Inside the World of Ridiculously Expensive High-End Bottled Water
Amid the roiling scandals of the current presidential administration, the question I keep encountering is, “How could that cost that?” From former EPA chief and climate-change denier Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 phone booth to a $600 plane ticket for the rabbit of Republican Representative Duncan Hunter, it feels like the cat is mashing register keys at the corner bodega. (Just kidding—it’s graft!) A $10 Bluth banana feels like a steal.
Price insanity is of two, non-mutually exclusive varieties. The first is like Scott Pruitt’s phone booth: There is a version of that that costs way less money. The second is like Duncan Hunter’s jetsetting rabbit: A thing you didn’t even think existed, which only deliriously rich people could ever want or need, and costs more than you make in a week.
Water, as it turns out, can be both kinds of ridiculously priced. For $100,000, you can buy one bottle of Beverly Hills 9OH20 Luxury Collection Diamond Edition water. The bottle looks like a hand soap from Home Goods, and the cap is encrusted with more than 850 tiny diamonds, because a single-use container with no resale value is a good place to invest. Buying a bottle gets you a set of four tumblers, a one-year supply of Beverly Hills 9OH2O’s Lifestyle collection—normally $72 for a 24-bottle case, or about $3 per 500mL bottle—and an appearance by America’s foremost water sommelier, Martin Riese.
Riese, despite having a job title that sounds like a joke about late-capitalism, seems to be on the level about variations in water, and not the sort of expert who defers to golden tablets only he can see or read. He admits on his website to buying bottled water at the regular ol’ grocery store “all the time,” and succinctly lays out the differences between distilled, purified, spring, and mineral waters.
Riese is a cofounder of the Fine Water Academy, a certification program for wannabe water sommeliers. The program is an outgrowth of the Fine Water Society, a web portal described by founder Michael Mascha as “the definitive voice for water connoisseurs and their accompanying lifestyle.” The Fine Water Society promotes the use of dedicated stemware, the Fine Water Glass, for the proper enjoyment of fine water. The points get ever finer, and one section of the society’s website, debating glass vs. plastic bottles for water transport and consumption, critiques bottled-water brand Voss as “over designed and under functional… The water’s slim bottle is easily jostled.”
The Fine Water society lists seven distinct types of water sources: spring water, well water, deep sea water, glacier water, iceberg water, rain water, and artesian water, and makes a considered case for the merits of each. My ninth-grade physics–level understanding of Brownian motion makes me skeptical that deep sea water is all that different from less-deep sea water, but it’s certainly true that water varies in mineral content and atomic makeup as a result of where it comes from and how it’s processed, if at all. (I wrote about this in the context of German mineral water last year.) These variations change the flavor of water, but not often to such an extent that the untrained water palate might be able to pinpoint, or even notice.
Despite my knee-jerk skepticism of all distinctions not immediately apparent to me, touring the website of the Fine Water Society convinced me of the range of possibilities in water flavor—so much so that the words “water flavor” make some amount of theoretical sense to me. I have once or twice tasted tap water and thought, Huh?, but couldn’t make any sense of what it tasted like.
“Water has a taste,” Riese wrote to me in an email. “It is like wine for me.” Drinking the same wine (or water) every day would be “boring,” he said, and likened choosing a water to being in the mood for a Pinot Noir versus a Champagne. While I’m still not sure I buy that there could be such an extreme difference between Poland Spring and Evian, but Riese and the some 100 other water sommeliers across the world are operating with far finer instruments. Pairing water with food seems to my untrained mouth like pairing differently shaped sprinkles with ice cream, but what do I know? Trained water sommeliers consider elements of water flavor such as salinity, vintage, hardness (the presence of calcium and/or magnesium), and pH, which comprise each water’s terroir, to determine the ideal water to drink alongside a filet mignon, or a wedge salad.
For as much variation as there is among waters of different sources and brands, water as an epicurean beverage is a hard sell. Water is the only free thing about my apartment, and I usually consume it in gulps, trying desperately to rehydrate my coffee-withered circulatory system. But water appreciation isn’t all about expense and diamond-encrusted screwtops; it’s about understanding that variation exists even where it might otherwise escape notice. For everyday drinking in the lower tax brackets, Riese recommends Fiji water for its “smooth and almost sweet taste.” Take him at his word if you like, or start paying attention to your water.