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Podcast

Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski from Lost Lantern

Independent bottlers have always been an integral part of Scottish whiskey. Now with Lost Lantern, they are about to become integral in the US as well.

By: Tiff Christie|October 29,2020

For generations, independent bottlers have been part and parcel of the UK whiskey scene, yet they’ve not been as commonly seen in the whiskey industry in the United States.

But this is all about to change with the first release from a new American independent bottler called Lost Lantern.

To understand what Lost Lantern is, what they are about to release, and exactly what it means to the U.S. whiskey scene, we talked to the founders, Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski.

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For generations, independent bottlers have been part and parcel of the UK whiskey scene, yet they've not been as commonly seen in the whiskey industry in the United States. But this is all about to change with the first release from a new American independent bottler called Lost Lantern. To understand what Lost Lantern is, what they are about to release, and exactly what it means to the U.S. whiskey scene, we talked to the founders, Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski.

Thank you for joining us, guys.

Thank you so much for having us.

Yeah, a pleasure to be here.

Now, for those who don't know, can you explain exactly what an independent bottler is and how that's different from a distiller?

Sure. So, as you mentioned, we are one of the first American independent bottlers. But independent bottling has existed for about 200 years in Scotland at this point, so we are very much drawing from that tradition. And what they do there is they buy casks from distilleries all over Scotland and then either bottle them as single casks or blend them into big blends or small blends, but bring casks from multiple distilleries together to make something interesting. One thing that they don't do is distill.
So it really is sourcing primarily, and that's what we're doing. We're buying casks from all over the U.S. and releasing them as single casks and blends.

And the other piece of it with independent bottlers is their focus on transparency. Like, in Scotland, many whiskeys, you can only get the single malt version of it from an independent bottler because most of their volume goes into blends. And it'll say right on the label what distillery it's from, and it's an amazing discovery mechanism for scotch. We want to be something similar for American whiskey, and we really care deeply about transparency as well and being totally open about where all of our whiskey comes from and why we chose it.

So you're bottlers in the literal sense, but at times, you're also blenders.

Yes, that's correct. So some of what we do is selecting amazing casks and just bottling them. But a lot of times we'll be blending things together and our American Vatted Malt is an example of a type of blend, where we're bringing casks from multiple different distilleries and making something that's entirely unique because no one else has the opportunity to work with this many different types of whiskey in the U.S.

Now, do you guys come from a background of blending?

We don't. We don't. Yeah.

We both come from the whiskey industry in different respects. I used to be an editor and whiskey reviewer for Whiskey Advocate Magazine, and Nora worked for Astor Wine and Spirits, one of the top spirits retailers in the country. So we have a lot of experience with craft spirits and whiskey around the country, in general.

And tasting.

But less so with blending. And that's one of the really exciting things about our first blending project, the American Vatted Malt, getting all of these distillers and blenders from around the country together in one room. And we learned so much just from watching them blend and seeing how every one of them took a totally different approach to how they blended. And it's definitely good learning for us as we start to experiment with our own blends for the future.

Because blending must be quite a difficult thing to just suddenly pick up if you've not done it before. How has the learning curve been for you guys?

I mean, I think we'll probably be learning for years, but it's been interesting. It was great to have our first blending experience be with a bunch of experts, but one of the interesting things for us is the process. In our experience, it's very difficult to blend something and know immediately when you throw things together in a beaker if it's going to taste good because things integrate and evolve over time. So the patience that is required in the blending process, where we actually, when we're doing tests, we'll leave things for a couple of days and then re-taste them to see how the things came together, because at the beginning, they may not taste wonderful together. But then by the end, they could have integrated into an entirely different thing. So it's been a really interesting process, and we're still learning a lot and also perfecting the way that we, as Lost Lantern, want to blend going forward. So lots and lots of trials right now.

And for some of the blends that we're playing with, there's no roadmap for these. Like, these are new styles of whiskey that haven't been made in the United States before or haven't been made in a very long time. Our vatted malt has both peated whiskey and mesquite-smoked whiskey in it. And I believe it's one of the first two or three whiskeys to ever combine those two flavours. So there's not a ton of people who have a lot of experience with that. We're discovering it and experimenting with it as we go.

I would imagine, especially the peated would be somewhat overwhelming and would overwhelm any other whiskey that you would put into the blend.

