Still or Sparkling?
Water is not just water, said Martin Riese, America's first water sommelier, as I logged on to zoom for my water tasting session with him.
I was eager to find out what he meant, and even more eager to open the bottles which I received by mail from Nix Waters.
I soon began to discern the variations in taste profile as the tasting progressed. Some of the water tasted chalky, others were silky smooth, some were naturally carbonated and others had more prominent bubbles. Some of the water was sourced in Peru, and others in Romania, some were packaged in glass bottles, while others in aluminum. Each of the premium water bottles had a distinct personality only matched by Martin's charisma.
Photo courtesy of Martin Riese
The first question he asked as we started the 90 minute session was to guess how many gallons of water there is on this planet. Random numbers were suggested but we all fell very short. It turns out there is approximately 325 Million Trillion. Yet, we have a global water scarcity problem. According to NASA, 97% of the earth's water is not available for consumption because it is ocean water and requires desalination. From the 3% we are left with, 2/3rd is trapped in icebergs and glaciers and 1% is fresh water that we have access to.
Next, Martin asked if we knew how many gallons of water we use daily?
Roughly 80-120 gallons of direct and indirect water per person. By indirect water, he explained, water it takes to grow our food, make clothes, generate electricity: we don't see it but we use it regardless. A stunning figure. Even more astounding is the amount of indirect water it takes to make one cheeseburger: 660 gallons!
We paused to take in these mind-boggling figures, especially considering the inequity of water distribution in the world. We were beginning to feel uncomfortable faced with these excesses.
So what is Martin trying to achieve as a water sommelier and as a proponent of hydration by drinking water?
At the heart of his mission, he wants to elevate the value of water, as an alternative to wine and soda in the epicurean world, as well as promote the importance of conservation and consumption through his advocacy work with water.org, and other nonprofits:
"We should all honor water. It's not just water. It is priceless. Without it we wouldn't be here."
He also wants to show people differences in taste of "the most healthy beverage on the planet."
Photo courtesy of Martin Riese
All the water on our planet comes from one source: rainwater
Yet water from the Fiji Islands tastes totally different to water from Spain, Germany or the United Kingdom because of terroir, meaning it is influenced by the soil, geology and climate.
An important factor in the taste of water is mineral content. This is measured by the TDS: Total Dissolved Solids. The higher this number, the more minerals the water has and the stronger it tastes. TDS ranges from 10mg-3050mg per liter.
The most common minerals found in water are magnesium, sodium, calcium, potassium and silica but Martin said that most of the minerals we consume come from food not water.
As for smell, he advises not to drink water if it has an odor.
"If you leave your water uncovered for several days it will have an odor from bacteria in the air".
His suggestion is to drink it right after opening. Keep the bottle closed and stored at room temperature.
He unapologetically refutes purified water, claiming it is nothing but a commercial scam. "Purified water is nothing but tap water that is highly processed (it is filtered and electrolytes are then added back)". He would rather purify his tap water than buy purified water in the supermarket.
As a sommelier, Martin's job is to create water menus. He created his first one in 2012 when he unveiled his signature water program at Ray's & Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum, and in 2014 at the Patina Restaurant in Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall (it closed in 2020 after 31 years in business). Today, his water menu is 42 pages long.
In creating a water menu, he hopes to give water the same value and attention that wine receives in restaurants and to encourage consumers to learn to pair water with food and wine.
In 2014 he launched his Water 101 class through the Fine Water Academy, where he educates students on the unique qualities and characteristics of mineral water.
He has appeared on numerous national media outlets and recently on Season 1, episode 2 of Netflix'Down to Earth with Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick.
For a glossary of key concepts visit Finewaters.com - There is a lot of information on pairing water with food, minerality, balance, and terroir.
When asked what to look for when shopping for water at the supermarket, he says "Not the brand name but the source".
A Selection of water at Central Market, Houston TX.
