Mineral Water: Make it Clear

Attention to detail can turn a good bar into a great one and ensuring you use the right water is a matter of taste, finds Lucy Britner

The world of premium bottled water is a lucrative, branded one. Bottles come in all shapes and sizes in an attempt to entice drinkers – tall and clear, green, glass, blue – because inside, it all looks the same. Many say it tastes the same, too, but here’s the thing: water is not clear. 

From a business perspective, global consumption of carbonated water stands 31,275m litres, while still bottled water stands at a colossal 243,356m litres (Euromonitor International, 2013 figures). 

Germany guzzles the most carbonated water, while China takes the lead on the still stuff, closely followed by the US (Euromonitor). 

Spending a great deal of time and money on the right water might seem weird to some, but think about it in the same way you consider the correct glassware, for example, and the attention afforded water slowly builds from a spring into a waterfall. 

Graeme Lindsay, founder of specialist whisky water Uisge Source, which we’ll explore more later, says: “It’s interesting to think about the parallel with glassware – some bars will serve whisky in standard glassware that is available at very affordable prices. Other bars will only want to present whisky to their guests in a special whisky glass (such as the Glencairn glass), for which they have paid a premium, in order that the guest gets maximum pleasure.”

Wine expert and San Pellegrino brand ambassador Neil Phillips believes it comes down to customer experience: “Water could be their first drinking experience when they enter the bar and the last before they leave. It can be the difference between a good bar and a great bar.”

Springs from Finland to Fiji offer up a myriad minerals, giving each water its unique flavour profile and mouthfeel. And, when it comes to making a good bar great, selecting the right water, much the same as the right glassware, is one way of ensuring extra customer satisfaction. It’s this idea of paying attention to the little things that drives interest in the wet stuff. 

Michael Tanousis is an expert on the subject and he runs London-based water company Aqua Amore. He says “consistency and clarity of the organoleptic experience on the palate” is the key reason to selecting bottled water over tap water. He adds: “Mineral water is a natural product, tap water is an adulterated version of H2O. It is only a comparison in political and semantic terms and not a consideration for taste professionals.” So there you have it: tap water is out. 

San Pellegrino’s Phillips advises avoiding ice made with tap water and placed in mineral water, describing the action as “conflicting”. He also talks about ensuring the temperature is right and water is not too cold. San Pellegrino, for example, is best served at 8-10°C. 

The effect on the taste of other drinks is also an important factor when choosing a water brand, claims Phillips. “Once people try different waters, they realise there is a difference,” he says.

Taste test

Tanousis has a simple benchmark for assessing a person’s taste in water and he recommends it to bartenders who want to establish which water brands their customers will prefer: “Do you prefer Evian or Volvic?” 

For Evian fans, he suggests ’tenders “offer a water high in bicarbonates, but memorable, surprising and distinctive, such as Iskilde [from Denmark]”.

For Volvic fans, Tanousis suggests a “naturally cool and refreshing water such as Voss [from Norway] or Veen [from Finland].”

For a neutral water, Whitehole Springs from the UK or Solan de Cabras from Spain are good options that won’t interfere with other flavours – arguably they wont enhance them either. 

The San Pellegrino brand’s association with the World’s 50 Best Restaurants aligns the water with restaurant dining and drinking. Brand owner Nestlé has invested a great deal of thought into the effect of water on wine and even produced a codex to provide a guide for sommeliers and bartenders.

Broadly speaking, Acqua Panna’s “velvety lightness” works well with lighter wines in both body and alcohol terms – think fresh, fruity whites and young Beaujolais. Meanwhile, San Pellegrino, described as “fresh and tangy”, is the friend of full-bodied wine. Think young reds right through to big full-bodied reds and you will find the structure of the water complements that of the wine. 

In the spirits world, Phillips recommends the elegance of Acqua Panna for blended whiskies, while the structure and acidity of San Pellegrino works best with more robust flavours, such as Islay whiskies.  

Zoe Burgess, head of research & development at Tony Conigliaro’s Drink Factory, also believes different waters can have an impact on taste. 

“It’s really important to look at the mineral content of water when using it in a drink, it can really affect the taste profile of a drink,” she says. 

Many top bars are renowned for strong, dry, classic cocktails and Tanousis has a water suggestion for this style of bar, which, by coincidence or design, happens to be the same water used at Tony Conigliaro’s 69 Colebrooke Row in London. Tanousis says: “For sparkling, a robust seltzer-like brand, such as Vichy Catalan [from Catalonia, Spain], gives a distinctive bite. A naturally carbonated water will retain its carbonation better, offering a more consistent experience.”

