What Happens When a Whiskey Taster Loses Their Senses to Covid?

Caroline Paulus in the barrel selection room at New Riff. Credit @misswhiskeyhistorian on Instagram.

Like millions of Americans, I tested positive for Covid over the holidays. Like about 40% of them, I eventually lost my taste and smell. Unlike about 99% of them, I depend on those senses for my livelihood. 

As an editor for The Bourbon Review and the whiskey historian for Justins’ House of Bourbon, I spend a decent amount of my nine to five with a drink in my hand. Working through press samples of new releases, leading private tastings, and writing notes for new barrel picks selected by the shop (we did over 200 last year) all require my palate to be on point – and for the first few weeks of 2022, I had no palate at all. 

The loss wasn’t instantaneous. Following a positive post-Christmas test and three days with cold symptoms, I woke up one morning just before the new year feeling on the mend with less congestion and more energy. I stumbled down the stairs, decided my usual French press would require too much effort, and brewed myself a quick cup in the Keurig. As I returned to bed, I took a sip and rolled my eyes at the watery machine-made coffee. At lunch, with no sour cream or cilantro in the fridge and no one in the house out of isolation to go get them, my fajitas felt a bit bland. For dinner, I was craving a filet Rockefeller meal that I ordered in from Malones, a local steakhouse. When I realized even that was flavorless, the panic set in. 

To test my hypothesis, I poured an ounce of my current favorite, a barrel proof Four Roses pick gifted to me by Lexington bourbon bar Bourbon on Rye. I brought it to my nose and found none of the rich fruitcake or crème brûlée notes I’d come to expect – only acetone. A small sip confirmed my fears – no buttery caramels or honeysuckle florals, just a burn like I hadn’t felt from bourbon in five years. 

We’ve named Bourbon on Rye one of America’s Best Bourbon Bars for lots of reasons – but the Four Roses Single Barrel I’ve mentioned is definitely my favorite reason. Photo Credit Bourbon on Rye.

Against the global backdrop of two years of Covid, one case of anosmia is a drop in the bucket of inconvenience, disruption, loss, and devastation that the world has experienced. The loss of smell and taste has (to me, anyway) been one of the more curious symptoms for such a serious virus that seems so focused on the lungs and heart. But in lieu of anything more interesting to do while I was quarantined for a mild, vaccinated case, I decided I would document my journey in the world of whiskey sans the senses that make said world enjoyable. 

I’ll admit I did try to shorten the journey with home cures found on the web like large doses of turmeric (which only served to make me nauseated for a day and a half) and essential oils (which unsurprisingly smelled like absolutely nothing). During the first couple days, I continued the futile exercise of testing liquids I knew I could pick out of a lineup. Angel’s Envy Rye, usually with a maple note so strong I could put it on my pancakes, tasted like a hot pepper and not much else. Old Forester 1910, beloved by many (myself included) for its cozy s’mores notes of chocolate, toasted marshmallow, and campfire, tasted like turpentine.

To be unable to taste even the most distinctively decadent of drinks was incredibly jarring, and I began to think of the implications this might have for my career. I got my start in this industry almost five years ago and have worked every day to try every bottle I can get a glass of, from new releases to dusty gems, and I’ve developed a palate that most people seem to think is strong. I love helping clients find their own favorite notes and sending new suggestions their way as I figure out whether they prefer fruit or heat, sweetness or spice. To be driving blind, so to speak, became increasingly upsetting as the days wore on. 

With no change for almost a week, on Day 6 the bitter burn began to give way to something sour and medicinal, like lemon Pledge and powdered antibiotics. If you ever had an allergic reaction to the bubblegum flavored penicillin as a child and been redirected towards the chalky white amoxicillin, you’ll know what I mean. I counted this as progress, even though I still couldn’t stomach more than a sip. 

By Day 10, the chemical citrus began to fade to powdered Pixy Stick sugar and orange peel. I decided to back off the flavorful finished whiskeys and tried to go for softer sips like Blanton’s Gold to search for familiar candied fruit notes, with no luck. Worst of all, bourbon still wasn’t enjoyable to me – it was a chore to choke down just a quarter ounce of the thin, astringent brown water. 

My quarantine period ended and I returned to work as bottles began to pile up on my desk. A colleague brought me a sample of a new batch of Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend (an all-time favorite of mine) that I hadn’t tried yet, and while I usually would have cracked the bottle before lunch, it sat sealed. Cask Strength Ezra Brooks, Old Scout, and 13-year Widow Jane single barrel picks arrived at the shop and were left untouched. I watched helplessly as my work surface began to disappear under the load.

By Day 12, I began to see some improvement. Food had started to taste like some semblance of normality. If I piled enough salt, garlic, or cheese on top, the dish was 75% of what I’d expect it to be. But with bourbon, I still couldn’t quite get there. I could taste sweetness and spice – but with zero nuance. Whiskeys that I knew had dark red fruit notes had only wood sugar, and pours that I remembered as dripping with molasses and cinnamon stick just felt tingly and hot. Anything with too much proof simply burned the flavors away before they ever appeared for me. 

Private tastings in the House of Bourbon speakeasy range can consist of everything from house barrel picks to unicorns you’ll never see again. Photo Credit Justins’ House of Bourbon.

Finally, at two weeks in (and three weeks post diagnosis), I had my first real test. A private tasting booked with me the shop, asking to drink rare bottles like Van Winkle, dusty Black Maple Hill, and more. Although I’ve poured these bottles for dozens of guests over the past few years and could recite my tasting notes for them in my sleep, I was still shocked to find that my tastebuds were finally catching up with my memory. I could tell the difference between butterscotch and milk chocolate again, and pick out rye spice from clove. 

Over the following week, more of the subtle baked fruit and nut notes began to resurface in my favorite drams. Bourbon basics like oak, caramel, and vanilla resolidified more quickly, while warm bakery notes, fresher green and grainy flavors, and softer florals were still emerging. 

And now, at three weeks out from the first day I noticed I couldn’t taste a thing, I’d estimate that my palate is back to about 90% of what it was prior to testing positive. I’m still poring over my home library of 20+ New Riff picks, finding the most memorable pours to be almost perfect, and going back to best-selling bottles like Weller 107 to see if they stack up where I think they should. I’ll be interested to see in a month if my notes for the new single barrels at Justins’ stay static or evolve – although I’m not so proud of my palate that I’d say I’m ever perfect the first time anyway. 

Regardless, these past few weeks have been a test to my tasting skills, as well as a good reminder to drink more thoughtfully and savor every sip. I’ll admit that with only small tastes to test my progress and without my usual whiskey intake for work or pleasure, I accidentally took part in what was (for me) a decently dry January. Although most people who participate in taking the first month of the year off from drinking do so with a much stronger sense of purpose, my unintentionally imposed exile had a similar effect. As my three weeks off from whiskey went on, I came back to bourbon slowly but surely, with a renewed appreciation for my favorites. Even as I wrote this article, examples like New Riff Single barrels and Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend sprang to mind – and they’re bottles that I’ll never take for granted again. 

Luckily, my loss of taste and smell didn’t last long, much like my Four Roses Single Barrel from Bourbon on Rye won’t now that I have my senses back.

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.