For many, water is simply water. As long as it’s potable, any eight glasses a day is the same as another. But anybody who has paid a modicum of attention to the water they drink knows that not all water tastes the same. Tap water in some cities may taste clean while tap water in others may taste chemical, and some bottled water brands might really be worth the price.
The taste and even nutritional benefits of water boil down to its mineral content.
“H2O with nothing else is distilled water with zero minerality, which is not good for the human body. It’s great for your car battery, it’s great for your electrical appliances, but it’s shit for the human body,” said Doran Binder, a water sommelier based in the United Kingdom and the founder of Crag Spring Water.
Binder and other water sommeliers taste water the way wine sommeliers taste wine. To them, different kinds of water have distinct tastes, and they might even choose a specific flavor for a certain occasion.
Distinguishing between two glasses of water might seem like a difficult task, but that’s only because so much of our drinking water has been robbed of its natural taste.
“For many people, water should have a neutral taste. This is usually the case with low-mineralized mineral water, purified water, or tap water,” said Timo Bausch, a water sommelier based in Germany and the founder of SOMMcademy, a water-tasting company.
Distilled, purified, or tap waters are typically heavily filtered and processed to make them safe to drink. The processes vary, but it normally entails removing dangerous contaminants like bacteria, chemicals, and toxins from water collected from various sources. Unfortunately, that can also filter out the naturally-occurring minerals that give water its taste and health benefits. Sometimes, minerals are added back into processed water to make it more palatable.
By contrast, water that is bottled at the source (often called “mineral” or “natural” water) is tested and certified to be safe to drink without processing, so it naturally contains minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc. These minerals could provide important health benefits like lowering blood pressure, improving blood circulation, strengthening bones, and promoting digestion.
Binder compared a water’s minerality to the fingerprints of human beings—no two waters are exactly the same. That’s because minerality comes from “the water’s journey through the geology,” where water picks up whatever minerals are present in the earth it runs through.
“Natural mineral water comes from underground deposits protected from contamination. On its way there, the water absorbs minerals from the respective rock layers. The slower it passes through a layer, the more minerals it can absorb. In the end, these minerals are responsible for the taste and mouthfeel of a water,” said Bausch.
Depending on its mineral composition, water can taste salty, bitter, sweet, or even metallic. Water that has a lot of sodium chloride (aka salt) will obviously taste salty, while water with a lot of magnesium will either be sweet or bitter, depending on the person drinking it.
Water can also feel dry, silky, creamy, or even sparkly. Water that’s high in calcium, said Bausch, leaves a dry mouthfeel, similar to biting a piece of chalk. Water that’s low in minerality also leaves a dry mouthfeel and can almost metallic taste, because it soaks up the minerals in your mouth, Binder explained. When volcanic gases dissolve in springs or natural wells, it produces naturally sparkling water.
The higher a water’s minerality, the more flavor and character it has. But more flavor doesn’t necessarily mean more palatable. Sometimes, it can even prevent people from drinking as much of a particular water as they would a more familiar and less “intense” water. Certain flavors may be enjoyable for a glass a day, but not eight.
Mineral water brands often put their origin and minerality (sometimes measured as “total dissolved solids”) on the label. Some of these are available in your regular supermarket, while others are rarer and more expensive. In 2010, a 750ml bottle of water encased in 24-karat gold was auctioned off in Mexico City for $60,000. It was billed to have water sourced from French and Fijian springs and some glacial water from Iceland.
Binder and Bausch both drink several types of water for different occasions, sometimes even matching the water with food (like people do with wine). Binder pointed to some waters that are so high in minerality that they resemble tequila. On some nights, he puts certain waters in a wine glass and sips on them as one would a liquor because he finds the flavors as complex. Bausch chooses water that’s high in sodium, magnesium, and calcium to help him recover after working out.
Water that tastes bland or leaves your mouth feeling dry could be low in minerals that are good for you, but water that has a high concentration of minerals could be difficult to find, expensive to buy, or too tasty to drink all the time. That’s why the question of which water is best comes down to, well, taste and preference. While that’s not something many people pay attention to, Binder said that all it takes is one water-tasting experience to never look at water the same way again. It’s just a matter of realizing that water can taste and feel different.
Both Binder and Bausch said that the best water is defined not by a particular origin or minerality or process, but by what people enjoy drinking. Any potable water is better than no water.
“My rule of thumb is find a water you like and drink it,” said Binder. “The best water that anyone can drink is the water that they like… It doesn't matter what it is, it's better than no water. It's better than being dehydrated.”
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