advertisement (The Nashville American - June 21, 1908)

Storm clouds were ahead, as in 1910 the state of Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, and the Jack Daniel's distillery was forced to shut down. Jack died the following year.

After Jack Daniel died in 1911, his nephew, Lem Motlow, took over the distillery operations.


It was Motlow who steered the company through state and federal prohibition and the government’s ban on whiskey production during World War II.

Lemuel Motlow (Image on Found a Grave)

The distillery was registered as a National Historic Landmark and became a popular tourist destination, with hundreds of thousands of visitors coming to Lynchburg each year to tour the distillery and sample its famous whiskey.


What began in 1866 as a small local distillery, as of 2021 has a footprint of nearly 3,000 acres. Today, Jack Daniel's is one of the most renowned and best-selling whiskey brands globally, and ships to over 170 countries. Over the years, Jack Daniel's has introduced various whiskey variants to cater to different tastes and preferences. These include Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel, Tennessee Honey, and Tennessee Fire, among others. Each variant offers a unique flavour profile, showcasing the brand's versatility and innovation. In 2019, you could even download an app on your phone by Tactic, point it at a bottle of Jack and get Augmented reality content on the history of the distillery.

Jack Daniels is the UK's favourite whisky, and reporting a 145% rise in sales in 2021 to £274 million, beating world-famous brands such as Bells, Famous Grouse, Jameson, and Johnnie Walker.


On the global market, not including Scotch, Jack Daniels comes in second behind Jim Beam in terms of sales, selling 13.5 million cases in 2021, which represents 10% growth above even pre-pandemic sales.


Owned by Brown-Forman since 1956, the Jack Daniel's brand's commitment to quality, its iconic square bottle, and its distinct flavour profile, have solidified its place as a true whiskey icon.


The Visitor Centre design

Official tours of the distillery have been offered since 1964, but it took design studio HOKe, an offshoot of the largest architecture firm in the United States HOK, to create a purpose-built visitor centre in 2000. Designed to cope with large numbers, visitors come from all 50 states and from over 30 countries to stroll through its buildings nestled in the tree-shaded hollow.


The distillery visitor experience was designed to feel like it had always been there, with a welcoming foyer, a retail space, plus a waiting area for tour departures.

But the brand wanted more and invested over $240 million from 2013 to 2016, to improve the visitor facilities and expand the capacity of the distillery.


In 2015 the White Rabbit Bottle Shop opened on the site. Designed by Clickspring Design, and 1220 Exhibits, the bottle shop mixes brand storytelling with whisky-making materials.

In 2016, the brand’s 150th anniversary, Barrel House 1-14 opened, the renovation of a bond warehouse originally built in 1938. Designed again by Clickspring Design, the active barrel house is where tasting sessions take place.


Entrance and Museum

The foyer serves not just as a ticket hall and waiting area for the tours, but also as a brand museum. I collected our pre-booked tickets and wandered around the museum exhibits.

There are many interesting exhibits in this museum area, though I felt there could have been even more. Each cabinet had artifacts relating to one topic or another.

Since a revamp in 2016, on the 150th anniversary of the brand, the story of Nearest Green was given its own section in the museum area. It was a story I was not aware of before my visit and it certainly was a welcome discovery. The inclusion of Nearest Green into the storytelling of Jack Daniels was reported in the New York Times back in 2016.

Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, many brands are facing up to pasts that include working practices that are not acceptable today and their complicated histories. However visitors are becoming more aware of historical issues and social justice. They are increasingly expecting to see some recognition that brands are embracing and encouraging diversity, and being authentic in what they tell their guests. I certainly appreciated the option to learn more.

We get to see an old photograph of Jack standing next to George Green, son of Nathan "Nearest" Green. Both are side by side, in the middle of the shot.

In 2020 Jack Daniel's and Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey announced they were partnering to increase diversity in the American whiskey industry. They reported that they would create the Nearest Green School of Distilling, develop a Leadership Acceleration Program for apprenticeships, and provide expertise and resources to African Americans entering the spirits industry. Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey from Shelbyville, Tennessee, has a portfolio that was the Most Awarded American Whiskey or Bourbon of 2019, 2020, and 2021, and has received over 380 awards and accolades since the brand's 2017 launch.


