Places

What’s in a Water?

May 27, 2020

Story: Jordan Michelman

Art: PUNCH

The allure of site-specific mineral water is that no two taste the same. Here are five, from New Zealand to Maine, that demonstrate just how diverse the category really is.

Unfined, unfiltered, natural, wild—even funky. No, I’m not talking about wine. I’m talking about water—specifically mineral water. No two mineral waters taste the same: Carpathian Mountain water tastes dramatically different from mineral water from the Catalonian coast, or the German Alps, or a rural New Zealand well. The flavor footprint of each is millions of years in the making, the product of tectonic movement and lithostratigraphy. And in today’s seltzer boom-and-bust milieu they’re enjoying an overdue re-examination as a source of culinary intrigue—beverages so flavorful they’re being paired with food and used as building blocks for cocktails.

Much of what differentiates each comes down to TDS, or the total dissolved solids that the water source imparts. A water with a low TDS tastes clean and smooth, evoking many pleasant thoughts of rainwater. A water with a high TDS can be funky and challenging, like Borjomi, a creamy mineral water from the nation of Georgia that’s reminiscent of wild-fermented beer or raw-milk cheese. Between these two poles, there is a whole world of flavor experiences, from oily and salty to fresh and drying, to a water somewhat affectionately described as tasting like pickle juice.

Here’s a look at five of my favorites, from the Republic of Georgia to Romania.

Borjomi | Republic of Georgia

This velvety, unctuous water from the Republic of Georgia might be my No. 1. The company Borjomi is located in the town of Borjomi, itself situated within the Borjomi Gorge. When much of the region is named for the spring, that should give you a sense of the history and importance of that water source. Borjomi mineral water, which has been bottled commercially since before the American Civil War, was apparently the water of choice for both Yuri Gagarin and Winston Churchill, a claim that few other beverages can make.

Borjomi’s level of TDS is very high, which gives it a jarring creaminess and a notable funk—like a farmhouse beer without the hops. [BUY]

Tourmaline Spring | Maine

Tourmaline is a still water, sourced from an idyllic spring just outside the White Mountain National Forest in Harrison, Maine, around an hour north of Portland. Like their counterparts in Europe, the waters of Tourmaline have a history that extends back more than a century. Since the late 1800s, Tourmaline Spring has been sold as a curative for a range of ailments, and sought after by water drinkers as far away as New York City.

The minerality and TDS on Tourmaline Spring are both very low, making for a lovely, fresh, subtle water with a drying effect on the palate. According to the Tourmaline Spring’s website, their water “is so naturally pure that it exceeds every Federal and State guideline for drinking straight from the ground” and does not require any processing before bottling. [BUY]

Antipodes | New Zealand

I was first exposed to Antipodes on a coffee tour of New Zealand. What was this beautifully designed water I kept seeing on coffee shop menus, served at nice restaurants and cafés?

This is a low TDS water, sourced from a rural portion of New Zealand’s North Island near the Bay of Plenty. Water expert Michael Mascha recommends pairing Antipodes with spicy Szechuan food; for me this is a neutral water to share at the dinner table across a range of dishes, adaptable and agreeable, much like Champagne or a nice cold lager. [BUY]

Vichy Catalan | Spain

As its name implies, Vichy Catalan is bottled in the Catalonia region of Spain. It’s got a very high TDS and extreme salinity, making for an unctuous, almost oily sensation on the tongue and palate. Vichy is a boundary-testing experience that not everyone will love, but it nonetheless remains the gateway drug non-pareil to the world of fine water.

It also makes excellent cocktail ice, a development revealed to me recently by noted water sommelier and consultant Martin Riese. He’s a Vichy Catalan superfan, and in particular has extolled the water’s virtues by way of the cocktail. An ice cube made of Vichy Catalan allows for a subtly upgraded Martini experience, or pairs beautifully with the other Spanish drink of the moment: an elaborately garnished Gin & Tonic. [BUY]

Borsec | Romania

Borsec is a clean mineral water from the Carpathian Mountains of Romania with a medium level of TDS and a naturally sparkling composition. The brand’s bottling operation underwent a modernization after the fall of communism in the early ’90s, but this water’s history stretches much farther, to at least the 17th century. (It was back then that Austrian Emperor Franz Josef dubbed it “The Queen of Mineral Waters.”)

This is ideal for everyday drinking: likable and satisfying, with round, toothsome bubbles that remind me of an Aube blanc de noirs Champagne, a pleasurably globular texture with a loose, chunky bead. Borsec boasts a naturally high amount of magnesium and bicarbonate, but a relatively low amount of sodium. This unique makeup has been the subject of numerous health claims over the centuries upon which I won’t opine, other than to say that if you have perhaps found yourself overinspired one evening, a big bottle of Borsec makes for a friendly companion the morning after. [BUY]

Further Drinking

These are waters that will challenge your concept of the beverage. In other words, they’re not for beginners.

ROI | Slovenia

This wildly effervescent natural sparkling water boasts the highest magnesium content of any water on the planet. Leave it open overnight and it’ll still be bubbling the next day. It’s like drinking a liquid version of the numbing phenomenon native to Szechuan peppers.

Essentuki #4 | Russia

“Swamp water,” “pickle juice” and “gut medicine” are just a couple of ways this water has been described. It tastes more like a bottle of cucumber kombucha than a bottle of water, but if you’re willing to get past the first sip, you’ll see why it’s been sought after by Russian mineral water lovers for centuries.

Güitig | Ecuador

The Andes are home to many brilliant mineral waters, and Güitig—founded by a German-born Ecuadorian colonist in the late 19th century—can go toe to toe with the best of Europe. Naturally carbonated with a medium TDS, this is delicious with everything from cheese to backyard barbecue to encebollado, Ecuadorian fish stew.