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Friday, June 27, 2008
Eau contraire: no two waters taste the same
From the marketing bumf, you'd think all mineral waters tasted alike. The aquifers are ancient, the nature is untouched and blah blah blah. But H2O is such a great solvent it steals a bit of anything it passes through, resulting in a shelfload of different flavors.
OK, a shelfload of subtly different flavors. Which is why I gathered some local gastronomes to help me find the world's tastiest water.
Meet the panel:
Yutaka Ozaki was voted Tokyo's top sommelier in a wine magazine last year. He plies his trade at Salt in Marunouchi.
Robbie Swinnerton has been The Japan Times restaurant critic for over 10 years.
Mike Kubeck brews Tokyo Ale No. 3, the mellow amber microbrew, and runs Super Deluxe, an event space in Nishi-Azabu.
Aki Yamanaka is an aqua sommelier who runs Aquademia courses to train "Aqua Advisers" and "Aqua Maestros." She manages Aqua Store ( www.aqua store.jp ) in Nishi-Azabu where the tasting took place.
And I write about drinks.
Yamanaka and I nominated 16 still waters. She selected brands for their distinctive flavors; I pointed to the best-looking bottles. To be fair, my method best resembled the way you choose water. The panel blind tasted pairs of waters, with winners progressing tournament-like to a final.
(Info in parentheses shows hardness — the higher the number, the more calcium carbonate — country of origin and price per 500 ml.)
Alaska Glacier Cap (59, U.S., ¥168) vs. Masafi
Fillico (90, Japan, ¥3,646) vs. Ice Age (1.2, Canada, ¥212)
Voss (11.7, Norway, ¥525) vs. Tokyo tap water (53, the kitchen, ¥0.5)
Bernina (22, Italy, ¥332) vs. Contrex (1,551, France, ¥204)
Blue Spring (11, New Zealand, ¥160) vs. Aqua Meister-filtered tap water (53, ¥80,000 for the filtering machine)
Fine (57, Japan, ¥473) vs. Willow (342, England, ¥294)
Ogo (194.7, Holland, ¥682) vs. Volvic (61.6, France, ¥140)
Sant Aniol (292, Spain, ¥273) vs. Ensinger (1,828, Germany, ¥230)
In the first quarter final, Masafi, the dark horse from the United Arab Emirates, clobbered Ice Age, an exceptionally soft water (less than a 1,000th the calcium content of Ensinger).
Judging Voss vs. Bernina in the second quarter final, the professional eater made his mind up so quickly you'd have thought we'd asked him to compare a Petrus with cat's wee. After a few minutes, we all caught up with him and chose Bernina.
Fine battled Blue Spring next. Only our aqua sommelier felt strongly about the distinction, noting a better aftertaste on Fine. The Kiwi water won my vote, but Fine came through 4-1.
The last QF pitted Volvic against Sant Aniol. As the previous round paired Sant Aniol with the overbearing Ensinger, this was our first chance to really judge the flavor of the Spanish water. Ozaki complimented its well-rounded structure; Kubeck found it "nice and drinkable." Only Swinnerton and I favored Volvic.
By the semifinals we were all suffering from water fatigue. "It's gone beyond analysis now, into just 'that seems nice,' " said Kubeck. The wine expert agreed: "At first, my criteria was to look for a proper character, but as it's going on I'm getting tired and looking for something more like a daily water."
"The one on the left seems a little more oldish," said Kubeck, referring to Bernina and chuckling at his prosaic terminology. It was nevertheless the most erudite comment from the semis, which saw Masafi and Fine eliminated.
And so to the final. Two stylish Europeans. The mineral-rich Sant Aniol from Spain versus the refreshing but oldish Bernina from Italy. The wine guy and I went for the flavor. Ozaki described Sant Aniol as being sharper, with a more edgy character. I was simply feeling the pressure to pick a distinctive water as the champ. Swinnerton and Kubeck both chose Bernina for its superior mouthfeel. So it fell to the aqua sommelier to break the deadlock. "Sant Aniol is complicated, and might taste better with food," she said. "Bernina is pure, and it's the most delicious of the neutral waters."
Bernina, then — the tastiest water in the world. Unless you're in the mood for something different.