The Tour

I took the Angel’s Share tour, with 13 others, which takes a total of 90 minutes and culminates in a tasting of five whiskeys drawn from individual barrels. Our tour consisted of visitors from Texas, New Hampshire, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Nashville and Chicago, so we took the prize for the furthest travelled, though everyone is made welcome.


Matt, our host, had an accent sweeter than honey, a thick southern drawl that was as intoxicating as the spirit itself. His mix of humour and enthusiasm was infectious. It's unusual to see that passion when working for such a big brand. The difference here is that there is a real deep-rooted sense of place and family.


We are told that Jack Daniel's currently employs around 700 people. Two-thirds are related to generations of workers or family members of either Jack or Nearest Green, and 95% are Lynchburg locals.


After the obligatory brand photo opportunity, we boarded our bus and were whisked up the hill in air-conditioned luxury, which, on a scorching hot day in July, was most welcome.

The first stop is to one of the 92 barrel houses. The oldest is from 1938. Religion and politics played a massive part in the history of the brand. In 1909 Tennessee went dry and that lasted until 1938, years after prohibition was ended elsewhere in the US. The brand could not make whiskey under legal loopholes, such as declaring it medicinal, so production ceased. Production was briefly moved to St Louis in Missouri until the entire country went dry. That resulted in Len Motlow returning to Lynchburg, to trade mules and run a hardware store, one that still exists today. Finally, in 1938, whiskey production started up again. We pass several other barrel houses, all 7 storeys high, made of wood and sheet metal and not insulated. Every drop of Jack Daniel's is made and matured right here in Lynchburg.

Weather plays a huge part in Tennessee whiskey ageing. If it is warm the barrel swells and breathes. And it is warm, up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit inside the barrel house in the summer. If it is cool, then the barrel contracts and this leaching in and out of the oak dictates how long the whisky will take to mature. Traditionally Bourbon and American Whiskey take fewer years to mature than Scotch, usually 4 to 8 years, due to the higher summer temperatures. If left too long, the American angels get a greater share than the Scottish ones. Jack Daniel's still uses Jack's original mash recipe of 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye.


We pass Lem Motlow's house, Jack's favourite nephew who ran the financial side of the business.

The building dates from the 1870s and was taken down, piece by piece and reconstructed on site, and unveiled to visitors during a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating Jack Daniel’s 150th Anniversary in 2016.

The re-imagination of the interiors was designed again by Clickspring Design. It might look like the original house from the front, but the back of the house has been expanded. It now serves as both a social space and an archive, and is not part of the tour, but home to the Squires’ Room with areas for private functions and events.

The next stop finds us learning about charcoal production in the Rickyard. The brand's charcoal is made from hard sugar maple wood. Four stacks of wood are burned beneath two massive metal hoods. The wood burns for an hour and a half, reaching temperatures close to 1800 degrees, and becomes lump charcoal. This is ground up into pea-sized pieces, then used in a process called “charcoal mellowing", a process that has been used in West Africa for hundreds of years.

We're told about the Lincoln County Process, which is what makes Jack Daniels special and sets it apart from all other whiskey brands in America. This process sees the spirit filter through 10 foot stacks of their hand-made charcoal, a process that takes 3 to 5 days. It doesn't impart flavour, but makes Tennessee whiskey unique. If you are lucky, you might see a rick burn. Darren and Tracy, who have been with the brand for over 25 years, spray the towers of sugar maple with moonshine and then set them alight, usually 3 to 4 times a week. That would be quite something to see. Imagine the smell, the sound and the heat.

The company has a zero-waste programme, so charcoal burn happens only when necessary.

There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the people that work at the distillery, in all the short films and details on the tour.

A quick wander to our next stop, Cave Hollow, a sediment-free deep spring with a steady temperature of 56 degrees Fahrenheit. The cave's limestone layers strip iron from the water and every single bottle of Jack is made with water from this spring.

Next to the spring is Jack’s original office, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1972, which is a small, wood-framed, saltbox cottage.