Yeah. I mean, it's been interesting because we found both that mesquite smoke and peat smoke are very dominant to begin with, but they can mellow over time as they integrate with the other spirits. And sometimes when you put two smoked whiskeys together, the combination actually becomes less smoky.
And I'm sure someone could tell you all about the science behind that, but it's been a really fascinating process because you don't... Especially with these smoked whiskeys, you won't necessarily know exactly how it's going to come out until you do, in our experience, these tests to see kind of how they integrate.

But we agree that with smoke, if you don't want a full-blown smoky whiskey, you want a pretty light touch to get a few smoky flavours in there. So out of the 12 barrels in our first blend, three of them are smoked, two with mesquite, one with peat, and that's about the right amount, where it has a nice smoked touch without being a peat bomb or a mesquite bomb.

Right. Yeah. Now, I believe you sometimes also take virgin spirit and age it.

Independent bottlers absolutely do that. We haven't yet done that. We do have plans in the future to do that or eventually to do that, but we've been lucky enough to have mature spirit offered to us by our distillery partners, which allowed us to get things out much more quickly than using virgin spirit would.

It was actually the original plan, as we traveled the country, that we would start buying virgin spirit, and that had been in the roadmap all along. But as we traveled, people were saying, "If you came two years ago, I would only have been able to sell you virgin spirit. But now we actually have some mature stuff that we can spare." So we figured we can jump right in with that and get going and still have that opportunity to lay things down for the long run a little later.

Right. Okay. So explain exactly what... If someone could go and buy a whiskey, a single-cask whiskey from a distiller, why should they be buying it from you?

So stores do have single barrels that come from distilleries. And in our experience, those are quite similar to the core line from that distillery. Not always, but it's also generally at the same proof that the distillery releases their core line. And what we're doing with our single cask is working with distilleries both to find things that are vastly different than their core line or pretty different than their core line. So unique things that they probably have been holding on the side, haven't known exactly what they wanted to do with it, but didn't want to put it into a blend and lose the uniqueness of that barrel.
We're also putting our single cask out at cask strength. So they give a unique perspective on a distillery that people may not have access to, even with these cool single barrels that come from stores.

Like, one of our first single casks is from Cedar Ridge in Iowa, made mostly with their own corn. The interesting thing about that is their whiskey is pretty widely available across the country, but their flagship is at 80 proof. And it is released at cask strength, but really only in Iowa and in neighbouring areas most of the time. So it's hard for people to get the cask-strength version of it. So we thought this is a way that we can get that out there a little more widely and show why we think it's such a special whiskey.

Okay. Now, what made you actually think to start Lost Lantern?

So it's actually funny. I had been writing a story for Whiskey Advocate about independent bottlers in Scotland and their role in the U.S. market and what made them special and exciting. And at the same time, I had been working on a different story about the rise of new distilleries all over the United States, doing unique and interesting things. And I just thought to myself, "Why has no one ever done this? Why has no one ever done a fully transparent, independent bottler for American whiskey?" Over much, much thought, that changed from, "Why has no one ever done this?" to, "Someone is going to do this," to, "We should do it." And I came to Nora, and she has more of a business background than I do, but also has an amazing palate. And we talked about it and decided to go for it, that the time was right.

Why do you think no one has done it before?

I think that there are a few reasons for that. The industry in the United States, after Prohibition, was for a long time quite concentrated in Kentucky and Tennessee and Indiana, and has tended more towards slightly bigger companies, bigger distilleries. And they make amazing whiskey, but there wasn't as much of a variety, and there wasn't a need for an independent bottler. But now there are almost 2,000 distilleries around the United States. That's far too many for any one person to discover all on their own. So there's a need for this discovery mechanism.
And the other piece of it is that there have been people playing around with things like this. Companies like Smooth Ambler and High West have been doing a great job of sourcing barrels from Kentucky and Tennessee and Indiana, putting them out transparently both as single casks and as vattings and as blends. But that's been focusing more on those parts of the country that have been making whiskey for a long time. So we wanted to explore a little more widely and show that there's great whiskey being made all over the United States now.

