I think tap water tastes like shit. I drink a lot of bottled water. But the first time I heard about Martin Riese—the German restaurant professional dubbed the “water sommelier”—I wanted to break something. Unless you’re a medically diagnosed supertaster, it seems like the flavors in our drinking water are, well, nonexistent.
Unlike probably everyone else on the planet, Martin has been fascinated with potable water since childhood. On family vacations he obsessively sampled regional tap water to discern geographical differences in taste. He’s got a certification from the German Mineral Water Trade Association, a degree he’s flexing at Ray’s and Stark Bar, an LA restaurant with an intimidating 43-page water list that offers a water tasting with the savant himself. He’s even created the world’s first water "designed and crafted for taste," which the restaurant calls Beverly Hills 9OH2O (insert Dylan McKay rehab reference here). It’s hard to tell if Martin is scamming bourgie suckers or proselytizing thirsty humans into entering a new era of hydration. I decided to call him up and ask why he's so into drinking recycled dinosaur piss.
VICE: You’re the only water sommelier in the US. In a country where the average consumer spends a decent penny on bottled water every year, why do you think that your concept is met with such skepticism? Martin Riese: When I started the program, you wouldn’t believe the amount of hate emails I received from unreasonably pissed off people, to the point where they demanded that I go back to Germany. I think that most people don’t realize I’m simply giving them more options. I will never argue with anyone who wants to drink tap water. I’m just there to provide a service to those looking for new experiences.
Beyond the basic differences between bottled versus tap water, most people aren’t able to tell the difference between the types of water they’re drinking.
I think it’s a matter of personal taste. Everyone tastes distinctive things. I view the unique qualities in water in the same way that many people view and appreciate art. Though I may have more experience in tasting and differentiating between waters, I don’t think that other people have to necessarily agree with me.
Sort of like terroir in wine culture?
Exactly. Water is odorless, but that doesn’t mean that it’s flavorless.
Do you think that labeling yourself as a “water sommelier” may be part of people’s aversion to your concept?
People have a hard time wrapping their heads around what I do. It sounded really awkward to refer to myself as a water expert. The media was the first to label me as a water sommelier, so I just decided to run with it.
You provide water tastings for your patrons. What type of vocabulary do you use to describe these different waters?
I start with lighter waters that are low in TDS levels and work toward those that are more complex and higher in mineral and salinity content. I simply express what I am tasting, but it’s all about what you like.
In wine tastings, it’s normal to cleanse the palette between tastings with something bland, like crackers. Since water is pretty “neutral,” what are you supposed to do?
You want to keep your palate clean, since the flavors are often quite subtle. Coffee is the worst thing you can drink in between pairings. If people drink coffee, I suggest we try again tomorrow. But wine can be quite complimentary.
You’ve got a 43-page water list at your restaurant. Do most people read through the entire list, or just order tap water?
More often than not, people are fairly perplexed when we present them with our water list. About 50 percent of them order tap water. The list is there to engage and educate our guests. Each of the 20 waters gets its own page description that includes a complexity and salinity rating.
What are the qualities that make a $20 bottle of water different from a $1 bottle of water?
It’s about how rare the water is, and how expensive it is to produce. The priciest bottle on our list is from Canada that sells at $20 for a 750-milliliter bottle that comes from icebergs. This water is virtually untouched by man. As massive icebergs break off of 15,000-year-old glaciers, they are harvested and melted under strict purity guidelines to preserve the water’s natural qualities. The last mammal to drink it did so about 10,000 years ago. I’ve been to springs in Denmark much smaller than the size of my apartment. These waters are more labor intensive to collect. I would rather pay to keep these kinds of companies going than contribute to large purveyors of purified water.
I heard you recommend Vichy Catalan water as ideal for hangovers. Based on its high salinity content, doesn’t it make a person more dehydrated?
It’s great for hangovers because it’s high in electrolytes—it has half the amount Gatorade does, without the sugar. If you are a heavy drinker, that high salt content might be a problem.
I do not consume in moderation.
I think you should try to consume a glass of water for every glass of wine. It’s also possible to drink too much water.
Do you have a method for converting the nonbelievers?
I like to give my customers options. I think that water is so fun and embodies the soul. I do not understand why the luxury of it is so off-putting to most people.
Do you drink from the faucet?
I don’t drink tap water.
Follow Joe Ricchio on Twitter: @joericchio