Haute Wa­ter

It’s odour­less, colour­less and ar­guably taste­less—so why would you spend US$400 on a bot­tle of wa­ter? Melissa Twigg in­ves­ti­gates the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of bou­tique H20, which is com­mand­ing prices and pres­tige akin to fine wine

Hong Kong Tatler - - December -

It’s odour­less, colour­less and ar­guably taste­less—so why would you spend US$400 on a bot­tle of wa­ter? We in­ves­ti­gate the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of bou­tique H20, which is com­mand­ing prices and pres­tige akin to fine wine

Martin Riese will only drink tap wa­ter if he is in Alaska, Bri­tish Columbia or the Ger­man town of Flens­burg. If he’s in one of the less H20-en­light­ened parts of the world, he’ll sip on Iskilde bot­tled wa­ter from Den­mark, Vichy Cata­lan from Spain or Roi from Slove­nia. This un­usu­ally spe­cific ap­proach to thirst quench­ing is the re­sult of many years of re­search into the dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of H20 for his role as a wa­ter som­me­lier at Ray’s and Stark Bar, a high-end restau­rant in Los An­ge­les. And while that last sen­tence may be the most Cal­i­for­nian thing you’ve ever read, Riese is in fact a savvy Ger­man ex­pat who has tapped into a ris­ing global phe­nom­e­non for es­chew­ing the tap in favour of ex­or­bi­tantly priced wa­ter from the other side of the planet.

And we’re not talk­ing about a nice glass of Evian or San Pel­le­grino—oh, no, these newly pop­u­lar wa­ters cost 30 times as much as tra­di­tional bot­tled wa­ter and are bought by wa­ter con­nois­seurs for the spe­cific sets of min­er­als that give them unique flavours. “Wa­ter is way more com­plex than peo­ple think,” says Riese. “It should be odour­less, but that doesn’t mean it has no taste. Ev­ery bot­tled spring or min­eral wa­ter has its very own min­eral com­po­si­tion due to the soils it has run through, which means wa­ter can taste any­where from smooth to salty or fruity to com­plex and bit­ter. For me, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing that a bev­er­age with no colour and no smell has so much vari­a­tion.”

And as health be­comes the in­ter­net’s fo­cus du jour, wa­ter in all its taste vari­a­tion has be­come the ul­ti­mate liq­uid as­set, with bot­tles of the good stuff sell­ing for up to US$400 in cer­tain spots in Los An­ge­les, Lon­don, Paris and New York, cities where some ho­tels now em­ploy wa­ter ex­perts to craft care­fully honed lists of their favourite bot­tles. But with the world’s econ­omy in a some­what pre­car­i­ous state, why are we sud­denly will­ing to pay a sig­nif­i­cant sum for some­thing we have pre­vi­ously al­ways got for free? And is it re­ally worth it?

“Wa­ter is the most im­por­tant bev­er­age on this planet; with­out wa­ter, none of us would be here,” says Riese. “I think it’s cru­cial that we all learn

to re­spect wa­ter in a dif­fer­ent, more im­por­tant way. Two hun­dred years ago peo­ple un­der­stood the im­por­tance of wa­ter. They would take the time to travel to spa ar­eas and treat them­selves by drink­ing or bathing in the health wa­ter. These days, peo­ple don’t even know where their wa­ter comes from and don’t ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ent wa­ter va­ri­eties and their health prop­er­ties. I would say that ev­ery­thing from min­eral de­fi­cien­cies to overeating to headaches can be linked to de­hy­dra­tion and poor wa­ter choices.”

But while there are un­de­ni­able health ben­e­fits to drink­ing more wa­ter, the ar­gu­ment that ex­pen­sive min­eral wa­ter will have any greater med­i­cal impact than a glass of tap wa­ter is still very much up for de­bate. Which means that, un­like our an­ces­tors who trav­elled to spa towns to “take the cure,” those of us who are will­ing to spend hun­dreds of dol­lars on a bot­tle of wa­ter are more likely do­ing it for taste or sta­tus rea­sons rather than any­thing medic­i­nal.