Burgess says the bar has “been using Vichy Catalan in various Collins’s” since it opened five years ago. “We’ve found that the mineral content amplifies the flavours of the drink in a desirable way,” she adds. “It creates a similar effect as adding saline solution to drinks, which has now become so popular with bartenders.” 

She goes on to say customers do actually brand-call the water: “We’ve found that customers are really fond of Vichy Catalan and will ask for it specifically, it almost has a cult following.”

Renowned bartender Laurent Greco, from Mojito Lab in Paris, is international brand ambassador for Perrier. In contrast to the distinctive taste of Vichy Catalan, he says Perrier’s low mineral content and high carbonation means it “does not alter the taste of the cocktail”. 

Its lack of influence and interruption on the palate means “if you are enjoying a whisky or cognac, Perrier will refresh the mouth of the taster and the bubbles will work on the tongue to keep it as its optimum point for tasting.” 

Along the same lines, Speyside Glenlivet water is described by brand manager Scott Dickson as “one of the purest naturally sourced mineral waters in the world”. Sourced from the highest naturally occurring spring in the UK on the Crown Estate of Glenlivet in Moray, the water has a low, balanced mineral content which “cleanses and refreshes the palate, making it the ideal accompaniment to fine dining” adds Dickson. “The composition of the water also makes Speyside Glenlivet the ideal pairing for whisky as it enables the true flavours to be enjoyed.”

At London’s Artesian, just crowned The World’s 50 Best Bars number one, head bartender Alex Kratena says different waters “can be really exciting to drink and to work with in cocktails”. But he also feels the carbon footprint of water needs to be kept in check. “I feel we shouldn’t be shipping water around the world, in the industry as a whole. At Artesian, we serve British water.” 

Although guests generally don’t brand call, some, as you might expect at Artesian, have “exact requirements”. “I’m not sure to what extent this is driven by taste vs marketing,” muses Kratena. 

Fellow 50 Best Bars academy member Thanos Prunarus at Baba au Rum in Athens also likes to keep it local. “We decided to use a unique mineral water from northern Greece called Xino Nero, which translates as ‘sour water’.” Like Conigliaro’s preference, it’s a water with its own flavour.

The water has been bottled since 1958 and, according to Prunarus, “scientific studies have emphasised the therapeutic action of this water – mainly in liver and kidneys”. Perfect for a bar, then. 

“It’s a great partner for a neat, dark, aged spirit, especially next to a rum or whisky. We serve it chilled or at room temperature and a few drops of it in a glass of the previously mentioned spirits opens their bouquet of aromas wonderfully,” he finishes. 

Back to the source

Taking the concept of water and spirits one step further, Uisge makes use of water from Scottish sources famous for whisky: Islay, Speyside and the Highlands. 

Speyside water is famously soft and a good explanation for the number of distilleries in the area. It filters through hard granite and avoids picking up large amounts of minerals from the ground. 

Highland water, on the other hand, is harder, because it filters through brittle rocks and collects lots of minerals along the way. 

Islay water is relatively acidic, thanks to the peat. Uisge founder Lindsay says the PH and mineral content of water can heighten the taste of whisky. 

And Uisge Source has attracted quite a following – it’s now in more than 100 bars in the UK, including Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the Balmoral Hotel and Bon Accord bar in Glasgow. Further afield, the message of Uisge Source water has spread to Lab bar in Shanghai, Park Hyatt Hotel in New York, the Hermitage Hotel in Monaco and Feather’s Bar in Toronto. 

The company’s latest launch is Aberfeldy Distillery’s water from the distillery’s water source – created for adding to Aberfeldy whisky.  

Lindsay says a top quality single malt needs “the best accoutrements, including the right glass and the best water to accompany it”.

To appreciate single malt at its best, the water added should be at room temperature. “For drinking water, many bars will have larger bottles of water that are chilled. Tap water can also be too cold as well as having added chemicals that will taint the spirit,” adds Lindsay. Bartenders can get special cases of Uisge Source that include a selection of waters as well as a pipette and support material to help them navigate their way through the depths. 

Water’s effect on taste won’t interest everyone and many drinkers won’t even notice what they are imbibing but, for those who value the little extras, the need to serve the right water in the right way is clear.