Yeah. And I would add the amount of work that goes into actually exploring distilleries all over the country is huge. We spent eight months on the road visiting distilleries, and we only hit about half of the country during that time. There are just so many distilleries, and we were lucky because between Adam's experience at Whiskey Advocate and my experience at Astor, we had already tasted a lot of things that were available. But there were still so, so many things that we hadn't heard of until we spoke to distillers at their distillery and asked for recommendations of other people that they respected in their area. So it is a huge amount of work to get it up and running.
We do think soon, and we assume other people are talking about this right now, we think that eventually there will be a very vibrant, independent bottler industry in the United States. There's so much interesting stuff happening in whiskey and in other spirits here as well, that we think there's a lot of space for multiple people doing what we're doing because, as you see in Scotland, each independent bottler has a different perspective. They may be sourcing from the same distilleries, but something you get from Douglas Laing is really different than something you'd get from Gordon and MacPhail. And we look forward to when that happens in the United States as well.

You mentioned that there are over 2,000 distilleries in the U.S. right now. Obviously, you're not just talking about single malt distilleries, you're also including bourbon and rye distilleries in that mix, I assume.

That's correct. We really love American single malt and think it's incredibly exciting. And our first blend is a vatted malt. But we are doing bourbon and rye and other categories of whiskey too.
One of our first releases is actually a four-year-old Texas corn whiskey, which... Texas has a very hot and dry climate, but still has pretty big temperature swings throughout the year, so it's a really intense and bold spirit. And we want to explore these things and the regional differences you can get across all categories. So that's something fun that we can do that they can't do in Scotland.

We're doing kind of all American whiskey in all of its forms, not just single malt.

You talked about your great whiskey road trip. What was the most striking thing about the distilleries you visited?

I mean, for me, it's the sheer passion that you see from people all across the country, people who put their careers on the line or gave up their careers for the chance to make whiskey. And often, it was not people from the whiskey industry doing it because that industry had left those areas a hundred years before. They were trying something new and building something from the ground up. And the result of that, when it's done well, is that they discover new things and new techniques that haven't been tried before, like smoking whiskey with mesquite. And they're also really reflecting their regionality. Whiskey from the Great Plains, from Iowa, tastes different from bourbon from Kentucky, tastes different from bourbon from Washington or California. And we think that's really exciting, and I'm looking forward to that evolving more over the years to come.

Now, with so many craft distilleries, how do you choose which whiskeys to concentrate on? I mean, is each release going to have a theme or a... Has your business itself got a certain theme behind the way that you do it, that allows you to differentiate which ones you pick and which ones you don't?

We have a process for how we pick individual barrels, but when it comes to distilleries, it's really... It's who we're most excited about and who is also excited about what we're doing. People have generally been quite receptive to this idea, but we tend to gravitate more towards the people who really get it, who either are familiar with independent bottlers or see the value that this can provide rather than like, "Oh, yeah, we have a couple of barrels to spare. Sure." But people who want to see this kind of a development in the industry. And we want American whiskey drinkers and people elsewhere to see that these new whiskeys from all across the country can be really amazing. So we're focusing on the best-of-the-best of those 2,000 that we found.

Yeah. And we have very rigorous tasting, a very rigorous tasting process, so that once we're starting to work with the distillery to get to a place where we buy the cask, it's a long process, even after we visited and talked to them and felt good about this relationship. And we're building long-term relationships, so we want to make sure that we are doing justice to our brand and doing justice to the distilleries we work with. We don't want anyone to have a bad experience by working with us. So we make sure that the casks that we're selecting and putting out there will really excite our customers and get people excited about the distilleries that we're working with.

Right. Every one of our first releases, including the blend, has all of the distillery names right on the label in big letters. We want to talk about that. We're excited about that. But to be able to do that, we have to treat their whiskey with the respect it deserves, and they have to know that we're going to do that.

And we have to fall in love with the whiskey so that we can talk about it and be excited about it. So, it's not really a science. I mean, Adam's in charge of our whiskey sourcing. So he goes through a process of figuring out who he wants to reach out to and doing all of that. And then we do all of the selection of barrels together after he gets the samples in.

Has the process of pulling all of this together been easier or more difficult than you thought it was going to be?

