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A Wee Bit of a Dram . . .

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Those who love mountains, single malt whisky, and movies will understand.

I stood on the side of the road with my thumb out, waiting for my first lift. What if no one stops?I thought to myself.

It was a Monday in early March 1973. My London friends, Phil and Linda, had just dropped me off on the A1 Motorway out side of York, so I could hitch north to Scotland. I’d heard that hitchhiking in northern England was easy and was about to find out. A cool, early spring breeze gently pushed me, ruffling my hair. And then, a man with long red hair, driving a small sedan, picked me up.

He laughed and said, “You’re a Yank, aren’t you?” as I threw my pack in the back and got in.

“Yeah,” I said. “How did you know?”

“The way you were standing there with your thumb out—we don’t hitch that way here in England. Rather than holding our thumbs up, we hold our arms out and a bit down and point at the road with our index finger.”

He told me he worked in Oxford Circus and took me as far as Durham. There a young driver in a new lorry (a large truck) saw me with my arm out and finger pointed down at the road and stopped. I climbed into the cab and he drove me to New Castle, where I caught a ride with a young couple, Nigel and Irene, who worked in a climbing shop.

I settled down in the back and Nigel, who had eyed my climbing pack, asked me where I was headed.

“I’m going up to Scotland,” I said.

“Oh yeah . . . what are your plans?” he asked.

“I want to go north into the mountains and ice-climb,” I said. “I’ve read about Hamish MacInnes, Dougal Haston, and other climbers from Scotland. I want to learn from the climbers up there.”

“My wife and I go to Wales to climb mostly,” Nigel said. “We do go to Scotland sometimes—it is great climbing.”

“The thing there is,” Irene said, “you have to be aware of the steep hills—even the trails are dodgy and walkers sometimes fall off and injure or kill themselves. But worse,” she continued, “is the weather. The storms come in off the North Sea without warning, and a beautiful day can turn into a blizzard in an hour. Climbers get caught in the middle of a climb, walkers get caught on a mountain trail, and they freeze to death if they aren’t prepared.”

I swallowed as I nodded. I’d read about this in the books about Scottish Mountaineering I’d poured over. I also knew about mountains, and the danger of weather from my own experiences mountaineering in the mountains of Colorado.

“The best way for you to learn ice climbing might be a course,” Nigel said. “I’ve heard that Hamish MacInnes runs a course . . . out of Glen Coe, I think.” He paused and thought a moment. “When you get to Edinburgh find Graham Tiso’s Climbing Shop. It is a good outfit and the lads there will know more about that.”

I thanked them for the information as Nigel and Irene dropped me off about 80 miles south of Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. I stood there with my finger out when Jeff, a 40 year-old lorry driver heading for Edinburgh, picked me up. The drive was beautiful, right along the sea, with cliffs along the water, and rich farmland from the look of it.

Jeff and I made small talk until about 15 miles out of Edinburgh when the lorry broke down. I helped Jeff with the temporary repairs, and once we got his rig running we limped into the city. We left the truck in the lot of the company where he was delivering his load and, as it was getting dark, wandered around until we found a bed and breakfast where we could stay for the night.

Peggy’s Transport Bed and Breakfast, for lorry drivers, looked sketchy but as it turned out, was perfect. For 1.25 pounds a night we got dinner, a bed, and breakfast. The place was old and run down but very clean, and even had a color television, with a sofa and comfortable looking chairs around it. Peggy, a friendly older lady, ran the place. She was short and round and wore a pristine white apron over her faded dress. And, she was always smiling. Dinner was simple fare—stew and bread—but I was hungry. I ate with the lorry drivers at a large round table. The drivers watched their language with Peggy sitting at the table. Thus, no one talked much.

When I stood up after dinner and pushed my chair back under the table Peggy nodded and said, “Thank you, young man. Not many of my customers do that.”

I smiled at her and then walked outside with Jeff to talk to some of the drivers who were having a smoke. It was too early to go to bed so Jeff, another lorry driver, and I walked to a pub up the street where we engaged in some lively conversation and a few pints.

Like other pubs I’d visited in England, this one had a comfortable feel. We leaned on the old, shiny oak bar, worn smooth over the years, and it felt like I was drinking in someone’s living room. The beer, slightly cooler than room temperature, was smooth and had more flavor than the beer I was used to drinking in the States.

