Aug 312015
 

Just ’cause you asked…

Now…I know I’m gonna get lambasted for posting NAS malts here, but the question was related to bang for your buck malts and, as this is a retrospective sorta listing, it would be disingenuous to play politics here.  As I did with the last Top Ten, I simply sorted through my offline spreadsheet of scored whiskies and did a descending sort.  From there I peeled out all limited releases – be they long gone vintages, single casks, special releases, etc – and left just standard readily available expressions (albeit some are batch releases, as stated below in notes).  The list would have been bullshit if I left out the NAS malts.  It wouldn’t have answered the question.  That being said…sometimes you have to hurt the ones you love and I still say I’d buy an age-stated malt with a slightly lower score than support any corporate entity that expects my blind allegiance to their marketing department.

Enough from the soapbox already, right?  For those looking to find some good value malts at affordable prices (I suppose that is all relative, aye?), here are my top ten so far…

No limited releases, or stuff I know was only special in one batch or so, were considered for this list (i.e. Airigh Nam Beist, the Port Charlotte PCs, etc)

1  Talisker 18 (45.8% abv)     (93/100)

– Arguably the best standard 18 year old malt I’ve tried.  And tried again.  And again.  The perfect balancing act of soft fruits and very mild peat.  Revisited this stuff just two days back and yep…still shines bright.  Hard to find nowadays, but worth seeking out.  Note: Talisker 18 is not available in Canada for some reason.  The bottles I’ve tried so far (and have put aside for rainy days) are all older releases.  Hopefully the newer editions are as rock solid as these ones.

2  Ardbeg Corryvreckan (57.1% abv)     (92.5/100)

084– A malt that suffers very little from batch variation as far as I’ve seen.  When people speak of the might of Ardbeg this is the kind of whisky they’re referring to.  Massive and bombastic.  The smoke and maritime notes combine to perfect effect.  Like nearly drowning in the ocean, then drying out by a beach bonfire.  Always a treat to engage a bottle of this malt, especially when you can introduce someone to Ardbeg with it.

3  Kavalan Solist Sherry (59.4% abv*)     (92.5/100)

20121102_193444– A wildly inconsistent series by Taiwan’s Kavalan distillery.  I have tried the Solist Sherry at a score of as low as 75 or so and recently finished a bottle that would have outshone even this one I’m referencing here that came in at 92.5.  I would suggest trying before you buy wherever possible, but when Kavalan is firing on all cylinders it is a beaut!  Never ceases to amaze what these guys are able to accomplish in their short periods of maturation.  Semi-tropical conditions work wonders on this spirit.  (Score shown is for cask #S060710026)

4  Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% abv)     (92.5/100)

Mar102012 070– Neck and neck with the Corryvreckan, and typically depending on my mood as to which I prefer on any given day.  But while the Corry has been quite consistent throughout its batches, this one has seen a marked shift in terms of profile over the years.  Here’s the thing, though: it may be different now, but I don’t see any decline.  One of the most successful marriages of heavy peat and sherry ever bottled.  I’d argue this, moreso than the Ten, is the true face of the brand.  A classic.

5  Amrut Intermediate Sherry (57.1% abv)     (92/100)

jhfjfjhjlhg 061– Amrut may have built its name on the Fusion (and Jim Murray’s somewhat ridiculous score given to it for that matter), but the distillery’s Intermediate Sherry and Portonova are bigger, better malts in my opinion.  The intermediate sherry is a stunning whisky.  Earlier batches were a little better, but all I’ve tried have been great.  The exotic spices, creamy chocolate and jammy fruits are to die for.  Young whisky has no business tasting this good.

6  Amrut Portonova (62.1% abv)     (92/100)

– I’d be hard pressed to tell you which I prefer (this or the Intermediate Sherry), as both are stunning in their own right.  Additionally, both bring such mouth-wateringly fruity and concentrated jam-like notes to the fore while backing them with subtle and singular nuances particular to Amrut I simply can’t choose.  The distillery’s ‘make’ works well with the influence of these well-seasoned barrels.  The hot climes of Bangalore really allow those casks to breathe.