In some ways more difficult just because no one has ever really done this before. So every time that we're buying whiskey from a distillery, we're creating pricing for barrels. We are creating a process for buying it. There are obviously legal requirements for getting something from a distillery to us, but each of our relationships are specific because we're building long-term partnerships, and trying to figure that out is very customized.
That being said, the response that we got from distilleries was wonderful and much better than we'd expected. We thought that our initial trip, we would spend a lot of time really trying to convince people that this idea was a good one, but we had so many people respond to a totally cold email saying, "Oh, my goodness, I'm so glad that you're reaching out. I've been waiting for someone to do this."
So finding partners to work with, I think, was easier. But kind of working through the logistics, which is my headache to handle, has definitely been trying at times, but also fun to talk about on the other end once we have it figured out. Like, trying to get two barrels off of Nantucket, which is a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, was a unique puzzle to figure out. To get barrels onto a ferry and then get it down to our bottler was an interesting process, but one that we ended up figuring out, and now those barrels are in our blend.

Are you storing already? Have you got a big warehouse where all of these barrels are going to eventually live?

Right now, we don't have our own warehouse. We are working with a bottler out of Virginia who is actually in our blend. Virginia Distillery Company is doing all of the bottling for us and has done for our first couple of releases. We eventually hope to have our own warehouse so that we can... Referencing back to your question a while ago, once we have our own warehouse, that's when we're really going to look into doing virgin spirits and ageing it and doing our own finishes and doing more things like that. We want to wait until I can get my hands on it and have direct control and not bog someone else down in all of the minutiae when they have their own whiskey being produced. So long story short, we don't have our own warehouse, but we look forward to the day when we do.

Would it be correct to say that the way you approach a liquid is going to be very, very different from the way that the person who's actually distilled it, would approach it?

I think it can be, and that's actually reflected in our experience as a whiskey reviewer for me and as a person on the store floor for Nora, is distillers are naturally, they come from a world of distilling and maturation and all the processes that take raw grain to being amazing whiskey. We're coming in when it's already amazing whiskey and finding which ones are our favourites. So we're focused on the final experience, the output, and evaluating different forms of that, rather than on each of the pieces that go into making that. So I think it is... It's like another level on top of what the distillers do. Just like in Scotland, the blending houses do something very different than what the distilleries themselves do, but both of them are really exciting in their own right.

We spoke about the fact that you'll be looking at American single malts and bourbons and ryes, so all forms of whiskey made in the United States. Will you be blending those types together, or will you keep everything very separate?

Well, that's one of the fun things about working in the United States, where there has not been as much of a tradition of blending like this, is it feels like there's an open canvas to do what we want and play with what we want. So we'll definitely be blending across categories and experimenting with how that is. And just internally among ourselves, we're experimenting with lots of interesting blends, some of which will work, some of which won't and won't ever go anywhere, because we want to see how two whiskeys that are very, very different come together or don't.
We did that in the peat-smoked whiskeys before we brought everyone together, to make sure peat and whiskeys can go together, and they actually go together really well.

I imagine there would be bourbon purists, though, who would have a stroke at the idea of you mixing it with anything else.

Probably. But we do plan to have type-specific ones. Like, the American Vatted Malt, all single malts. We do have our own versions of bourbon from many places, and ryes. But we think that we have a unique opportunity, as Adam said, to really play with flavours. And yes, there are purists that will have a hard time, but our goal is to make the whiskey so good that they can't argue with it and have to get on board.

There's still a bit of a stigma in the United States around blending because of the history of things that were blended with neutral grain spirit and whiskeys like that. That's totally different than what we're doing, and we want to, like companies like High West have done, to get rid of that stigma and show that blending is a really exciting way to bring new flavours together. And for the purists, we have our single casks. And for the blends, we can experiment with new things. And it'll always be the way that we think whiskey drinkers want whiskey to be, which is non-chill filtered, natural color-

No additives.

Generally cask strength, not always cask strength, but generally. And no additives, right, like that.

Now, you spoke about the fact that a lot of the distillers understood exactly what you wanted to do and were enthusiastic about it. Flip that onto the other side. What about consumers? Are you going to end up having to do quite a bit of education to get people to understand what the point of what you're doing is, or do you think that consumers have been waiting for this just as much as distillers were?

