Seven months after testing positive, aged spirits still taste totally off to me—almost like pineapple made of cardboard.

By Jonathan Lind, as told to Oset Babür
October 15, 2020
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Natalie Black

I remember those first few days after I tested positive for COVID-19 incredibly clearly: on March 18th, my girlfriend and I were doing a shrimp-based HelloFresh that just … didn’t taste particularly good to me. Over the next two days, I developed a fever and was totally exhausted. Two days later, restaurants across New York City shut down.

We decided to spend some undetermined period of time at the small lake house my family has in Texas. Everyone will remember how New York felt like the scariest place in the entire world. On the drive down south, fast food was the only option along the interstate, and every time we stopped to eat, I was like, "This doesn't taste quite right." I figured maybe it was just a hold-over from feeling ill, or maybe it was just the excitement of being on the road for 16 hours for two straight days. 

Flash-forward to a week and a half later, we were settled in at the lake and eating Whataburger, which is the best fast-food burger in the country—I'll fight anybody who says otherwise. I'm very familiar with these burgers, and yet, that burger tasted really odd. A week after that, I went for a Diet Coke, and it tasted almost like a cosmetic product would. There was a really unpleasant chemical quality to it, and, worst of all, that chemical was the only thing I could taste. Other than that, everything was just bland, bland, bland. I could still experience the basic tongue-affiliated sensations of acidic, sweet, and salty, but there was no nuance to anything. If you told me there was rosemary in a drink, I'd be like, "Sure, if you say so." It was so bizarre.

That went on for about two months, just out there at the lake. The first time I actually noticed some sense of smell coming back, there were these flowers that were growing outside the house that had this incredible stone-fruit smell to them, unlike anything I've ever smelled in my entire life. I brought my girlfriend over. I was like, "You've got to smell these. This is amazing." And she was like, "I don't smell at all what you're smelling." That's when I first kind of realized that not only was my sense of smell and taste coming back, but I was developing, like, a really poorly written superpower. I was starting to be able to smell and taste things that weren't there, and I was picking up flavors that others wouldn’t have agreed with.

As the bar manager at Crown Shy in New York City’s Financial District, my altered sense of taste and smell obviously comes up a lot. Whenever I smell citrus—anything that has either a fake or real citrus quality to it—it just smells like extremely oxidized lemon juice. I have to go through this psychological filtering process to take something that my brain recognizes as repellent and be like, "That's not really there. Don't worry about that." 

I’ve talked to other industry folks that temporarily lost their senses due to COVID, and they’re all obviously very excited to have them back, but I don't know that anyone was like, "Hey, but there's this weird thing in whiskey now that I smell. It's this weird thing in bananas that I smell." That part has been a solo discovery, and now that the restaurants are back open and we're having a little bit more time to talk to one another in a mask-to-mask setting, we've been exchanging information about our experiences more.

It’s a big bummer. My tasting notes have always been a little bizarre, but now, aged spirits taste like pineapple made of cardboard. There's something tropical to them, but also very dusty and a little bit like musty, which obviously affects my enjoyment of all of those things. Aged whiskeys and rums were some of my favorite things in the whole universe, and now it's like, "I can drink vodka."

Now that we’re heading into our first menu change since COVID—the summer was less about creation and more about just getting drinks out the door in survival mode—I’m having to grapple with all of this more and more. I'm very fortunate in that we have built an extremely collaborative team around me. Now, I'll bring something to the table that tastes good for me, and someone on my team might say, "Honestly, that's terrible. Let's go in this direction." But, you know, they’ll do it more nicely. It’s huge. 

A lot of my colleagues are drinks-focused, and not to say that isn't a huge deal for me, but I know that the thing that gets me up in the morning and that gets me fired up about this industry hasn't been taken from me. The tools by which I can influence those things have been tweaked a little bit. The thought that this is going to forever disadvantage or damage my career has occurred to me. But I'm not watering that particular plant just now—there’s enough madness in the world, you know?