7  Lagavulin 16 (43% abv)     (92/100)

– I keep reading about Lagavulin 16 suffering from decline and in some sort of tailspin, but as a guy who nearly always has a bottle of this mainstay open I gotta say – much like with the Uigeadail – there may be a some slight change from time to time, but by no means have I seen this one falter.  I know Serge of Whiskyfun mentioned a while back that he feels the same as I do.  Not that we’re looking for vailidation, mind.  Truly a quintessential malt.

8  Aberlour a’bunadh (59.7% abv*)     (92/100)

– I struggled mightily to include this one, but in the end early biases won out.  As did hopes that we’ll see a slight upturn again someday.  This is an expression renowned for batch variance, and that’s part of the reason we love it.  However, it can and does swing from highest of highest to…well…just ok.  I don’t think I’ve found an outright bad a’bunadh, but I have been disappointed on occasion.  (*The score I’m showing here was from Batch 28, in case you were curious.)  We’re seeing a creeping of price on this one, so be careful where you buy, but generally even the worst a’bunadh is better than most of its contemporaries in terms of price point.

9  Bowmore Laimrig (54.4% abv*)     (91.5/100)

015– One of my absolute favorite malts of recent years.  I admit I do have some personal bias from lingering memories of a Feis Ile edition tried on Islay, but make no mistake this is a killer malt.  Huge sherry and middling peat.  Such a beautiful combination of sweet and smoky.  Again, this is a very jammy malt; thick and oily and one that lingers for a long time after tasting.  This is Bowmore’s phoenix malt in my eyes.  (*Score shown is for Batch 1)

10  Laphroaig 18 (48% abv)     (91.5/100)

– This is quite possibly the new ‘classic’ 18 year old on the market, outshining Highland Park’s 18 by miles and really only seeing competition from Talisker 18 or Caol Ila 18 (older editions, that is, and incidentally also not available in Canada).  Laphroaig gets really pretty with age.  The peat fades and the soft fruity notes that step forward are breathtaking.  Up until recently we could get this for about $90.  I think it’s about $110 now, but still a relative bargain for a malt like this.

…and finally… I really wanted to give Bunnahabhain 18 an honorable mention.  It should have been included here, but the most recent bottle I tried (and am still sipping from) has a very predominant sulphuric thread through it.  A deal-breaker, for sure.  Unfortunately this is not the first time I’ve found it in Bunna 18.  When you get a clean batch though…wow.  One of my favorite 18s of all time.

There you have it.  Contestable and debatable.  I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the subject.  Feel free to put your own top ten in the comments below.

Cheers!

– Curt

 Posted by at 8:54 am

  11 Responses to “Top Ten Value Malts (With A Couple Caveats)”

  1. Great list filled with bottles on my list of must tries. If only Canada could pick it’s game up and find a few bottles of the harder to find malts. Looking for talisker 18 first though!

  2. Although others might have an issue with some of these in terms of the value actually offered, based on how they rate them and what they pay for them, I certainly don’t have any problem with NAS products being cited, as the problem with NAS isn’t necessarily with their quality or value (although some WILL argue that that IS their primary, and sometimes only, flaw), but just with the picking and choosing of if/when age supposedly matters to the whisky – which is, of course, utter self-contradictory marketing bullshit taken in the context of the industry tracking cask ages and providing age statements elsewhere. With or without labels, let alone age statements, the value of any of these whiskies would remain the same if the price and quality does.

    Given how this does deal with value, however, rather than just straight “Top 10” quality, I’m surprised to see very few even personal prices cited, let alone any calculations of relative value, QPR or “bang for your buck”. Reading the preface, what we’ve got is a list of the top ten best (more or less still regularly available, or at least not discontinued) malts on the market – and there’s certainly value to that list, but it’s not necessarily a list about value. There is, of course, a question of how low one will go in terms of quality (and this is a list of 90+ whiskies) in pursuit of value but, looking at my own spreadsheets, I find that the 90+ stuff offers some of the worst value relative to other stuff I’ve tried (and also seen rated here). This isn’t entirely surprising as most of the remainder of (non-90-class) whisky production doesn’t survive by the absolute quality it offers, but rather BY the relative value it offers (it’s admittedly mediocre, but still a great deal cheaper). When the latest 80-something general release can’t be convincingly hyped into some kind of special event/collectible, the time-tested way to actually sell it is to have some realistic appraisal of the quality offered and to price it accordingly- that is, by value and better values, once identified, generally selling better. Taking a couple of steps back, recent growing industry aversion to this in favour of “every NAS is its own event” marketing might explain why, when things get truly outrageous, it’s the preference of outfits like Whisky Advocate to abstain from discussion of value altogether on the grounds that “it’s not their business to be telling anyone about what to think about paying $10,000 or more for a bottle of whisky” that, only coincidentally, scores no higher than the recent A’bunadh.

