Salty Licorice

The look on my face must have said it all, because the woman running a small Scandinavian store not far from Brussels burst out laughing. “Yes, it’s an acquired taste! But we, Swedes, are addicted to it,” she said, fetching a glass of water for me. The topic of conversation–and the reason I couldn’t stop myself from wincing–was a piece of jet black candy called salmiaklakrits in Swedish or salmiakki in Finnish, salty licorice. It’s a confectionery made with licorice extract and ammonium chloride that gives it an unusual saltiness–the more ammonium chloride is added, the saltier the candy tastes. Licorice is an acquired taste to begin with, but salmiakki is in a category of its own.

salmiak

Besides the Nordic countries, salty licorice is also enjoyed in the Netherlands and the north of Belgium and Germany. People who love it are a passionate bunch and active proselytizers. If a Dutch friend casually suggests you try something called Dubbelzout drop, beware that you’re about to make the acquaintance of an extra salty licorice. I guarantee, the memory of that drop will stay with you for a long while afterwards. After your friend has delighted enough in your suffering, she will then pop the stuff in her mouth, make audible signs of pleasure and give you a smug–“my taste buds are so superior”–smile.

Since my job involves thinking about flavors and scents, salty licorice has intrigued me enough to try it again and again. It’s believed that salmiakki was created by pharmacists making their own cough tablets. Ammonium chloride was used as an expectorant, but it also gave medicine an interesting flavor. (It’s also used in cookies to give them a crumbly, delicate texture.) Candies can come in a variety of forms–soft, hard, coated with sugar, and flavored with anything from berries to caramel.

My initial difficulty with salmiakki was not only the salty taste, but its combination with the intense sweetness of licorice. If you’re used to Twizzlers flavored with anethole, an aromatic compound with a sweet, anise-like flavor, real licorice comes as a surprise. The root of Glycyrrhiza glabra contains glycyrrhizin, which is 30-50 times sweeter than sugar, and the flavor is layered and complex, blending nuances of anise, dark honey and caramel. The sweetness lingers much longer than that of sugar, which means that the flavor of salmiakki won’t go away after the first bite. It will keep on getting stronger.

Everything that makes salty licorice strange also makes it curious–the unexpected juxtaposition of flavors, the sensation on your palette and the richness of true licorice. After the first shock wears off, you’re left with a velvety mouthfeel. Take a sip of water now and notice how it tastes sweeter. The more I tried salty licorice, the more it captivated me, which is why I’m now playing the same proselytizing role my friend did, except that I’m giving you fair warning.

If you’re game for this new experience, start out with the mildly salty candy in small doses. You’ll also find that it comes in a dazzling variety, and if you travel to the ancestral lands of salty licorice, you’ll find it flavoring brandy, vodka, ice cream, and even Coke. The best part is that once you’ve acquired the taste for salmiak, you can ambush unsuspecting people with it. Believe me, this part alone is rewarding enough.

Where to find: The UK site All Things Liquorice has an overwhelming selection. In the US, Dutch Sweets and Swedish Sweets and Imports offer a wide selection of salty licorice and other regional delights. If you’re shopping at the former and are kinder to your friends than I am, then consider giving them Stroopwafels–thin waffles sandwiched with spicy caramel.

New Yorkers can find salty licorice at Sockerbit, a Swedish candy store at 89 Christopher St. They also have a branch in Los Angeles at 7922 West 3rd Street.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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91 Comments

  • martyn: Salty licorice! Yum! A firm favourite of mine for years. (I like the cats and the euros best.) But all things licorice are good for me: I was eating Ladurée’s reglise macarons a couple of days ago, and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. December 10, 2015 at 7:26am Reply

    • Victoria: I tried Laduree’s reglisse macarons at my friend’s place, and I loved their dark color (“a malevolent glint,” as Nigella Lawson would characterize it). The taste was also memorable. December 10, 2015 at 1:56pm Reply

  • Austenfan: My favourite candy. I grew up with it, so I’ve never analysed it much. But it’s true, about it being an odd juxtaposition of flavours.My favourite is high quality honey liquorice and the saltiest of salty salmiak.