Find out if it is purified or natural spring water; And only buy the latter. In Europe labeling is much more regulated than in America. Consumers are able to see the TDS content of every bottle, the size of the source and five mineral levels. They know exactly what they are drinking. In America, there are no labeling laws so he urges people to only buy spring water where the level of dissolved minerals is naturally higher. And he strongly advocates drinking clean tap water (or filtered if tap water is not potable). Water shouldn't be a luxury commodity, without it, we wouldn't be here! It just needs to be safe for consumption and filled with nutrients for maximum health benefits.
We started our tasting with the lowest TDS bottled water: Waiakea
It is a Hawaiian volcanic water with a TDS of 83.
It was so smooth and silky, naturally alkaline, with a PH of 7.6-8.2. It comes from one of the purest environments on earth, a deep well source at the eastern base of the Mauna Loa volcano.
Our next tasting was Three Bays, an Artesian Spring water that is referred to as the olive oil of water for it's creamy but smooth taste in spite of having a TDS of 1300. It is also a naturally sparkling still water: carbonation is due to the rare geological conditions of the rocks, 3000 ft. below the wild southern coastline of Australia.
Next we tasted Socosani, a naturally effervescent water from Peru with a TDS of 1350. To me, there was a hint of chalkiness to the finish and it took some getting used to. A TDS of 1350 will have this effect. I wonder what water with a TDS of 3000+ tastes like: Roi, a magnesium-rich water from Slovenia has a TDS of 7481! At this level of minerality, it has more medicinal properties than hydrating ones and has a very metallic, coin-like taste.
Proud Source was next on our tasting. It's a natural alkaline spring water from Mackay, ID, a once thriving mining town.The source is deep in the earth's granite crust and evolved from the Yellowstone Super-Volcano. The TDS is 152 making it easy to swallow with its low carbonation, and crisp refreshing taste. Most interesting of all is the lively bubbles that appear when you open the aluminum screw-cap:
You can feel the pressure in the bottle as you unscrew the cap. The bottle is made of infinitely recyclable aluminum to eliminate single-use plastic.
Our next bottle was Aura Gold, a naturally carbonated water from Romania, with a TDS of 400. It is smooth and subtle and contains trace minerals including gold and silver. The spring originates in the heart of the Western Carpathian mountain range and is bottled directly at the source. A water worthy of legends with a beautiful label.
Lastly, we tasted Vichy Catalan, Spain's most popular sparkling mineral water. It has a high mineral content with a TDS of 3052 (over 1000mg of sodium), and emerges from the ground at 60 degrees celsius, which gives it a unique personality. It is said to pair well with steak.
Glass or Plastic: It makes a difference when it's hot. Plastic particles leak into the water when it's hot making it less safe than glass. Aluminum is good too but glass is the best. TetraPak is Greenwashing as it is not environmentally friendly: Most end up in the landfill rather than being recycled.
Iced or room temperature: Water should be drunk at room temperature. Ice numbs the taste buds and prevents a full appreciation of the taste and benefits from the minerals.
Purified or filtered: Filtered is best. This system preserves the naturally-occurring minerals which purification doesn't.
Price Range: $3 up to $150+
Top bottled water brands: https://svalbardi.com/blogs/bottled-water/brand
For more information on the global premium bottled water market: https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/premium-bottled-water-market
As Martin says: "Water is not just Water"
His tasting explains why.
I enjoyed the water tasting experience and am grateful for the opportunity I had to taste a variety of waters originating from diverse sources. However, will I be changing my consumption and purchasing habits as a result? I don't think so. I will be more cognizant of mineral levels and will choose spring over purified, but the idea of spending a hefty sum on premium water is something I might reserve for a special occasion or a unique opportunity to taste water from icebergs! Otherwise, I will focus on staying hydrated and feeling grateful I live in a part of the world where clean water is readily available.
To learn more about Martin and his water tastings visit: https://www.martin-riese.com/tastings
International Water Tasting Competitions: