One sample has a "tangy bite," another is "slightly sweet" and a third is "full, with too much body."
Ron Toyota, a stocky Japanese businessman visiting Beverly Hills, swirls the stuff in his fourth glass and concentrates on describing its flavor.
His final pronouncement: "Slimy."
Toyota is not drinking wine. The liquid in his clear plastic cocktail glass is one of 68 spring and mineral waters served at (ixi:z), pronounced "ick-sees," the only bar in the country to pour just water, according to the International Bottled Water Assn. Toyota likes the sample from the Swiss Alps the least.
"I think L.A. water is pretty bad, so I said to my friend, 'Let's go get a drink of water,' " Toyota said. "I read about this place in a Japanese newspaper."
Beverly Hills' newest attraction opened Thanksgiving weekend in an expensive men's clothing store. Bar manager August Suelflow, former owner of a valet parking business in St. Louis, said his watertenders have been serving 30 to 50 bottles a day, enough for him to consider starting a Water-of-the-Month club for "the person who has everything."
"Lots of local stores serve their customers cappuccino or wine while they're shopping," Suelflow said. "We hit upon this concept because it suits our upscale, fitness-minded clientele."
For a dollar or two, shoppers and passers-by can sit at the V-shaped black bar, sip a drink and talk water. As with fine wines, the age and regional source of a particular variety add to its cachet. Water that has taken years to percolate through rock layers before emerging from an underground spring is particularly dear, they said.
"Some people think water is just water, but they couldn't be more wrong," said Art Philibert, 21, a part-time watertender who is knowledgeable about the pedigrees of the imported and domestic waters displayed in a glass case behind the bar. "Not everyone can tell the difference."
In a blind taste test conducted in 1979 by The Times, the flavor differences among 25 brands of imported and domestic brands of mineral water were found to be marginal. To assure that external variables were minimized in the tasting, all the waters were chilled to the same temperature and served without ice, as they are at (ixi:z).
"Some go by taste, but it is heavily visual," Suelflow said. Bottled water comes in all shapes and types of containers, ranging from a bowling-pin-shaped glass bottle to an aluminum can to a plastic Scotch bottle. "The bottle labels have a tremendous effect on a person's decision."
Whether they were motivated by taste, slick packaging or health concerns, Americans consumed 1.2 billion gallons of sparkling and non-sparkling water in 1986, an increase of 15% from the year before, according to William F. Deal, executive vice president of the International Bottled Water Assn., a trade organization based in Virginia.
Although Southern California is the nation's largest bottled water market, Deal said he would be surprised if (ixi:z) succeeded. Water bars in Washington, D.C., and New York have failed, he said.
The only customers at the bar for more than an hour, Toyota and a friend continued to survey the bottle-shaped menu and to try different brands of water. Not surprisingly, Toyota's favorite turned out to be one from Japan, packaged in a colorful milk carton. But the water connoisseur wasn't that easily pleased.
"Now this is a good water," he said. "But the container gives it a slightly waxy taste."