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Does Water Quality Really Matter in Cocktails?

Whether pre-diluting or carbonating, in some bars, quality control goes beyond “bottled or tap.”

From wash-lines to hand-cut ice to what constitutes a dash of bitters, few if any details have escaped the unstinting attention of cocktail obsessives over the past decade. For the truly perspicacious, that scrutiny extends to the quality of a largely invisible ingredient, added to a drink directly or via ice: water.

Water can be a make-or-break ingredient in many of our favorite consumables. Master pizza makers are maniacal about the water they use in their dough; one California producer, Village Pizzeria, ships in 3,000 gallons of New York City water each year. Bagel shops search out “Goldilocks” water to make for perfect consistency in their circular wares: not too hard, not too soft, leading to a bagel with just the right amount of chew. Baristas can start sounding like chemistry PhDs when it comes to discussing water’s non-carbonate anions and pH levels and their effect on your double shot.

In cocktails, where dilution from ice often makes up a quarter of each drink, a number of detail-oriented bartenders are making sure the water meets the same exacting standards they hold every other element of their craft to.

“Using good water is really important for me in making a good Martini,” says Thomas Waugh, head of bar operations at The Grill, Major Food Group’s multi-million-dollar revamp of the old Four Seasons restaurant. “And there’s a lot of shitty water and ice in New York City.”

It was that concern that first set Waugh thinking about water quality in cocktails. At The Grill, he pre-mixes, batches and freezes the bar’s stiff Martinis, which are poured from Christofle crystal decanters during service. Since the Martini is pre-assembled and frozen—a method which Waugh says gets the drink colder than stirring or shaking—dilution is not introduced through ice, but by adding water directly in alongside the vermouth and gin.

“I was a little bit worried about the quality of the water and what it could do to the flavor if it’s sitting for a while,” says Waugh, especially since the building was under construction while he developed the recipe. “I looked at it like being a perishable product.” He ended up deciding on using Acqua Panna, which he says, “can add flavor to the drink, too.”

For most purposes, water is divided into two categories: hard and soft. Hard water contains minerals like magnesium, calcium and sulfur—acquired while passing through underground rock deposits—and is generally thought of as better tasting. Many major bottled water brands, like Poland Spring and Evian, fall in the hard spectrum. Soft water, usually derived from lakes and rivers, has very low mineral content—less than one grain per gallon.

“If you’re using soft water, it gives the drink a texture you don’t get from hard water—a sort of silkiness and velvetiness,” says Waugh. “Whereas with Vichy water, which is really high in sodium and mineral content, you get even more flavor.”

It’s a fact that whiskey distillers have been wise to since the earliest days of their trade. Kentucky’s native reserves of limestone water were integral for the region’s first bourbon producers, thanks to that water’s smoothness, high pH and mineral content, which helped filter impurities. To this day, a limestone spring runs through the Maker’s Mark property in Loretto.

Water is immensely important in distilling vodka, too, which is approximately 60 percent water. Vodka makers have experimented with using everything from deep sea water from the Hawaiian coast to San Francisco fog.

Across the Pacific, it was access to pure mountain water in the Japanese Southern Alps that led Keizo Saji to found the Hakushu Distillery there in 1973, where rain and snowmelt is filtered through thousand-year-old granite rocks. In the British Isles, the word “whisky” itself comes from the Gaelic tongue, meaning “water of life.”

“I believe water quality is the starting point for all great drinks,” says Steven Robbins, general manager at Austin’s Half Step bar. “We are fortunate to have great water here in the Texas Hill Country, and I believe it is reflected in the drinks.”

In line with Texas’s great tradition of ice houses, Half Step employs a 500-square-foot ice room where 300-pound blocks of ice are frozen in a Clinebell machine. As in a lake or pond, the machine constantly pumps water around the ice, which freezes from bottom to top, allowing impurities and bubbles to collect in a surface layer, which can be shaved away. These blocks are broken down by the staff for various types of cocktails. The bar filters the “ever-living hell” out of the water via a filtration and pH-softening system, which then goes into the Clinebell, says Robbins. Unfiltered water is carbonated, as the mineral content allows it to bind more easily to CO2.

New York City, ground zero for some of the country’s best bars, is also home to the largest unfiltered water supply system in the nation. Over one billion gallons of water flow into the city each year through a 6,800-mile-long labyrinth of pipes, the majority of it sourced from Catskill and Delaware watersheds. Collecting natural precipitation, the New York watersheds provide the “Champagne of drinking water,” according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Even so, New York City water straight from the tap is rarely ideal for craft cocktail purposes. Dave Arnold, founder of the Museum of Food+Drink and the owner of (the now shuttered) Booker and Dax, won’t even wash bottles with tap water when he’s batching cocktails. Water is treated with chlorine before it reaches the city and, when sealed off with other liquids, it can cripple flavors and ruin batched drinks.

Many serious cocktail bars rely on Kold Draft machines to do their filtering. The machine freezes water in what is essentially an upside-down ice cube tray, pumped full of water; pure water freezes fastest, letting mineral impurities flush out via a hole in each cell. But such machines require regular servicing, and when bars neglect maintenance, “ice can be really gross,” says Waugh. “I’ve had cocktails before where I can taste the ice. It’s obviously not corked but it has a funkiness to it.”

Bartenders also have to be mindful of the pipes that carry the water in, as Richard Boccato discovered to his alarm shortly before opening day at Dutch Kills in Long Island City in 2013. Boccato had frozen water to break down for use in service, as he’d done previously in his career at bars like Milk & Honey. But at Dutch Kills, when checking on the frozen pans, “I opened up the chest freezer and what I saw was pretty horrifying. The water was evidently rife with minerals and impurities. It didn’t appear to be potable water, although I’m sure it was. You have to imagine, these are 150-year-old pipes in Long Island City. They’re certainly not fit for what we were trying to do.”

Boccato first switched to buying blocks of ice meant for sculpture from the nearby Okamoto Studio, which employs Clinebell machines to create glass-like ice without bubbles or imperfections. Later, he purchased his own Clinebells for use at the bar, eventually starting an ice company, Hundredweight, which has supplied ice to bars and restaurants including Eleven Madison Park, The Dead Rabbit and Attaboy.

In our sophisticated mixological age, improving drinks has become a matter of degrees, eliminating flaws that the average palate may not even detect. Can customers taste whether the lime juice was squeezed à la minute or bottled at the beginning of the shift? Will the couple on their first date really be paying attention to the fact that their hand-carved ice was made with carefully filtered water?

“As to whether or not my palate is refined enough to detect the impurities and particularities in water that may affect the taste of a cocktail, I can’t say,” says Boccato. “There’s others with a way more exalted sense of taste. For me it’s more a matter of quality, and of course purity, but mainly a matter of conscience.”

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Tagged: cocktails, ice, water