Visitors get to step inside and our guide shows us around. On the wall is the master distillers wall of fame, from Uncle Jack (pictured with Nearest Green's son as a picture of Nearest does not exist), to Chris Fletcher (Grandson of previous Master Distiller Frank BoBo) who currently holds the post. Lexie Phillips, Assistant Distiller since 2021, and fourth generation still house worker, is the first woman to serve in that capacity for the brand and is mentioned on the tour. Maybe, one day, her picture will appear on the wall.

I knew what to look out for, the safe. I was busy snapping away with my camera, with other guests looking on wondering why I had such a strange fixation with that one piece of furniture.

Fun Fact – Death by Safe. In 1905, Jack was in his office and didn't know the combination of the metal safe. In a fit of temper, Jack kicked it, breaking his left big toe. He went out partying, ignored the pain, and self-medicated. Gangrene set in and Jack had his toe amputated. However, the infection spread and doctors had to amputate his foot, then his knee and finally, the doctors took his left leg up to his hip. Six years after kicking the safe, Jack Daniels died from complications from the infection.

We head inside the Grain Mill and Stillhouse and up some steps, to see where fermentation and distillation happens. This is a no photos or video zone. We get to see inside mash tuns, and the sights, smells and sounds are a sensory treat. The brand operates 4 continuous copper column stills and have their own proprietary yeast strain.

Then we are off to see the charcoal filtration. Again, it is a no photo zone. What we get to see and smell is new make spirit dripping onto charcoal, a gallon and a half every minute. The cypress wood and stainless steel vats underneath fill up with pure Jack Daniel's spirit. The used charcoal is made into briquettes for BBQs. After 3-5 days of filtering, the whiskey comes through the bottom of the vats and goes off for barrelling.


We head into another building to watch a brand video all about the craft of the Cooper. Jack Daniel's raise their own American white oak barrels and there are historic barrel-making tools hanging on the walls. Unfortunately, the cooperage is not in Lynchburg, so it is not part of the distillery tour.

We arrive at the Jack Daniel's Single Barrel bottling line, which was sadly not operating when we visited.

As for Nearest Green, well he is mentioned several times in the tour. The brand came in for some flack after 2016, for not always including Green in their tour guide's commentary. There was full inclusion when we visited, which made for a much deeper story with even greater importance.

We finally arrive at the George Green Barrel House, where our tasting will take place.


The Tasting - Barrelhouse 1-14, renamed the George Green Barrel House

We enter a true cathedral of whiskey and are surrounded by hundreds of maturing casks. The smell is a mix of mellow oak and sweet spirit. It was time for a tasting.

Covid precautions were still in place in the distillery, even though it was July 2022, so we sadly ended up with branded plastic glasses on our wooden tasting boards. They' are not ideal, but did the job. I am sure the distillery has reverted to glass ones by now. We did get water though, to cleanse our palates, something we have to ask for in many distilleries and wineries.

The drams came with tasting notes and we got a decent length of time in the tasting room and never felt rushed. We started with the Jack Daniel's original and most famous whiskey, "Old No. 7," and then tasted the Single Barrel - Select, Single Barrel - Barrel Proof, Single Barrel - Rye, and Sinatra Select. The Sinatra Select was brought out in honour of the famous singer and actor Frank Sinatra. It is matured in unique barrels that have incisions carved into the staves, to allow the distillate to have direct contact with the toasted oak, which develops extra vanilla hints. Our guide showed us the difference in the staves from regular barrels to the Sinatra Select casks.

White Rabbit Bottle Shop

Our guide bids us farewell and we are finally let loose into the retail space, where we hunt for products we cannot get back home. White Rabbit was the name of one of the two saloons Jack ran in Lynchburg (Red Dog was the other). It is also where you pick up any tour photographs that were taken by the staff members.

The Jack Daniel's distillery is located in Tennessee's Moore County, which has been a dry county since Prohibition, so you cannot legally purchase liquor here. Visitors can however purchase souvenir bottles we are told, that just happen to have spirit inside. It's up to us what we do with these commemorative bottles.

