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Waters, Waters Everywhere


A lot of Southlanders rely on bottled water delivery--the traditional water cooler stocked with five-gallon jugs. Others use home water-filtration systems. It's the bottled water sold in stores and served in restaurants, though, that's the explosive growth category.

Not long ago, the water you could buy at a supermarket fell into two categories. Inside the store there were plastic jugs of water, usually the major delivered-water brands. Outside was a vending machine containing a filtration system hooked up to a municipal water pipe. But today, a lot of shelf space--and refrigerated case space--is devoted to an ever-widening choice of bottled waters. Major Southland supermarkets usually stock six to eight brands these days, wine shops may carry a dozen or more and even drug stores may carry Evian and Perrier.

There are five main categories of bottled water:

* Spring water comes from protected (i.e., unpolluted) springs. While filtering through layers of rock, it has picked up flavor from trace minerals.

* Mountain spring water comes from springs in the mountains, traditionally considered a particular guarantee of purity.

* Mineral water is spring water that contains at least 500 parts per million of total dissolved solids (in most cases, the chief minerals are sodium and calcium). Mineral waters have long been prescribed for medical purposes in Europe, and many list their precise mineral contents on the label.

* Drinking water comes from any source legally approved for drinking purposes. It's usually municipal tap water or local well water, filtered and processed for purity.

* Distilled water is water from any source, evaporated and then condensed so that it is chemically pure. Lacking minerals, it's insipid to the taste, but people who are trying to avoid intake of minerals may prefer it. If you need absolute chemical purity, buy it in glass bottles (distilled water is a stronger solvent than the other kinds of water and will absorb chemicals from plastic containers).

A fast-growing new category is glacier water. It should be melted water from glaciers and should have scarcely any mineral content; if the label explicitly makes this claim, that's what it is. But brand names suggestive of glaciers may appear even on plain old drinking water.

There is a vocabulary for describing water, just as there is for wine-tasting. Some of the terms--coppery, earthy, fishy, grassy, guppy-water, lake-flavor, moldy, musty, skunky, slick, swampy, tinny, woody, wet dog, wet leaves and wet Band-Aid--describe faults that aren't likely to show up in bottled water. Others are fairly self-evident descriptions of carbonation, from flat to aggressive, or of mouth-feel or general impression, like balanced, clean, dull, fresh.

Others describe the mineral flavors in the water. You might not think that we have words for this, but they exist. We all know the taste of iron, calcium (chalk), bicarbonate of soda, salt (though the "salty" quality in mineral water may come from magnesium), chlorine and sulfur (rotten egg). Some minerals, like potassium, can also give the impression of sweetness in particular concentrations.

In general, Americans have grown up drinking water with less mineral content than Europeans are used to and our taste is for low-mineral water. But without minerals, water tastes flat and dull or, to be more charitable, like rainwater.

The Times food staff recently taste 34 bottled waters from local supermarkets and other stores and wrestled with the task of describing and evaluating them. The still (non-sparkling) waters are more subtly flavored than the mineral waters, most of which are also carbonated. Glacier waters are positively bland. Here, for what they're worth, are the tasting notes:


Canadian Bourassa: Clean, neutral.

Canadian Glacier: Like rainwater.

Canadian Music: Like rainwater.

Northwest Glacier: Clean, neutral

Spirit: Slightly more flavorful than the other glacier waters.


Aquafina: Flat, with an aftertaste.

Crystal Hills: Distinct bicarbonate of soda flavor.

Glaceau: like drinking fountain water.

Grayson Mountain: smooth, mouth-filling.

Niagara: Clean, slightly flat.

Rocky Mountain: clean, fresh.

Sparkletts: clean, slightly mineral.


Gelson's Finest: Fresh spring-water flavor.

L'Avel: Very slight mineralization.

Hansen Natural: Faint mineralization.

Mountain Sweet: Strong chalky mineral flavor.

Mountain Valley: Salty-chalky mineral edge.

Naya: Salty mineral quality.

Panna: Rich, silky mouth-feel.

Sole: Iron taste.

Spa: Clean, faint sweetness.

Ty Nant: Beautiful cobalt-blue bottle, extremely (excessively) light flavor.

Vittel: Strong mineral flavor.


Arrowhead: Sweet, fresh flavor.

Avanti: Round mouth-feel, iron-chalk mineral flavor.

Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring: Sweet, light mineral flavor.

Hansen's Natural: Slight mineral flavor.

Palomar Mountain Spring Water: Mineral flavor, plus another flavor tasters disliked and couldn't describe.

Paradise Valley: Soft and sweet, nice aftertaste; from Montana.

Ralphs Mountain Spring: Slightly unbalanced mineral flavor.

Vons Natural Mountain Spring: OK.


Apollinaris: Aggressively carbonated; some tasters found it too highly flavored.

Calistoga: Chalky-citrusy, strong carbonation, long aftertaste.

Evian: Non-sparkling mineral water, no strong personality.

Fonte Sana: Pleasant mineral flavor, very understated carbonation.

Gerolsteiner Sprudel: Sweet-mineral flavor, medium carbonation, crisp aftertaste.

Harghita: Sharp carbonation; some tasters didn't like the flavor; only Romanian water on the market.

Lurisia: Citrusy and clean, long aftertaste, good carbonation. According to Maureen and Timothy Green's "The Best Bottled Waters in the World" (Fireside; 1985), this water is slightly radioactive.

Mendocino: Reminded tasters of Calistoga.

Pellegrino: Good flavor, medium carbonation.

Perrier: Strongest sweet-citrusy-mineral flavor in the tasting.

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