I think there's certainly going to have to be some education. I think scotch drinkers and people that have immersed themselves in that industry completely understand what we're up to and hear the name independent bottler and know exactly what that means. People who are in the bourbon community, there's a little more education, but they also know what a single barrel, we call it single cask from that Scottish tradition, but they understand what that means.
But I do think the idea of sourcing and transparency and why we're doing this, it's going to take some education. But I think that's part of why we're excited, because in that process of educating people, it allows us to talk about these distilleries that we're excited to work with and to introduce people to. I mean, that's another reason why we're really excited for other independent bottlers to join the scene, because I think the more people that are doing this and talking about it, the easier it will be for all of us to really get things out there to people who want to drink our whiskey.

The very first time a distillery opened in Texas or in any other state, it was a novelty. People didn't know what to think about it at first. And then other ones opened, and now in Texas alone, there are a dozen, and it's developing its own regional style. So the more the merrier, I guess.

One of the things that Scottish bottlers do is they get some very, very old casks from distilleries and re-introduce them to consumers and put them into blends and various things like that. Now, with American single malt, at least, there aren't any old casks because the industry isn't old enough. Are you finding that there are old forgotten casks in bourbon, at least?

Because we're mostly working with younger distilleries, there are usually not a ton of those either. There are very old casks in bourbon that some companies have found. Barrel Bourbon found some great ones, and Smooth Ambler does too. I mentioned them before. We are exploring more broadly beyond that. And most of it isn't that old, but in some places it's never going to be. Like, our Texas corn whiskey, that cask was four years old, and for Texas, that's quite a long time. Like, after four years, the barrel was more than half empty, and we only got a hundred bottles from it.

Right. It wouldn't last seven years, I don't think. But I think we do have plans ourselves to age whiskey so that we can have some older single malt and bourbons coming from these distilleries. But that takes time. And we're trying to figure out where we want to age those barrels so that they can last a long time, but also then having the conversation about what if we move them? How does that flavour change over time? And what does that mean? And so there's some fun conversations there, but it is... At least for now, if we want older stock, we're going to have to create it for ourselves.

Let's talk a little bit about the American Vatted Malt Edition Number One that you have just released. If somebody bought a bottle, what would they be tasting? How would it hit the palate? What are the flavours that are coming through?

So we think that it starts out really, really fruity and chocolatey on the nose. Some fire roasted fruits. On the palate, it's complex and balanced, a lot of baking spice, roasted barley, and a savoury smokiness around it all. Like I said before, the smoke is a light touch. It's there, but it's not the dominant feature. A long warm finish, chocolates and sea salt. The nice thing about it is that it evolves really nicely in the glass, and you can sometimes taste the mesquite. You can taste the peat a little bit. You can taste them coming together. The Pacific Northwest whiskeys in it were all made by brewers, and it reflects the rich juiciness that you can get from there. It's a different style of single malt. It all comes together really nicely.

Was it harder or simpler to marry all these different styles than you thought?

It was relatively straightforward. The interesting thing for us is once we dumped, or really once our bottler dumped all of the casks into a vat, they slow-proofed it for us over the course of three months, so adding water periodically, bringing the proof down to 105, which is what it's bottled at, from around 120, give or take a few points. But that allowed all of these very disparate flavours to integrate, kind of like when you're cooking a stew or a curry, how the flavours become so much more intense and integrated over time.
But the really interesting thing for us is we got to taste it throughout the process, and sometimes there would be no smoke, and it would be all about the Pacific Northwest kind of flavour profile. And then other times, it would be a peat in your face. And kind of watching it over its slow proofing process and marrying was fascinating and, I think, created the spirit, which is truly unique because it is an integration of all of those flavours. So I think creating the blend was really exciting, but then the process of getting it to a point where it felt integrated took a long, long time to do. So from that perspective, it was difficult.

And we think that slow-proofing process of bringing it down to proof over the course of months is actually a great way to help whiskeys of different styles integrate together. So we'll definitely be doing that in the future for different blends.

Now, have the distillers from those six distilleries tasted the end result? And if so, was it what they expected?

Yes, they've all tasted the final result. One of the things that we do with all of the producers is we get final sign-off from them with the finished product, because we never want them to be concerned about their name being on a whiskey that we've done something insane to, which we would never, but ... So they all got a chance to taste it before it even got labeled.
It was interesting. We got really positive responses, but it was different than what we had initially blended together because of that slow, long proofing process. But I think we got some really wonderful quotes from all of the distillers on the process and the final product. So I think they were pleased. But I'm sure it was different than what they had remembered.