    People suffering from high blood pressure should be careful though. Glycyrrhizine can increase it. December 10, 2015 at 8:16am Reply

    • girasole: I was going to mention the blood pressure connection also, so I’m glad you did. I only discovered this when a doctor ‘prescribed’ licorice to help with my extremely low blood pressure and dizziness! Who knew licorice candy could be a ‘health’ food! (Although these days I usually take it in the form of tea – still very sweet) December 10, 2015 at 1:13pm Reply

      • Victoria: Licorice root is used in Chinese medicine a lot, and I’ve seen pieces of it in various mixtures sold at the Chinatown pharmacies. It’s also a good plant, because it draws salt from the soil. December 11, 2015 at 8:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I grew up with the licorice flavored cough medicine, so that was my first point of reference. For the longest time I hated anything licorice flavored, and I couldn’t understand why people would want to eat the stuff. But it took a stay in Italy and a taste of fennel and later Sambuca to slowly ease me into the licorice lover category.

      Now, honey licorice is new to me still. December 10, 2015 at 2:00pm Reply

  • Riina: Love love love licorice, salty or not salty. Try salty licorice with caramel. December 10, 2015 at 8:58am Reply

    • Victoria: I will do! There is a nice Scandinavian shop around here where I can find of these interesting varieties. December 10, 2015 at 2:02pm Reply

  • spe: Black licorice can mess with potassium levels. Even though real licorice tastes wonderful, don’t eat it very frequently! December 10, 2015 at 9:13am Reply

    • CJ: In Norway where I live and work as a doctor, the Norwegian National Institute of Public Health advises to limit one’s consumption to 50g of liquorice candy a day. There are people around here who might eat more, but for most normal humans 😉 50g is a generous enough dose. December 10, 2015 at 9:39am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you for clarifying. I can’t imagine eating 50g of any candy a day, and most definitely not salty licorice! December 10, 2015 at 2:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: In the EU, from what I read, there are regulations on the levels of Glycyrrhizin in licorice candy. December 10, 2015 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Reg: Same as Austenfan, I grew up with the salty kind and was equally baffled when I bought my first licorice in the UK. I had a real craving for the satisfying taste of salmiak and was so disappointed by its sweetness. December 10, 2015 at 9:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I have to admit that I much prefer the salty kind to the regular one, because salt offsets the intense sweetness of licorice. I’m still getting used to the very salty candy, though. December 10, 2015 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Flos Archangeli: Yay saltlakrits! The thought brings a fond smile to the lips of any Swede. Glad we won you over with this one. 😉 December 10, 2015 at 9:36am Reply

    • Victoria: You did. 🙂 I also love the texture of the chewy licorice candy. And then there are so many different varieties! December 10, 2015 at 2:06pm Reply

  • Rebecca: I ‘d love a salty licorice perfume. Is there such a thing? December 10, 2015 at 10:27am Reply

    • Cheryl: This has been a dream of mine to find- December 10, 2015 at 12:13pm Reply

      • Victoria: Caron also has a licorice perfume that’s not overly sweet. It’s called Eau de Reglisse. December 11, 2015 at 8:31am Reply

    • Victoria: Gosh, now I’m curious to find something like this myself. Hermessence Brin de Reglisse, perhaps? December 10, 2015 at 2:19pm Reply

    • limegreen: Can’t wear it but there is a Malle home fragrance and candle that’s anise mint and salty air, Marius et Jeannette. Beautiful fragrance. December 12, 2015 at 7:54am Reply

  • Maria: The story of how I came to love black licorice:

    When I was like 5-6 years old, we had a missionary couple visit us from the Netherlands (we lived in Moscow). They gave me my first LEGO set and a box of black and white licorice bears. The black ones were of course disgusting at first, but once the white ones ran out, it seemed a shame not to eat the black ones. By the time I got through the whole box, I acquired a taste for it. 😀 December 10, 2015 at 10:29am Reply

    • Victoria: What a great story! I like your practical approach, Maria. 🙂 And trust me, as a kid, I also wouldn’t have wasted anything resembling a candy. December 10, 2015 at 2:20pm Reply

  • Mer: I can’t cope with the salty stuff at all :Z I grew up with a menthol/eucalyptus variety of black licorice lozenges, which is also challenging to those who have not tasted it, unless they’re into the salty licorice candy, this seems to inoculate you 😀 pity it does not work the other way around.

    I’ve never liked the “regular” sweet black candy licorice either. Love the root though. December 10, 2015 at 11:09am Reply

    • Victoria: What do you do with the root? Do you use it for teas?

      Now I’m also intrigued by a menthol/eucalyptus licorice variety. December 10, 2015 at 2:20pm Reply

      • Mer: I chew on the root if it is fresh 🙂 I also use it dried and chopped for teas, just a little bit because it is very sweet this way. I particularly like it with lemon verbena.

        They’re Pastillas Juanola. I was looking online and all the shipping costs were insane… I always have a stash of boxes, I can send you one. December 10, 2015 at 3:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: I like the idea of licorice with lemon verbena, and I will try it.

          My friend is coming from Spain next week, so I will ask him about these pastilles. Thank you very much for your kind offer, though! December 11, 2015 at 8:55am Reply

          • Mer: He’ll find them in any pharmacy and they’re cheap 🙂 December 11, 2015 at 9:01am Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you. I will direct him to a nearest pharmacy then. December 11, 2015 at 9:08am Reply

  • Nathalie Nieve: As a Swede, born in Sweden, it is kind of in my genes or blood (or just in my heritage) to be fond of salty licorice. I like sweet licorice as well but that salty strong licorice is something truly special. I understand why many aren’t fond of it…my Chilean dad hated it and wanted to puke when he tried it! Maybe it’s something you can learn to like though, since it is part of many Sweden little bag of candy every Saturday 🙂 December 10, 2015 at 11:41am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s definitely an acquired taste, but I can now see how it can be addictive. 🙂

      What other candies are popular in Sweden? December 10, 2015 at 2:23pm Reply

  • Eva: hi! Swedish living in France it’s one of the fel things I miss from home…. Going back for XMas so I can stock up!
    And yes, I have had people spit them out… Especially Brazilians who have a very sweet tooth… December 10, 2015 at 12:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can understand them. The first time I wanted to spit it out, but I was too polite to do it. Surprisingly, I got hooked. December 11, 2015 at 8:30am Reply

  • girasole: I love, love, love salty licorice! Black licorice was the only kind of candy I ever saw my father eat (albeit the sweeter kind, in the UK), so I guess it reminds me of him. But my favorites are Turkish Peppers (Tyrkisk Peber). A Swedish friend and I used to have competitions to see who could put the most in our mouths for the longest. I like to think I held my own, even in spite of his ‘genetic’ advantage 😉 Makes my cheeks pinch just thinking of it! Delicious! December 10, 2015 at 1:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: I saw Turkish Pepper candy at the shop I mentioned, but I haven’t tried it. My attention was drawn by licorice. December 11, 2015 at 8:33am Reply

  • limegreen: This wasn’t the usual holiday gift suggestion type of article, but I’ll take it! “Ambushing” friends at a holiday gathering with these “treats” is a departure from the usual eggnog conversation. 🙂 Love the monkey shaped licorices!
    I love licorice root tea — but have to be careful to not drink it too often.
    (A friend of mine takes licorice to settle extreme acid reflux. He can’t get to sleep without it otherwise.) December 10, 2015 at 2:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Or you can experiment on yourself first. 🙂

      The unmitigated sweetness of licorice tea is too much for me, but I like when licorice root is mixed with something else. December 11, 2015 at 8:48am Reply

      • limegreen: Licorice root and peppermint tea is a wonderful combination.
        I asked my husband about salty licorice and he made a face and said UGH — apparently he’s been offered this candy many times by enthusiastic Dutch and Norwegian colleagues/friends. Each time he thinks it will be wonderful but NOT. I asked him to save one for me next time he’s offered one, so that I can try it! 🙂 December 11, 2015 at 2:30pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s worth trying just to experience the effect. Plus, licorice is a common perfumery note, so it will be a learning experience too. Meanwhile, I’m taking notes on all of these licorice combinations–mint, verbena, eucalyptus. December 12, 2015 at 4:26am Reply