Two pints was enough and we stumbled back to Peggy’s and to our bunks.

I got up early when the other men began moving about, blearily dressed, packed my pack, and went downstairs. Breakfast was tea, a soft-boiled egg, and toast. Not bad.

I hoisted my backpack, said goodbye to Peggy, thanking her, and headed off looking for Graham Tiso’s climbing shop. Luckily, it was only a few blocks from Peggy’s.

I knew I was in the right place because the small shop was packed with every kind of climbing equipment I could imagine. I asked one of the climbers, who worked in the shop, for information about Hamish MacInnes’ ice climbing course.

“Sure,” he said. “Some of the lads here have been on it.”

“Do you have any information about the course—maybe a phone number I could call . . . or an address?” I asked, excited, as things seemed to be falling into place.

“It would be best not to call Hamish . . . or write him a letter,” he said. “Probably the best way to get on the course is for you to simply show up in Glen Coe where Hamish is based. This time of year he’s probably running a course every week or two.”

It was chancy, but there was nothing keeping me in Edinburgh, and I was anxious to get into the mountains. I decided to go ahead and travel north to Glen Coe, find Hamish, and try get on his course. At the least I figured I would see some interesting country and perhaps meet some climbers who could show me some things.

I left Tiso’s climbing shop and out on the street asked a friendly man who pointed me to the bus station. Once there I learned that I’d have to take a bus to Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, and then wait for a different bus north. So, I did that, changing buses in Glasgow.

Moving north from Glasgow, I watched from the bus window, as the dark Scottish hills grew into gloomy and misty mountains—forbidding, but exciting. I started worrying about what was going to happen when I reached Glen Coe. It would be dark, it was raining—where would I stay? How would I get in touch with Hamish?

Looking out of the window, my thoughts grew almost as dark as the wet mountains, and I began to doubt my decision. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, when the man sitting next to me asked, “Where are ye goin’, lad?”

I turned to look at the man who was in his 40’s. “I’m heading to Glen Coe. I’m trying to get onto an ice climbing course up there.”

“Ach, from the look of you I reckoned you t’ be a climber,” he said in his think Scottish accent. “I’ve done a bit of climbing in my day, and I used to hang around Glen Coe—excellent climbing there. I used to know a chap, Hamish MacInnes; he is a great climber. I climbed with him a few times.”

“So you know Glen Coe?” I said, my heart pounding.

“Yes. I know it well,” he said. “I live over near Fort William now.” He paused, then he said, “Where ye stayin’, lad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to try to get on Hamish MacInnes’ ice climbing course. But, I don’t know anything about Glen Coe.”

“Well, most of the climbers stay at Farmer McColl’s Bunkhouse. Farmer McColl charges a small fee to bunk at his place. Got a small kitchen, bath, bunk beds, and a big room with a fireplace. You should bunk there. I’ll point out the road you need to take—you can walk there, as it isn’t far. Also, further down that same road is the Clachaig Inn. Round back is the climber’s pub—you can get a pint there and maybe find out about Hamish’s course.”

I felt so relieved to have some solid information. Things seemed to be coming together and my worries evaporated.

The rain had stopped and it was almost completely dark as I alit from the bus in the small village of Glen Coe. Standing in the wet road, I watched the bus recede in the distance up narrow highway A82. I looked to the right, up the smaller road that branched off the main road where I stood. The man on the bus had told me that up that smaller road was Farmer McColl’s bunkhouse and the Clachaig Inn.

I walked out of Glen Coe, up the wet, road lined with trees. Because of the dark I couldn’t see the countryside and I saw no structures or houses. Finally, less than a mile up that road, I reached on the right what appeared to be the bunkhouse.. No one was around but I knew it was the right place because climbing equipment was strewn about and mountaineering boots were drying in front of the fireplace where a dying fire cast flickering shadows all round.

I put my pack down and looked around. It was a stone affair with upstairs bunk beds in two large rooms, and down stairs a living room with fireplace, bathroom and small kitchen area. I left my backpack tucked in a corner and took off up the road in the dark, heading for the pub that the man on the bus had told me about. As I walked, some nice local folks in a small car picked me up. They dropped me off right in front of the Clachaig Inn.