And the instructions that we gave when we brought everyone together were pretty freeform. We wanted to give people the chance to experiment, blending with very different types of barrels. Our only instruction really was that we wanted something that tasted like an American single malt and whatever that meant over the landscape. So there's all kinds of barrels in there. There's new oak. There's used oak. There's sherry casks. There's Apple brandy finished. So it's very distinct from a Scottish blended malt that would be mostly in used oak. For our future releases, we don't intend to do the same flavour profile or the exact same instructions every time. One of the participants, he was more on the Scottish tradition, was like, "I really love used oak. Let's try something with a lot of that next time." And we may well end up doing that and see what flavours we can get if we do it like that. So there are a lot of different areas we can experiment and tweak over time.

Now, how frequent should people be expecting releases from you? Are you going to be releasing a set amount every year or...

Yeah. So for our single-cask program, the goal is to release quarterly. And by and large, we will have a single malt, a bourbon, a rye, and sometimes some other whiskey, like the corn whiskey we released this time, but do one of each of those on a quarterly basis. Every once in a while, we may do a surprise release of something that we're super excited about, and we can't keep it in our warehouses any longer. But generally, the single cask will be on a quarterly rolling basis.
The American Vatted Malt, we intended that to be an annual release, where the style changes on an annual basis. Because of COVID, we had to delay our edition number two blending session. That was supposed to happen in late March, and everything got canceled. So we're waiting until the pandemic kind of goes on its way until we can do our next session with all of these distilleries. But in the future, that'll be annual. But we'll have other blends that come out kind of on a periodic basis and will range in style from there.

It was really a tragedy with what would have been American Vatted Malt Edition Number Two because everyone was already ready to go on it. They had pitched the barrels, and we were getting all set to meet up. And I think it was about two weeks before when everything shut down in the United States, and we had to say, "All right, I guess we'll see you next year."

Oh, that's frustrating. Yeah.

It's too bad, but that's true of things everywhere and for many people. So we feel fortunate that we were able to release American Vatted Malt Edition Number One and our first set of single casks under these circumstances. So no real complaints on our end that way.

I believe that you are available in 40 of the 50 U.S. states. Is that a number that you're going to expand? And are you looking to release overseas at any point?

So 40 states for us was truly a surprise. It's because, with the pandemic, we actually ended up releasing online through two different... One is live, and then we're releasing through another online store later this month, and that will bring us to 40 states. To get shipping has been very difficult in the U.S., but the pandemic has sped along the process of allowing people to ship to different places. Our initial intention, before the pandemic, was to release primarily in New York and California only and focus on those markets on premise and off premise. So we feel very fortunate that we can now reach 40 states. It's an interesting silver lining for us in the process of releasing that we can get to so many more people right now.
As for overseas, I think we would love to eventually. We think especially in the UK, there's likely appetite for this because they already really understand independent bottlers. I know Australia has a ton of interest in whiskey and is making a bunch of whiskey that is really cool as well. So we hope that over time we will be able to. We're so small at this point, our American Vatted Malt is only 3,000 bottles, that I think, in some ways, we need to make sure that we can support the U.S. before we really start thinking about expanding beyond the states that we can get to now.

Of course. Now, an interesting question. Considering you are producing in low numbers and considering that whiskey can at times be, well, let's face it, expensive in terms of collector items and various things like that, do you imagine that some of your releases, especially the vatted malts, are going to end up becoming collectors' items and the sort of whiskeys that people swap amongst collectors?

We're certainly open to that possibility. Honestly, from a personal perspective, we hope so because we think these are unique and exciting. And once they're gone, they're gone. We'll do other American vatted malts, but none will be exactly like this one was. So we'll see. But we think that's a fun part of the American whiskey experience, is people finding unique and interesting things and sharing them with their friends.

Cool. Nora and Adam, thank you so much for joining us. If people want more information, they can, of course, go to your website, which is lostlanternwhiskey.com Thank you for your time.

Thank you so much for having us. This was fun.

It was a pleasure. Thanks for getting up so early for us.

Easily done. Thank you.

For more information on Lost Lantern, go to lostlanternwhiskey.com

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