    On some of the whiskies themselves, I thought that variation in vattable elements was supposed to be one of the industry’s arguments, and one of the strengths of NAS “flexibility”, in delivering a consistent product (it certainly is with Macallan, but, oh right, there we’re only talking about colour and, with Rare Cask, we’re not even talking about that). That said, I’ve never been a big fan of the “not worse, just different” argument, anyway. Now while it’s true that two whiskies of significantly different character can be given the same mark, to find it within the same expression, to me, calls into question what was/wasn’t valued in one sample and was/wasn’t valued in another – and, anyway, consistency IS one of the things people should be able to expect from an expression, particularly, if even mistakenly, they’ve largely traded age information in pursuit of it. On the other hand, attempts to make quality associations by Gaelic label alone make no less sense than the industry’s efforts to do so by age alone, so to see it from the same industry camps, even with reversed logic, isn’t really a surprise.

    I raise the above points, not to find fault with the list for its own sake or to jump all over Curt, but because they were the larger issues I found with it.

    Having very recently tried a Lag 16, I find a tailspin an exaggeration, but the direction is correct: it’s now a very pleasant whisky, but no longer 90+ for me – but, given pricing trends, it could, ironically, still be a better relative value than when I first bought it. I might have changed as much or more than the whisky, but I doubt it, and I’d be interested in a time-capsule head-to-head. With the exception of the Lag 16, I think the others, where I have basis to judge them, are very good whiskies. Lag 12 and Glenfarclas 105 probably don’t strictly belong here by rating but, again, could easily be comparable values and, unfortunately, I think the days of the Laphroaig 18 are numbered in favour of the 15.

    Cheers!

    • Jeff: “I find that the 90+ stuff offers some of the worst value relative to other stuff I’ve tried (and also seen rated here).”

      With respect, I was looking at my reviews on Connosr.com, and only 2 of my 90+ reviews cost more than 100 dollar, and all but three were purchased for under $80 (one of those, a 95, is not readily available, however).

      In contrast, they are better than many more expensive malts (like Macallan 25) that I would not have rated over 90.

      This is not to restart an argument about NAS. I just don’t think that there is a generalization that can easily be made about quality, price and QPR.

      Main thing is that quality is so subjective. Lag 16 is great but what makes Caol Ila cask strength worse at a lower price than I would pay for the Lag 16 in Ontario? Nothing, if anything it is better. Also, can you compare the price of a cask strength and watered down malt on a per % basis? No, you have to compare what is in the bottle. It is just too complicated.

      I think this list serves best as a list of the top “malts you’re likely to be able to find”, not “value” or “affordable”. The specific Amruts and Ardbegs listed are NOT affordable where I have seen them, but they were available, at least at one time.

      • I’d certainly agree that quality is subjective but, once you’ve determined and quantified it (whoever does it and however this is done), value is not because it’s a function of price. Price itself will vary with location and when you buy – many of the whiskies that were good values when I first bought them, are no longer as good, primarily because of relative price changes, less frequently because of quality changes.

        “With respect, I was looking at my reviews on Connosr.com, and only 2 of my 90+ reviews cost more than 100 dollar, and all but three were purchased for under $80 (one of those, a 95, is not readily available, however).

        In contrast, they are better than many more expensive malts (like Macallan 25) that I would not have rated over 90.”

        No argument there; where price is lower and quality is higher, there’s no question about what the better value is, but what about where quality is slightly lower, but price is even lower, relatively speaking? This does relate to an earlier point I tried to make elsewhere about scoring systems – that where it’s generally accepted that all whiskies being reviewed really do all generally fall within a relatively narrow 15-point range, between 80 and 95, (and is that really the case? – food for thought) price has a far greater effect on value than quality. Looking at, in your case, that “only 2 of my 90+ reviews cost more than 100 dollar, and all but three were purchased for under $80”, the scores have to relatively be close, and say even the bottom scorer with the “highest” low price (90 points for $80 = 1.125 points/$) has to beat the top scorer with the “lowest” high price (95 for $100 = 0.95 points/$) – and where prices are actually lower for the first group (under $80) and higher for the second (over $100), values become even wider.

        Where it really gets interesting in terms of value is where quality is admittedly mediocre or worse, but prices are much cheaper (even if you only give Glenlivet 12 a 75/100, at $54.95, it’s still 1.36 points/$, and to be comparable to only 0.95 points/$, it would only have to score 52.2/100, and a lot of people like it more than that.

        Now, even if a $100 whisky was perfect, it would still only give a value of 1.00 points/$, no better, as a value, than if you gave Macallan 12 90/100 and had picked it up at $90. No question about which one people would buy in that case, but it’s also a function of already being committed to a minimum purchase of $90 anyway, and if you look at realistic prices for anything rated at even 95 by reputable people, values aren’t usually anywhere close to that. Even so, if values are the same on paper, but there’s no real question about what someone would buy, what gives? It’s a very good question and, again, I think that the problem lies with many scoring systems. On paper, a whisky being improved from a 60 to an 80 is a quality increase of 20/60 or 33%, whereas a whisky being improved from 80 to perfect is a quality increase of 20/80 or only 25% yet, objectively, both are only a score difference of 20. I think it’s a case of not just quality distribution, but “the value of a point” not being the same as should be implied by the score, let alone by the ranges of scores actually employed, which might really be realistically too tight/high. I mean, is a perfect whisky really only twice as good as one that scores 50, and is everything that one scores 80+ really that close to the best whisky that they’ve ever tried and scored around 95, let alone so relatively close to as good as any whisky can ever possibly be? Is it or isn’t it understood that the quality difference between whiskies scoring 90 and 95 is greater than those between 80 and 85, and that the difference between 80 and 85 is greater than that between two whiskies scoring 50 and 55 – or is it really all the same, as implied by score?

        Now people can say I’m assuming my method of calculating value is correct here and I’m using that to show scoring systems are off, and they’re right, but I’m not so welded to my idea of QPR that I’m not just interested in some of the larger questions this raises about the nature of what is meant by a score and what it must, to me, imply about value and what people do and don’t mean by value.

        “Main thing is that quality is so subjective. Lag 16 is great but what makes Caol Ila cask strength worse at a lower price than I would pay for the Lag 16 in Ontario? Nothing, if anything it is better. Also, can you compare the price of a cask strength and watered down malt on a per % basis? No, you have to compare what is in the bottle. It is just too complicated.”

        True, but quality isn’t a function of price (unless you’re saying Lag 16 is great quality instead of great value, which is something else again) – which we see at both the high and the low ends of things, which does, in turn, lead to discussion about value. Can you compare the prices of cask and non-cask strength whiskies? I think you can because their quality is compared head-to-head all the time without reservation (even Ralfy, who sets Blend Marks separate from Single Malt Marks, doesn’t discriminate by strength) – although the marks may or may not reveal a reviewer’s justifiable preference for cask-strength whisky (I think I generally have a preference for CS and many vats).

        Anyway, food for thought and thanks for the reply.

        Cheers!

  3. Great list. I have yet to try a few, but of those i have, they are reasonably-priced, good whisky

  4. Some great stuff there Curt. But when I think bang-for-buck, I don’t really expect a 90+ whisky at $150. I think a good BFB is 85 -90 points and under 100 bucks. Ardbeg 10 is a good BFB, but Corryvekkan ain’t. Talisker 10 is, but Talisker 18 is not (albeit they are both great whiskies), Caol Ila 12 is good whisky at a good price. I think the idea of this list was to highlight some great underrated whiskies that are available and well priced, like BenRiach 12, Glendronach 12, Glenfarclas 12, etc. Of course I iive in BC and have no conception of rational pricing. This is the home of $195 Laphroaig 18 and $140 Lag 16. Cheers

  5. Hold on, mates. Perhaps it comes down to our individual perspective on value, or perhaps it is as simple as the region in which you buy. Either way, these are VALUE malts in my eyes. Bottles I thnk are a deal at their respective price point.

