From the marketing bumf, you’d think all mineral waters tasted alike. The aquifers are ancient, the nature is untouched and blah blah blah. But H2O is such a great solvent it steals a bit of anything it passes through, resulting in a shelfload of different flavors.
OK, a shelfload of subtly different flavors. Which is why I gathered some local gastronomes to help me find the world’s tastiest water.
Meet the panel:
Yutaka Ozaki was voted Tokyo’s top sommelier in a wine magazine last year. He plies his trade at Salt in Marunouchi.
Robbie Swinnerton has been The Japan Times restaurant critic for over 10 years.
Mike Kubeck brews Tokyo Ale No. 3, the mellow amber microbrew, and runs Super Deluxe, an event space in Nishi-Azabu.
Aki Yamanaka is an aqua sommelier who runs Aquademia courses to train “Aqua Advisers” and “Aqua Maestros.” She manages Aqua Store ( www.aqua store.jp ) in Nishi-Azabu where the tasting took place.
And I write about drinks.
Yamanaka and I nominated 16 still waters. She selected brands for their distinctive flavors; I pointed to the best-looking bottles. To be fair, my method best resembled the way you choose water. The panel blind tasted pairs of waters, with winners progressing tournament-like to a final.
(Info in parentheses shows hardness — the higher the number, the more calcium carbonate — country of origin and price per 500 ml.)
Alaska Glacier Cap (59, U.S., ¥168) vs. Masafi
(85, United Arab Emirates, ¥137) Quincy Jones liked Alaska Glacier Cap so much he invested in the company. We were less impressed. Swinnerton called it “tappy,” which probably isn’t an aqua sommelier’s term, but we knew what he meant. Masafi had a fruitier flavor. Everyone except Yamanaka preferred it.
Fillico (90, Japan, ¥3,646) vs. Ice Age (1.2, Canada, ¥212)
Fillico calls itself “Beverly Hills” water, although it comes from Japan. It costs more per milliliter than some champagnes, mainly because the bottle is dotted with Swarovski crystals. If it progressed too far in the tournament I might have had to fork out for another bottle, so I was keen to vote against it. I’d heard that Fillico tastes like most other Japanese waters. It did. I voted against it. Luckily, so did everyone else except the store owner Yamanaka, who may have been hoping I would have to cough up for another.
Voss (11.7, Norway, ¥525) vs. Tokyo tap water (53, the kitchen, ¥0.5)
Throughout the tournament, sommelier Ozaki was likening waters to wines. Fine reminded him of a Riesling, and Willow made him think of a sauvignon blanc. When Ozaki described a water as “corked,” I thought he’d gone bonkers. It turned out to be tap water, though, proving that this guy has extraordinary taste buds. Kubeck had written “taplike” and talked of “something happening in my nose. At first I didn’t like it, but after drinking a bit more I thought it was interesting.” And while both of your Times writers preferred tap water to the glamorous Voss, nobody else did.
Bernina (22, Italy, ¥332) vs. Contrex (1,551, France, ¥204)
The sommelier and brewer both noted that Contrex’s initial soapy taste becomes gradually sweeter as you drink it. Water pro Yamanaka, who was holding blank paper behind her glass and peering intently for bubbles or impurities, announced that in her current mood she preferred the other water, which turned out to be Bernina from Italy — a brand nobody else had heard of. Swinnerton and I also backed Bernina, sending it to the quarter finals.
Blue Spring (11, New Zealand, ¥160) vs. Aqua Meister-filtered tap water (53, ¥80,000 for the filtering machine)
In the first unanimous decision of the tournament, Blue Spring trounced tap water that had been filtered through an ¥80,000 contraption called the Aqua Meister. Swinnerton cannily criticized the filtered water for tasting “processed.” Most of us thought that tap water tasted better unfiltered.
Fine (57, Japan, ¥473) vs. Willow (342, England, ¥294)
“I think this one is Willow,” said Yamanaka. Blind tasting doesn’t really work when someone knows all the flavors. Our aqua sommelier says she can tell waters apart even when they’re in coffee. Willow, from England’s Lake District, is the Aqua Store’s top-selling water, but it lost to Fine, which filters through the volcanic rock of Shuzenji on Izu Peninsula.
Ogo (194.7, Holland, ¥682) vs. Volvic (61.6, France, ¥140)
Volvic is the import market leader in Japan. It’s light, refreshing and plain. Ogo is quite different. It’s “35 times oxygenated,” so if breathing isn’t satiating your oxygen needs, perhaps this funky Dutch water will. Our restaurant critic said it was “like drinking velvet,” while the sommelier suggested it’d pair well with a dish of game. Still, sometimes simpler is better: Volvic won 3-2.
Sant Aniol (292, Spain, ¥273) vs. Ensinger (1,828, Germany, ¥230)
Calcium should be consumed with magnesium. They work in tandem on your heart, bones, muscles and nerves. So Ensinger, ludicrously rich in both metals, is probably the healthiest water in the tournament. It tastes healthy too — in the way that aspirin and Brussels sprouts taste healthy. Swinnerton called it “chewy.” Kubeck described how it coated his tongue. In a water tasting session you can’t really rinse your palate, so after sipping Ensinger none of us could tell what Sant Aniol tasted like. The Spanish water made it through simply by not being Ensinger.
In the first quarter final, Masafi, the dark horse from the United Arab Emirates, clobbered Ice Age, an exceptionally soft water (less than a 1,000th the calcium content of Ensinger).
Judging Voss vs. Bernina in the second quarter final, the professional eater made his mind up so quickly you’d have thought we’d asked him to compare a Petrus with cat’s wee. After a few minutes, we all caught up with him and chose Bernina.
Fine battled Blue Spring next. Only our aqua sommelier felt strongly about the distinction, noting a better aftertaste on Fine. The Kiwi water won my vote, but Fine came through 4-1.
The last QF pitted Volvic against Sant Aniol. As the previous round paired Sant Aniol with the overbearing Ensinger, this was our first chance to really judge the flavor of the Spanish water. Ozaki complimented its well-rounded structure; Kubeck found it “nice and drinkable.” Only Swinnerton and I favored Volvic.
By the semifinals we were all suffering from water fatigue. “It’s gone beyond analysis now, into just ‘that seems nice,’ ” said Kubeck. The wine expert agreed: “At first, my criteria was to look for a proper character, but as it’s going on I’m getting tired and looking for something more like a daily water.”
“The one on the left seems a little more oldish,” said Kubeck, referring to Bernina and chuckling at his prosaic terminology. It was nevertheless the most erudite comment from the semis, which saw Masafi and Fine eliminated.
And so to the final. Two stylish Europeans. The mineral-rich Sant Aniol from Spain versus the refreshing but oldish Bernina from Italy. The wine guy and I went for the flavor. Ozaki described Sant Aniol as being sharper, with a more edgy character. I was simply feeling the pressure to pick a distinctive water as the champ. Swinnerton and Kubeck both chose Bernina for its superior mouthfeel. So it fell to the aqua sommelier to break the deadlock. “Sant Aniol is complicated, and might taste better with food,” she said. “Bernina is pure, and it’s the most delicious of the neutral waters.”
Bernina, then — the tastiest water in the world. Unless you’re in the mood for something different.