When my wife tested positive for Covid in November of 2020, she bounced back from it quickly. So, when we suspected our kids might have it 10 months later, I assumed that any fight would be equally brief. After two eye-watering nostril swabbings, we got a split decision: our daughter was clean, our son had Covid.
With my wife and me vaccinated, we weren’t concerned by the results. Kids bounce back quickly from the virus, we were told. Surely a return to normal was around the corner.
The next day came with a surprise. Aches and chills wracked my body. Having already kicked Covid’s butt, my wife so lacked sympathy that she suggested my symptoms were fabricated in hopes I’d dodge my caregiver role for our sick son. We won’t talk about the roots of her remarks, but in the end, she believed me.
Days later, though, I felt great. Free from aches and chills, I craved a cup of coffee. Like many, daily coffee is a ritual: I smelled the cream to make sure it was still fresh (check) and brewed the coffee anticipating its alluring aroma—but I smelled nothing. Bringing the filled cup to my nose didn’t change a thing. Worse, a sip delivered only bitterness to the back of my palate.
Failing the coffee-smell test, I gave my nose a few more chances: my deodorant stick, my tea tree oil shampoo, and finally, my bourbon bar. Nothing, nothing and nothing. In an instant, my interaction with the world around me was changed completely.
THIS CONDITION IS CALLED WHAT?
I wasn’t aware that this condition is called anosmia, and that about two-thirds of Covid patients experience it. According to the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, “a November 2021 report published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery found that between 700,000 and 1.6 million people in the U.S. have experienced COVID-related loss or impaired sense of smell that lasted more than six months.”
“SIX! MONTHS?!?,” I thought. I kept reading, but my hopes weren’t high.
“In nearly all cases, however, sense of smell returns within one year. A study of nearly 100 COVID patients who lost their sense of smell found that 86 percent recovered their sense of smell by six months after infection, and 96 percent recovered their sense of smell within 12 months after infection.”
Seriously, this could go on for a full year! And though no more hopeful, I read on.
So, taste and smell are likely to recover and quickly for most, but what if I’m in the 14 percent who still aren’t back to 100 percent after six months or, WORSE, the unlucky 4 percent sidelined for a year or more? Only time would tell.
When others learned of my muted senses of smell and taste, I was offered all manner of remedies. Nosing burnt orange and essential oils didn’t work. My old-fashioned cocktail tasted entirely like bitters. Salted anything stood out on my palate. I could sense sweet but not distinguish any nuances. Saturday morning bakery visits were all but over.
DRINKING LITTLE, BUT STILL BUYING
If you thought I ceased drinking bourbon, I didn’t; nor did I stop buying bourbon. (I lost my sense of taste, but not my mind!) I did stop requesting review samples from distilleries, but as private barrel picks became available, I couldn’t resist piling them into my shopping cart. Yet even the allure of unopened bottles lining my shelves couldn’t lead me to open them because I knew my palate was badly off. And when a master distiller friend told me he had a new 5.5-year rye barrel worth trying, I had to decline.
But all wasn’t lost. There were some upsides.
The newly heightened appreciation for texture and mouthfeel helped me enjoy food and beverage beyond the pleasure of simple consumption. Whiskeys that ordinarily weren’t routine choices (based solely on taste) became more enjoyable. Take Noah’s Mill for example: Usually too young and hot for my liking, it now lacked the unpleasant (to me) notes of current Kentucky Bourbon Distillers releases. Better yet, I now enjoyed the spirit’s oily, chewy textures.
Scotch presented differently, too, adding distinguishable smoky and salty elements that led me to enjoy heavily peated expressions I had often avoided in the past. I still wasn’t tasting everything thrown center palate by muscular pours like Ardbeg, Laphroaig or even Octomore, but their peaty-briny notes became pitches I could hit.
Admittedly, eye-opening as that state of my recovery was, I still yearned for the full return of my taste buds. I needed professional help and reached out to the wholly unprofessional Bourbon & Banter Slack community for guidance. When friends referenced a couple of articles on prolonged anosmia, one was Caroline Paulus’ story in The Bourbon Review. I was feeling that lady’s pain.
As whiskey historian at Kentucky’s Justins’ House of Bourbon and senior editor at that magazine, she’s a professional who’d lost her palate to Covid. Her work at Justins’ alone required she nose and notate 20 to 30 pours a day—many of those coming from the company’s 200 annual barrel picks.
When her post-Covid senses didn’t reflect her copious whiskey notes, she moved her palate to the injured reserve list. Whiskeys that once were sweet and coating on her palate had turned bitter, medicinal, sour and salty. Worse, those false signals changed weekly. Fortunately, those effects didn’t last terribly long, and, as of a January chat with her, she said she’s about 95 percent back. (That 5 percent of unaccounted notes include floral and grain aromas.)
Like an athlete with a hamstring injury, it’s hard to say when one is 100 percent back. Paulus said she picked a barrel at about 80 percent back, and two more at when at 92 percent. These percentages are completely arbitrary, of course, but like an athlete who’s performed at her peak, she knows when she’s off, close or dead on.
I think I’m still somewhere between off and close. That Elijah Craig Barrel Proof’s nuances still elude me convinces me I should postpone opening those aforementioned single barrel picks and limited releases. (For what it’s worth, Caroline’s “benched” bottles include a New Riff private pick, a cellar collection Angel’s Envy rye, and a Justin’s Blackened Bourbon blend.) I just have to remind myself that I’ll enjoy them soon enough.
Meantime, I’ll continue to appreciate the simple and affordable stuff, relishing the predictability of a flagship small batch without wondering what’s new or different to the market. Amid this small-but-annoying battle, FOMO isn’t a problem.
Though still in check, my hopes for 2022 include seeing my palate return with the vigor required to wrestle a pour of George T. Stagg. I’ve taken that joy for granted for a long, long time, and when that pleasure returns, I’ll not view it like I did last year.