The year was 1995, and I was watching television. Frasier, to be specific, whose placement in the NBC “Must See TV Tuesday” lineup my family took literally. This was event viewing in the Michelman household, and my tweenage brain soaked it up like a sponge: the fashion, the erudition, the many glasses of sherry. One moment stands out above all else, wherein the audience is given a brief glimpse inside the Crane family refrigerator, which is revealed to be stocked to the brim with glowing blue glass bottles of mineral water imported from the United Kingdom. In the context of the show, this was just another item—like the Macclesfield ties, Joan & David loafers and Frasier’s apartment itself—meant to symbolize wealth and class. I discussed the topic with my mother; she told me that the water on Frasier was very expensive, and that in this family we drank water from the spigot on the fridge door.
“Imagine paying money for water,” I remember thinking. Today, I wish we’d bought stock in La Croix.
Bottled water of a clear, identifiable origin has long been popular in Europe, where the history of drinking site-specific mineralized water dates back thousands of years. But here in America, mineral water has baggage. I believe I speak for many readers when I describe first encountering mineral water as a totem of yuppie excess vis-à-vis late 20th-century movies and television, obsessed over by the likes of Patrick Bateman (he drinks Ramlösa and Apollinaris) and the aforementioned Frasier Crane (those iconic blue teardrop bottles of Tŷ Nant, from Wales). This identity wholly disconnects mineral water in the U.S. from its curative, egalitarian image abroad. It’s a status symbol, something rich people drink as a class flex: the little bottle of San Pellegrino, same as what they sell at the grocery store across the street, marked up to $12 at a restaurant catering to assholes.
Frasier may be relegated to the great rerun loop of history, but today’s outlook for mineral water in America is evolving quickly, and there are merchants for the cause. One of them is a guy out of Fort Lauderdale named Brett Spitalny. With his company, Aqua Maestro, Spitalny has, since 2002, overseen a portfolio of imported bottled water. And that’s all he sells, offering about 30 different fine waters from around the world (including Borsec from Romania, Fiuggi from Italy, and yes, Frasier’s beloved Tŷ Nant), selling to a collection of retail and wholesale clients around the country and providing water education along the way to high-end hotels and restaurants. “What’s coming from the source is what you find in the bottle,” he says. “It’s not adulterated, and it hasn’t been purified or filtered or messed with.” The sentiment might be familiar to anyone who’s set foot in a natural wine bar. Aqua Maestro’s portfolio includes some recognizable brands, including Fiji and Voss, as well as deeply obscure bottles like Iskilde, a highly oxygenated still water from Denmark that “comes out of the ground looking like milk.”
“Imagine paying money for water,” I remember thinking. Today, I wish we’d bought stock in La Croix.
Ashley Epperson of Salacious Drinks, a Washington D.C.–based distributor and direct seller of mineral waters, looks at the seltzer boom as a pump primer for the U.S. market. “As far as Americans are concerned, we are way behind the times,” she tells me. “If you go to Japan, Europe, Australia, even Canada, they have huge water markets. But we are so used to the idea of free water, or buying purified tap water in a bottle. Most people don’t know what fine water tastes like.” In this way, a brand like Salacious Drinks caters to people who have had their interest piqued by seltzer, and are ready to learn more about the world of fine water. “We love someone saying, ‘Oh, I like La Croix’ because that means when we sit down and do a fine water tasting, they are going to say ‘Ohhhh…’”
If mineral water is a beverage primed for growth in the American market, its punky cousin seltzer is surely to thank. The year 2019 was the year seltzer peaked: The stuff is everywhere, filling entire aisles at your local Target and spanning the spectrum of popular culture, from New York Times think pieces to Coachella activations to junk science finger wagging. La Croix in particular has been embraced by the extremely online millennial work force (especially in media), showing up in desk office candids and work fridge tableaus. There’s even a secret Facebook group for devotees of seltzer, profiled by everyone from The Spoon to The Guardian. (I’m a longtime member.)
My own avid consumption of La Croix, which is just filtered tap water that’s been force-carbonated and flavored, had become reflexive, habitual, desultory—a drink to drink when I didn’t feel like using my brain, the water equivalent of ordering a Starbucks coffee. By contrast, Borjomi, a Georgian water I credit for thrusting me down this rabbit hole, tastes as if it were beamed in from another consciousness entirely. It is creamy, lush, with just a touch of finessed funk, like a beautiful raw milk cheese, or a piece of foie gras, or a glass of farmhouse saison (minus the hops and malt). I found myself (quelle horreur) skipping past the wine section and forgoing the beer at World Foods—the excellent specialty food and beverage market near where I live in Portland, Oregon—in favor of more Borjomi, and eventually, other delicious waters from around the world: Antipodes of New Zealand, Jermuk of Armenia, Llanllyr Source of Wales, and Essentuki of southern Russia, not far from the border with Georgia.
The seltzer boom (and likely impending bust) has opened a door for us to reconsider what mineral water is, and who it should be for. If brands like Polar and La Croix (and yes, even White Claw) have helped unmoor fizzy water from its wealth-and-privilege trappings in America, then I say bully; after all, La Croix is owned by the same company that makes Faygo, the beloved soda of the ’90s horror-rap crew Insane Clown Posse. How bourgeois could it really be? In the pantheon of affordable luxuries, mineral water has few peers—a .75 liter bottle of Borjomi, the utterly delicious, naturally sparkling mineral water of the nation of Georgia, costs somewhere between $1.99 and $3.99, depending on where you’re purchasing.