Their bottle selection rotates constantly, so this can be a great place to pick up some of the less common editions. They can do bottle engraving here too, which is always a fun gift idea. The small barrel-proof bottles caught our eye and after a quick Google, we bought one.

There are even bottles and packaging from throughout the ages. Just check out the artwork on these bottles from 1915.


Lynchburg

You can walk a few hundred yards to the city of Lynchburg. Don’t expect much, as this is not some urban metropolis, but a one stop-light town. In fact, it's more of a village by UK standards than a city. It consists of a small square with a courthouse sitting in the middle, flanked by a few simple restaurants, souvenir shops and a Jack Daniels Retail Store.

Miss Mary Bobo’s boarding house, owned by the distillery, is open for home-cooked Southern food Monday through Saturday. It offers family-style sittings at 11 am and again at 1 pm and should be booked well in advance. We just couldn't fit it into our schedule. The building is from the late 19th century it is also listed on the American National Register of Historic Places. Miss Mary operated the boarding house until she died in 1983, just before her 102nd birthday.

The large brand-owned gift shop, Lynchburg Hardware General Store, sells a huge range of branded apparel and memorabilia. It does not sell whiskey. Due to the county still being dry, whiskey has to be sold at the visitor centre in the Bottle Shop.

Check out their door plates though. Gorgeous!!!

Fancy something different to whiskey then how about wine from the little winery store Lynchburg Winery?

And for die-hard Jack fans, why not visit his gravesite, in the Lynchburg Cemetery, Uncle Jack’s grave is adorned with two cast-iron chairs, where, legend has it, they are positioned for his many female admirers to mourn and rest a while.


Anything else worth mentioning

LA based entrepreneur and New York Times best-selling author Fawn Weaver, now CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, was responsible for much of the clarification behind the story of Nearest Green. Having read the article in the New York Times in 2016, where the brand acknowledged his part in their story, she amassed many historians, genealogists, family members and workers from the Jack Daniel's distillery, and set to work on bringing the full story of Green's involvement and importance to the world. It has changed her life. She bought the Call house, where she based herself during her investigations, and later embarked on launching a whiskey brand to honour Nearest Green. Her master blender is Victoria Eady Butler, Green's great, great granddaughter, who has whiskey in her blood and the brand has gone on to record success in a short time. I will return to Tennessee to visit their distillery as soon as I am able.

Fawn Weaver (L) & Master Blender Victoria Eady Butler (R) - Image Nearest Green Distillery

In conclusion

After over a decade of expectation, I finally made it to the home of Uncle Jack, and it was well worth the wait.

Our guide and all the other employees we met, were warm and friendly, plus knowledgeable and passionate about the brand they worked for. We were swept up in the arms of Southern hospitability and enjoyed every minute.

The tasting session was given adequate time, but I could have done with somewhere to buy a drink to enjoy at my leisure after the tour. It'll not be an option any time soon, such are the joys of a dry county!

The inclusion of Nearest Green's story was refreshing and delivered with pride and authenticity. The family history and generational links were reinforced and that really had an impact.

Most of the tour was accessible, though stillhouses and historic buildings do not often lend themselves to wheelchair access and usually have issues with ambient noise. There are some steps, so some parts would not be accessible. If you need assistance, do contact the visitor centre before your visit, to see what they can accommodate. I am sure they would do their best. I would prefer some obvious braille signage and in some parts a microphone in noisier areas, for those with hearing difficulties, though our guide made himself heard at all times.

The newly updated areas were excellent and maybe it is time to enhance the museum content available in the entrance foyer. The visitor experience at the distillery relies heavily on the guided tours and tastings, leaving the museum content to be accessed independently before or after the tour. Perhaps it is time to add a space that would increase dwell time here, maybe with seating as a venue for even more content and connection. With a light sprinkling of technology and even some 3D printing, perhaps some of the artefacts currently behind glass or ropes could be recreated, to allow visitors to physically interact with them. It would allow for content from the archive to be rotated in and out of the museum area, which would give any return visit a point of difference.

This really was a superb tour, delivered well, with heart and soul in every non-scripted minute. Uncle Jack would have been proud.


