C

COVID-19: A Tale of Three Whiskies

It’s been one hell of a year for most of us.

The world was rocked off its rails by COVID-19, which affected life everywhere. Although most people will probably be sick of talking about COVID generally, I feel the need to bring up something I don’t hear mentioned much: the aftereffects of the virus on smell and taste.

Let me rewind the clock: in March 2020 I was sitting in Boadas, a timeless, perfectly preserved bar in Barcelona. Reading the news, it began to strike me that daily life was going to change for a long time due to COVID-19. I had attended a fairly normal-seeming Berlin Film Festival, though the discussion topic amongst all my colleagues the virus. As the weeks went by, it became clear that this thing was here to stay. As Spain shut down the country, I found myself catching one of the last planes to the U.K and locking myself indoors. However, the real shock of the situation would only become apparent to me in early April.

One Saturday I realised that I had lost – in its entirety – my sense of smell and taste.

The pitch of the next three weeks was somewhere between fear and determination. There was little-to-no mention about loss of smell or taste in the news. In fact, these symptoms had only been recognized officially that week; NHS was not even asking those suffering this way to report the symptoms yet.

I’d already reduced my contact with the outside world to zero. I worked from home, I had shopping delivered, and I did not even bother to go for walks other than around my garden. Seeing as I had no other symptoms and no real info to go on, I just doubled down on waiting.

For the next month or so, I’d smell familiar things – spices, garlic, ginger – daily, to see if anything was returning. Meanwhile, cooking had become a challenge. I was relying on sight to know when things were getting done and focusing more on texture than anything else. I also started drinking only the whiskies in my collection that I’d avoided, since now I didn’t really taste them.

Slowly, very slowly, my nasal senses returned. First, I smelled cumin, then garlic granules. Over another long month, my ability to discern aromas came back…

Almost.

This is where we get to the crossover between whisky and COVID-19. Despite my sense of smell being back, I feel like my wires have been crossed in a permanent manner. What once was there is now no longer the same.

My favourite types of Scotch are (or, I should say, were) “peat-bombs:” Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, and the peated whisky to rule them all: Bruichalddich’s Octomore. All these bottles featured heavily on my shelves. Now, I no longer enjoy them in the same way. To put it simply: the smell and taste of these whiskies has changed permanently for me. (For anyone who is wondering, other smells permanently altered are BBQ, wood, mint shower gel and citrus) If what I’m talking about sounds at all familiar, please do get in touch via social media. I’m curious to hear other anecdotes like mine.

So: in the name of experimentation, as a way to kick-start a conversation, and as a way of talking about something that frankly occupies my mind quite a bit, here’s a before-and-after-COVID-19 review of three whiskies. Please be aware: the notes from “before” were written by a while back and are now impossible to verify.

Starting with the Bruichladdich Octomore 8.2: A travel exclusive at the time, this was the first Octomore I hunted and managed to finally purchase, at Schipol Airport during a connection. Previously reviewed in this space by Mark, It is an eight year old whisky that was aged for six years in one of three types of cask before being finished in sweet Amarone casks for a further two years. Bottled at 58.4% ABV, price on release was between £100 and £130.

Bruichladdich Octomore 8.2 – Review

Colour: Deep hay, copper even.

Pre COVID-19 Notes:

On the nose: Big peat, bonfire tampered by stinging sweetness, rich wood, a promise of things to come.

In the mouth: Thick and oily with big peat notes. Just as the whole thing threatens to overwhelm, the sweetness of the wine casks come to the rescue. A whisky to savour and think about.

Post COVID-19 Notes:

On the nose: The party’s over. There’s leftover peat from yesterday’s festivities, but much more prominent is the almost sherry-like sweet wine. This feels like the memory of an event that’s becoming harder to remember with each passing moment.

In the mouth: Still thick, oily, and hot, but peat is almost non-existent. There’s the leftover ashes of a bonfire… it’s as though this was a red wine that had been aged in Octomore casks, and not the other way round.

Pre COVID-19 Score: 8/10

Post COVID-19 Score: 5/10

Moving on to the Ardbeg Blaack: this was a lucky purchase (which i did not realise at the time). This NAS whisky was aged in Pinot Noir casks from New Zealand. Bottled at 46%, this retails for £78.29 at Master of Malt.

Ardbeg Blaaack – Review

Colour: Beautiful mahogany

Pre COVID-19 Notes:

On the nose: Rich peat, leather, tobacco and biltong – maybe even some chocolate orange?

In the mouth: Light and yet peaty; cigar ash tampered by gumdrops. Early spring evening’s chill with warmth in the air.

Post COVID-19 Notes:

On the nose: Faded peat, gentle earth, and red wine are the most prominent aromas.

In the mouth: Gentle BBQ, light wood; even more prominent sweetness, as though Gumdrops have been melted into each measure.