The white stone Clachaig Inn was built in the 16thCentury. The cozy climbers’ bar is around the back where climbers and hill walkers meet to talk over their daily exploits. Picnic tables with benches filled the room. I got a pint of Tartan at the bar and sat on one of the benches. Looking the room over and listening to other climbers describe where they’d climbed or hiked that day, I sipped my pint and relaxed.

I stood to get my second pint and at the bar began a conversation with the young, fit looking bartender. He introduced himself as Dave Knowles and it turned out he was also one of Hamish MacInnes’ climbing instructors during the day.

“I’ll speak with Hamish in the morning about getting you on the new course that starts next week,” he said. “I’ll let you know back here at the pub in a day or two.”

“Thanks, Dave,” I said. I was elated.

“Now, go drink your pint and enjoy yourself,” Dave smiled. “Oh, yeah,” he added. “You should try to get in shape this week so you can get the most out of the course, if you get on it.”

I ate a sausage roll with my second beer and then walked the ¾ mile back to the bunkhouse where I met the others who were staying there. They were all from Scotland or England. We talked for a while then, I went to bed in one of the bunks upstairs.

The next morning I met Farmer McColl when he came by. He collected money from me to stay at the bunkhouse for a few days. He was a tough, grizzled man in khaki overalls and high rubber boots. He and his sheepdog stopped by the bunkhouse a couple of times a day to check on things. After I paid him I told him I was going hill walking and he asked me if I had an ice axe. I hadn’t bought one yet so he loaned me one of his ice axes. He told me in his gruff Scottish accent, “Tis better to loan a man your ice axe than to have to go up on the hill later and bring his body down.”

Now that it was daylight I could see the country around the bunkhouse. Across the road, behind the trees, an abrupt, steep hill loomed above us. That is where Farmer McColl kept his sheep and from the looks of it he’d have to be a hard man to walk that hill day in and day out. Behind the bunkhouse the land sloped down to a river, across from which were the mountains. I walked down the road toward the trail that cut off to the right, down to the River Coe, crossed it on a footbridge, and then on to the mountain.

On the trail just after I crossed the river, I met Gordon, a stocky young guy from Aberdeen whose northern Scottish accent was so thick I could only understand part of what he said to me. He told me that he was a “hill walker,” as he called it, rather than a climber. We walked up toward Bidean Nam Bian. The March day was bright and cool as we walked along the River Coe and then up the steep slopes. Around noon we stopped for a break and I felt a bit weak, as I hadn’t eaten much in the last few days—I usually eat lightly when I’m on the road. So, rather than slow Gordon down, I told him I’d walk back down and let him go on alone.

Thursday again was a beautiful day with white clouds crossing the blue sky. I felt stronger as I’d had a good breakfast and so walked part way up the Clachaig gulley, directly across from the Clachaig Inn.

It was quite exposed, and the steep slope made my heart beat faster; but this feeling energized me. I stood among the rocks in the gulley looking down at the Inn far below. Just above me were some steep slabs of granite. I moved toward them carefully and began to practice my climbing technique. I felt exhilaration, clinging precariously to the steep slab, only my boot tips and finger tips touching the rock. Remembering the three-point rule—always keep three points (e.g. one toe and two hands) touching the rock—I worked my way up and down the slabs. Climbing up is always easier than climbing down so I had to be careful not to get myself in trouble. Finally, I’d worn myself out, so I sat on a rock for a while, admiring the surroundings. Later, I carefully moved down the gully to the road and walked back to the bunkhouse.

That night as I entered the Clachaig Inn to have a couple of pints, Dave Knowles called me over to the bar. He told me that he’d spoken with Hamish who said I could join the course beginning next week. I was elated.

“Aye, Rick man. Are ye fit yet?” Dave said.

“I’m working on it,” I laughed. “Could I have a pint, Dave?”

“How ‘bout a wee bit of a dram of malt whisky to go with your pint ‘o Tartan?” Dave asked.

“What’s malt whisky?” I said. “Is it scotch?”

“Ach, no,” Dave smiled at me. “Here, try it.” He poured a dram, which is a small amount, about a shot, into a glass and pushed it across the bar to me.

It smelled like scotch, and then I took a sip. “Ahhh,” I said as the warm amber liquid burned down my throat smoothly. “That is incredible.”

I thought I knew scotch, but, having come from Nebraska and going to university in Colorado, I had only experienced blends such as Cutty Sark, J & B, Johnnie Walker, and Chivas, with no idea about single malt Scotch. But, that ‘wee bit of a dram’ was the beginning of my love affair with single malt whisky.

The next couple of days I spent either hiking and climbing or, if it was raining, looking around the countryside with some of the various people who travelled through.

On Sunday around noon I packed my gear, left Farmer McColl’s bunkhouse, and walked up to the Clachaig Inn where I caught a ride from two girls who drove me to Hamish’s cottage. Dave Knowles had told me I’d be staying there for the course. The small cottage was basic, right on the main road a few kilometers out from Glen Coe and had a small stream running behind it that provided our drinking water.

I left my gear at the bunkhouse and went up to Hamish’s farmhouse to speak with him and meet the other guys on the course. Hamish was a short, bearded man—not heavily muscled, but I could tell he had a wiry strength. I particularly noted his hands. They were calloused and knotted from climbing and fabricating his ice climbing tools. Hamish also moved in a balanced way, centered. He and I talked for about 15 minutes and he showed me his workshop where he designed his ice axes and rescue equipment. Hamish’s farmhouse was given to him by the National Trust for his achievements in the world of mountaineering and mountain rescue. Those of us on the course bunked at the cottage down the road.

Malcolm and Dave, two guys about my age from London, were on the course with me. Also, Jack, a Botanist from London who was older at 52, was taking the course for a second week—we used his car to get around.

The next day, the first day of the course, Ian Nicholson, our instructor, came to the cottage to get us. Ian was large and the people in the area called him “Big Ian.” But he was very fit and moved like a jungle cat—relaxed and agile. He had a well-developed sense of humor and I liked him immediately.

Ian took us up some of the easier slopes of the mountain Buachaille Etive Mor (meaning the great herdsman of Etive) near Ballachulish, so he could assess our level of competence and fitness. There, up on the slopes, we strapped crampons to our boots as Ian instructed us on how to walk and climb with crampons, how to use the ice axe, and the all important self-arrest, or how to use an ice axe to stop yourself if you are sliding down a steep snow slope.

Ian also showed us how to place the ‘deadman,’ a handleless shovel-shaped piece of metal that served as an anchor for belaying. We also worked with ice screws, and Ian had us learn various forms of belaying on snow and ice. Belaying is the technique of anchoring oneself on rock, ice, or snow in order to hold the rope to protect your climbing buddy. We practiced setting the ‘deadman’ and ice screws and belaying each other from these points.

When it was time for us to practice our self-arrest techniques, Ian demonstrated how to hold the axe at an angle across our chests, hunching over the adze of the axe using our weight to dig the pick into the snow to stop our descent. Wearing crampons, the spiked frames that strap to your boots, creates a separate problem. Without crampons when you fall and slide on a steep snow slope you turn your body to get your feet downslope and then dig the pick of your axe into the snow and, as your body swings around downslope, you dig the toes of your boots into the snow. This three-point approach will bring you to a stop. But with crampons on your feet you can’t dig your toes in because if the slope is steep you begin tumbling. With crampons you dig your knees into the snow and bend your knees to keep the crampons off the snow.

We practiced our self-arrests by letting ourselves slide on our butts and then roll over to use our ice axes to stop ourselves. We were wearing crampons that Hamish had provided so we dug our knees, rather than our toes, into the snow as we slid. Amazingly it worked and we were able to self arrest our slides. Malcolm, Dave, and I gained confidence and went faster to test our new skills. Back then my body was hard and I began diving forward so I’d get even more speed. Because of the slope when I hit the snow it didn’t hurt.

Jack was uncomfortable and had little confidence with the ice axe technique. His third time sliding down the slope when he rolled onto his stomach he had his axe in the wrong position and the adze hit him in the face. When we got to him he was bleeding heavily and was dazed.

Ian had to take him down the mountain to get first aid so Malcolm, Dave and I climbed on to the summit. It was a beautiful view from the top of the Buachaille—clear and sunny. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me so I took no photos.