  • rainboweyes: Although I like the juxtaposition of sweet and salty flavours (as in salty caramel or chocolate for example) licorice of any kind will make me sick. There’s something about its taste that I can’t tolerate. I wonder what it might be?
    I love everything bittersweet though, I had chocolate with 99% cocoa content last week and I really loved it! December 10, 2015 at 2:21pm Reply

    • maja: Me, too, licorice makes me sick for real. I’ve tried it so many times but, alas, it bothers me a lot. December 10, 2015 at 5:42pm Reply

      • behemot: Maja, I am with you on licorice. really, really tried, but… 🙁 December 11, 2015 at 2:04am Reply

      • Victoria: To quote Nigella Lawson again (what’s happening to me), the world is divided into licorice lovers and licorice loathers. 🙂 December 11, 2015 at 8:57am Reply

        • rainboweyes: In Germany they say if you love marzipan then you don’t like licorice. It’s true in my case but I’m sure there are enough people who love both. December 11, 2015 at 10:57am Reply

          • Victoria: I definitely prefer marzipan to licorice, but now that you mentioned them in the same sentence, I’m thinking how the two would taste together. Of course, Lolita Lempicka Eau de Parfum does exactly that–it blends licorice and almonds (among other things). December 11, 2015 at 1:37pm Reply

    • rainboweyes: Speaking of dark chocolate – I’ve just read this article about unique chocolate from Sicily:
      http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20151207-sicilys-secret-chocolate-obsession December 11, 2015 at 4:38am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much for posting this link.
        I tried this chocolate, and it comes in a variety of flavors, including jasmine. The grainy texture takes a while to get used, though. December 11, 2015 at 9:04am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t have more than one half of that candy in the photo, because the licorice flavor in large doses is still overwhelming. But a small amount is a treat.

      Bitter flavors are some of my favorites–bitter chocolate, bitter greens, Campari. December 11, 2015 at 8:50am Reply

  • Ingeborg: I love this type type of candy, always have. Except perhaps for those licorice sweets which are at the same time acid and super salty. Sadly my body reacts much quicker with high blood pressure than most, so I cannot even eat what is usually regarded as a safe amount of the real thing. December 10, 2015 at 2:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried the acid and salt ones yet. Clearly, there is still a lot of licorice world for me to discover. 🙂 December 11, 2015 at 8:51am Reply

  • Hildegerd Haugen: As a norwegian I adore it too. Here we call it lakris. You can even get a liquor with this taste. December 10, 2015 at 3:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: In Ukrainian we call it lakritsa, and I’ve seen vodka flavored with it. I didn’t dare to try it. December 11, 2015 at 8:52am Reply

      • Hildegerd Haugen: Try the lakris vodka, you will adore it in Coca Cola. December 14, 2015 at 12:17pm Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t like the taste of Coca Cola, but I will happily try the lakris vodka on its own. I’m addicted to licorice now. December 14, 2015 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Tania: A good evening Victoria and thank you for yet another lovely article.
    Where is this Swedish shop? I live in Vilvoorde next to Brussels + I love licorice!

    Tania December 10, 2015 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s called ScanShop, and it’s located at Chaussée de Tervuren 133 in Waterloo. There is another smaller Scandinavian store in Brussels proper, not far from the EU institutions: Chaussée de Wavre 364. December 11, 2015 at 8:54am Reply

  • mj: Several years ago, I was working in an IT company. My department was quite large, and people there travel a lot, and usually brought stuff from their trips, normally sweets, for our “treat tray” that presided the table close to the coffee machine. One of our coworkers, went to the Netherlands, and brought back salty licorice. Well, the treat tray was full of the licorice, as nobody could eat it. It’s really an adquired taste. December 10, 2015 at 3:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: The salty Dutch kind definitely take some time to acquire. I still haven’t gotten into the super salty candy. December 11, 2015 at 8:58am Reply

  • Lady Dedlock: I’ve never tried licorice. Wondering how this remiss occurred.
    Well, I live by the mantra that one should try everything at least once. December 10, 2015 at 5:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a good rule to follow. I try to do the same thing. December 11, 2015 at 8:56am Reply

  • Becky: My husband brought this back from Denmark for me to try – apparently it’s very popular there, as well.