Turns out this was just scratching the surface. The well for water appreciation runs deep, and all aqueducts lead to the work of the world’s leading authorities on mineral water: Martin Riese and Michael Mascha, who together run Los Angeles’ Fine Water Academy, bestowers of the official Water Sommelier Certification. Germany native Riese first gained fame in this country for his work with the Patina Restaurant Group, whose properties across the United States include multiple operations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and in New York’s Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Riese’s water menu for Patina is the stuff of legend, helping land him everywhere from The New York Times to Conan. “People started to come to [LACMA] just for the water menu and try the different waters and taste the differences between them,” Riese tells me. “I was a little surprised and almost scared.”
Mascha, meanwhile, runs FineWaters.com, an international clearinghouse for water information and advocacy, and a compendium of bottled water brands large and small. A former professor at USC, Mascha came to water as an alternative to alcohol following a serious health diagnosis. “My cardiologist told me I could live, or drink alcohol, but not both,” he says. “Naturally, I made the decision to stop drinking, but by removing one bottle from the table I began to focus on another.”
If mineral water is a beverage primed for growth in the American market, its punky cousin seltzer is surely to thank.
Key to the duo’s methodology is understanding the differences among individual water sites. Not unlike wine, tea or coffee, water is a product of its place of harvest—in this case, different sites around the world through which rainwater is naturally filtered. Each mountain range and hillside has its own geological calling card, with a noticeable impact on a given water’s flavor and mouthfeel. Different waters vary in chemical composition, which is why the water bottled as Lurisia (from the Italian Alps) tastes vastly different from the water bottled as Borsec (from the Carpathian Mountains of Romania). Riese and Mascha discuss this in terms of total dissolved solids, or TDS, a phrase well-known by espresso geeks—low-TDS waters have an almost drying effect, while high-TDS waters taste rich and smooth, even sometimes a touch swampy (in a good way).
On his website FineWaters, Mascha categorizes a range of mineral waters from “super low” (0-50 mg/L) to “very high” (1500+ mg/L). By this categorization, the 2,210 milligramsTDS on my beloved Borjomi is incredibly high—more than four times higher than Perrier, for example.
It makes sense that this would be the water that hooked me. In specialty coffee, a topic I’ve written about extensively, it’s common for new acolytes to have a “light switch moment” with coffees that explore wild expanses of the flavor spectrum: Think wild-fermented and genetically diverse “natural-processed” coffees from Ethiopia, or highly prized and rightly expensive Gesha variety coffees from Panama. Same thing in wine, where young drinkers have gravitated in droves to the electric Technicolor “natural” wines of boundary-pushing makers like Anders Frederik Steen, Furlani and Cornelissen. These experiences fall on the extreme end of the product spectrum, and that’s why they hook new drinkers: The journey to “aha!” upends the preconceived notion of what coffee or wine should be, redrawing its culinary and cultural application.
Same with Borjomi, an extremely mineralized water that led me to explore a world of flavor experiences—some more subtle, some even more extreme (say hey, Essentuki #4). “We’re seeing a wave of adoption where people realize that water is not just water,” says Mascha. “They get hooked for whatever reason, and then they realize that water has terroir, it comes from a place, it has flavor, and it can be integrated into epicurean ways like wine.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it me. I was first suckered in by flavored filtered tap (La Croix), then had my mind blown by the outer edges of the mineral spectrum (Borjomi). It’s roughly the trajectory a wine drinker undertakes, from nipped high school Boone’s Farm to Jura savagnin sous voile, with a land of exploration and subtlety to discover in between. (Burgundy, if you’re paying.)
Riese and Mascha advocate seeking out different styles and weights of water for different meal pairings and experiences: Cantonese suckling pork with Cana Royal water from Slovenia, or smoked fish roe with a low-TDS Swedish glacier water, which Mascha describes as tasting “like you’re in the middle of nature, and it’s raining and you open your mouth.” And in our conversations, each encouraged me to explore offerings across the minerality scale, like the soft, low-TDS waters of Svalbardi, Lofoten and Lurisia, or the complex, naturally sparkling waters of Vichy Catalan, Pedras and Ecuador’s Guitig.
Unlike so much of today’s zen koan cacophony of wellness trend buzz, mineral water is certifiably good for you, something czars and soldiers and doctors in Europe have known for centuries (to say nothing of the older regulars at the 127-year-old Russian & Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village, swigging huge plastic bottles of Narzan). Mineral water is culinary, yes, but it’s also elemental in a profoundly satisfying way—an organism consuming the most delicious and interesting version of something it needs to live.
“Like with wine, like with coffee, it’s not about finding what’s best,” says Mascha. These days he’s expanding the role of water to its place beyond the glass, working with cocktail bars to develop custom ice and chocolatiers seeking the perfect water to blend into chocolate bars. This feels like a natural expansion of the implied conclusion, which is that by re-evaluating the identity and flavor and history of the water we drink, we can then extend this new consideration into water’s role in the wild beer we drink, the cocktail ice we stir and shake with, the sip of water we take to realign our palates between the bites and bottles of everything else we love.
“These waters come from a real place, from a real source with a cultural identity attached,” says Mascha. “They mean something.”