How long was the visit?

The tour lasted for 90 minutes and we were at the distillery for an hour on top of that, so consider allowing 2.5 hours for your visit.


How much are tickets?

We paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising.


There are three standard tours available via the brand website.


PLEASE NOTE- The USA may have different age restrictions for alcohol to your home country. The age limit even changes between States. You will need ID and usually have to be over 18 to take a tour and in some cases over 21.


The Angel's Share tour - This is the tour we booked.

Includes a tour of the distillery, plus a tasting experience in the historic George Green Barrel House, tasting whiskey drawn from individual barrels. It lasts 90 minutes and costs $35.


Includes a tour of the distillery plus a stop at the historic George Green Barrel House, where visitors can taste a flight of five Jack Daniels products. It lasts 90 minutes and costs $30.

For those not partaking in the whiskey, you can book a tour without a tasting. It lasts 1 hr 10 min and costs $20.


Premium Tours

There is one premium tour experience on offer.


Offered exclusively on Fridays and Saturdays, this tour is guided by a storyteller, who takes you around the Distillery, before visitors taste the Angel's Share Whiskeys. You're then taken up to Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Restaurant for a midday feast with the guide, who will no doubt recount many more stories about the distillery. You even get a special commemorative gift. It costs $125.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary, but the tours run daily from 9 am to 4.30 pm CST.


You can only bring a very small handbag or clutch bag on the tour. Mine was luckily A5 in size. Anything bigger is not allowed. They don't allow camera bags or backpacks either.


 

Where we stayed:

We had driven from Atlanta to Chattanooga to ride The Incline railway and stopped overnight at the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Chattanooga - Lookout Mountain.

It was adequate for an overnight stop, which is all we had. It is nearly 4 miles drive to The Incline, which was the reason for our stay. It even had a pool, not that we got time to use that. This gave us a 90 mile drive the next day to the Distillery through the beautiful countryside of Tennessee.

Getting here:

We were on a 3-week road trip travelling from Atlanta to Detroit, with lots of stops planned along the route. We travelled from Scotland with Delta via Amsterdam to Atlanta and picked up a hire car.

Our stop before the distillery was Chatanooga, which is 90 miles South. Our stop after the Distillery was Nashville which is 75 miles North.

Actually getting to Lynchburg isn’t easy and you will need a car. If you are visiting Nashville and don’t have access to a car, consider taking one of the seasonal tourist tours that take visitors to the distillery. Take I-24 east to Route 55 (exit 111) then follow Route 55 through Tullahoma to Lynchburg. Or, from I-65, take US 64 through Fayetteville to Lynchburg and Route 55 through Lynchburg to the distillery.


What else is there to see close by:

90 miles away might not seem like close by but there is enough to do in Chattanooga for two days if you want to hike around Lookout Mountain and enjoy The Incline railway. We got caught out with booking times as you couldn't book the Incline online back then and we had to purchase tickets at the station and wait 90 minutes for our scheduled slot. You might even get there and find all tickets are sold out. Waiting wasn't a huge issue, as we walked a little way from the station and found The Tap House & Empyreal Brewing Co. which did a great burger and IPA. The Incline Railway can now be booked online. We ran out of time to do any of the other Lookout Mountain attractions but we can highly recommend The Incline as the ride up was really fun and steep and the views from the top are good. Really we just appreciated the engineering.

Nashville, 75 miles to the North, has a fun reputation and is the home to Country Music. Our first impression wasn't great, as it was full of noisy stag and hen parties (bachelorette) and the honky tonks were packed out and all a bit cheesy. It didn't help that we were still jetlagged either. However, we spent a very enjoyable following day there and used the Hop on Hop off bus to see more of the city, stopping off at another Distillery, the store of TV show American Pickers, an Irish bar and the huge Parthenon at Centennial Park.

Tennessee is a large state and we had to forgo a trip to Dollywood, Memphis and the Smoky Mountains due to time constraints on our road trip. They were all over 4 hours by car away from the Jack Daniels distillery. We'll save them for our next visit.


Visited: July 2022

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please drink responsibly. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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