    Acquired taste, indeed. 😉 December 10, 2015 at 6:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: So what do you think? 🙂 December 11, 2015 at 8:58am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Great post! I love black licorice, and licorice tea. I’ve just blind bought a niche perfume called Feuille de Reglisse (“Licorice Leaf”), so that may add to my licorice loves! December 10, 2015 at 7:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Who makes Feuille de Reglisse? December 11, 2015 at 8:58am Reply

  • Io: We know empirically that our ethnicity affects how we digest the exact same food and absorb the same nutrients. It’s plausible that this same variability extends to our tastebuds. December 10, 2015 at 7:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Since you can acquire tastes for many unusual flavors, I suspect that it has to do more with exposure. December 11, 2015 at 8:59am Reply

  • anastasia: I used to hate black licorice until I went to Iceland and tried the real thing. What we have here in Canada is horrible and artificial tasting. They had these licorice wrapped in fondant that were divine!!! Salty licorice that sounds amazing, but then i like that sweet and salty combo. December 10, 2015 at 11:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: At the Swedish store they also had non-salty licorice wrapped in fondant, and that was addictive. The texture of candy made with natural ingredients is also fantastic. December 11, 2015 at 9:01am Reply

    • AndreaR: I bought chocolate covered licorice when we were in Iceland. Two of my favorite flavors in one candy bar:-) December 11, 2015 at 6:27pm Reply

      • Victoria: I need to visit our Scandinavian shop again, because all of this talk is making me hungry for licorice and chocolate. December 12, 2015 at 4:32am Reply

  • Lavanya: Ha- I recently came across a salty licorice (made in Oregon) that claimed to be a ‘more approachable version of the Scandinavian treat’. I was tempted but I didn’t end up trying it as licorice is not a flavor I am usually drawn to- but now your post makes me want to try it! I love the pairing of salty and sweet. December 11, 2015 at 1:29am Reply

    • Victoria: I tried salty licorice ice cream not long ago, and that is enough to convert a licorice loather. December 11, 2015 at 9:02am Reply

  • Therése: Another salty licorice loving swede here 🙂 I am currently prohibited to eat it due to illness, and I really miss it.
    As a side note, The “Lakritsfabriken” licorice is made in my hometown. December 11, 2015 at 2:58am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s pretty cool. A town with its own candy! December 11, 2015 at 9:04am Reply

  • Mia: Oh gosh, thanks for laughs. Coming from the salmiakki country, Finland, and, being born in late 60s, salmiakki is actually the only type of candy I do eat. I don’t care for example chocolate at all. Turkish peppers and so called pirate coins, ‘merkkarit’ (how childish can a candy name be?) produced by Fazer, are my favorites. In my experience, people born before 1960s do not like salmiakki, so it really is an acquired taste also inside the ‘Northern salty licorice zone’. Btw. I really appreciate the effort you have put in studying and describing the nuances of the stuff – salty licorice really is different from salmiakki! December 12, 2015 at 12:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Now, this calls for a serious study of licorice preferences. 🙂 The candy in the photo above comes from the Swedish shop, but it’s actually salmiakki.

      I also read that Finnish chefs pair salmiakki with pork, and I can see how it would be a great combination. December 12, 2015 at 4:35am Reply

      • Mia: Definitely yes, that’s what we need! Happily though, everywhere in the ‘zone’ all variations are available and have their fans and supporters over all kinds of borders :).

        I’d say salmiakki is a bit maybe ‘drier’ (if that makes any sense) and less sweet than salty licorice, having even a bit more ammonium chloride. This is however just a guess.