Pre COVID-19 Score: 6/10

Post COVID-19 Score: 5/10

Finishing off with the Laphroaig PX Cask: one the earliest whiskies I ever purchased, this NAS expression was aged in three types of cask: American Oak, Quarter Cask, and finally the excellent Pedro Ximenez casks. Considered here before by Jason, it retails at Amazon for around £100. ABV is 43%.

Laphroaig PX Cask – Review

Colour: Werthers Original.

Pre COVID-19 Notes:

On the nose: Charcoal, toffee, and a touch of campfire.

In the mouth: Peat and sweetness meet in an easygoing embrace; the flavors keep going like a sweet kiss.

Post COVID-19 Notes:

On the nose: Faded memories, like someone else’s BBQ brought over in the wind; faint sweetness, gentle intensity.

In the mouth: Light, inoffensive, almost zero peat; an easygoing whisky with some berry notes.

Pre COVID-19 Score: 5/10

Post COVID 19 Score: 3/10

Conclusions:

I will never stop thinking how easily altered our experiences and our senses are. Case in point: my relationship with these whiskies have changed irrevocably after one encounter with this virus. I’m not even sure peaty whiskies remain my first choice anymore, since I now find them underwhelming. Having said that, I have discovered a newfound love for the perfect balance of Longrow whiskies, whereas in the old days they used to feel too lopsided. We are still living in “interesting” times and all this remains, for me, a constant reminder of the inevitable nature of change, be it voluntary or forced.

Octomore 8.2 photo courtesy of Bruichladdich. Ardbeg Blaaack photo courtesy of Ardbeg. Laphroaig photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Evrim Ersoy

Born in Turkey and raised in the UK, after a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Psychology, Evrim found himself working within film which is first passion. His second is the culture of drinking and everything that entails - he has a passion for storied drinking establishment, dive bars and hidden gems. He has a particular fondness for discovering whisky from under-represented regions as well as discovering lost distilleries across Europe. He lives mainly on the road and loves it.

  1. John says:

    Evrim, thanks for sharing and being open about your experience. Your post covid tasting notes are pretty similar to what I taste in peated Islay whisky now. This makes me think I had it at some point but my body just shrugged it off.

    1. Evrim Ersoy says:

      Yes, that seems to be the case with a lot of people and until we can get extensive antibody test or some way of figuring out if we ever had it, the mystery, frustratingly, remains!

  2. Greg B. says:

    It may not just be a result of Covid but something that happens to the human body in response to certain agents being introduced to it. I say this only to introduce my own experience. In 2009 I had major surgery that spun off into complications. I was on the OR table under sedation for 10 hours, then spent 3 weeks in hospital, some of it semi-conscious and heavily medicated. Upon discharge and my return to home, it was weeks before I could taste much of anything, and when I did taste something, it was often very different from what I remembered.

    Given my slow recovery, it was a long time before I even considered trying a glass of wine or whisky. By February 2010 I had recovered enough to go back to work part-time, and since I worked in the liquor business part of that involved tasting and judging the quality of wine and spirits. I could no longer do it. The subtleties found when nosing a glass of wine were mostly gone, and I had similar challenges with discerning things in whisky. Over time, some of those things came back over the next couple of years, but some have disappeared forever. I have no idea what scientific reasons may be for that, but it is certainly a real thing that happens.

    I offer this not to diminish your experience in any way, and I am glad that you survived your encounter with this accursed virus. I would be interested in learning more about how these senses get affected by certain things entering the human body.

    1. Evrim Ersoy says:

      Greg;

      I totally agree with you – it’s so hard to actually pinpoint what it is! I guess all we do is focus on the stuff we quantity – the perceptible change, the actual differences, etc.

      And I in no way read your writing as something to diminish, it’s great to be able to share these confusing times with others who’ve experienced similar change!

  3. PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I’ve slipped through and not have had contracted CV19, but from colleagues who have, their experience has been similar. For most, it seems their tolerance for peat has increased. Where before, they couldn’t stand Ardbeg or Octomore, now, it’s palatable.

  4. Robin says:

    Was the same for new but after a few months i think the smell and taste are fully back to 100%. The taste and smell of smoke was the last thing to recover so now i can enjoy my islay whiskies as normal.

      1. Chris says:

        My girlfriend contracted COVID in March of last year. She lost her sense of smell and taste, similar to you. A year and two months later and her senses are still quite dulled. Things aren’t as strong to her (citrus, cilantro) and some things she doesn’t really care for anymore. She’s only 24 and it was only about 2-3 months ago when her senses started to sorta come back. She’s not a big whisky fan but pre-Covid diagnosis her sense of smell was like a bloodhound. Now everything is essentially “I can tell that it’s whisky”.

  5. Hi Evrim. I’m the founder of a charity to support smell loss and engaged in research on parosmia, which has distorted your sense of smell. I’d love to get in touch. Your descriptions are and I’d like to hear more. Thank you for sharing your story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *