Ever been to a water tasting? No? Well, if the new breed of water connoisseurs has their way, bottled water will go the way of wine, vodka, coffee, and tequila as the latest focus of sophisticated palates. Even during an economic downturn, bottled water sales are expected to slow but continue growing, causing sommeliers to switch from selling wine to pushing water. But these heavily hyped, sophisticated waters aren’t what you’ll find at the convenience store. Instead, this new breed of specialty-marketed and branded liquid is trying to bring status to what falls from the sky.
What’s in Your Glass?
Whereas the field of wine connoisseurship is one that is foreign and inscrutable to me—I couldn’t tell you oaky from buttery if my life depended on it—water experts contend that bottled water is easier to dissect, with only seven different distinguishable qualities that affect dining experiences when paired with meals. Michael Mascha, author of Fine Waters and a former wine sommelier, runs FineWaters.com, which sets standards for water appreciation using six different terms to describe fine waters: balance, or carbonation level; virginality, or nitrate level; minerality, or the total dissolved solids (TDS); orientation, or pH balance; hardness; and vintage.
Apparently, quenching your thirst just isn’t enough anymore.
These Waters Are Fine
Aptly named Bling H20 is actually just a rebranding of Tennessee’s English Mountain Spring Water. The same water that also comes more cheaply in a plastic half-liter bottle is sold in “museum quality” glass bottles with Swarovski crystals for about $37 per .75-liter bottle. Aqua Maestro, an online directory for water connoisseurs (and those who enjoy a good laugh on their lunch breaks), extols the virtues of Bling H20 as having “a slightly sweet taste” thanks to its “optimal pH level.” Lovely, but I’ll take the cheaper version, thanks. Especially since the blind taste-testers in this NPR News report couldn’t discern any difference from good ole New York City tap water.
For one bottle of Bling H20, you could buy an entire case of Voss, which is still a budget-buster at between $3 and $4 per liter. Voss comes in both still and sparkling varieties, and many consider the Norwegian brand one of the purest waters in the world, protected for centuries under ice and rock. I find this a tough pill to swallow, even with such delicious water. Even Mascha admits that “pure” water is a myth used to make a buck (or several).
I get the impression that all of the water connoisseurs know they’re talking a lot of hooey. Consider Aqua Maestro’s review of Hildon, which at $1.60 per .33-liter bottle is “arguably Britain’s snootiest water.” Apparently, the Queen Mum uses Hildon to dilute her gin. As if England didn’t have enough trouble with paparazzi hounding the royal family, now even their water is a celebrity.
Part of having celebrity status is having your background plastered all over the press. Connoisseurs do much the same for fine water. The makers of Saint-Geron, for example, feel it’s important we know that the rainwater they’re selling—for about $3 per .75-liter bottle—fell way back in the Middle Ages, making it the “Queen of Mineral Waters.” Judi Dench will apparently be playing her in the film version.
Bottles of Bucks
Over the past thirty years, bottled water has become one of Americans’ favorite luxury items. Collectively, we spent about 17 billion dollars last year on bottled water, more than on either iPods or movie tickets. There has been no research to determine exactly how many bottled water drinkers go for the high-end brands over Poland Spring or Dasani, but attention paid to the trend by Forbes magazine, the Guardian Observer, Time Magazine, and both the London Times and the Los Angeles Times suggest that these luxury brands are growing in popularity, if only among a select demographic. Web sites like Aqua Maestro and FineWaters.com reflect and promote the existence of a community around water connoisseurship with elements like a water-of-the-month club and the option to purchase water gift baskets for everyone on your shopping list.
Even during a recession, luxury bottled water seems to be taking advantage of niche marketing and the desire to keep up with the Joneses. It used to be that you’d get looks for drinking from a generic-label bottled water instead of the more expensive brand names; now that trend has become more prominent thanks to even higher-end brands than the old school elite of Evian and Fiji. So, in the future, don’t be surprised if you start seeing water lists next to wine lists.