The Everything Guide to Bottled Water

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Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

This year, for the first time, bottled water is expected to outsell soft drinks in the United States, with consumption at around 12 billion gallons. We can attribute the demand in part to the wellness boom — the same New Yorkers putting grass-fed butter in their coffee also want perfectly pH-adjusted water to drink after sound-bath class. At the same time, there’s heightened speculation about drinking from the tap: The crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought lead contamination to the forefront, and while we used to think that the fluoride in our New York City water was a good thing (at least for our teeth), the Department of Health and Human Services recently cut almost in half the maximum allowable amount of fluoride in drinking water; the latest research suggests it could be responsible for thyroid problems and ADHD. Whatever the cause, your bottled-water options — not so long ago limited to spring or distilled, with the occasional exotic “artesian” — have expanded to include all sorts of new subdivisions, from the alkaline to the volcanic-rock-processed to the ever-more-fancy naturally sparkling mineral waters, which have doubled in sales in recent years and are fetishized by a new breed of restaurant professional known as the “water sommelier” (he’ll be quick to tell you the dense minerality of Vichy Catalan pairs well with a steak). Luckily for the environment, people are still using the faucet, as is evidenced by the number of stainless-steel S’well canteens your colleagues are carrying around in place of plastic bottles. Also trying hard to go green: boxed water, yet another new category in the marketplace, with cartons made using paper from sustainably managed forests. In a blind sampling, our food critic Adam Platt characterized it as “neutral and friendly.” —Mary Jane Weedman

The Water Taste Test

When it comes to the claims of beverage companies these days that their waters promote everything from superior hydration to gout relief, the science is murky. In which case all that’s left to assess is the flavor. So we assembled a panel of three testers — food critic Adam Platt, booze writer (and former bartender) Mary Jane Weedman, and super-tasting pregnant editor Jessica Silvester — for a blind sampling of the offerings in the newest and buzziest water categories, plus a few bodega standbys for good measure. The highly unscientific rating system, devised by Platt, goes from zero to four, with zero being “swamp water,” one being akin to New York City tap, two meaning you’d buy it at a store, three that you’d pay a restaurant’s markup, and a score of four reserved for the Champagnes of waters. After much disagreement — especially when it came to, of all things, the relatively inexpensive Crystal Geyser spring water — each judge weighed in, all three tasters’ scores were totaled, and a winner was declared in each grouping. Don’t assume you prefer French sparkling until you’ve tried Serbian.

Category 1: pH-Adjusted

Photo: Joe McKendry

Suddenly the wellness set is on a mission to get us all on an alkaline diet — eating quinoa and other so-called alkalizing meals to balance acidity caused by poor food choices. And so we have the rise of alkalized water, with a pH of 8-plus (below 7 is acidic). The logic’s controversial: Pure water measures a 7, after all, and the body might well maintain a proper pH balance regardless of what you consume. In any case, many producers say removing bitter-­tasting acidic ions just makes water go down better.

Blk.

The Sell: It has a pH of over 8 and is fulvic-enhanced — which supposedly provides minerals, antioxidants, and natural electrolytes, and helps your hangover. $25 for 12 half-liter bottles on amazon.com.
Score: ½
Tasting Notes: AP: “This is astronaut water — what you drink when you’ve been on a 30-month space trip. It’s medicinal, really. It’s got a melted-candle taste.”

Essentia

The Sell: The “ionization process creates a clean, smooth-tasting 9.5 pH or higher ionized alkaline water that’s more effective at rehydrating.” From $1.79 at Rite Aid.
Score: 3
Tasting Notes: JS: “It’s lovely, I like — wait. It’s a little bit metallic.” MJW: “It tastes like I put water in my Klean Kanteen metal bottle.”

Core (Winner)

The Sell: Core has a “perfect pH balance of 7.4” — ideal, says the company, for matching your body’s natural pH. From $1.79 at Rite Aid.
Score: 7 ½
Tasting Notes: AP: “This is the most neutral.” JS: “By far the best. The kind of water you want to chug.”

Takeaways: Blk. water is actually dark-colored; when we removed our blindfolds we decided we would’ve disliked it even more had we known about the off-putting color. Silvester, who is an Essentia devotee in everyday life, was shocked to find out how much she preferred Core.

Category 2: Niche Sparkling Mineral Waters

Photo: Joe McKendry

As sparkling water becomes a part of the hipster-in-Williamsburg parody (“can of LaCroix” replacing “beard” as insult accessory), the unflavored, naturally sparkling options have risen to the forefront of your specialty grocery store, too: Bubbly sales have more than doubled in the past five years. But unlike artificially fizzy seltzer and club soda (which don’t have the purported health benefits), sparkling mineral waters like these three come from a naturally carbonated spring.

Mg Mivela (Winner)

The Sell: Sourced from a natural spring near Trstenik in Serbia that’s over a century old. It’s tough to find in the U.S., but the company is expanding rapidly. $30 for 24 half-liter bottles at aquamaestro.com.
Score: 9
Tasting Notes: JS: “Satisfying. Like Sprite without sweetness.” AP: “It’s very heavy — like something I might drink after my sauna in the frozen regions of Lapland. It would obliterate a restaurant meal.”

Saint‑Geron

The Sell: “The Saint-Geron bottled today fell as rain far back in the Middle Ages, and was then naturally filtered over the last 1,100 years,” says the France-based company, adding that it’s been used to treat gout. $4 at Le District.
Score: 4 ½
Tasting Notes: JS: “This is a little salty — too salty for me.” MJW: “I’m disappointed by how the bubbles aren’t very tight.”

Vichy Catalan

The Sell: “This premium water emerges from the ground at 60 degrees Celsius, which gives it a unique personality.” The Spanish company says the minerals also lower cholesterol. $4 at Le District.
Score: 8
Tasting Notes: Group:Whoaaa.JS: “It’s like a snack. I’d have just this. It’s complex — a bit of an assault on your taste buds.” AP: “Literally, this is Alka Seltzer. There’s sulfur here. There’s a lot of terroir.”

Takeaways: Vichy Catalan and Mg Mivela both scored high, though Platt found both a little heavy for his palate (we also tasted, but didn’t include, the artificially carbonated Mexican spring water Topo Chico, which Platt quite liked: “It’s a matter of taste. I have a taste for the fake bubbly water. It’s okay.”)

Category 3: Passed Through Rock

Photo: Joe McKendry

These waters all are purified through a rock of some kind — some being “artesian,” meaning it comes from a spring tapping a permeable rock known as an aquifer; some filtered through a volcano. The biggest selling points of these types tend to be their naturally high oxygen content, mineral content, and pH level (with none of the antibiotics, arsenic, or other toxins said to be found in unfiltered tap).

Icelandic Glacial

The Sell: This waterfilters through volcanic rock into the Ölfus Spring in Iceland, which was forged 5,000 years ago. From $3 at Gristedes.
Score: 3 ½
Tasting Notes: AP: “This is a little iodine-y, like water you’d be drinking on day five of a camping trip.” MJW: “I don’t get the iodine. I don’t think this tastes like anything — which is a compliment to bottled water.”

Oakley

The Sell: Artesian and served in 20-ounce squeeze packs, it comes from a well created by a glacier that seeped into the mountains in the last Ice Age. $2 at Rite Aid.
Score: 4 ½
Tasting Notes: JS: “This has that mineral-y, Evian taste. I hate it.” AP: “I like Evian! That’s the difference between us. This is like an icy spear to the heart.”

Waiakea (Winner)

The Sell: Rain seeps into the Mauna Loa volcano, is naturally fil­tered, and is eventually packaged by Waiakea — founded in 2012 by a 22-year-old. Waiakea says it’s rich in magnesium, potassium, and calcium. From $1.49 at Perelandra.
Score: 9
Tasting Notes: AP: “It’s got a sort of floral, sweet taste. How you think melted snow should taste.” MJW: “It makes me think of being in an infinity pool in Hawaii.”

Takeaways: Overall, these tasted a little brighter than the other categories — in particular Waiakea, one of the newest bottled-water producers on the list.

Category 4: Boxed

Photo: Joe McKendry

This water is proud of itself for its ecominded packaging. These companies acknowledge that bottled-water consumption is at an all-time high — even despite campus bans, the popularity of “disposable” brands like Fred that encourage reuse, and refilling stations at airport fountains — and are trying to lessen the environmental impact. You might’ve seen them at your local third-wave coffee shop.

Rethink Water

The Sell: This reverse-osmosis-filtered water is sold in Tetra Paks made of roughly 70 percent paperboard. “Welcome to the unbottled revolution,” say the containers. From $1.49 at CVS.
Score: 5
Tasting Notes: JS: “This doesn’t have a distinctive taste, which for me is a bad thing.” MJW: “It tastes like clean water-fountain water.”