Tuesday, another clear day, Ian took us up a different mountain—I’m not sure which one. It might have been Bidean Nam Bian, which lies to the south of Glen Coe. We climbed a steep gully full of snow where we could practice the techniques we’d learned the previous day. As I was fastening my crampons (a metal plate with spikes on it that allows you to climb ice) to my mountain boots the strap on one of the crampons broke. I thought that I’d have to sit out the climb.

Dave Knowles, who was assisting Ian monitor us on the same climb, offered to loan me a set of extra crampons that he was carrying.

“No, Rick,” Ian said, “you don’t need the crampons on this slope—it’s all steep snow. If it were ice then you’d be out of luck. It will be good to learn to climb this way.”

So I put my crampons back into my pack, thanked Dave Knowles for his offer, and looked at Ian dubiously.

“All you do,” he said, “is kick steps into the snow. Just like walking up a stairs.”

Right, I said to myself. Just like walking up a flight of stairs. Breathing deeply, I leaned my one hand on the snow—the other held one of Hamish’s ice axes. Pushing myself away from the slope so that my weight was on my feet. I reached up and hit into the snow with the ice axe. Using this for support and balance, and holding my other hand on the snow, I lifted my mountaineering boot and kicked a step into the slope. I straightened my leg, and then kicked a step with my other foot, then straightened that leg. I pulled out the ice axe, reached above me and hit it into the snow. Then I repeated the process, moving more quickly and surely up the slope as I got the hang of it. From time to time I’d stop, put in a “deadman,” tie myself to it, and then belay Malcolm, who was my partner, as we practiced our belaying techniques moving up the gulley.

Kicking steps was hard and unnerving, but I gained confidence as I went up the snow slope. I was tired by the time we reached the top—my legs ached from kicking into the snow—but I felt a true sense of accomplishment. In retrospect, it was a good thing that I broke the strap on my crampons, because I knew I could climb a snowfield, or gully, that way—without crampons—if I needed to.

Later, after the climb, on the way down the slope and back to the cottage, I walked with Dave Knowles for a while. He told me about how he had spent some time in Africa working for Outward Bound, leading parties up Mount Kilimanjaro.

On Wednesday we drove to Fort William where I bought my own McInnes Peck ice axe at Nevis Sport. It is shorter than the traditional ice axe, has a metal handle, and the pick is set at more of an angle than the traditional picks on ice axes. This makes it function both as an ice axe in a normal way, but also useful as a climbing tool when on steep ice or snow. I also bought dachstein mitts (heavy duty, 100% wool climbing mittens), and a headband for my ears.

From Nevis Sport we went rock climbing on some rock faces outside of Fort William. Ian told us it was “mild-severe.” We were roped of course and wore our climbing helmets. While we climbed, Ian soloed (climbed without a rope)—he was really good—like a spider—all around us on the rock, giving pointers and praise, coaching our climbing. I learned a lot from the experience and his teaching, and gained more confidence in my movement on rock.

Thursday Ian took us back to the Fort William area where we were to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. The sky was dark with clouds, and as we walked up the trail the weather deteriorated. By the time we made the CIC Memorial Hut (named for Charles Inglis Clark) snow was falling and gusts of wind blew the snow around us.

We waited at the hut while Dave Knowles, who was also at the hut with a group, went out to check conditions and see if we would be able to climb the gulley to the top. He returned with bad news—as it turned out the weather was worsening with more snow and strong gusts of wind, causing drifting.

We waited to see if conditions might improve and talked with the other climbers there at the hut—one was Skip, who, along with Ian, was planning an expedition to a peak in the Andes. Ian was getting in shape for the expedition by carrying a rucksack full of rocks on all of our walks and climbs. Anther climber we talked with was Alan Rouse, who was one of the best rock climbers in Britain at that time. I talked with him and Dave Knowles for quite a while.

Jack and Malcolm didn’t like the guys in the hut.

“These guys are a bunch of ruffians,” Malcolm muttered to Jack and me.

I suppose he based his opinion on the fact that the climbers were mostly working class fellows who spent time developing their climbing skills rather, than working on a career or a job.

I thought they were fascinating, and I loved their stories. It was an interesting afternoon meeting these experienced climbers and listening to their tales.