    Following is what I paid (or pay locally):

    Talisker 18 – $80 US in SF, late 2011
    Ardbeg Corryvreckan – $100 CA
    Kavalan Solist Sherry – $150
    Ardbeg Uigeadail – $80
    Amrut Intermediate Sherry – $98
    Amrut Portonova – $105
    Lagavulin 16 – $80
    Aberlour a’bunadh – $75
    Bowmore Laimrig – $85
    Laphroaig 18 – $90

    Absolutely fair pricing as far as I’m concerned, based on the INHERENT QUALITY in the bottle and irrespective of my own politics. If tasted blind these would all be knockouts. In this day’s market these prices are not out of line. The Kavalan may be a bit of a stretch but I’ve had my opinion validated time and again on this cask.

    Good discussion though. Cheers.

    • “Perhaps it is as simple as the region in which you buy” – Oh absolutely as this applies to price. Even where assessments of quality vary a little bit (but still usually within a 15-point range with maybe an average swing on any malt of as much as 7-8 points), the variance on price from market to market is comparatively huge. If Curt bought the same whiskies in BC or Ontario, his comparative value might stay the same compared to other options available in the same markets (which he most likely would also pay proportionately more for), but his absolute value would decline because he’s literally getting less bang for his buck.

      Setting a standard here of quality in the 90+ range is fine but, as always, value’s a question of “compared to what?”. While a bargain isn’t a bargain if you’re not really interested in the product at any price (certainly as a neat sipper in this case), the value offered by Red Label and other cheaper blends, and even by mid-80s-range single malts, is probably higher, as value is primarily how these whiskies survive, just as the values offered by Curt’s second list far outstrip those in his first.

      Consider (using given and Kensington Wine Market prices),

      JW Red: 70 points/$32.99 = 2.12 points/$
      Glenlivet 12: 83 points/$48.59 = 1.71 points/$
      Aberlour a’bunadh: 92 points/$75 = 1.23 points/$
      Brora 35: 94.5 points/$954.99 = 0.099 points/$

      In each case, even as quality steadily ascended, price proportionally outstripped it to reduce QPR/value/bang for your buck.

      But very good lists anyway.

      Cheers!

    • Thanks for taking the time to do this list. I have had a number of bottles on it and also thoroughly enjoy them.

      I guess when I originally posted a request for a bang for your buck list, I was thinking of it more from a value stand point. The problem is value is so different from place to place. Being in Ontario, most of these bottles you listed are well north of $100. A’bunadh and Laimrig are the exceptions, and those truly are value for the money.

      I guess it comes down to what market(s) you have access to. If you have access to $80US/50# Uggie, then you are doing a lot better bang for your buck wise than a fellow from Ontario paying around $170.

      Of course, you got to even have the option in some of these cases. The Talisker 18 has completely eluded me, despite the fact that I have been to several states looking for it. I am hoping it will be more fruitful to look for it when I go to the UK next summer.

      I recently bought a Talisker 10 for $65/1L at duty free and I thought “this has to be one of the bangs for my buck possible”. The quality to price ratio really struck me on that one. My score vs price is 90:50 (when commented down to 750ml size). That’s when I got to thinking… Is there a better value ratio then that?? And that’s where my request for such a list started!

      • I think that value is shown to be almost solely price dependent, even between whiskies, let alone between markets, using most common scales of quality and that it may be partly a result of the distortion which derives from those scales. Where it’s commonly accepted (and self evident) that the variation in whisky prices is huge, it’s also accepted that the variance in actual quality is relatively very narrow. Anything that isn’t flawed and so worth recommending is usually at least an 80 (putting a pretty high achievement value – 4/5 toward perfect – on simple competence alone) and that leaves only a margin of 20 points (and, in practice, usually only 15 or so) to mark everything better.

        There are some exceptions to this practice. Among respected reviewers, I think that Serge probably uses the widest range of marks most frequently but, with many reviewers/bloggers, most reviews seem to start with the assumptive question “sure it’s good, but just how good is it?” instead of “is it really that good at all, relatively speaking, in the grand scheme of things?”. An honourable mention should also go to Jim Murray, who also uses a wider scale, albeit one I often can’t relate to many whiskies I’ve tried in terms of their quality pecking order – but being controversial is as marketable as being right, maybe more so.

