Like fine wine, chocolate and cheese, water has its quirks, secrets and pleasures. Premium bottled water is on its way to becoming the drink of our times

Designer water's an easy target. In a world where clean drinking water is a luxury for so many, swigging vintage glacial ice out of a bejewelled bottle for approximately Rs. 2,000 seems pretentious. Yet, premium bottled water seems to be on it's way to becoming the drink of our times.

Critics laughed themselves into hiccups when the first ‘water sommelier' made an appearance at the Ritz Carlton in New York.

Today most posh restaurants have a water menu, if not a seasoned sommelier to help you match exotic water to your food. Popping open a Perrier was once the ultimate style statement. This month the ‘Fine H2O Boutique' opened in New York, offering ‘gourmet waters,' sourced from glaciers, springs and rain, from all over the world.

The FineWater's website, run by Michael Mascha, author of A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters and possibly the world's best known water authority, lists bottled water from all over the world. There's Lelú, from a protected spring in the volcanic mountains of Kosrae, in tropical Micronesia. Cloud Juice from Tasmania, consisting of rain harvested before it touches the earth. MaHaLo Hawaii Deep Sea Water, on the other hand, is drawn from 3,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Knowing the history, and the stories each bottle tells, makes it easier to understand the allure, and appreciate the product. Drinking exotic water, clearly, is not just about keeping up with jaded hip hop artistes who flaunt their bottles with their bling. Like fine wine, chocolate and cheese, water has its quirks, secrets and pleasures. (And the added advantage of not giving you a hangover, or cardiac arrest.)

That's what got Mascha started. “In 2002, my cardiologist gave me a choice: I could either continue to drink wine or continue to live,” he says, adding, “Since I had about five hundred bottles of wine stored in my wine cellar, I hesitated. Food and wine have always been an important part of my life.”

An academic food anthropologist Mascha enjoyed studying wine, and food, as distinct expressions of people and regions as much as luxuriating in them.

He then realised water also has personality, and heritage. Not all water, of course. “Much bottled water is really bottled municipal tap water.” This is not to dismiss regular water. It's just that, as Mascha points out, “Tap water is for hydration while premium bottled water deserves a place at the table in an epicurean context”. Like wine, it's special because it speaks of its source, expresses terroir and the romance of geography. Bottled at source, it's sometimes naturally carbonated and is treated only minimally (if at all), so it's a pure representation of a region. “Some waters may have been formed only thirty days before bottling, whereas others are more than twenty thousand years old,” says Mascha.

Of course, marketing plays a major role, as with any luxury product. You buy a diamond ring from Tiffany's because you connect with it: the product, the packaging and perhaps Audrey Hepburn. Since all water looks alike, posh water promoters focus on packaging, as a result of which many bottles are practically works of art with frosted glass, art deco styling and Swarovski crystals.

The recently auctioned Acqua di Cristallo Tributo a Modigliani, priced at $ 60,000 a bottle, comes with a 24k gold-coat and design inspired by the work of Italian painter/ sculptor Modigliani.

Savvy brands like Y Water are also tackling current health concerns. Spokesperson Jules Shah says they're a sensible alternative to sugary soda.

Advertised as ‘organic, nutrient rich and low calorie', this company offers everything from ‘Brain water' with zinc to Bone water, enriched with Calcium and Fluoride.

For the full experience, with posh water, Mascha promotes rituals similar to wine. “Bottled water etiquette is all about stemware, serving temperature and food pairings.”

It's certainly a world away from standing in the rain with your mouth open. Anyone in the mood for a crystal decanter of the monsoon yet?


And the winner is…May 7, 2010