It is funny because a year or two later, I was at an après ski bar in Aspen, where I was living. Somehow I got into a conversation with an older, heavy-set man who was there on a ski vacation. I mentioned that I lived there to climb and ski, and somehow it came up that I had a Masters degree in English. I was proud of the fact that I was following my dream and learning about the mountains. He looked at me with distaste and said, “that’s a waste of your time. You should be working on a real job.”

I didn’t know how to respond at the time. Now, years later I can think of any number of snappy comebacks . . . but then? No, not so much. I was more surprised that he didn’t approve of my lifestyle. That was one of many times that I realized that not many people held my romantic attitude toward life and what I was supposed to do with it. More about that later.

We finally gave up the climb on Ben Nevis, as the weather wasn’t improving, so walked back down the mountain through the swirling snow. The snow became rain by the time we got back to the car.

Friday morning the weather was so bad that we stayed at Hamish’s cottage and Ian talked to us about climbing. He showed us a slide show of a climb he and Dave Knowles made, with some other climbers, on the Eiger in Switzerland. It is one of the most dangerous climbs in Switzerland because the face is concave and storms tend to sit up against the face, keeping climbers from being able to move. Also, because of the way the mountain sits, when the sun hits the top it loosens rocks that then fall down the face. Thus, climbers only climb in the morning and then bivouac before the afternoon stone-fall.

Ian said, “the mountain isn’t as technically difficult as some other mountains, but the dangers from the weather and stone fall make it bad.” He went on, “But on this climb we had some bad luck—partway up the face Dave lost his ice axe so I had to help him the rest of the way to the top.”

Ian also told us of his greatest climbing accomplishment. He had been the first mountaineer to solo two of the hardest gullies on Ben Nevis—Point Five Gulley, and Zero Gulley—and he climbed them both the same morning. This was a major breakthrough in winter ice climbing in Scotland. Improvement in crampon design helped; this, along with Ian’s superior strength and high level of fitness, allowed him to “front point” up both gullies.

“I was in the pub by the afternoon,” Ian said. “John Hardie, a Scot who now runs Ian Cough’s Climbing School witnessed me front point the two gullies.” I had been lucky enough to meet John Hardie one evening at the Clachaig Inn where we had talked for about fifteen minutes.

Friday afternoon after Ian finished his talk and slide show I went with him to Hamish’s. Because of the snowfall there was avalanche danger in the mountains. Hamish gave us signs that warned of the avalanche danger and we drove around to put them up in areas where climbers would see the warnings.

That evening I went with Ian and his girlfriend to Fort William for a party. We stopped in for dinner at the Jacobite Pub, where climbers hang out. We ate upstairs in the restaurant part—the food was excellent and so was the ambiance—the old ice axes and crampons hanging on the walls were a reminder of the hard country and the climbing exploits of the hard men who live in the area and pioneered the climbing there.

After dinner we went to Ian’s friend’s apartment and then back to the Jacobite to drink. When the pub closed we went to Skip’s apartment for a party—there I talked with Alan Rouse for an hour and a half—we talked about music and climbing and smoked some excellent weed. Ian and his girlfriend finally dragged me off and we drove back to Glencoe where they dropped me off at Hamish’s cottage in the small hours of the morning.

Saturday morning—hung over—I got up early, packed up, and walked out onto the road to hitchhike back down to London. My climbing experience in Scotland was a success—I’d learned a lot of new skills and refined the ones I’d already had. The best part was that I’d met some incredible climbers and made new friends.

After I’d gone on to Switzerland to climb, and travel Europe for a few months, I returned to the States and moved to Aspen, Colorado, to continue my mountaineering. I began to read religiously the climbing magazine Mountain Magazine. In the November 1974, issue I read that Dave Knowles ha Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. d gone with Hamish MacInnes to work as body double and cinematographer on the filming of Clint Eastwood’s climbing movie, The Eiger Sanction, based on Trevanian’s novel by the same name. Since Dave had previously climbed the Eiger, he was well aware of the dangers of that massive, concave face, looming above Grindelwald.

Unfortunately, when filming on the face, stone fall hit Dave and killed him. I was shocked when I read the news.

Now every time I have “a wee bit of a dram of malt whisky,” I raise my glass in a silent toast to Dave Knowles: climber, friend, and the man who introduced me to the pleasures of single malt Scotch.

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