        I’m as guilty of this narrow-scale thinking as the next person; when I became interested in rating relative quality, I took a look at how other people generally used the 100-point scale and more or less used that as a frame of reference, later handicapping other people’s marks to have some idea of what their assessments of quality might mean for me and my future purchasing – and that was most of the practical utility of it for me. Now, as a system, I think it’s generally worked, as any rating system is only really symbolic anyway in the sense that the symbols themselves don’t matter so much as their intent and (hopefully) correct interpretation of their message. Yet I have really started questioning whether or not most rating systems don’t make presumptions of relatively high quality at the outset, resulting in a distortedly high/narrow marking range, and mostly out of overrating/assuming that almost every whisky that isn’t complete swill is at least an 80.

        To give credit/blame where it’s due, I think this assumptive model of overall quality is also something many acquired from professional reviewers, who have an active, if often undeclared, interest in presenting the “there’s really no such thing as bad whisky, just good whisky and better whisky” paradigm – and that IS the overall impression created by the “80+” scale and thinking. Whisky Advocate, which has a large number of prominent reviewers, for example, claims a wide practical marking scale, but it still reflects this type of thinking. WA says that 60-69 reflects whiskies that are “Below average. Major flaws. Avoid.”, 70-79 represents “Average. No unique qualities. Flaws possible”, where 80-89 reflects “Good to very good. Plenty of character and no identifiable flaws. Worth seeking out.” – so the message is the same, that flaws are only finally weeded out at 80 and above and any whisky that simply isn’t flawed (yet “flawless” obviously isn’t perfect either) is a relatively high achiever. To its credit, WA has used its under-80 marks fairly often (although the criticism implied by the mark is often missing in the commentary – by mark, there are flaws, but what are they?), but not nearly as much as it marks above 80 – a reflection of overall quality in the market or, again, confusing competency with accomplishment?

        I think it shows that with marketing, as in politics, economics and elsewhere, establishing/controlling the paradigm IN which people think is far more important than the specifics of what they think about – which whisky is better than which – within that paradigm.

        Looking at three of the four whiskies I looked at before on a “base 80+/20-point scale” (impossible for Red Label, as it was, pretty accurately I thought, given a 70), you get this:

        Glenlivet 12: 3 points/$48.59 = 0.062 points/$
        Aberlour a’bunadh: 12 points/$75 = 0.16 points/$
        Brora 35: 14.5 points/$954.99 = 0.015 points/$

        Reconverted into percentages, with an 80 being the “0 base assumption of competency” – and I do argue that this is what most reviewers do because they refuse to mark/compliment/recommend almost anything less than 80 anyway – the marks are:

        Glenlivet 12: 3 points = 15%
        Aberlour a’bunadh: 12 points = 60%
        Brora 35: 14.5 points = 72.5%

        Really changes the picture about just how close many whiskies that are acknowledged to be competent/worth drinking are to “perfect”, doesn’t it?

        The upshot, I guess, is that if people are, for all intents and purposes, really marking on a 20-point scale anyway (and most really on a 15-point one), then that’s what the marks should reflect instead of placing the entire thing on an 80-point pedestal that really isn’t usually questioned in any practical way and has a big base quality assumption of “this is already 4/5 the way to perfect, but just how much closer did it get” at the outset. Taken in this reduced-scale context, differences in quality are much wider and so it does have more influence on value, as shown by the Aberlour a’bunadh and which reflects what, I think, many might consider the best “bang for your buck” value of the three. I’m still not completely comfortable with all the implications of the math itself (is a’bunadh really 4 times better than Glenlivet or the Brora 4.8, or is that even what’s really meant on a realistic “worth drinking” scale that precludes many, but not most, whiskies anyway?), but it still might be a more realistic way of doing things.

        Cheers!

  6. Yeah, I take your point, Curt. Based on the prices you quote, those are all great values. Alberta prices, at least in Canada, are the exception to the rule. In most other parts of the country you could add 30 to 50% to those prices. Cory, for instance, is $150 here.

    I’m off to UK for a month on Friday. Weather in Scotland isn’t sounding too good, but I’m planning to drink some fine drams and some good craft ale, eat a few steak and ale pies, some smoked haddock and a lot of full English breakfasts. My wife has a much more sensible agenda.

    Slainte.

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