        I’ve also heard of various interesting applications in cooking, but haven’t tested. Now I think I will, thank you for the inspiration! December 12, 2015 at 8:05am Reply

        • Victoria: Perhaps the EU Commission might sponsor it. Whenever I visit there, I always see papers on the most random of topics, while this one sounds truly important. 🙂

          I saw recipe for chocolate mousse with salmiakki, and that sounded great. December 13, 2015 at 9:57am Reply

  • Andy: I will NEED to try some of this salty licorice, sometime soon. I love licorice and go wild for salty foods, and I’m just imagining how the licorice taste would come alive with some salt paired alongside. Sounds bewitching. December 12, 2015 at 7:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Knowing your adventurous spirit, I’d say that you’re a perfect candidate for salty licorice, Andy! December 13, 2015 at 9:58am Reply

  • Mia: Thank you Victoria! It happened to me that I got seriously into the salmiakki cooking scene and found a wonderful site with lots of recipes varying from salmiakki pasta or sauces for meats to sweet dishes such as salmiakki cheese cake. Here’s the link:
    http://haganol.fi/category/reseptit/

    Unfortunately all the recipes are only in Finnish, even though there is an introductory site in English, too. If you, or somebody, wish to know some of the recipes, I’m willing to translate them. The names of the dishes are probably recognisable up to a point due lots of loan words. I am going to make at least salmiakki mustard for Christmas.

    Probably not that many got this carried away with this =). Anyway, your post on these salty treats made me want to try something new – excitement that was extremely welcome in this awfully dark and wet winter time without any snow to give even a hint of light… December 13, 2015 at 2:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Mia. What a great site! I used google translate to help me along, and I’ve landed on this page:
      http://haganol.fi/reseptit/jalkiruuat/salmiakki-suklaabrownie/
      Chocolate licorice brownies sound so delicious!

      Please let me know if you end up trying anything. I’m also very excited now to experiment more. December 14, 2015 at 1:00pm Reply

      • Mia: Thanks again, I certainly will! December 14, 2015 at 2:24pm Reply

  • Kaat: hmm dubbelzoute drop, salty extra double salt liquorice, imagine the first time when you take on in your mouth…..

    you can compare it,with
    like you bite in a lemon, similar kind of face, 🙂

    my sister did adore the dubbelzoute drop, but for me,,, to salty, i prefer the honey menthol, katjes, and the swedich salty hard glazed liquorice,
    for all taste is so different, like in perfumes and also liquorice December 13, 2015 at 2:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, the same dramatic effect! It’s either addictive or repulsive. December 14, 2015 at 1:04pm Reply

  • sara: Great post! I am 1/2 Finnish and love salty black licorice…and it’s getting to be Black Sambuca season as well. Enjoy! December 14, 2015 at 3:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m tempted to pour a small amount right now. A cold winter evening is perfect for Sambuca. December 14, 2015 at 4:31pm Reply

  • Jennifer C: I used to hate black licorice, but I’ve developed a taste for it in the last few years. I actually think I liked it as a perfume note first and then started to appreciate it as a flavor.

    I tried some salty licorice a while back when I found some at an import shop. I don’t remember the brand but it was either German or Dutch. Interesting stuff. It’s kind of a weird flavor because the salt aspect is ammonium chloride rather than regular salt, so I definitely got a bit of an ammonia edge that took some getting used to. But I guess I did because I kept going back to it and ended up eventually finishing the bag. And now after reading this I’m kind of wanting some. January 7, 2016 at 5:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also discovered that if you actually have a cough, a bit of salty licorice does wonders to soothe the throat. So, a delicious candy and a curative one at that (in small doses). January 8, 2016 at 5:13am Reply

  • Jessica: “My initial difficulty with salmiakki was not only the salty taste, but its combination with the intense sweetness of licorice”… hmm.

    but what about the most powerful sensory attribute of all – and most characteristic of this stuff: the AMONIA? seems the more we ‘think’ about it as liquorice the less we actually experience it for what it really is. August 8, 2016 at 5:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Each experiences it differently. Ammonium chloride tastes salty to me. What it does give is the smell of ammonia on one’s breath AFTER you eat salmiakki. That part didn’t bother me, though. August 9, 2016 at 4:15am Reply

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