Mouth-watering flavors: The aesthetics of gurgle

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

So … water has taste? Is that aesthetics, or is there science behind the claim?

I can remember when water was just water. At least, so it was for most Americans. Europeans always seemed to feel differently about it. I guess because they’ve been parsing foods longer than us. But … water?

Nowadays people have taken to speaking about water the same way oenophiles (I love that word … it’s stupid, but lovable) talk about wine. A glass of water might be “crisp” (as opposed to what … damp?) or “lightly mineralized” or “slightly acidic” (ah, there’s the science!) or having a taste like a “fresh spring morning.” Sometimes I can’t tell if the testers are talking about water or room deodorizer. I can see the difference between plain water and alkaline water, but some of the rest of the so-called differences leave me cold. As to alkaline water, why would people boast about drinking rock? Not for me to criticize individual tastes, I suppose, no matter how confounding they may be.

Sparkling water seems to be a thing of the moment. Especially sparkling water flavored with “essence.” When I was young we used to call “essence” “concentrated,” but hey, whatever sells.

Perrier has been selling sparkling water, i.e. water full of bubbles, since 1863, so plainly there’s something to it. In order to compete with fashionable soda waters infused with essence, you can now find Perrier flavored with lemon, lime, L’Orange (because the water is French, you know), strawberry, pink grapefruit, green apple, and watermelon (because “watermelon” sounds better than “pastéque”). I wonder what the original founders of Perrier would have made of all this? Despite calling itself the “anti-Perrier,” La Croix, the “in” favored water of the moment, still employs a French name. Interestingly, it’s bottled in La Crosse, Wisc. Vive la France Americain.

Components public domain. Image by 5enses.

In 1799, one Augustine Thwaites of Dublin became, possibly, the first vendor to sell “soda water” under that name. (Personally, I think “Thwaites” has “Perrier” or “La Croix” all beat as a brand name.) When I was a lad in New York, we used to get the form of soda water called seltzer delivered to our apartment in large bottles. (Take that, Amazon!) Seltzer was important to our family because unlike some bottled soda waters, it contained no additives such as sodium citrate or potassium bicarbonate. Each bottle was stoppered with its own metal dispenser. As I recall, these were fashioned from a mysterious alloy of pewter, iron, and possibly moon rocks. Pressing down on the handle would release a powerful stream of seltzer into a glass or, if you were in need of an audience, somebody’s face. Hence the immortal line from the Chuckles the Clown episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down his pants.” “Perrier” just doesn’t work in that oration (although “Thwaites” might).

These massive bottles would be returned to be refilled by the vendor. They eventually went out of style, not only because home delivery went out of style (until now) but because if the carbonation process was not carefully monitored, the pressurized bottles could turn into early IEDs with catastrophic results.

Enough of deliberate flavoring, with “essence” or otherwise. What of the supposed differences in plain water? Do they exist? Do they matter?

In annual still (i.e. uncarbonated) water taste tests, one of the regular winners is New York City tap water. Plain ol’ tap water. This perennial result tends to have multiple consequences. It temporarily shuts up those who profess to be water gourmets. It lifts the spirits of New Yorkers, who can always use a boost to the collective municipal geist. And it sets those giant corporations that have leaped into the bottled water business to muttering. Because if one city’s tap water can best exotic bottled waters in a taste test, then how can they charge a buck for a bottle of their brand?

Advertising helps. All those quotes about “crispness” (geez, get an apple, already) and clarity and purity. This works because most folks don’t realize that a good deal of bottled water is simply local city tap water that’s been put through a rudimentary but adequate purification process. The water costs the bottling company virtually nothing. What you’re paying for is the bottle, shipping … and that advertising.

If you really want to drink something reasonably pure, look for a still water that’s been sourced from as remote and unpolluted a location as possible. Don’t take at face value claims that water might come from a deep well in, say, Michigan. Of Nestle’s Poland Spring water, about 30 percent comes from the area around the original Poland Spring (which dried up decades ago) and the rest from “other sources.” You want water from a real Poland spring, try Naleczowlanka. (On second thought, pronouncing “Perrier” is easier.)

If you want to drink something approaching true pure water, dihydrogen monoxide that actually might be deserving of the adjective “crisp,” look for water sourced from glacial origins. “Voss” (Norway) is probably more famous for their bottles (and their prices) than their water, but the water is fine. “Glacial” comes from British Columbia. My personal favorite is “Icelandic,” which is drawn from glacial sources in … you know. My reasoning is that if it’s been frozen since before civilization, the taste can rightly be called something akin to pure. Not expensive, better for you than a soft drink, and I like their bottle, too.

When it comes to the science of carbonation, sometimes less is indeed more. But I guess that’s a matter of taste.


Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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