Just Water

The Sell: The production methods result in a 74 percent reduction in carbon emissions. It’s from Glens Falls, New York; sold in a Tetra Pak; and, incidentally, is the brand Jaden Smith endorses. From $1 at Whole Foods.
Score: 2 ½
Tasting Notes: JS: “I do not like this. It’s cloying. Like water kept in an empty perfume bottle.” AP: “I’d pay money for that: You’d spritz it on yourself. I find this to be … tap-y. It’s maybe a little iodine-y, and it tastes waxed.”

Boxed Water (Winner)

The Sell: The leader in this new category. The 500-ml boxes are 74 percent “paper made from trees” (which, incidentally, the company plans to replant a million of by 2020). From $1.49 at Birdbath Bakery.
Score: 7
Tasting Notes: AP: “This is neutral, friendly, a little thin. The first one [Rethink] was a little rounder. It tastes like water. It’s not chemical-y, it’s not thick, it’s not mineral-y.”

Takeaways: If you like your water to not taste like anything, boxed is probably the way to go.

Category 5: Cheaper Waters

Photo: Joe McKendry

Your standard, inexpensive bottles that you’d find in the Duane Reade coolers or at the bodega. These types of bottles are often plagued by rumors that they’re in fact just tap — and some, like Dasani and Aquafina most notably, are — but they also typically go through a multi-step filtration process.

Poland Spring (Winner)

The Sell: What it means to be from Maine. From $1 at Fine Fare.
Score: 4 ½
Tasting Notes: MJW: “I think it tastes hard, like angry water.” AP: “It is angry water. But not as angry as the Blk. It does have a little body to it.”

Crystal Geyser

The Sell: Builds plants at springs, including ones in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Cherokee National Forest. From $1.50 at Gristedes.
Score: 3
Tasting Notes: JS: “I do not like this. Sodium! Sodium city.” AP: “It’s got body to it! I think this is the best of these. I’d buy it at a gas station.”

Aquafina

The Sell: PepsiCo’s purified tap water. It goes through the company’s “HydRO-7” filtration process. From $1.67 at CVS.
Score: 4
Tasting Notes: AP: “Whatever chemical they put in is up-front in this one.” JS: “I kind of like it. It’s got a little hint of sweetness and cleanness.”

Takeaways: It was admittedly difficult to distinguish between these lower-priced offerings, but one thing was clear: We’d take a Northeast-produced bodega staple over Blk. water any day.

Bottled Versus Tap

By Nick Tabor

Bottled

Photo: Joe McKendry

Where it comes from: Nearly half of New York’s comes from city reserves.

How it’s regulated: The Food and Drug Administration treats it as a food, and it can’t require food companies to publish detailed reports on where their products come from, nor can it require tests in independent laboratories. Furthermore, the standards are less strict about elements like asbestos and certain bacteria. And plastic bottles often contain estrogenlike chemicals that can make their way into the water, affecting your hormones.

Environmental impact: In short, it’s staggering. The bottles themselves require lots of water to produce — an average of almost two gallons for every gallon of capacity — not to mention the fossil fuel required for shipping them.

Tap

Photo: Joe McKendry

Where it comes from: Depending on where you live, it’s either pumped from the ground (via a well or spring) or drawn from lakes and streams. From there it goes into a vast network of tanks and pipes.

How it’s regulated: The Environmental Protection Agency requires cities to publish annual reports on their water, showing where it comes from and any evidence of contaminants (New York City’s water supply had a clean bill on its latest test). The EPA also has stringent requirements for filtering and testing. However, many buildings also have old pipes that can leach lead into the water. Lead is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, so the best way to make sure you’re safe is to request a free testing kit by calling 311.

Environmental impact: Almost none!

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Ask a Water Sommelier

Martin Riese curates the water menu for the N.Y.-based Patina Restaurant Group. By Sierra Tishgart

You’re a certified water sommelier. What does that mean?
When I started experimenting with the tastes of different waters and how they pair with foods, the certification didn’t exist. I was living in Germany, literally Googling different water companies and asking them to send me a bottle. I began to realize how important it was to consider water in the context of how it pairs with food and cocktails. By 2008, my knowledge became so advanced that I was writing a book about it, and the German association for water approached me and said, “Hey, Martin. We think it’s time to put a certification process together for water sommeliers.” So now I’m certified, and I got a visa from the States for extraordinary diligence of my knowledge of water. That’s why I’m staying here in America and have a job at Patina — it’s all thanks to water!

So at the L.A. and New York restaurants, what does your job look like?
I will come over to the table, just as a wine sommelier would.

How do people react?
The customer who has never heard about my concept will say, “Are you completely crazy?” And I’m always telling them, “I can give you two different waters here on the table. Let’s taste them together and let’s see if you can detect the differences.” And trust me, everybody can see the difference in taste. Water can lower acidity and tannins in wine, just like the right ice cube in a cocktail can make spirits sing. Fiji water, for example, is a water which has a lot of the mineral silica dissolved, which makes the water super-smooth and almost sweet in the aftertaste. Low-mineral water with a smooth mouthfeel pairs perfectly with salads. The acidity of the salad dressing will be lowered by the smooth mouthfeel, and the overall experience will be more pleasant. On the other hand, food with rich flavors, like a steak or braised dishes, can be nicely paired with a mineral water with carbonation — like Vichy Catalan — which can support the richness.

Photo: Joe McKendry

What are the different flavors and notes you look for?
It all depends on the mineral levels. You can measure the mineral content by TDS, which stands for total dissolved solids. That is the most important texture when it comes to bottled water, and the higher the TDS number, the more complex and the more powerful the water tastes. For example, I have a water called Berg, and the water comes from an ice glacier, so barely any of it has touched the ground. Therefore, this water has very, very low minerals, a TDS of five. With a TDS of five, it means that the water is not cloudy at all; it’s more on the smoother, fruitier side. Then, on the other hand, I have Vichy Catalan. This is the highest-mineral-content water I serve, with a TDS of above 3,050. It has even more electrolytes than a Gatorade.

What would you say is the best water in the world right now?
There is no best water. The best water is what you will drink a lot of, and it will have a good amount of minerals for you. But I do want to say that there are two huge differences when it comes to bottled water here in America. On the one hand you have purified water. When a bottle says it’s purified, that means it’s nothing but highly processed tap water. They’re smoothing everything out of there, including all the healthy minerals that you actually want to have. So these waters are essentially like processed food, in my opinion. I believe you should only drink spring or mineral water.

What’s the best bottled commercial water on the market?
When you want to drink the right water, always look at the label. When you see spring water, or well water, or glacier water, that means it comes from Mother Nature. When you see purified water, stick to your tap. It’s way cheaper. When I’m going to the grocery store, I always buy Fiji water because I love the very smooth, almost fruity taste profile.

What is the ideal drinking temperature for water?
Fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. When you chill down water completely, you’re getting rid of all the aromas. It’s the same with wine. Americans drink their beverages way too cold.

Beyond the Brita

The latest reverse-osmosis systems, faucet-mounted filters, and filtration pitchers. By Trupti Rami

Photo: Joe McKendry

The Under-the-Sink System
The professionally installed Culligan Aqua-Cleer, certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, uses reverse osmosis to reduce the amounts of a host of contaminants: lead, chlorine, as well as fluoride, a longtime additive that a growing body of research has linked to thyroid problems and even cancer. ($1,500 includes installation and filters for a year’s worth of water; culligan.com.)

Photo: Joe McKendry

The Faucet Filter
Released in August, PUR’s Advanced faucet filter promises to remove more impurities than any other filter on the market: up to 99 percent of lead and more than 70 other contaminants, including mercury and pesticides. It also reduces “emerging contaminants,” a new NSF category of testing that focuses in part on prescription drugs. ($35 at pur.com.)

Photo: Joe McKendry

The Better Brita
Not as ubiquitous as Brita or as design-forward as Soma, the nine-cup Clear2O pitcher is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water (10 more than its competitors), fast-filling (in 17 seconds, by one measure), and reduces levels of more contaminants (including lead, a rarity for pitcher-size filters) than recent models by Brita, Soma, and Pur. ($30 at clear2o.com; new generation launching in February.)

Photo: Joe McKendry

The Water Bottle
Shake the Ecomo water bottle, and a removable Bluetooth wristband at its base lights up with a ranking — bad, moderate, or great — based on an internal water-quality-analyzing system that tests TOC, TDS, turbidity, and temperature. Specific levels of each are shown on the companion app. Then simply twist the base clockwise to filter. ($139 for preorder on Indiegogo; ships in May.)

*This article appears in the January 9, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been corrected to show that the Clear2O pitcher has a 50-gallon filtering capacity, not 60.

The Everything Guide to Bottled Water