“Be­fore, wa­ter was some­thing you would drink when you were thirsty,” says Michael Mascha in his book Fine Wa­ters: A Con­nois­seur’s Guide to the World’s Most Dis­tinc­tive Bot­tled Wa­ters. “Now wa­ter is in a tran­si­tion from be­ing con­sid­ered a com­mod­ity to be­ing con­sid­ered a prod­uct. Twenty years ago no one had more than one oil in their kitchen. Oil was oil. Now you have all sorts of olive oils, one from Italy, one from Morocco... There are peo­ple who will never drink bot­tled wa­ter. But then there are the peo­ple who go to Mcdonald’s and think they eat food.”

So if Vichy Cata­lan is to wa­ter what goji berries and oys­ters are to food, then poor old tap wa­ter is hang­ing out with Big Macs and Pop Tarts in the com­plex class struc­ture that dic­tates our eat­ing and drink­ing habits. Which means that it may soon be rather em­bar­rass­ing to be seen sip­ping from any­thing less im­pres­sive than a bot­tle of Fil­lico from Osaka, Ja­pan—priced at around US$200 a bot­tle.

“The rise of pre­mium bot­tled wa­ter is in line with a trend we call snob­modi­ties,” says Aca­cia Leroy of con­sumer mar­ket­ing site

EV­ERY­THING From min­eral DE­FI­CIEN­CIES TO OVEREATING TO headaches CAN BE linked TO de­hy­dra­tion and POOR wa­ter CHOICES

Trend­watch­ing. “This trend is about how brands are turn­ing mun­dane prod­ucts into lux­u­ri­ous items in or­der to cater to in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated con­sumers who are look­ing for sta­tus sym­bols. Peo­ple look to broad­cast their so­cial and eco­nomic stand­ing through the prod­ucts they pur­chase. Tra­di­tion­ally, con­sumers get this sta­tus fix through lux­ury goods, but as more peo­ple get af­flu­ent, ac­cess to lux­ury goods is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly democra­tised. As a re­sult, con­sumers are now look­ing for new ways to get their sta­tus fix. One way brands are re­spond­ing to this de­mand is through tak­ing a lux­ury spin on an or­di­nary prod­uct.”

So the snob fac­tor is there, but we knew that as soon as we saw the US$50 price tag. Al­though if it tastes good, makes you feel fancier than your neigh­bours and en­cour­ages you to drink more wa­ter, surely it’s still a pos­i­tive trend? Not ac­cord­ing to Christine Loh, Hong Kong’s un­der­sec­re­tary for the en­vi­ron­ment and a pas­sion­ate cam­paigner against bot­tled wa­ter. “Peo­ple are seem­ingly un­aware of the large en­vi­ron­men­tal price they pay for drink­ing im­ported wa­ter,” she says. “I don’t just see drink­ing plas­tic-bot­tled wa­ter from just a waste per­spec­tive—i see it as wider still. Fly­ing wa­ter across the world is about as un­en­vi­ron­men­tal as one can get. I don’t drink bot­tled wa­ter, whether the bot­tle is plas­tic or glass, and I don’t think there is any need to drink wa­ter that comes from abroad. When I’m at a restau­rant, I al­ways ask for tap wa­ter and if they don’t serve tap wa­ter, I don’t drink any­thing.”

So per­haps ex­pen­sive wa­ter, like so much else in life, is all about mod­er­a­tion. Shipping in gal­lons of wa­ter from Ice­land or Hawaii is un­doubt­edly ex­ces­sive but, equally, drink­ing a good bot­tle of wa­ter that en­hances your din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is no worse than buy­ing French wine or Rus­sian vodka—and sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter for your health.

“Yes, some wa­ters are dif­fi­cult to pro­cure and are re­ally very ex­pen­sive,” says Riese. “And, ob­vi­ously, I don’t want wa­ter to be­come a su­per­lux­ury prod­uct, but on the other hand, I think we should learn to value wa­ter more than, say, petrol. When there’s no more wa­ter, try drink­ing your petrol.”

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